Friday, September 6, 2013

On Discussing Islam

Yesterday I sent the following two tweets:

They got 41 retweets and 21 favourites from my Muslim friends and followers, and I found some really interesting new people to follow as a result. That said, I did come in for a bit of flack from my non Muslim followers for these comments, and I felt a blog post was the best format to try to best address the criticisms raised. If I offended you, please take the hour this blog was posted as a symbol of my genuine desire to understand your position and better communicate mine. I'll group the tweets by what I feel was their focus and do my best to summarise the point - I don't think there's much to be gained by adding the authors, but if you'd prefer your tweet credited do let me know and I'll be happy to add it.

Naturally, I welcome comments and discussion below.

Criticism 1: It would be inappropriate to compliment a feminist on maintaining composure and dignity when threatened as this suggests someone who loses composure or displays anger is less of a feminist.
Tweets:
""Feminists who handle threats with grace instead of anger represent feminism well." Sound problematic? Because it does to me. I don't handle threats with grace nor do I think I should be expected to. Nor do I think that my lack of patience with those who threaten me makes either women or feminists look back. [bad?] I'd be v uncomfortable to be told I was a 'credit' to feminism/women because I handled something without anger." 
What can I say? I agree. I don't think less of Caroline Criado-Perez for swearing at people after months of death and rape threats. I just don't feel it's a particularly apt comparison. The Ahmadi Muslims represent a reformist movement within Islam that, for over a century, has embodied their motto of "Love For All Hatred For None". It would be wrong to call them pacifists - many in their community have distinguished themselves in their countries' militaries - but nonretaliation is at the core of their beliefs. When a spiritual leader was stabbed in the neck while at prayer in his mosque, his final instruction before losing consciousness was that the assassin not be harmed. The attacker was jailed, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community voluntarily paid a stipend to to the wife and children of the would be killer rather than see them destitute.



An attack in Lahore (again in mosques and again during prayer) resulted in the deaths of ninety Ahmadi Muslims. The police - repeatedly and convincingly accused of anti Ahmadi Muslim bias - arrived long after local media and only intervened two and a half hours after the attacks had commenced. By this time the terrorist's automatic weapons were empty, grenades thrown, and suicide vests detonated. All but one. A child - more man than me though yet too young to hold the title - succeeded in knocking an attacker to the ground. Others helped restrain him and Pakistani police acknowledge that this was the first instance of a suicide bomber being captured alive.

There were no riots. There was no civil disobedience. They mourned and buried their dead according to their beliefs and issued the following statement:
“The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat is a peace loving true Muslim Jamaat. Thus there will be no improper reaction from any Ahmadi. Our salvation lies in our supplication to God Almighty and we believe that He has, and always will, help us”.
In yet another mosque massacre (there are, sadly, far too many examples to cover here) the sole protest taken was to donate every penny of government compensation to earthquake relief efforts.

I'll now show a selection of threats and insults I've observed directed to Ahmadiyya Muslims today. To avoid confusion: these are unrelated to my tweets noted above and did not come from anyone who engaged me in discussion on this point. 
Qadianism [derogatory term for Ahhmadiyya Muslims] & satanism are two different names of a same shit
Qadiani pigs deserve to be hanged till their smelly bodies start swelling
Sisy you people hiding in US , why dnt you come back to pakistan , and talk all shit ,scary cat
and you will be slaughtered come and claim the same in Saudia , if your on huq Allah will help u
Stop playing the victim card. History says well why the majority Muslim community curse your breed
Brother these rotten mind qadianis r jst waitng to die in toilet lyk mirza [Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the sect]
In every instance the Ahmadi Muslim response has been stupefyingly polite, restrained, and showed genuine interest in dialogue with some rather crude attackers.

I do not present this as the only way to interact, nor do I claim that it is ideal. I just say that this approach is a cornerstone of the Ahmadiyya Muslim's faith and in my tweet I wished to acknowledge that they have succeeded admirably in embodying it.

Feminism does not have this driving force. (I do not intend that statement as a criticism.) It is in no way incoherent to be an angry feminist, a confrontational feminist, or even a feminist who does not want to discuss feminism with non feminists. I accept that my statement about Ahmadi Muslims would not work if applied to feminists, but again I suggest the comparison is not apt.
Words used by Ahmadi Muslims to describe themselves on Twitter

Criticism 2: It would be inappropriate to compliment a member of the LGBTQI community on maintaining composure and dignity when threatened as this suggests someone who loses composure or displays anger is somehow less properly a member of that community.
Tweets:
"Yes. I've been told I represent my gender/sexuality well, many times. I am not 3bill people. A Muslim isn't 1bill people. It's the dif between kudos to a straight person for not being an ass, & telling a queer person they're a credit to their orientation. Doesn't exist in a vacuum, y'know?"
There's quite a bit of what I feel to be useful background knowledge in my response to criticism 1 - if you skipped ahead to this one I'd be grateful if you scroll back up and read through.

Again, I agree. I'd go further - a feminist who feels the world is fine and doesn't need changing would seem to hold an incoherent position. But no criticism of someone's mode of activism - or indeed desire for activism - can exclude them from the LGBTQI community. It would be ridiculous to consider someone less bi, for example, because they did not campaign for marriage equality. An Ahmadi Muslim, on the other hand, has committed to a life of love for all and hatred for none. I recognise that it is a goal that they have chosen for themselves freely. In my experience of discussions with people of faith I've found complimenting those who clearly strive to live up to the tenets of their religion is considered respectful and welcomed. It was not intended as a criticism of other groups that do not have such a principle. (I do not intend that as a criticism of groups that do not share the principle in question.)

Criticism 3: You're generalising (or enabling generalisations) about Muslims
that tweet is an example of the following fallacy: http://xkcd.com/385/
To folk who *would* judge a whole faith, culture, political tendency by the behaviour of *some* members... I guess...
Or that any one person's behaviour is responsible for the Western world's view of them.
Is the thing to address then not the fact of this 'impression'??? The problem here is with the basic premise that there is such a thing as an impression of a vast, diverse group. Since there shouldn't be. we should stop doing that.
Is "representing" their purpose? And whether it is or isn't would a thinking person hold them to such a purpose?
I feel I generalised about Muslims who make death threats against Ahmadi Muslims. The generalisation I make is that they will likely leave people with a bad impression of Islam. The reason I have a generally good impression of Muslims is because I've done my best to get to know Muslims and read more about their faith. (For those interested, I've written about reading a translation of the Qur'an and being impressed at how Irish Muslims responded to a physical attack.) There's a discussion to be had about whether we should be actively discouraging people from forming impressions of cultures and groups based on limited interaction with some members. Personally, I am against such a move. If you have a fairly homogeneous Irish Catholic upbringing and get to know a Muslim - any Muslim - the odds are quite good that you're going to come away from the encounter with a more positive view of Muslims, and hopefully a few myths shattered. I accept this will not always be the case, but I do feel the odds are in favour of those of us favouring multiculturalism. The discussion is largely academic - people form impressions based on interactions and that will not change soon. If I'm a jerk online, people will (rightly or wrongly) see a correlation with jerkiness and atheism. If I've deliberately set out to represent atheism well by not being a jerk I've introduced a contradiction.

So should Muslims seek to represent themselves well to give outsiders a better impression of Islam?

I feel there's strong support for this in the faith. Some quotes:
"Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way." Qur'an 16:125
"And there may spring from you a nation who invite to goodness, and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency. Such are they who are successful." Qur'an 3:104
"Remind them, for thou art but a remembrancer, Thou art not at all a warder over them." 88:21-24
"The Prophet of Allah, upon him be peace, was never obscene or coarse. Rather, he used to tell us that the best among us were those with the best manners." - Hadith, Bukhari
So again, I do feel that there is a contradiction here. Someone who claims to represent Islam yet expresses it through insults and threats of violence when this is contraindicated by their own sacred texts cannot easily be said to hold a coherent position, and I do feel they give folk a bad impression of Islam.

Criticism 4: The people who do that [make death threats],  don't really care what u think about them or about Islam
Perhaps, perhaps not. Generally in conversation with them I point out how it's at odds with certain sections of their faith. While my opinion may not matter to them, the opinions expressed in their sacred texts gain more purchase. Islam is an evangelistic faith - should a Muslim convert (or, to use the term of choice revert) me to Islam, any good deeds I do in this life would also count towards their tally on the day of judgement. Those who win converts are considered quite highly, and they often are interested in my views solely because I'm a non Muslim.

Criticism 5: no, although I'll bet it came across that way to some who read the tweet without thinking...
I'm afraid there's little I can do to guard against those unwilling to read the entire 140 characters :)

Criticism 6: First: quit creating false dichotomies.
My tweets were in no way intended to present the only two options when it came to expressing Islam. I find death threats distressing. I don't see how they're justified within an Islamic framework. I find the way Ahmadi Muslims manage to stay firm in their commitment to "love for all, hatred for none" admirable. This is not intended as an exhaustive list of all possible expressions of Islam. I feel there should be an acceptible way I can express these two sentiments and I remain open to alternative approaches that people feel would be a better tack.

Criticism 7: Second: get it out of your head that marginalised groups are monolithic. And yes, that IS what you are doing..
This feels a mite unfair. I only tweet about the subject because I make a concerted effort to learn more about groups outside my own. I have described neither Ahmadi Muslims nor non Ahmadi Muslims as monolithic, and feel I've done more than most to gain an understanding of the varying expressions of Islam worldwide.

And with that I publish this hasty draft, which I may tidy at the weekend. I received quite a number of tweets expressing a differing view to that of my own, if I missed your criticism I apologise: it dropped off my stream. Feel free to tweet or comment again. It's 2:30am, a prize* to anyone who comments before my 6am alarm clock. Next time I mention Islam I might make sure I have the following day off :)


*this is a lie.

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