The recent appearance of Dr. Reza Aslan on CNN and his flare-up during an interview has created a backlash on the Internet concerning his demeanor, tantrum, claims, and especially the extent to which he understands what is going on in Islamic countries. The underlying issues that provoked Aslan's reaction were the repressive treatment of women in Islamic countries and whether the religion of Islam is peaceful. Although Dr. Aslan is a prolific researcher, a celebrated author, and a masterful debater and communicator, his disposition was frail, I surmise. He overreacted to the CNN anchors' insistence that women in Islamic countries are mistreated by calling their claim "stupid."
My question is, if Islam is a peaceful religion, why does it appear that the most violent acts reported in the news today are taking place in Islamic countries and are perpetrated by Muslims against Muslims and others? Why do we read about and see on a daily basis the images of atrocities committed in the name of Islam, such as blown-up buildings and cars, beheadings, floggings, honor killings, stoning, and the arrests of innocent people for violating Islamic dress codes?
Dr. Aslan tried to defend Islam by claiming that "no religion is inherently violent or peaceful; people are violent or peaceful." Adherents are the ones that make a religion aggressive or passive. He believes that even though we witness violence in Islamic countries, this is symptomatic of much deeper problems such as the miserable living conditions prevalent in many Islamic countries that drive people to desperation as well as the implicit assumption that the U.S. and its Western allies are responsible for their misery. Aslan seems to forget that some of these impoverished countries are governed by Islamic clerics and their religious and economic policies. He and his supporters seem to suggest that it is the humiliation and hectoring of Muslims that add fuel to the fire of violence and not the teachings of Islam per se. Impenitently, often Islamic apologists argue that people like the Taliban and ISIS fighters are not true Muslims. They claim that these violent and oppressive groups represent only a minority of Muslims who intentionally cherry pick the violence-provoking verses of the Quran to justify their atrocities or misguide people and in so doing, take advantage of the name of Islam to brainwash naive believers into extremism. Frankly, I am left somewhat baffled by arguments regarding who is a true Muslim and who is not
Some Muslim countries, as Dr. Aslan duly pointed out, have established laws in support of the equality of males and females; however, this support has been reluctant and scant and doesn't mean that Islam had anything to do with it. The fact is that women in those countries have had to fight tooth and nail to attain their basic rights one at a time and to establish their proper place in society. They had to stand up and combat the discriminatory laws of Islam, the same religion that Dr. Aslan believes has given them equality. We must not overlook the reality that what led to a partial emancipation of women in a few Islamic countries has been the result of long struggle by women and human right activists who had to fight the ruling religious hardliners who have been reluctant to lose their grip on power and come out of the self-serving cocoon of dogmatism. Frankly, in no Muslim countries are women treated as more inferior than in Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which are ruled by Islamic governments. Women in these countries have no choice but to accept the lowliness imposed upon them that keeps them subordinate to men. It is my belief that such treatment is rooted in Islamic religious scriptures and religious rulers in Islamic countries are reluctant to change or modify this treatment.
It is obvious that Professor Aslan can appease ordinary folks who have shallow knowledge of Islam and get them to applaud him on social media. However, his half-true claims are a hard sell to people who are well-informed and have access to vast traditional and online resources and can easily check the facts or the validity of a claim. The violent acts that are shown on social media put on public display the frightening face of religious extremism that underpins the "Islamophobia" in the U.S. that people like Aslan believe is unfounded.
Ironically, the problem with some of us Muslims is that we criticize or even insult other religions, challenge their pillars, and are not shy about proclaiming the righteousness and pre-eminence of our own religion, but in turn, some of us have thin, intolerant skins when criticism is directed at Islam and react violently. If Muslims can critique and summarily dismiss the pillars of other religions as being irrational, why then can we not put our own religion under the same scrutiny?
I don't know what psychological forces drive some deranged individuals like ISIS fighters to such extreme madness that they proudly and self-righteously commit horrible crimes such as public beheadings. Nevertheless, I do believe that no matter whether this behavior is rooted in culture, tribal traditions, or religious teaching, murdering innocent human beings for any reason is insane and unjustifiable by any logic or under any faith. Regrettably, these heinous acts will continue to occur in the future unless Muslim rulers and scholars cease to justify them and work to eradicate the root cause of these crimes, which I believe is mainly located in ancient Islamic scriptural texts. We can't keep telling others how peaceful our religion is while evidence continues to mount to the contrary. I find the silence deafening and fail to understand why, in our modern, so-called civilized day and age, there is no massive public outcry or condemnation of such violent acts in Muslim countries. Are not influential Muslim leaders guilty of some complicity by remaining silent and not taking a firm position in opposition? Of course, some have spoken out, but not enough is being done to stem the swelling tide of inhumane events inspired by Islam.
I believe Islam would be better served if Muslims exercised reasonableness and restraint and act in a sane manner instead of giving credence to Islamic stereotypes and fueling bigotry. We have to give up our sweeping it under the rug mentality when it comes to reasonable criticism of Islam. Dr. Aslan attempts to place a tactful mask on Islam by trying to promote a pacifist version of it that has been created in the West, especially in the U.S. This is a welcome initiative as long as it will not divert attention away from the needed deeper reform, which is how to deal with the medieval Islamic texts that promote violence.
To my mind, Muslims in the U.S. are peaceful and open-minded, not because they are Muslim or because they have discovered something in ancient scriptures that promotes pacifism, but because they live in a society founded on the pillars of reverence for life, self-respect, mutual coexistence, tolerance, and the utmost respect for human rights.
I feel compelled to close this article by discussing another argument or ploy often resorted to by Islamic apologists, which is that criticism is offensive to the faith of more than 1.5 billion Muslims. Is that really an accurate account of the number of Muslims in the world? The answer depends on your definition of what it takes to be a Muslim? Nominally, this number is correct; but realistically it is not. First, Muslims have a high rate of fertility, especially in African countries in which this rate is twice than that of the world. So, it is obvious that the number of Muslims grows faster and higher. Second, many of these people are just Muslim by default. They don't have a deep understanding of Islam and they don't practice Islam. Many of the people born into Islam even don't care about it or dislike it given how it is characterized and reported in the mass media; however, they are counted as Muslim. For instance in Iran, with a population of nearly 75,000,000 according to official statistics, 98% of the people claimed to be Muslim. This statistic is realistically false since many of these people are identified as Muslim merely because they happened to be born in Iran to a Muslim family. Plus, who has the guts to declare his/her identity as non-Muslim in a country in which apostasy is punishable by death? If there was an anonymous survey of the opinion of Iranians concerning their practice and reverence of Islam, you may not be surprised that a good percentage of them would voice their dislike of religion given what they have witnessed after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran. Similar observations, as well, may be made about other prominent Islamic and even Christian countries. For example, according to the Pew Research Center, more than 90% of Americans claim to believe in God; however, only about 50% of respondents reported they really practice a religion.
To conclude, we had better remind ourselves that whitewashing our problems is tantamount to ignoring them and not solving them. Moderate Islamic scholars like Dr. Aslan claim that fear of Islam is irrational because Islam is basically a religion of peace; violence is the result of external factors. I respectfully suggest that Dr. Aslan ask the innocent victims from around the world who have suffered because they found themselves caught in the unchecked, expanding destructive swath of Islamic extremism if their fear is irrational when the heinous acts inflicted upon them are committed in the name of Islam. On behalf of these victims, I would say to Dr. Aslan and other Islamic analysts that offering excuses for bad behavior does nothing to deter or eradicate bad behavior. I also think that if peace is truly to prevail, it behooves the leaders of Abrahamic religions to confront and more effectively deal with the conflict that arises between their declarations of the infallibility of their sacred texts and the literal interpretations of those texts which are used to justify beheading, stoning, genital mutilation, the oppression of women, the murder of abortion doctors in the name of pro-life as well as other atrocities that fly in the face of the God of Abraham and civilized society.