Wednesday, April 24, 2013

US Muslims by the numbers

I was interested to read Reihan Salam's recent post on the future of Islam in America. He offers his perspective growing up Muslim (his parents had immigrated from Muslim majority Bangladesh) and opines that American Muslims will grow more secular over time (just as the rest of the country seems to be doing). But it was the quantitative information he quotes that really jolted me.
The best survey evidence offers only a limited and inconclusive portrait of America’s Muslim community. The Pew Research Center estimates that there are 2.75 million Muslims living in the United States, and that 63 percent were born outside of the country. Of this foreign-born slice of the Muslim population, 45 percent arrived in the United States after 1990 and 70 percent are naturalized U.S. citizens. This population is incredibly diverse. Roughly 13 percent of all U.S. Muslims are native-born African-Americans. Some U.S. Muslims are highly educated professionals leading integrated lives, while others are less-skilled workers earning poverty-level incomes in ethnic enclaves.

According to Pew, 69 percent of U.S. Muslims claim that religion is an important part of their lives; 47 percent report attending worship services on a weekly basis. These numbers closely parallel the numbers for U.S. Christians. It is also true, however, that one-fifth of U.S. Muslims seldom or never attend worship services, a sure sign of secularization.

Another sign is that a large majority of U.S. Muslims appear to be comfortable with religious pluralism. Pew found that 56 percent of U.S. Muslims believe that many different religions can lead to eternal life while 35 percent believe that only Islam will get you there. Similarly, 57 percent of U.S. Muslims believe that there are many valid ways to interpret Islamic teachings, as opposed to 37 percent who maintain that only one interpretation is valid. Suffice it to say, the notion that many different religions are of equal value is not likely to be embraced by the religiously orthodox. Indeed, one possibility is that this more relaxed approach to the demands of religion represents a way station on the road to abandoning religion entirely.
2.75 million is less than 1% of the US population! If I had needed to guess, I would have said maybe 3%. What's more, I'm guessing the majority of the Muslim population in the US is concentrated in cities within a few US states (not all coastal, apparently the largest Muslim population by percentage is in Michigan?!). This means it's probably quite easy for large swathes of the American population to go through life without ever working closely with or having long-term interactions with a single Muslim. This must be especially true for the subset of the population that doesn't attend college. I am pretty sure I didn't really meet any Muslims until I attended university (still in Oklahoma). And of course since then I went more coastal and more urban, so Muslims are common enough to me that I can be shocked by these demographic revelations.

Anyway, I don't want to excuse intolerance or Islamophobia, but is it any wonder that so many people in the US just aren't sure about Muslims? They're completely alien to much of the country.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sam Harris and Islamophobia

I've been following the kerfuffle between Glenn Greenwald and Sam Harris over, well, I guess it's over whether Sam Harris is some kind of bigot or not. The big Glenn Greenwald post (with the half dozen hyperlinks per paragraph that is his wont) is here. Everything I'm going to quote in this post comes from what I think is the latest from Harris. I don't think Harris is a bad person or is intentionally bigoted, but I do think Islamophobia is a real thing and a useful concept.

Quoting Greenwald's definition of Islamophobia:
It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one’s own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs.
He continues:
This is extremely useful, being both clearly stated and clearly wrong. The meaning of “Islamophobia” is not at all like the meanings of those other terms. It is simply not easy to differentiate prejudice against Muslims from ordinary racism and xenophobia directed at Arabs, Pakistanis, Somalis, and other people who happen to be Muslim. Of course, there is no question that such bigotry exists, and it is as odious as Greenwald believes. But inventing a new term does not give us license to say that there is a new form of hatred in the world. How does the term “anti-Semitism” differ? Well, we have a 2000-year-old tradition of religiously inspired hatred against Jews, conceived as a distinct race of people, both by those who hate them and by Jews themselves. Anti-Semitism is, therefore, a specific form of racism that, as everyone knows, has taken many terrible turns over the years (and is now especially prevalent among Muslims, for reasons that can be explicitly traced not merely to recent conflicts over land in the Middle East, but to the doctrine of Islam). “Sexism,” of course, is a bias against women, not because of any doctrines they might espouse, but because they were born without a Y chromosome. The meanings of these terms are clear, and each names a form of hatred and exclusion directed at people, as people, not because of their behavior or beliefs, but because of the mere circumstances of their birth.
I think Harris makes a number of wrong turns generally, but here's where I'll start. It would be nice if everything could be so clear-cut as "You're allowed to bear prejudice against any group of people as long as the grouping is not based on a biological attribute of birth." But it's murkier than that. Xenophobia directed at nationalities is still xenophobia, as Harris acknowledges above, but nationality needn't depend on blood. Sexuality is another example. While it's become a favored political talking point in the marriage equality movement that gays and lesbians are "born that way," I've always thought human sexuality was too complex for this to be true for all non-heterosexual activity in all circumstances (there's no possibility for a cultural component to sexual experimentation?). Even if the homophobes were right all along that homosexuality is a choice, we would still be left with benighted people fearing, hating, and discriminating against an Other group of people for irrational reasons, and "homophobia" would still be quite a useful term.

The case of atheists should hit home for Harris. Atheists are also a group distinguishable only by their ideas, but fear and hatred of atheists feels like just another manifestation of garden variety xenophobia. I reckon, hazardously perhaps, that the mistrust of atheists is primarily based on the misunderstanding of what atheism is (nihilism and hating Jesus, right?). The mistrust is facilitated by the general social acceptance of maligning atheists because they are scary Others. This is an irrational mistrust of a whole group of people based on ignorance and has nothing to do with considered judgment of the actual ethical consequences of failing to believe in supernatural phenomena. I predict, hazardously for sure, that this attitude toward atheists will crumble as more atheists come out of the closet and everyone realizes atheists are just folks, much like gays and Muslims.

But even by Harris's own standards, Islamophobia should be at least potentially a real phenomenon because Islam is in almost all cases a matter of the circumstances of birth, family, and early childhood, just as Christianity is in most of America. Harris recognizes this when, elsewhere, he points out that he reserves his harshest criticism for people who convert to Islam, because they haven't been brainwashed into the faith from birth. But you don't get a free pass to make "sweeping claims about the members of [a] group unjustified by their actual individual actions and beliefs" just because you note that some small fraction of the group actually chose to join the group. The social and cultural ties that bind a person to the faith of their upbringing are incredibly strong (even where apostasy is not a crime). In religious societies, identification with the social faith is just the default, so it says very little about a person in a predominantly Muslim society (including neighborhoods in pluralistic countries) that he or she identifies as Muslim. Generalizations about such individuals are therefore suspect.

The heart of what makes Islamophobia a legitimate category of bigotry is the motivated misrepresentation of what Muslims believe (or, in the slightly more forgivable case, the uncritical swallowing of such misrepresentations). Consider the following characterization of black people: "Black people like to collect welfare instead of finding gainful employment because it is their biological nature to be lazy." This is a racist statement because of the pernicious and false generalization of the entire set of black people. If you are a racist with more modern sensibilities, you might say "Laziness is part of African-American culture." Something similar can be done with Muslims. "Muslims are predisposed to suicide bombing and genital mutilation because it is in the nature of Muslims to be violent." If you are clever, you will tweak this idea thusly: "Violence is the nature of Islam." I think Harris does something like this. In the following passage, all the emphases are mine.
So “Islamophobia” must be—it really can only be—an irrational, disproportionate, and unjustified fear of certain people, regardless of their ethnicity or any other accidental trait,because of what they believe and to the degree to which they believe it. Thus the relevant question to ask is whether a special concern about people who are deeply committed to the actual doctrines of Islam, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, is irrational, disproportionate, and unjustified. 
Contrary to Greenwald’s assertion, my condemnation of Islam does not apply to “all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group.” My condemnation applies to the doctrines of Islam and to the ways in which they reliably produce these “bad acts.” Unfortunately, in the case of Islam, the bad acts of the worst individuals—the jihadists, the murderers of apostates, and the men who treat their wives and daughters like chattel—are the best examples of the doctrine in practice. Those who adhere most strictly to the actual teachings of Islam, those who expound its timeless dogma most honestly, are precisely the people whom Greenwald and other obscurantists want us to believe least represent the faith. 
Well, this is a very easy difference of opinion to resolve: One need only study the doctrine of Islam—not merely as it existed in the 7th century, but as it exists today—and ask some very basic questions. What, for instance, is the penalty for apostasy? Interestingly, it isn’t spelled out in the Koran—there, apostates are merely promised their just deserts in hell—but it is made painfully clear in the hadith, and in the opinions of Muslim jurists and Muslim mobs everywhere. The year is 2013, and the penalty for apostasy, everywhere under Islam, is death. I have yet to meet an apologist for the religion, however evasive, who could lie about this fact with a straight face. (Perhaps Greenwald would like to be the first.) Needless to say, I receive emails from former Muslims who are all too aware of what it means to be a former Muslim. Depending on where they live, these people run a real risk of being murdered, perhaps even by members of their own families, for having lost their faith.
The bold phrases all betray Harris's never-wavering certainty that he knows the true nature of Islam. This is, of course, impossible, because Islam means many different things to many different Muslims, let alone self-described enemies of Islam. I've argued this before, but it will probably bear repeating for a long while: religious belief is adaptable to circumstances. It is trivial to find passages in the Bible that explicitly support slavery and others that explicitly condemn homosexuality. And yet the (mostly) Christian West eradicated legal slavery over a century ago and gay rights are quickly becoming the norm. Islam is no different. Harris is simply interpreting the Quran and the hadith in his preferred way. He and others in his wing of the New Atheism movement are no better than religious fundamentalists when they employ scriptural "literalism" and focus all their attention on stoning homosexuals and putting infidels to the sword. I put "literalism" in quotes because the Quran and hadith (like the Old and New Testaments before them) are large, old, multi-authored, and at times self-conflicting. It is simply impossible to read such literature in any kind of facile word-for-word manner. As with interpreting the American Constitution, you're going to bring your priors along for the ride.

Harris sometimes acknowledges that there are liberal, moderate, and/or pragmatic Muslims. Clearly liberal Islam is possible, both in Western pluralistic countries as well as in predominantly Muslim countries. To be honest I don't have much knowledge of Islam and I won't pretend I do. Most of what I know came from Robert Wright's Evolution of God, which argued persuasively that God's temperament correlates suspiciously with geopolitical facts in the scripture era histories of both Christianity and Islam. For a dose of empiricism, here is a Pew study of six Muslim countries from mid-2012 that reports broadly positive attitudes toward democracy and gender equality, and negative attitudes toward extremist groups such as al Qaeda. Here is a Wikipedia page on liberal Islam that presents possibilities for Islam very different from the caricatures of Harris-wing New Atheism. Intuitively, if Christianity can support worldviews as vastly different as those of Roman Catholics and Quakers, it seems likely that Islam can manage such variation as well (and does, for all I know).

If liberal Islam is possible, why does Harris insist on caricaturing the entire faith as barbaric? What purpose does that serve? He often points out that women and minorities suffer the most from Islamic doctrine. I take him at his word on this. But his rhetoric alienates all Muslims, whether they are victims, reformists, or oppressors. Further down in his piece, Harris describes a nightmare scenario where an "avowedly suicidal" Islamist regime obtains a nuclear arsenal. He argues that in such a scenario the West would be forced to consider a preemptive nuclear strike to ensure its survival. I think he takes some shortcuts in his scenario, but I'm not going to argue with his logic here. Instead, I want to ask how Harris's approach to Islam and Muslims is going to impact the probability of such a nightmare happening. What is more likely to move the Islamic world in a more secular, liberal direction? A) We attempt to persuade a billion or so Muslims to adopt atheism by showing the moderates that they have been (this whole time!) misinterpreting their scriptures, which are far more brutal and tyrannical than they heretofore understood, or B) We engage the Islamic world more in cultural and economic exchange, and highlight the efforts of the liberals and reformers who are already demonstrating how their faith is compatible with secular, cosmopolitan values.