Tag Archives: atheism

Sober Sons of Abraham

Hassan Quazwini, American Crescent:

A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice,

and

the Future of Islam and America

[Introductory note:  This is a comment I wrote originally in 2010; it has been revised extensively for this forum.]

I was attracted to “American Crescent” in part because its author, Hassan Quazwini, has made his career in Dearborn, Michigan, another suburb of Detroit just across town from the one where I grew up.  Dearborn today has one of the highest proportions of Arab-Americans in the United States (and is sometimes termed “Dearbornstan”).  Quazwini presently serves as Imam at Dearborn’s Islamic Center of America, the largest Muslim congregation in the United States.  His odyssey to Dearborn started in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, from which his Shiite father and family fled in the 1970s, first to Kuwait, then to Iran.  In 1992, Quazwini left for the United States, living in initially in the Los Angeles area before migrating to Dearborn. Quazwini responded positively to presidential candidate Governor George W. Bush’s appeal in the 2000 presidential elections for his support with a pivotal group in a pivotal state.  In 2003, Quazwini broke openly with President Bush over the latter’s decision to go to war with Iraq.

In “American Crescent,” Quazwini delivers an impassioned argument that Islam fits comfortably into America’s religious pluralism.  The question whether Islam and democracy are compatible is “no longer open,” he says (p.202).  Quazwini’s faith in the American dream appears from his book as strong as his Islamic faith:

Muslims embrace Americans’ generosity and add to it.  They value America’s commitment to education and come from all over the world to take part.  They accept that their neighbors won’t necessarily worship the same way they do, or at all, and they appreciate the American idea of pluralism.  If one were to draw a circle on a piece of paper representing Islam’s values and the boundaries of what it permits, that circle would fit easily within the larger circle of what the American legal system, and its cultural standards, permit.  However you wish to view Islam, nothing about it disserves the American way of life (p.202).

Quazwini spoke out strongly after the September 11th attacks, indicating that Muslims were “as appalled by the 9/11 attacks as any other Americans.”  Those who carried out these horrendous acts were quite simply “not Muslims” (p.132).

After terrorism, my greatest concerns about Islam are its treatment of women and homosexuals, and the anti-Semitism associated with wide swaths of Islamic thought.  Quazwimi addresses each of these fundamental human rights issues, but with a euphemistic, “we’re-all-sons-of-Abraham” gloss.  “Islam holds that men and women are absolutely equal, but that they have different talents and should focus their efforts accordingly” (p.59).  Islam’s position on homosexuality is “essentially the same as that of Judaism and Christianity,” acknowledging that in Middle East culture there is “strong disapproval of homosexuality” (p.246).  As to Judaism, Quazwini laments that “too few” Muslims will join him in his “utmost respect” for the Jewish faith, confessing to admire Jews for their ability to assimilate into mainstream America (p.153).

I’m viscerally drawn to a “we’re-all-sons-of-Abraham” approach.  I thus found Quazwani’s embrace of America and American religious pluralism highly endearing and a good rejoinder to the anti-Islamic currents circulating in parts of our country.  He presents a sound case that America’s religious pluralism is broad enough to embrace most forms of Islam.  Moreover, I found implicit support in “American Crescent” for my view that integration of Muslims into the American mainstream is significantly less complicated than parallel integration in Europe.

Yet, Quazwani’s tip toeing around Islamic views of women, homosexuals and Jews is a reminder that rooted deeply into Islamic thought are tenets which I hope would be rejected by all but the most marginal of America’s other religions.  America’s non-Muslim sons and daughters of Abraham should accord Islam the respect which one of the world’s great religious traditions merits.  But they need to do so soberly, without illusions.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

July 1, 2012

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Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

[Introduction: This is the last of my comments that I can locate from 2006, written after my high school friends and I had discussed an earlier Sam Harris book, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” In our exchanges, I found myself alone among my friends in arguing that the taboo against delving deeply into the faith of others is a socially useful convention, enabling people of many different religions to co-exist in relative tolerance and harmony. My friends found that view antiquated and wimpy. The comment below reprises these themes. I have rewritten the final paragraph in light of events since 2006].

This slim book, less than 100 pages, is intended as a sequel to Harris’ earlier “The End of Faith.” My own spiritual inclinations might best be described as secular humanism; I respect but reject Christianity and organized religion generally. I therefore found myself in agreement again, as I did in Harris’ earlier book, with most of his fervently argued points about Christian theology. But the fervor of his argument suggests that Harris’s letter is really for like-minded secularists. Although he makes a few concessions and includes some efforts to be respectful to the hypothetical Christian he is addressing – the person who believes, “at a minimum, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death” (p.viii)– the style overall is very much “in your face” and not designed to win many converts among such Christians. Rather, he has set out, as he says with no tinges of false modesty, to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms” by engaging Christianity “at its most divisive, injurious and retrograde” (p.ix).

I don’t think we get very far by demolishing the foundations of others’ theology. I look at theology as a set of beliefs based on faith, which many people decide, for all kinds of interesting psychological reasons, to place outside the usual empirical and scientific processes that we try, however imperfectly, to apply in other aspects of our lives. Rather than seeking to show the scientific dubiousness of Christian theology, I would have preferred a letter which tries to convince devoted Christians that their religion should be an essentially private matter, rather than one that animates public policy. In many ways, this is a tougher argument. Christians arguing for a religious role in public life usually cite the religious motivation of many abolitionists in the 19th century, and of course, Martin Luther King in the 20th . (Two recent Washington Post columns present good arguments for minimizing religion in public life: Michael Gerson, a conservative who served in the George W. Bush White House: “Too Much Religion in Politics,” Washington Post, March 27, 2012:

http://cjonline.com/opinion/2012-03-29/michael-gerson-too-much-religion-politics;

and E.J. Dionne, a liberal Catholic: “A Holy Week Entreaty,” Washington Post, April 5, 2012:

http://host.madison.com/ct/news/opinion/column/ej_dionne/e-j-dionne-jr-a-holy-week-entreaty-on-religion/article_317e8b3c-b92e-5557-81e1-5d42c792dfed.html).

I couldn’t read either Harris book without thinking that his real point is that anyone who embraces Christianity in any of its forms is at best intellectually dishonest. This leads to a problem I have seen among many — but certainly not all – atheists: a tendency to demonize theists. Although understandable for atheists who are routinely demonized by some true believers, this tendency in my view should nonetheless be avoided. My problem is that I know too many highly intelligent people from all walks of life — doctors, educators, investment counselors, carpenters, auto mechanics, even an occasional lawyer – who are very intelligent and profess to be Christians. Does their faith approach that of the dogmatic hypothetical recipient of Harris’ letter? Are they at base intellectually dishonest? For the most part, I can’t say. I have assiduously applied the taboo that Harris wishes to discard, which cautions against probing too closely into other folks’ religion. But I do know many hyper-intelligent practicing Christians, and am not comfortable with Harris’ attempt to belittle if not demonize them.

Further, as in Harris’ earlier book, I remain unconvinced by his analysis of Islam. The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” Harris writes, is a “fantasy” and:

it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge. It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world, but deluding ourselves with euphemisms is not the answer. It is now a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to recognized why this is so – it is because most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith. Muslims tend to view questions of public policy and global conflict in terms of their affiliation with Islam. And Muslims who don’t view the world in these terms risk being branded as apostates and killed by other Muslims.

(p.85; emphasis in original).

I found this passage “way overstated” in 2006 and still do, six years later. If Harris is even close to the mark, there is hardly any point in “dialogue with the Muslim world.” I was curious whether the on-going “Arab Spring,” in which millions in Muslim countries have manifested their preference for a more pluralist democracy in their countries, might have prompted some modification in Harris’ views. While I didn’t find anything “directly on point,” as the lawyers say, last month, Harris posted an article, “Islam and the Future of Liberalism” (www.samharris.org/blog/item/islam-and-the-future-of-liberalism). There, Harris writes:

Of course, millions of Muslims are more secular and are eager to help create a global civil society. But they are virtually silent because they have nothing to say within the framework of their faith. (They are also afraid of getting killed). That is the problem we must keep in view. And it represents an undeniable difference between Islam and Christianity at this point in history.

Many people who would like to see pluralist democratic institutions established in their predominately Muslim countries have been anything but “virtually silent.” No small number have been killed, others tortured, yet the strength of their democratic vision has prompted Muslims and non-Muslims in the Arab world to continue to manifest their belief that democratic institutions offer the best way forward for their beleaguered countries. The Arab Spring has a long, uphill way to go before such institutions become firmly rooted, and fundamentalist religious groups may yet prevail. There is probably less reason for optimism today than six months ago. But the heartening aspect of the Arab Spring is that so many democratic-minded Muslims have not been silent.

Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C.
April 16, 2012

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Filed under Politics, Religion