Recently Bill Maher ripped into CSU San Bernadino professor Brian Levin for making the ridiculous equivalence between Christian extremism and Islamic extremism. The problem, which Maher pinpoints, is that Islamic extremism is not that extreme. By this, I mean that Islamic extremism (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood) has much greater broad based support than Christian extremism (e.g., Christian Reconstruction). The difference here is that you’ve heard of the Muslim Brotherhood, while far fewer have heard of Christian Reconstructionists. That’s because the former have democratic support in a populous Muslim country as the ruling party.
The standard liberal cant is to change the subject, and point to the past history of Christianity, or engage in unrepresentative comparisons. Since I know more history and religion than most of my interlocutors, I have little patience for this. Sophistry loses its power when the tactics are often so nakedly amateurish. And this is not simply abstraction. Let’s look at what’s been happening in Bangladesh, the country in which I was born, BANGLADESH’S ISLAMISTS CALL FOR DEATH OF ‘ATHEIST BLOGGERS’:
On April 6, hundreds of thousands of men and boys spread out across the sweltering capital Dhaka to call for, among other things, the hanging of atheists. The mass mobilization of Islamists was spurred by a handful of “atheist” bloggers who are supposedly so offensive to Islam that they should face the hangman’s noose.
“There is no place in this country for atheists,” was one of the friendlier refrains that a supporter of the organizers, Hefazet Islami, a Sunni Muslim outfit from the country’s second largest city, Chittagong, told me.
The Islamist marchers listed 84 bloggers who they demand be arrested or hanged, In February an atheist blogger named Rajib was stabbed to death a month after blogger Asif Mohiuddin was nearly killed for his beliefs.
First, Bangladesh is a moderate Muslim country. The ruling party is secular. It is not an Islamic state. Rather, in an old fashioned 1970s socialist manner it is officially the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. But in deference to the religiously conservative nature of the populace there is still some mixing of church & state, as we would understand it in the West. But Bangladesh, unlike Pakistan, has not opted for a monotone Islamic identity. The national anthem was written by a Hindu.
So there you have it, in a moderate Muslim country you can have hundreds of thousands march for the death of individuals based on their religious disbelief. This isn’t entirely unreasonable from their perspective, as religious zealots long ago succeeded in monopolizing the cultural high ground in places like Pakistan. In Bangladesh there is contestation, and what is playing out is a classic culture war. Due to the power of economic globalization I’m moderately confident than the Islamists won’t get traction. Additionally, there exists a Bengali intelligentsia which organizes itself around national-linguistic lines which is likely to resist an attempt by Islamists to grasp the commanding heights.
Second, on a more specific note the name which I was given by my parents is Rajib, not Razib. The z was interpolated into the place of the j by my kindergarten teacher. As someone of originally Bangladeshi nationality, and an atheist blogger, who happens to be called the same name as the person who was killed above by my parents, I have some interest in this situation. The discussions of “moderate Islam” and “there are Christian extremists too” aren’t quite as abstract for me as they are for some others. I’m not going to lie, a part of me is a little worried that if I ever visited Bangladesh a relative with a grudge against me might point out to the local savages that I’ve posted pictures of Muhammad being sodomized by a camel (personal sketches), as well as the Koran in the mouth of a pig.*
And yet I’m not worried in the United States. Why? The ultimate reasons are products of history (e.g., the longstanding Anglo commitment to freedom of conscience). But more proximately there is a broad American consensus that atheistic speech (and offensive speech more generally) should be protected, especially on the part of cultural elites. You an confirm this with the General Social Survey. The SPKATH variables asks if people should be allowed to speak against churches and religion in their communities. Below are the results by political ideology and education by respondents after 1989:
|Yes, allow anti-religionist to speak|
|< HS education||59||59||52|
An interesting aspect here is that college educated conservatives are even more protective of this freedom than non-college liberals (still true if you correct for race). This is a trend when it comes to speech: cultural elites are particularly protective of this liberty. To me this is reasonable if thought of in a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sort of fashion. The ability to persuade, entertain ideas, and engage in unfettered debate, has been a privilege and avocation in particular of those who are less concerned with want and day to day subsistence. In the pre-modern world this would encompass the leisured classes, while today it expands to include much of the middle class.
More generally in relation to the topic of this post there is a culture war going on all across the Islamic world at the elite levels. One of group are basically what one might term ‘liberal nationalists.’ Their power waxes and wanes depending on the situation. Arab nationalism may be moribund, but Bangla or Turkish nationalism is not. Liberal economic determinists would offer that ultimately this faction is bound to defeat the Islamic groups, but such a victory can take generations. The Iranian revolution continues on in some form to this day, even if attenuated in its ambitions.
Addendum: Over the years I’ve mined the World Values Survey for a lot of data. Unlike some Left cultural relativists who play the equivalence game I actually like to deal with empirical distributions. To get a sense of range of opinion on something like stoning of adulterers, please see this post.
* When I told a French friend that I’d done this he was terrified for me. He was convinced if I’d done this in Europe I’d be a dead man. Probably he was overly worried, but it illustrates the problem of having a critical mass of belligerent barbarians within the gates.