It is not uncommon to perceive that which is alien to us through an exotic lens. It is easy to idealize that which we have no direct access to, but have only theoretically learned about through books, movies, word-of-mouth or social media. The leap from exoticism to romanticization is very small. One example of this is the exoticism with which Islam is viewed by western liberals, and more specifically social justice activists, whose central focus is on notions of intersectionality, positionality in knowledge and identity politics.
My intention is not to slander Islam as a religion. I was born and raised in a moderate Muslim household, went to a private religious school, where they taught us a great deal about religion, and was even involved in after-school religious classes and summer camps. I fasted, prayed five times a day, and thought that Islam was the right path. (I’ve since changed my mind.)
I took part in religious activities as a fun pastime and a way of making new friends, especially since it was what everyone else was doing. Over time, though, I came to realize that any idea that so much as evoked a sense of doubt, let alone might lead us to question the foundations of religion was frowned upon and quickly discarded.
Without wishing to overgeneralize, when religion is transformed into a dogmatic narrative, with various accompanying associations and establishments, which are orthodox or moderate to differing degrees, the dynamics quickly become complicated.
Potentially, the onus is on every Muslim to spread the message of the prophet. This, of course, is a direct consequence of the belief that Islam is the truest religion, having been revealed to Mohammed, to complete the previous Abrahamic messages from God: namely, Judaism and Christianity.
Things are not that simple though. Islamic preaching is a bit convoluted, because it takes different forms when it is taught internally to religious people, versus when it is professed externally vis a vis non-Muslims.
This dynamic generates a double discourse, which engenders a kind of cognitive dissonance amongst those believers who are beginning to question their religious practices and values. In addition, it opens up space for interpretations that can be as extreme as one’s imagination can allow.
The double discourse also creates two contradictory images of the religious canon: one preaches peace and tolerance, and its opposite preaches complete abhorrence of the other. This mirroring effect creates a space for potential misperceptions, misinterpretations and misunderstandings, which can lead Western liberals to mount staunch defenses of the right to Islamic religious expression.
While this double narrative might not be motivated by malicious intent, it succeeds in creating an image that does not reflect reality. For instance, in order to lure non-Muslims, the general Islamic discourse tends to be very lenient and tolerant. It does not matter if, say, a Christian wants to drink alcohol, as long as he expresses interest in converting. However, this behavior would be inconceivable for a Muslim questioning his or her faith. In other words, it is very easy to convert to Islam, but difficult to apostatize.
Once you are a Muslim, questioning the foundations of the religion, and speaking out against inconsistencies in the scripture and elsewhere automatically leads to ostracism. In other words, it is easy to be cajoled into accepting the system, rather than risk apostasy—which, among other things, can put your life at risk, both literally and metaphorically. The dynamics of Islam are therefore more akin to those of a cult than those of a religion per se.
Double standards abound, also, in all grey areas that are open to interpretation. Is the veil obligatory or not? Are women allowed to be emancipated? Are women equal to men, and, if so, why is this not reflected in the way inheritance is divided up amongst family members? Why does the Quran dictate how people ought to divide up their inheritance, in minute detail, but does not mention anything about how people ought to pray?
If a Muslim even raises these questions, it sets off alarm bells in the community. But, in front of the rest of the world, Muslims have a handful of answers they are ready to trot out in response to any of these queries.
The situation has become trickier since Islam has been under scrutiny for the last two decades. This has put Muslims in the unenviable situation of having to justify their stance every time Islam is equated with terrorism. This has made them feel insecure and triggered a defensiveness amongst Muslims, obliging them to present a more tolerant image of themselves in order to distance themselves from the lunacies of groups who, according to some, have used Islam to wreak havoc and commit atrocious actions.
In the midst of this turmoil, many have lost sight of their moral compass. Both advocates and opponents of the religion have engaged in futile feuds about whether or not Islam is a potential incubator for terrorists. As a result, Muslims believe they have been victims of unjustifiable attacks, and have sought to clear their image in the West.
Double Discourse Meets Double Standards
In the meantime, the issues that merit real discussion have been constantly overlooked. Issues dealing with the extent of Muslims’ integration in the West have been nonstarters in discussion, because of the rising influence of social justice activists, who promulgate a politically correct discourse. These activists have taken it upon themselves to protect any group that they identify as victimized, with the goal of protecting minority groups, advocating for diversity and creating a tolerant environment. This is a laudable stance, however, its implementation has been rash and ill advised because it lumps all potentially victimized groups, including Muslims, into one category.
It is very difficult to scrutinize one’s values when one’s driving ideology is guided by the ultimate principle of protecting minorities and victims. The system is bound to break apart when the values of two conflicting minority groups clash. We could see this in play in a recent incident in which a veiled woman refused to give a transgender woman a bikini wax. Faced with such dilemmas, social justice activists usually prefer to remain silent.
Voices that call for honest discussion and serious critiques are automatically shut down. Just as in intra-Muslim religious discourse, criticisms are quickly fended off. There’s no room for proper dialogue if your main aim is to avoid hurting peoples’ sensibilities—especially those who have been victims for too long.
Western liberals don’t want to admit the possibility that other groups may defend values that are completely different from their own. And this is further complicated when the group in question insists on maintaining a double discourse: a public discourse that evokes tolerance; and another, stricter private approach that defends a set of conservative values, which run counter to those of the social justice activists.
Notwithstanding this, Western liberals seem to be keen on defending Islam in the name of religious freedom. One of the most recent examples is that of the Swedish high court, which just ruled in favor of a veiled woman who was denied a job for refusing to shake hands with her male interviewers. Since the woman was veiled, she was treated as a minority and a victim. Had a white person been in her stead, he or she would have been showered with criticism.
Western liberals don’t seem to be aware that the veiled woman’s stance runs counter to their most cherished values. For example, the veiled woman assumed that the interviewers should be classified according to a fixed set of gender binaries, and perceived as either male or female, on the basis of their biological sex. In other words, the veiled woman perpetuated a binary understanding of gender, vehemently criticized by social justice activists. Such a situation would have proved trickier if one of the interviewers had identified as a woman, or was actually a trans woman. In that case, would it have been acceptable for a veiled woman to shake hands with her?
Moreover, Western liberals seem unaware of the fact that the leftists on the other side of the world are engaged in a passionate struggle against the imposed dominance of patriarchal religion. Many men and women whose political views tilt towards left of center view Islam the same way Western liberals view Christianity: i.e., as a conservative doctrine that needs to be overthrown sooner rather than later.
The results of this can be comical. For, while in the West a veiled woman is protected because she belongs to a victim group, in the East she may be engaged in an internal clash of cultures, as she attempts to break free from the shackles of religion.
All this is consolidated by the Islamic double narrative: a narrative that seeks to impose its values in the name of the right to freedom of religious expression, but is intolerant of any activity that goes against the teachings of the Quran or the prophet.
The problem with social justice activists is that very often they don’t take into account the specificity of the conditions that shape each country.
Social justice activism takes various forms in different countries or regions: for example, in places like the US, activists defend the right to freedom of religious expression, while in places like Lebanon they seek emancipation from religious institutions altogether. Islamic discourse, on the other hand, finds itself ever more polarized between tolerant and extremely rigid/intolerant narratives.
These double discourses on both sides render any rigorous dialogue almost impossible. People who promulgate a moderate view of Islam end up being attacked by both social justice activists, and by people who defend orthodox views. This problem is most acute at the meeting point of both extremes: social justice activists who advocate extreme tolerance, and religious extremists, who are deeply intolerant on a wide variety of issues, including women’s rights, homosexuality and freedom of speech.
It is crucial to understand the nature of this impasse, before we can generate a constructive dialogue—a dialogue that not only accounts for differences between groups, but that does not shy away from the criticism of ideas, viewpoints and arguments that clearly hint at extremism and intolerance in both camps. Otherwise, we can only expect more polarization on both sides, with unforeseen consequences that might end up harming genuine attempts to establish moderate discourses.