UPDATED: April 8, 2015, at 1:45 p.m.
As students of Islamic history, we are shocked by the arguments advanced by Harvard freshman Lisa Peng in a recent Crimson article and feel compelled to respond.
The gist of Peng’s argument is that prominent Western politicians are actively prohibiting criticism of Islam, thereby violating free speech. Peng argues that Islam, a religion in need of serious reform, is harmed by this restriction since it hinders the progress that inevitably follows critical discourse. Peng posits Hirsi Ali as an exemplary defender of free speech, someone seeking to enrich Islam with the light of (Western) critique.
First, while President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have stated that the religion of Islam has nothing to do with the killings perpetrated by some who claim to be Muslim, this in no way constitutes an attack on free speech. One need only observe the popularity of Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Fox News to see that criticism of Islam is alive and well in American society.
Peng actually has it backwards. Political discourse is not limiting criticism of Islam; it is actively alienating Muslims. Take, for example, France’s ban on face veils, Denmark’s prohibition of halal food, and Switzerland’s ban on constructing minarets. Thirty two U.S. states have now debated the banning of “Shari’a law,” and seven have passed such legislation, although there was never a threat of Shari’a being implemented in America. The motivation behind these bans is clear: Islamophobic paranoia. This industry of fear has permeated our culture, and we have seen the danger that such hatred poses to Muslims living in the West in the recent incidents of fear-mongering, hate crimes, shootings, and tragic murders.
Having established that this is not a matter of freedom of speech, let us move to the subject of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She has taught formal reading groups at the Kennedy School, many of which engage the field of Islamic Studies directly. This would appear to require at least some formal study of Islam, but no one has cared to ask whether she has the appropriate credentials. Hirsi Ali has no academic background in Islamic studies. It seems her credibility is simply assumed due to either her celebrity or prior experiences as a Muslim. We find it troubling that Harvard lends tremendous credibility to the ideas of someone who has no education in the topic that she teaches about, and specifically such a complex topic as wholesale theological reform, which necessitates knowledge of centuries of theological and legal discourse.
In her article, Peng writes that “only through rigorous scrutiny can cultures progress.” Taking this advice, let us submit Hirsi Ali’s ideas to critical examination in order to advance the discourse on modern Islam. Hirsi Ali preaches that Islam is “not a religion of peace” and that there are five central tenets of Islam, including such fundamental notions as the divine authorship of the Qur’an, that must be reformed for Islam to “peacefully coexist...in the modern world.”
Scholars of religion have exposed the flaws of the association of religion and violence so fundamental to the arguments spewed by Hirsi Ali and others. In his book "The Myth of Religious Violence" William Cavanaugh writes, “The idea that religion causes violence is one of the most prevalent myths of Western culture.” Cavanaugh suggests that it is only through the Western understanding of religion, which is unique and not universally true, that religions are seen as irrational and prone to violence. It is in fact one of the founding myths of modern Western liberalism. He insightfully extrapolates that this “myth” is used to legitimate “neo-colonial violence,” particularly against the Muslim world.
Karen Armstrong, in her new book "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence," argues that productive discussion on contemporary violence should move away from simply blaming religion. This, she argues, is “burnt into secular Western consciousness” because of the history of the Hundred Years War in Europe, and the propensity to blame the extreme violence that took place on religious beliefs. This is, however, an historical inaccuracy. Armstrong makes it clear that there were a variety of factors, mostly political, that brought about these egregious wars. Elsewhere, she urges us to view ISIS fighters not simply as zealous Muslims, but on the contrary, genuine products of Western culture. Her research has shown that almost all of the individuals involved in September 11, the Boston Marathon bombings, and ISIS have astoundingly little knowledge of Islam.
If scholarship isn’t enough, the recent statements by Didier Francois, a French journalist kidnapped by ISIS, lend support to this idea. He tells reporters that amongst the ISIS fighters “there was never really a discussion about texts—it was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion.” He also revealed that they played Western video games and watched Western films. These are young Westerners who find little meaning in life, and in Durkheimian fashion fill that void through extreme acts like suicide and killing.
If we truly hope to eradicate these forms of violence, we cannot ignore the histories of colonialism, imperialism, and economic exploitation that still plague the non-Western world. It is not the texts of Islam—as Hirsi Ali supposes—that are in need of reform. What needs to change are the toxic political and social conditions, present in both Western and Muslim lands, that lead to the alienation and anger that produce these violent outcomes.
Hassaan Shahawy ’16 is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Mather House, Iman A. Masmoudi ’18 lives in Weld Hall, and Rushain Abbasi is a student at Harvard Divinity School.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: April 8, 2015
An earlier tagline for this op-ed misstated the affiliation of Rushain Abbasi. In fact, Abbasi is a student at Harvard Divinity School.