Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Polling the Muslims and Being Appalled

The Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life has published a lengthy report on Muslim attitudes and beliefs in 39 countries.  It makes for dreary, if not hopeless reading. Pew conducted face to face interviews with more than 38,000 people.  Their report, dated April 30, 2013 includes the following findings: 
  • Muslims believe a wife must always obey her husband; although many also report the  contradictory belief that women should be able to choose whether to wear the veil. 
  • Overwhelming percentages of Muslims in many of these countries want Islamic law (sharia) to be the official law of the land, but many supporters of sharia say it should apply only to their country’s Muslim population.  The prevailing view is that sharia law is the literal law of God--not man made law based on the word of God. However, Pew notes that views about implementing sharia tends to mirror a country’s existing legal system. 
  • Large majorities believe cutting off hands for theft and the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith is appropriate. 
  • Large numbers believe stoning women to death for adultery is an appropriate punishment. Notably, 81 percent of Muslims in the Palestinian Territories believe this. 
  • Clear majorities in most countries do not support suicide bombings and say such acts are rarely or never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies. 
  • Most Muslims exhibit tolerance to other religions and say it is a good thing when others are very free to practice their religion. 
  •  Most Muslims are comfortable practicing their faith in the contemporary world. Relatively few feel there is an inherent conflict between being religiously devout and living in a modern society; the prevailing view in most countries surveyed is that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science. However, most Muslims think Western music, movies and television pose a threat to morality in their country – even though, on a personal level, substantial percentages say they enjoy Western entertainment.
Some of these beliefs are anathema to Western sensibilities.  Witness the recent exchange between Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Ben Afleck and Nicholas Kristof

"Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas," says Sam Harris: 


Reza Aslan in the Times says, "Yes, but don't take the ideas too seriously."  He made the following observation:
What both the believers and the critics often miss is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a Jew” and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.
There's something to this. Take, for example, the 81 percent of Muslims in the Palestinian Territories who profess support for honor killings.  That's an awful number. And honor killings have spiked recently, increasing from 13 documented cases in 2012 to 27 documented cases in 2013 (I believe this is West Bank only).  But the increase has resulted in a significant backlash.

From Washington Post, March 3, 2014:
"Honor killing, once hidden behind a curtain of silence and shame, is beginning to generate condemnation of its perpetrators, public support for its victims and vows to stop the practice. “The entire society is incensed by the increase,” said Rabiha Diab, the minister of women’s affairs in the West Bank."
A backlash and "the entire society is incensed" against it makes it apparent that the 81% support for honor killings that shows up in the Pew poll does not reflect real belief when the ugly reality rears its head. There's hope in that. As Anne-Marie O'Connor puts it in her linked WP article:
"The age-old rationale can serve as a cover for domestic abuse, inheritance disputes, rape, incest or the desire to punish female independence, according to Maha Abu-Dayyeh, the general director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, a Palestinian human rights group that tracks the killings."
Honor killings reflect a real social problem, as well as a religious problem that must be addressed. But its not clear that we can draw a straight line from the Pew polling numbers in support of honor killings, in support of death sentences for leaving the faith, and in support of the fatwah for irreverent cartoons of Mohammad, to ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant) and its outrages. I'm skeptical that what Muslims say about honor killings, sharia law, leaving the faith, and cutting off of hands for thieves in response to Pew polling explains the barbarity of ISIL, the falling apart of Syria, the failure of Iraq post 2003, the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, the discontents of the Muslim brotherhood and Al Quaeda, or the abuses of the secular dictatorships throughout the Islamic world.

David Shasha, the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, NY, says that in order to understand the current dysfunction within Islam in the Middle East, and to find a solution to it, we must look at the broader cultural and political forces at work during colonial times, and especially since the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the discovery of oil. He points to an Arab tradition of culture and literary sophistication that flourished in the 19th century and which promised real possibilities of modernization at the close of the Ottoman empire. Why didn't it happen? Shasha says the answer lies in history, in the role played by the West in carving up the territory, its lack of respect for Arab culture, traditions, and religion, its promotion of coups in Iran, its support of oil dictators, its support of an Israeli colonial project, and its support of dictators from Baghdad to Tripoli.

The main criticism here, that any response to Maher and Harris must be rooted in an understanding of the broader social political forces, and not in downplaying the dysfunction of the religious culture as we find it today, seems clearly correct.  Don't look for an uncorrupted strain of Islam, or in cold war politics, says Shasha, look in the Arab cultural heritage, look for healing in the promise that lies within this rich tradition. Muslims don't need to rewrite the Koran in this process. That seems correct.

But colonial past and support of present oil dictators or not, I'm not sure that its productive to blame the West for the fact that the Arab culture of manners and literary sophistication abandoned the field, seemingly without a fight.  This Arab flourishing of culture and potential for modernity that Shasha refers to occurred in colonial times, after all.  Since the end of the Ottoman empire we got the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahabiism, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, Al Queada, and ISIL; it's not obvious to me why that Arab promise of modernization was so utterly broken, and why blame for this lies with the West. This broken promise strikes me not unlike the collapse of Weimar Germany into the thuggery that was National Socialism: yeah the French and British had something to do with this, but I don't think you can blame them for it.

Maher and Harris are looking at the Pew polling and they are crying out for those champions of culture and literary sophistication that Shasha mentions.  That much seems right.  Ultimately, however, the Arabs will have to work on fulfilling that promise of cultural and literary sophistication from within; we can't do it for them. If those Pew polling responses start to shift towards something less appalling, we'll know they are making progress. As we know from our civil rights battles regarding marriage across color lines, and our more recent battles for same sex marriage--poll numbers can change in a hurry when the conditions are right.



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