We have to at least “thank” comic and host Bill Maher for bringing up the topic of what it means to be a Muslim in the Western world. By now, many of us are aware of his CNN interview with comparative religion scholar Reza Aslan; and the subsequent Real Talk forum with actor and activist Ben Affleck.
You might also have read a number of commentaries of the two significant media appearances, of which this article you are reading now will also be one.
The initial reactions have been almost celebratory of Aslan and Affleck: The former for ripping into host Maher, and the latter against Maher (again) and his fellow panelist author and neuroscientist Sam Harris. On both occasions, Maher and Harris were associated with “racism,” “bigotry,” and “hatred of Muslims” for their description of the faith and its adherents.
To those familiar with Maher and Harris, this was not entirely unprecedented. Both are staunch critics of religions, not just Islam.
It is hard to imagine that their harsh attacks will help their cause to change the minds of those they attack, added to the fact of their privileges as white men.
Post 9-11, the Muslim world has been positioning itself as victims of persecution. This is not an untrue claim, for there are many documented cases of Muslims being harassed, abused, and discriminated against, particularly in the West. However, the stance has also been used as a shield against valid criticism.
We can argue how it is incorrect to label critics of Islam as “racist” (considering Islam is not a race), or “Islamophobes” (considering these critics do not really fear Islam), but the labels are being used nonetheless to stifle discussions.
This is compounded when secular liberals themselves join the narrative, and accuse Muslim critics of doing so, sometimes for instant credibility — much like the credibility Affleck has received with Muslims online.
But the problem is two-fold too; Muslim critics are not only facing challenges from fellow secular liberals, but also from Muslims themselves. Which is no surprise really.
There is this feeling that most Muslims are not so receptive towards a “moderation” or reform of their faith. Instead, they seek White Knights — those who defend Islam in the face of what they perceive as increased attacks from their “enemies”, whether secular or from another religion.
Incidentally, these White Knights also happen to be white — men and women from the Western world, who perhaps for argument’s sake can be defined as Anglo or European in ethnicity.
Some of you might ask, why would Muslims look up to these white men, when some of them feel that the West, particularly the US, is “evil”?
I believe the answer speaks for itself. When white men themselves defend Islam, it signals a triumph for the Muslims, that they have turned the West to their way of thinking. To put it bluntly, those Western folks have seen the light, the “hidayah” that Allah shows to those He wishes to guide to His path.
The second reason might be the reach, or the influence that white men have in influencing opinion from their privileged status. Which is perhaps why some Muslims go crazy when Western celebrities convert to Islam, either in reality or in rumours.
In the rise of the next wave of Islamic extremism — with the militant group Islamic State (IS) as its face — much has been said about the need for “moderate Muslims” or reform within Islam, a point summarised recently by Pakistani-Canadian writer Ali A. Rizvi in his “An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims”.
You can understand how heavy the inertia is towards the idea by how well it has been received by certain Muslims, which is to say not well at all.
There is a simple reason why most Muslims prefer their White Knights instead of their critics: They believe that Islam is perfect and infallible.
Most Muslims believe that Islam as a religion can never be faulted for anything, and instead the fault lies with the way believers practise it. This means that it is the “moderates” who are not practising Islam the way it is meant to, by cherry-picking verses of the Quran and the Hadith, and by not taking holy texts literally.
We see this even in Malaysia, when the religious authorities decided to flex their muscles against Indonesian liberal scholar Dr Uli Abshar Abdalla to prevent him from joining a forum to tackle extremism here.
In this regard, I am inclined to agree with the fundamentalists. I think moderate Muslims are being dishonest with themselves, by accepting positive parts of Islam but disassociating themselves and ignoring the negative parts.
Despite this, I do not feel cherry-picking is morally wrong. Because the opposite, taking holy texts literally is what led to Islamic militancy and extremism in recent times. This has led to jihadists projecting their desire to fulfil their “Islamic obligation” to subdue others into the religion, by justifying their violent actions using the holy texts.
The challenges are many, but I feel the way forward is to not let the critique of Islam be dominated by white voices — the likes of Harris and fellow New Atheists — who might have paved the way for criticism, but are certainly losing their relevance in this field.
To this, I think those with Muslim heritage will play a more effective role in reaching out. So watch out for these names: Kenan Malik, Maryam Namazie, Maajid Nawaz, Jim al-Khalili, Taslima Nasreen, Alom Shaha, Tarek Fatah, and perhaps even Irshad Manji.