Who Are The Muslims?

I begin my blog-stravaganza with an analysis of Islam; or, more specifically, an analysis of opinions held by non-Muslims of Muslim people in general.

A comment* in a recent Facebook post in the "Muslims Against ISIS" community reads as follows:
There's [sic] been a lot on this page recently about how compassionate, tolerant and broadminded [sic] Muslims are; but recent events in Saudi Arabia really do call this in to [sic] question. What am I to think when I hear that in fully islamic [sic] States [sic] such as Saudi Arabia and Iran they still hand out the death penalty to homosexuals, atheists, apostates, government critics, womens [sic] liberationists, labour unionists etc.... Are you going to tell me again that these are not true Muslims. [sic] Its [sic] obvious that ISIS has powerful and likeminded [sic] friends.
The community administrator then responded as follows:
[O]ne bit of advice is to understand that Saudi Arabia is certainly not a "fully Islamic state" they are not the representatives of Islam, or are Iran. [sic throughout that sentence] These countries have their own laws made by their own leaders. Saudi is run by a bunch of filthy rich evil people, who drink alcohol, have sex ourside [sic] of marriage, have more than 4 wives, have strippers etc.. [sic] These are all strictly forbidden in islam [sic]. They dont [sic] care about islam! [sic]
I remember an interview on CNN, Reza Aslan did and how he humiliated the journalists and educated them, what Saudi do [sic] is Saudis [sic] business, don't brush all Muslims on the basis of what Saudi and Iran do! [sic] That is called bigotry. You want to judge Muslims, judge us on what you see in front of your eyes, study Islam if you are so interested. Meet a real Muslim. Talk to us.
We posted an article earlier about sharia law [sic], did you read that?
There is much to unpack here. (And I don't mean the grammatical errors - where would I start?) Both the commentator and the community administrator make important errors in what they say. At the risk of sounding too cute, error is the enemy of understanding.

What I mean is, there seems to be a large swath of Americans who are critical of Muslims, and there also seems to be a large swath of Muslims who want to respond to those criticisms, but if both of these groups are making errors that the other side can't catch or doesn't fully understand, then this attempted dialogue is doomed to fail. The failure of this dialogue means a worsening of interpersonal relationships in America, and I don't want to see that happen. So, I'm going to do my small part to push us all a few micrometers closer to a better understanding of each other.

It Happened In Saudi Arabia, Therefore Muslims Did It

The original commentator makes a mistake that a lot of non-Muslim Americans seem to make about Muslims. He assumes that events that take place in the Middle East are representative of what "Muslims do," that views expressed by people in the Middle East are representative of what "Muslims believe," and so forth.

It's easy to see why this is a silly mistake. No one would suggest, for example, that beliefs widely held by Central Americans are representative of what "Christians believe." To suggest that the actions of the Greek or Russian governments represent the will of a largely Orthodox Christian populace is obviously laughable. Nor does the average Italian speak for Catholics at large. Nor is the American system the result of a melting pot of multiple different kinds of Christians. 

National and regional cultures are much, much more potent in shaping societies than religion alone. That's why Central America is culturally different from North America, even though both are largely "Christian" regions. And, against the suggestion that the difference can be explained by race, I'll point out that South America is quite different from Central America, as well, and both are quite different from Southern Europe. 

If we wanted to, we could construct a hypothetical fear-mongering narrative about the terrible things that happen in Christian societies, based on the historical events of isolated regions of the Christian world. But that would be silly, because what happens in Cuba is a result of Cuba (along with the international pressures that used them as puppets).

So it goes with the Muslim world. It's no secret that the Middle East is a politically unstable, frequently violent, and heavily feudal region of the world. It was so prior to the spread of Islam, and it was afterward. It is not the only such region in the world. Its cultures, however, are very different from the cultures of, say, Chechnya, or Kyrgyzstan, or Bangladesh, or Malaysia. There is no one, underlying set of "problems" faced by these nations, and just about the only two things they all have in common are Islam and a history of British colonialism. 

Long story short, you cannot say "X happens in Muslim countries" unless you can find an X that has happened in all Muslim countries. My modest proposition is this: the only X's anyone will reliably find for all Muslim countries are relatively uninteresting with respect to xenophobic concerns.

I am open to being wrong about this, but at least now the task of proving me wrong is a little clearer.

Muslims Don't Drink Alcohol, Have Sex, Etc.

The administrator of "Muslims Against ISIS" seems to have his/her own confusion about Muslims. To him/her, a Saudi prince can't be a Muslim if he drinks alcohol or fornicates. Or whatever. 

This one makes me laugh because, as my readers know, I grew up in Utah, where "mormons don't drink alcohol," "mormons don't have premarital sex," "mormons don't drink coffee," and so on and so forth. And yet, growing up amid all sorts of people who made such claims, I met lots of mormons who drank, smoked, got tattoos, had sex, and all the rest of it. As it turned out, mormons fell for all the same vices the rest of us human beings do, because - surprise, surprise - mormons are human beings.

And so are Muslims. Hence (and I won't name names), I know lots of Muslims who drink, swear, get tattoos, have premarital sex, do drugs, fail to pray five times a day, never make a pilgrimage, eat haram food and drink, and don't wear the hijab. It hardly seems necessary to point out that Muslims are just like us and get into all the same kind of trouble the rest of us do, but apparently it is.

But it doesn't just stop there. Take, for example, Bangladeshi Muslims, who eat shrimp several times a week (on a good week). Are they not "real Muslims?" Well, we could ask them - and in fact, I have asked them. The answer is that shrimp isn't forbidden at all. Do you think I'd get the same answer from a Yemeni Muslim? I doubt it (but if any Yemenis are reading this, please clarify your understanding of the matter in the comments). 

Among Christians, or atheists, or Hindus, or etc., it goes without saying that different people believe different things. We could argue about which set of beliefs is the most reflective of the Qu'ran, and which Muslim is the best Muslim, but leaving all that aside, we are forced to admit the following: Because Muslims are human beings, they (like other human beings) have a diverse set of beliefs and thoughts. Some of them do things contrary to Islam because they're not good Muslims. Some of them do things that they later rationalize as being consistent with Islam, even though it might not be. Some of them are atheists and just haven't told their parents yet. Some of them want to be good Muslims but just fail because they're still working at it. Some are incredibly modern and progressive people who have found support for their beliefs in the Qu'ran and among Muslim scholars. 

So, Muslims who claim that other Muslims "aren't Muslims" are being judgmental and proclaiming their own personal belief system. They are not, however, making "official" proclamations about who is and is not a Muslim. 

A Few Words On Shari'a Law

It would be helpful if my readers would consult the following two articles:

First, consult this short blog post from David Friedman, who spent some time studying Islamic law a couple of years ago. In it, Friedman says this:
Islamic law as it was interpreted by legal scholars and applied in the traditional court system is fiqh. Shari'a is what fiqh would be if the scholars always got it right, something they have never claimed to do. Think of it as law in the mind of God.
In other words, "Shari'a law" doesn't mean stoning whores and cutting off the hands of thieves. Instead, what it means is applying religious principles to legal problems with the aid of religious scholars. That's certainly contrary to America's long-standing tradition of the separation of church and state, but it's not quite as spooky as some have been lead to believe.

To better understand why it's not so spooky, consult this second article, from Salon.com, written by an American lawyer who has worked with Muslim clients in applying fiqh. (He incorrectly calls this "sharia law.")

Now a few quick thoughts from me:

FirstI have deliberately chosen two sources at different ideological poles. If you are not inclined to believe a libertarian like Friedman, then you can consult the very leftist Salon, and vice-versa. There is nothing "ideological" about the above interpretation of Shari'a law.

SecondIn the United States, fiqh is already happening, and has been happening for a long time. However, there is no way for a non-Muslim to be bound to this process unless s/he submits to it voluntarily. Think of it like formal legal arbitration. This, by the way, is fully consistent with libertarianism.

ThirdMany, many Muslims object to the violent applications of fiqh that are common in some parts of the world. Indeed, any human being would object to such cruel and unusual punishment. Reports of widespread support of such systems by Muslims are greatly exaggerated. But, here's the important part: You'll never learn about the extent to which ordinarily Muslims object to cruel and unusual punishments by asking them about "sharia law." This is because when you ask a Muslim if they "support sharia law," you are effectively asking them, "do you support the perfect implementation of god's plan?" What religious person would object to that question? 

But, of course, that question doesn't ask what the inquisitor wishes to know, because the inquisitor doesn't understand the question (and, quite often, neither does the respondent).

The point is, don't assume that a Muslim favors beheadings and stonings just because s/he favors Shari'a law. Neither would you suspect your neighbor of being a slaver if you found out he supported a return to strict Constitutional American governance.


From all this, I hope I have managed to impress upon those of you who still have an open mind (and are still reading - ha!) that Muslims exhibit all the same diversity of opinion and belief that is present in people of other religions. I hope I have managed to convey the idea that most of the problems faced by various regions of "the Muslim world" are really regional problems, not specific to a religion. I hope I have managed to provide some information about people in such a way that you find it a little more difficult to place all Muslims in the same "box."

If there's one thing I've learned over the course of my life, it's that absolutely every human being in the world is an individual, and thus we have to interact with each other accordingly. You simply can't make categorical statements about individuals because individuals don't fit well in categories. Even the categories you hope define yourself don't fit perfectly, and there is a list of exceptions or justifications you use to reconcile that cognitive dissonance... And that's okay! Because that's what being an individual is all about. You're not just like everyone I might group you in with.

And neither are Muslims. This is painfully obvious when you know lots of Muslims - and getting to know lots of Muslims is the best, if not the only, way to cure ourselves of our in-group/out-group biases here.

But again, I'm open to being proven wrong. Why don't you get to know some Muslims and then tell me that I am wrong about them. It couldn't possibly hurt.


* Note: I have omitted a link to the comment and the group out of respect for the privacy of strangers. It is, I believe, a public group, so I'm sure you can locate these comments on Facebook if you would like to verify them for yourselves.