Islam is again in the news. This time, the controversy has been spawned by debates over how we in the United States, particularly progressives, “talk about Islam.” Bill Maher, Sam Harris and others have argued that we betray our Progressive principles when we fail to denounce anti-progressive beliefs or practices in the Muslim world. In fact, the glaring racism of Maher or Harris is more harmful to progressive views than anything that happens in Bangladesh. First, the views of Maher and others are genuinely racist and not merely impolite. Secondly, such views are not only inimical to progressive thought, but to the progressive agenda.
A progressive believes that socio-economic conditions precede cultural, political and even intellectual ones. Nothing is set in stone. Things change and, hopefully, for the better. We give things a chance to get better when all participate in the conversation to change laws for the better of society as a whole. When only a few people participate in this conversation, that inhibits the potential for things to get better, since experiences are limited and interests are powerful. In the tradition of Rousseau, everyone should participate, as the more experiences we accumulate and deliberate upon, the more robust our discussion and the greater our ability to build upon what we know, in other words progress.
Thus equality is fundamental to the progressive worldview for it is what ensures a robust discussion amongst society’s constituents. Can you imagine if Muslims had a more equal say (in media and the like) in foreign policy affairs? Perhaps we would’ve avoided the disastrous policies of the Bush administration.
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Racism, like others forms of discrimination, imbalances the distribution of voices in the conversation. We are robbed of those experiences which are crucial to making our conversation well-rounded. That Maher and Harris are racists can be proven without even referencing such outright racist comments as Maher’s discomfort with Muslim baby names, but rather through the examination of his logic within the context of racism. Racism is by definition the “belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
Muslims may not be a race, but they are a category by convention and do constitute a civilization that, in some practical ways, can be distinguished from other civilizations. Maher has repeatedly stated that our “civilization is better than theirs.” What exactly does this mean? By any practical measure, nothing, which is exactly what makes it racist. Racism is always predicated on wrong thinking and vacuous claims. Is our civilization “better than theirs” because we have bigger bombs? If that is the case, then yes, Maher would be right. Or because we have the power to invade other countries? Then, again, Maher would be right. Because we are less violent than “them?” Then, Maher would be wrong: murder is committed far less often in the Muslim world than in “our world.” Because we provide education and health care for our citizens? Again, no, many Muslim countries provide such services as a right for their people, while we do not. In fact, Iraq under Saddam Hussein provided such services and Iraq no longer does since that invasion. Maybe because we are better at soccer? Again, Maher would be wrong. But the point is, such claims as “our civilization is better than theirs” are fatuous. They are too grand and abstract to actually mean anything. Maher is referring to civil rights on certain issues and yes, due to our socio-economic conditions, particular history and relatively decent economy, we are in a place to discuss things that other regions are not.
But is that really the point? The truth is this: As an academic and frequent visitor to the Muslim world, I am willing to generalize that if I asked the average Bangladeshi about his or her views on same sex-marriage, we would find the majority of respondents at odds with the right for same sex couples to marry. Two things: How does that make Bangladesh any worse than Indiana? Or – and perhaps more significantly – what are the chances that the prime minister of Bangladesh will wake up tomorrow and proclaim that God informed her (her name is Sheikh Hasina) that Bangladesh should invade the United States to spread their ideas? It should be clear that the chances are zero. Yet, I can recall a president who claimed God informed him (because we have failed to elect a woman so far) to invade a country to spread our ideas. And we have the audacity to ask whether Islam is inherently more violent than other religions.
Racism is predicated not only on wrong thinking but also on hypocrisy. Hypocrisy makes racism possible because then and only then, can you look at behavior that, however violent, is also all too human and claim, somehow, it typifies a certain group. White privilege allows whites to never associate with radical acts, let alone need to disassociate. White privilege also insists that browns and blacks answer for the behavior of all other browns and blacks to whites. Harris, on the same show, argued that 20% of Muslims are violent or prone to violence, when challenged to provide proof, he cited a poll where 78% of British Muslims wanted the Danish cartoonists prosecuted. Wait? Prosecuted? That’s a far cry from violence or suicide bombing. Furthermore, when you consider that Europe has much more stringent rules on free speech when it comes to hate speech and racist speech, British Muslims are well within the mainstream in their belief, however distasteful it may be to us Americans. White privilege also allows for these types of dissonances to go unnoticed.
Racism is detrimental to the progressive agenda. First, as stated earlier, we need diversity to ensure a robust democratic conversation, whether in the moral sphere or political sphere. When you single out a group of people, as Maher and company do, you inhibit their ability to participate and correct wrong views with their experiences. So, when Reza Aslan attempts to correct our racist views on Islam, his indignation at racist remarks are deemed “hostile” by a white media, so the racism deprives us of the edification and progress is inhibited.
But, more importantly, when we continue to insist that Muslims represent a “special” problem to the west and they “hate our freedom,” à la George Bush, we perpetuate the agenda of the military-industrial complex at the expense of education and health care. We have more of a chance of being harmed in a car accident, by American violence or by a bad economy than by “Muslim radicals.”Healthcare and education would be great alleviants to such ailments. Progressives insist such services be provided.
But when you are busy obsessing over millions of farmers, cab drivers, doctors, teachers, parents, students, etc. who will never affect you, to defend some abstract “liberal principle,” which if you know anything about liberalism can never be ahistorical, you sound like a neo-conservative chickenhawk who talks like a progressive, but yells like a member of Bush II’s team. Furthermore, you contribute to the neo-con cause, not ours. Real progressives see the world in terms of social-class and resources, not culture and race. I know which side I’m on.