The issue is how you experience Islam

Sadiq Khan: This sickening act has nothing to do with the Islam I know: To murder innocent people, especially during Ramadan, is a rejection of the true values of my religion. Since religion is made up I’ll take Khan’s assertion at face value and not dispute them.

The aspect that people like Khan are not emphasizing when they talk about violence having nothing to do with Islam is that most people are not Muslims, and most people (in the West) do not know Muslims in their personal life. So terrorist acts are quite salient as a representation of the religion when that’s the only time it comes to mind in a visceral sense.

This may not be fair to practitioners, but this is how human cognition works. As an analogy, there is a lot of diversity and range of experience for what it means to be an evangelical white Protestant. But for many young secular liberals the salient aspect of this religious movement is its attitude toward abortion and gays. All the charitable giving, or the incredible personal experience of redemption and reform of white evangelical Protestants, is not relevant in a broader social context to most people because these are two policy positions which are salient and distinctive.

Obviously for most Muslims their religion pervades their life, and most of their associations with the religion have to do with family and community. But non-Muslims are not generally part of this world, so it is not a major element of their perception of the religion in a concrete sense. So one strategy for disassociating Islam and violence would be further integration, so that more and more non-Muslims can experience the whole range of the religion. And yet even here it isn’t as if Muslim experiences are distinctive from other religions.

This does not address the elephant in room: Islam today as a religious civilization is in ferment and change, and a non-trivial element does engage in violent habitually, against other Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

Consider the lives of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan. The majority of Pakistanis would not condone attacks upon these communities, but a motivated minority of the Muslim majority are clearly targeting this two groups for persecution. From the perspective of non-Muslims in Pakistan it is the actions of the minority who are violent toward them that really matters, because their lives are on the line.

There are so simple answers here. Though in the public realm stylized simplicity dominates. That too is a human cognitive bias….

3 thoughts on “The issue is how you experience Islam”

  1. I’m a conservative Christian, but actually mildly positive towards Islam, within its own countries. I recognize similarities to my own religion, and a tradition that has helped provide social stability for over a thousand years in many different cultural and geographic settings must have something to say for itself.

    But I don’t think that large numbers of Muslims are compatible with the West, either in its liberal or Christian guises, due to an ineradicable tendency towards violent conflict with non-Muslims. It’s not necessary to make some strong claim about what is or is not the definitive interpretation of the religion (or even that a definitive interpretation of the religion exists), for this to be true. It’s just really hard to say someone is a bad Muslim or ostracize them from the community when the texts that function as the community’s rallying flag have a bunch of statements which can very plausibly be interpreted to support violent actions against those outside the community, as many of the most prestigious interpreters through history have interpreted them. (There is no way that a community can plausibly claim to be Muslim while jettisoning the Prophet and the Quran as rallying flags. It could pick different rallying flags, but then it it wouldn’t be Muslim.) So, unless someone has an incentive to go out of their way to police the community for these sentiments, violent extremists are going to be able to hide out there due to the rhetorical cover these texts provide. It’s just way easier to look the other way than argue with people that their plausible and traditionally supported interpretation is wrong, or ostracize them if they refuse to submit. All, again, without taking any position about what the essence of the religion, if such a thing exists, really is.

    For similar reasons, it is really hard to exclude people from Christianity who say that women should not be clergy and should be generally submissive, given all the textual support for that in the Bible. So, whether or not more liberal Christians like this, they’re pretty much always going to be stuck with people who take such, to many, retrograde views. And, indeed, most of the Christian churches that look to survive the next 30 years don’t allow female clergy.

    It’s always possible that Muslims could secularize, of course, but that would mean moving away from being Muslims, much as the West is no longer really Christian.


    Your suggestion (elsewhere) that the acceptance of divorce in conservative churches is counterexample is problematic. The structure of divorce as sin is a bit unique. It’s more a once-and-for-all kind of thing. You don’t continually get divorced, as you would continually be in a same sex relationship, for example. So, if you commit the sin, you then get the sin forgiven, and move on. Ongoing approval is not required. So, it’s much easier to look the other way. Incidentally, this is why those conservative churches with lots of divorcees often still technically have condemnations of divorce on the books, and no one is really looking to remove them.

    1. your understanding of christianity is stronger than islam. i don’t see you’ve gotten better on the second in all the years you keep making the same comment. you’ll persuade those already persuaded 😉 you keep saying you aren’t talking about essences while you really are! just like temporary marriage in shia islam isn’t prostitution *wink*

      It’s just really hard to say someone is a bad Muslim or ostracize them from the community when the texts that function as the community’s rallying flag have a bunch of statements which can very plausibly be interpreted to support violent actions against those outside the community, as many of the most prestigious interpreters through history have interpreted them.


  2. Religions are socially created artifacts, which always have somewhat fuzzy borders, because they depend entirely on human purposes to give them shape. They aren’t natural kinds, but still have a human dependent kind of reality. That doesn’t mean they can be made out of just any material. Just like regular artifacts: a sword is entirely dependent on human intention for its being a sword, it’s not a natural kind either, but it can’t be made out of butter, or have any old shape you want. So, it’s not unfair to suggest that Islam, for example, has to have something to do with reverence for the Prophet and the Quran. Various tendencies flow from that, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to venture the one true interpretation of what reverence for the Prophet and the Quran should involve.

    I mean if you want to say “reverence for the Prophet and the Quran” or “setting up the Prophet and the Quran as communal rallying flags” and dispense with the term Islam, hey I’m fine with that, though I’m not sure what conceptual clarity is achieved. As long as the appropriate stuff of reality is there to be given shape, it all about the usefulness of the concept, so long as we remember that categories dependent on human use are no less real for all that.


    I take you as saying texts or doctrines about the nature of the deity (or deities) don’t have much social effect. I mostly agree. But this is different than saying texts or doctrines that give divine sanction or prohibition to social practices cannot have a significant social effect.

    I also take you as saying that texts, moral teachings and doctrines can’t go against basic religious and moral intuitions hardly at all. I agree again. But there is still a wide amount of leeway within the constraints imposed by those basic intuitions.

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