Only the Truth Will Prevent Harm

Sarah Haider

Nothing is as destructive to a political ideology as a hypocrisy exposed. An accidental hypocrisy indicates ignorance, and ignorance, thankfully, can often be remedied with evidence and reason. A willful hypocrisy, however, eats away at the foundations of the ideology, leaving it vulnerable to collapse.

Conservatives and dissenting liberals alike have noted a tendency in progressive circles to whitewash Islamic ideology and practices. Activists who (rightfully) decry intolerance against Muslims in the West will too often turn a blind eye to intolerance by Muslims anywhere in the world. The very same activists who denounce religiously motivated hostility toward gay rights by evangelicals and Mormons will ignore, or attempt to explain away, the same hostility when it is motivated by Islamic belief. Western feminists join “slutwalks” by the thousands to protest the notion that immodest clothing justifies sexual assault. But few among them speak out against Muslim norms idolizing female modesty and chastity. The ones who do face being smeared as “Islamophobes.” In a similar vein, the same progressives who recognize the importance of defending the civil liberties of Muslims in the West will overlook the abhorrent treatment of apostates in Muslim countries.

Conservatives declare that this double standard reveals the politicized and discriminatory nature of the Left’s commitment to human rights and civil liberties. The blind spot for Islam provides evidence, they argue, that “liberal values” are only a pretense, a mask of moral superiority underneath which hides a cynical tribalism. Dissenting liberals (like myself) believe that the Left’s hypocrisy points instead to a moral confusion, based on a well-intentioned desire to protect Muslims from xenophobic aggression, albeit one that provides a shield for Islamic theocrats.

At the beginning of my own activism, I had imagined that the protectiveness I saw toward Islam was due to ignorance. The solution, then, was to educate my fellow liberals. I could offer evidence that the practice of Islam by Muslims around the world is far more literal than that of the followers of most other faiths. I could point to the history of the East and prove that Islamic fundamentalism is not a unique phenomenon triggered solely by Western intervention. Fundamentalism has appeared (and been vanquished, and reappeared) countless times in the Muslim world.

Armed with evidence, I would make my case: Islam, both in scriptures and in modern practice, is a faith that presents a distinct set of challenges. No criticism of Islam should excuse the flaws in other faiths, but it is unreasonable to ignore their differences in severity. However, despite their differences, all faiths must be engaged using the same tactics. Religions make ideological claims about truth and morality, and any attempt to mitigate their influence must directly challenge those claims. The problem may take a different shape, but the solution remains the same.

I have found, however, that many progressives approach the situation in the opposite fashion. There is a refusal to acknowledge the unique challenge posed by Islam, along with an insistence on granting the ideology a free pass. Most frightening is the realization that the special protection afforded to Islam is not due to an ignorance about where reality lies. It reflects willful, self-imposed censorship.

When former U.S. President Barack Obama declared that “Islam is a religion that preaches peace,” I didn’t believe him, even for an instant. The statement itself is nonsense, of course. As it happens, classical Islam considers “peace” the condition in which there is complete submission to the will of Allah. Islamic lands have often had periods of relative peace, but Islam is in no way a pacifist religion.

(It is amusing that anyone these days can apparently be an expert on Islam and make absolute statements about complex theological matters—anyone except, of course, critics of Islam and the fundamentalists themselves.)

But the bulk of my incredulity wasn’t in reaction to Obama’s statement itself, which has become a mantra of sorts. I just didn’t think that Obama himself believed what he said. I do think that he, like many educated, compassionate liberals, believes that it is important to say the words, to pay lip-service to the idea, even if it isn’t exactly true. They believe that there is great harm in using language that implicates the entirety of the religion— that it is, as Hillary Clinton put it in an interview on the Today show on June 13, 2016, after the Orlando nightclub massacre, “just plain dangerous and it plays into ISIS’s hands.” In other words, the language is chosen primarily for the anticipated consequences of its usage, not its accuracy.

This appears to be part of a larger trend among progressives—a series of “noble lies” driven by the desire to shield Muslims from harm. But all the good intentions in the world won’t necessarily amount to good outcomes. Occasionally, actions taken in the name of good intentions may only serve to make a bad situation worse.

As we cannot shy away from confronting the reality of Islam, neither can we ignore what may be the consequences of showcasing the faults of the faith. The case against a critical approach to Islam is alluring, especially to compassionate progressives. The reasoning goes like this:

  1. Some Muslims are immigrants; many are visible minorities. A mistrust due to their faith would add to their “otherness” in society, creating another source of frustration and misery for the minority group.
  2. Conservatives, in particular Christian conservatives, are prone to hysterics about foreign faiths and practices, and their reaction to Islam is no different. To hear right-wing radio personalities tell it, Sharia law is right around the corner in the United States. Worse, we now have a president who would eagerly stoke these fears for his own gain.
  3. Fear, rational or irrational, can turn humans into brutes. Minorities in the West have come a long way toward acceptance and justice. Airing their shortcomings carries the risk of potentially endangering those gains.
  4. Muslims face heightened intolerance at the hands of bigots, and as hostilities escalate, even their civil liberties may be at risk. But that is not all. Peaceful, law-abiding Muslims may be alienated by condemnations of a faith they hold dear. In deliberately courting offense, we may be breeding antagonism even among Muslim allies, thus creating enemies where they did not exist.

In such an atmosphere, it stands to reason that the compassionate and liberal-minded might hesitate to voice any concerns they may have. Some go farther than holding back their criticisms, however. Defending Islamic practices is becoming more common, even fashionable. Progressive news outlets publish article after article in which the writers declare the hijab to be an act of rebellion, even feminism. Progressive commentator Sally Kohn went so far as to claim in a piece on CNN that even Sharia law can take beneficial forms.1 Most alarmingly, progressive groups have begun to label reformist Muslims, apostates, and other critics of Islam as “hate-mongers,” exposing them to greater threats by religious extremists.

All this is done with the justification that criticism of the faith, fair or unfair, results in demonization of its people. If the truth can lead to harm, the reasoning goes, then omissions and falsehoods are permissible, and at times, a moral necessity. Such a justification stands on many assumptions, most of them surprisingly weak. I will go over just a few.

First, it is assumed that the groups most needing protection are easy to identify—that power relationships and oppression are easily discernible by outside observers. In the case of Muslim communities in the West, this assumption grants more power to those already most powerful and traditional within the communities, as the mainstream media looks for icons who can serve as spokespersons for all Muslims. Those chosen for the task, viewed as the most “authentic” voices, are not infrequently religious conservatives. It should go without saying that the community wishes to present its best face to the public. Religious communities are not known for their self-reflection, and the leaders they choose often strive to conceal flaws in the religion rather than expose them. Reformist Muslims (read: the truly liberal Muslims who acknowledge problems with the religion and wish to change them) often face extreme criticism and hostility from their communities and are almost universally rejected as “inauthentic” and hidden from view.

Second, it is taken for granted that minority groups have no internal desires or needs that might conflict with tradition. Take the case of Yasmin Seweid, a young hijabi woman from Long Island, New York. In a case covered by several media outlets, Seweid filed a report claiming that three men attacked her on the subway, attempting to yank off her hijab while yelling “Donald Trump” and calling her a terrorist. The case was publicized as an example of the shameful bigotry faced by visibly Muslim women.

Later, it was revealed that Seweid had made the whole incident up. Hate-crime hoaxes are not uncommon, but they should not be used to discredit the existence of genuine hate crimes against Muslims. In this case, however, Seweid’s motivations were not simply to easily garner some attention. According to police sources (Rocco Parascandola, the Daily News, December 15, 2016), Seweid made up the story “because she didn’t want to get in trouble for breaking the curfew after being out late drinking with friends.” Later, Seweid was pictured in court with a shaved head, allegedly a punishment by her parents for dating a Christian.

Seweid’s case shows the complexity of pressures facing Muslims, particularly Muslim women. It is very likely that for Seweid, wearing the hijab was not a choice. When progressives elevate the hijab as a symbol of “religious freedom,” they gloss over and sometimes actually increase the religious coercion faced by women across the Muslim world and within Muslim communities.

Yes, Muslim women may face aggression by bigots for their religious garb. But before we put the hijab on a pedestal, we should consider that for far too many women in Muslim households, the refusal to dress in accordance with religious traditions can bear a greater risk. This is not the only instance of a fight for rights within the group conflicting with the desires of the community as a whole. For the community at large, exposing the flaws within it harms their attempts to preserve their public image. For minorities within the minority, exposing the flaws is the first step toward erasing them.

Third, it is endlessly repeated that upon hearing criticism of their faith, Muslims may be pressured to join “the other side.” Another version of this argument contends that just acknowledging the plausibility of violent and repressive interpretations of the Qur’an will aid extremists in their recruiting. If nothing else, the holder of this assumption inadvertently reveals his or her low opinion of Muslims. Muslims are reasoning (and, hence, persuadable) beings, not robots programmed to blindly follow the edicts of their faith. In fact, if all Muslims practiced their religion exactly according to scripture, then we would see much more terror in the world.

Furthermore, what does the existence of ex-Muslims prove if not that walking away from the faith is possible, even in the most dire of circumstances? It would be fair to say, I think, that no other apostates face the hardships routinely visited upon apostates from Islam. And yet, there are indications that atheism is growing in the Muslim world. While it is true that a disturbing number of Muslims are being radicalized in front of their computer screens, many others are leaving the faith altogether.

Last is the dark suspicion that if Americans were to know the reality of the Muslim faith, they would react in a rage, exacting terrible violence upon Muslims. This assumption is the least absurd of those mentioned. We need only to take a brief glance at history to see case after case of brutal persecution of minorities. The more fear that is invoked, the greater the desire to do something in response.

The intelligent response to this fear, however, is to remind citizens of the importance of civil liberties, of treating all people as individuals, and, most important, of making a clear distinction between the faith and the faithful. In fact, we know that Americans already do this, to some degree. Based on polls of American public opinion, Shibley Telhami of Brookings clarifies (December 9, 2015) that “Americans differentiate between the ‘Muslim people’ and the ‘Muslim religion,’ and they view Islam more unfavorably than they do Muslims. This may have many reasons, but at the core, it is probably easier for many Americans—with strong anti-discrimination norms—to express dislike of an abstract idea rather than to appear prejudiced toward people.”

Progressives should help crystalize this distinction, not advance conflations of criticism of Islam with a hatred toward Muslims. In defending the faith as a means to defend the rights of the believers, progressives inadvertently legitimize violence toward believers as a response to fear of the faith.

The potential consequences of speaking critically about Islam—no matter how remote—are rightly given serious consideration in progressive circles. However, the consequences of not speaking up are recklessly overlooked. For one, a refusal to identify problems (for any reason) actively hinders reform. Islam will never adapt to a modern conception of human rights and civil liberties unless it is pressured to do so. Western Christian practice has come a long way. While fundamentalists still maintain influence, there have been advancements in social tolerance among the faithful. That did not happen “naturally”; it was a response due to necessity. Western liberals who refuse to criticize Islam or, worse, actively defend the faith must contend with the greater evil they are enabling. If prevention of harm is the greatest mandate, then surely that must include harm inflicted by Muslims as well as harm inflicted on them.

Leaving aside the prospect of reform, the progressive blindness on the issue of Islam harms the credibility of progressive politics altogether. It is damage that may be irreparable.

Trust is difficult to build, yet far too easy to dismantle. Losing credibility on this issue is a gift to the real bigots in society. As it becomes clear to the mainstream public that there is a particular problem within the religion of Islam, they will look toward those who named the problem for guidance on how to fix it. Protests from progressives who concealed reality will fall on deaf ears. Ironically, in this sense the desperate attempt to protect Muslims from bigotry will leave them entirely defenseless against it.

Progressives (still) have a chance to frame the issue in a way that will tackle the harmful aspects of the ideology while deflecting antagonism away from the people. An ideological battle is waged best by argument, reason, and compassion, and in this battle, unfair persecution only detracts from the case of those who persecute.

If progressives refuse to act, they risk their ideals in the process. Recognizing truth is the vital step toward moving forward because it tells us where we are. From there on, it is our job to advocate for where we should be.




Sarah Haider

Sarah Haider is a writer, speaker, and activist. Born in Pakistan and raised in Texas, she was a practicing Shia Muslim until she left the faith in her teenage years. In 2013, she cofounded Ex-Muslims of North America.