Anti-Muslim Bigotry vs. Genuine Criticism of Islam

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

I think this article could be one of the most important I have ever written on the subject of Islam. Why? It is because of the growing obscurantism that has made it almost impossible to have any discussion whatever about Islam without terms such as bigot, racist, Islamophobe, Zionist, Uncle Tom, and many others being thrown around on national television.

Why is this happening? The debate concerning Islam and Muslims has become so polarized that no one can easily engage in honest conversation without being pigeonholed into one camp or another. This process is not wholly arbitrary; I’ve identified six major groups or categories, and most who hold forth on things Islamic in the media genuinely seem to fall into one of them:

  • Muslim Conservatives
  • Muslim Moderates
  • Muslim Reformers
  • Pseudo-Liberal Apologists
  • Genuine Critics of Islam
  • Pro-Christian Right Anti-Muslim Groups
  • Far-Right Jewish Groups

I will try to define these groups one by one.

Muslim Conservatives believe that Islam is perfect and that the Hadith and the Qur’an as a whole contain no errors. They view liberalism as a Western invention incompatible with their interpretation of the faith. They believe there is a cosmic war going on between the Muslim world and the West. The majority of them are nonviolent, but the ultraconservatives among them, whether they be Salafist or Wahhabi, tend to support violent jihad against the West, including violence against civilians. Few in this group engage with Western media; they are far more active in Arab and Urdu media such as Aqra Channel, Al Jazeera Arabic, and the like.

Muslim Moderates also consider Islam to be perfect and the Qur’an and the Hadith to be inerrant. However, they don’t follow the interpretations that advocate violent jihad, and they deny that any link exists between jihad and Islam. They are frequently seen in Western media, especially television, stating that Islam is a religion of peace, that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, and that terrorist groups are un-Islamic.

Their views on human rights cover a broad spectrum, from advocating public killing of gays to welcoming gays as equal citizens, and from defending women’s right to wear head scarves to requiring them by law. Many disbelieve in a cosmic war between the Muslim world and the West, but some justify jihad as a way of addressing grievances against Western imperialism and the West’s support for Israel.

In the main, Muslim Moderates argue that terrorist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram have nothing to do with Islam and that they are either created by or a reaction to Western colonialism.

Some Muslim Moderate organizations have high profiles in Western media, often acting as public-relations firms and lobby groups for Muslim communities. Examples include the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and CAGE in the United Kingdom. Prominent Muslim Moderates often seen on television include Linda Sarsour, Dean Obeidallah, Murtaza Hussain, and Mahdi Hassan.

Muslim Reformers either don’t consider the Qu’ran to be perfect and the literal word of Allah or concede that some of its commandments are not applicable in the twenty-first century. They try to rally against extremist interpretations and to create new ones more in keeping with modern liberal values. They accept that there is a link between radical interpretations of Islam and terrorism. Many of them advocate for liberal government and separation of religion and state. Prominent individual Muslim Reformers include Maajid Nawaz, Asra Nomani, and Irshad Manji.

Pseudo-Liberal Apologists, mainly non-Muslim white liberals, agree with Moderate Muslims’ argument that terrorist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram have nothing to do with Islam and are either a result or a creation of Western imperialism. Pseudo-Liberal Apologists tend to agree that Islam is a peaceful religion and that those who speak out against it are motivated by racism, hatred of minorities or the “other,” or hold a neoconservative imperialist agenda and desire to kill all Muslims and steal resources from Muslim-majority countries. They tend to think that the greatest enemy of world peace is Western capitalism, a view they share with many Moderate and Conservative Muslims.

Pseudo-Liberal Apologists tend to receive a lot of media attention; in U.S. media, members of this group receive the most attention of any of the six groups. Examples include Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan, and Chris Stedman.

Genuine Critics of Islam are mainly liberal democrats, some of them atheists, who think that there is a connection between some interpretations of the religion and bad or violent behavior. They share many agreements with Muslim Reformers. Some tend to think that Islam in the twenty-first century represents a special case, and some do not.

They care about issues such as women’s rights and LGBT rights. They are acutely aware of extremist groups in the Muslim world and around the globe and see a clear link between violence and some interpretations of the fundamentals of Islam. They view Islam itself as a major reason human rights are poorly upheld in most majority-Muslim countries. Most are also very critical of Christianity but are likely to argue that the Enlightenment has had a “buffering” effect on Christianity that Islam has yet to undergo, leaving Islam in need of enlightenment or reformation.

They tend to differentiate between Islam as a set of ideas and interpretations and Muslims as people. Often, they mostly rely on statistics from organizations such as Pew and Gallup to resist making generalizations about Muslims as a whole. Prominent examples include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Salman Rushdie, Ali A. Rizvi, Aki Muthali, Sarah Haider, and many others. Recently, Sam Harris coauthored a book with the Muslim Reformer Majid Nawaz (Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, Harvard University Press, 2015) to promote more nuanced discussion of these issues. Harris has also been supportive of many other reformers.

Pro-Christian Right Anti-Muslim Groups and Far-Right Jewish Groups consist mostly of Far-Right activists, Jewish or Christian, who believe that there is a cosmic war between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. They tend to view all Muslims as fanatics and terrorists. Some of them consider the prophet of Islam to be the Antichrist and may believe there is a connection between Islam and satanism. They generally hold negative views about other immigrant or minorities too; Ann Coulter is a prominent example of this tendency.

They usually view fundamentalism as the only true form of Islam, going so far as to accuse Muslims who are not fundamentalists of lying or of practicing Taqyia (lying in defense of the faith). Many in this group trade in utterly counterfactual conspiracy theories—for example, that all Muslim Americans want to impose Sharia law or want to convert Europe into “Euro­Arabia.”

They operate on a platform of fearmongering, pressing for agendas that have nothing to do with human rights or secular liberal values but rather with imposing their own theocracies or authoritarian views on the rest of us. Many view President Barack Obama as a secret Muslim with Muslim Brotherhood connections; some of them engage in “Birther” conspiracy theories. Prominent individuals include Bridge Gabriel, Walid Shoebat, Pamela Geller, and Robert Spencer. Organizations include Stop Islamization of America (SIOA, also known as the American Freedom Defense Initiative), the UK’s English Defence League (EDL), and many others.

For Free Inquiry readers, the most important takeaway is that those who believe in Islam and those who criticize it fall along a broad spectrum. There is no one school of belief in Islam, and there is no one school of criticism of Islam. In such a variegated environment, how can media consumers distinguish between an anti-Muslim bigot and a genuine critic of Islam? Look at two principal markers:

  1. How much does the person engage in broad generalizations, saying that all Muslims are X or Y? (Less is better.)
  2. What is the apparent intention behind the person’s criticism of Islam? Is it offered in a reasoned way? Or does the criticism represent merely the opinion of a theocrat from a different religion? Is the intention of discussing Islam merely to defend, say, Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians? Or does it come from a place of concern for the well-being and human rights of people across the Muslim world?

For U.S. media consumers, the most important distinction to make may be the one between Moderate and Pseudo-Liberal Apologists and Muslim Reformers. Muslim Reformers admit that there is a connection between certain radical interpretations of Islam and terrorism; also, they don’t blame all the ills of the Muslim world on Jews and/or U.S. foreign policy. As you can probably tell, my own sympathies lie with them, and they deserve your support.

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is an Iraqi-born human rights activist and president of the newly launched organization Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB). The mission of IBB is to promote the free exchange of ideas and defend human rights to counter extremist naratives and authoritarian institutions.