Meaningless Secular Democracies and Islamic Exceptionalism

Image result for islam

According to Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid, liberal democracies offer little meaning for many Muslims across the world. The Atlantic summarizes his view:

History will not necessarily favor the secular, liberal democracies of the West. Hamid does not believe all countries will inevitably follow a path from revolution to rational Enlightenment and non-theocratic government, nor should they. There are some basic arguments for this: Islam is growing, and in some majority-Muslim nations, huge numbers of citizens believe Islamic law should be upheld by the state. But Hamid also thinks there’s something lacking in Western democracies, that there’s a sense of overarching meaninglessness in political and cultural life in these countries that can help explain why a young Muslim who grew up in the U.K. might feel drawn to martyrdom, for example. This is not a dismissal of democracy, nor does it comprehensively explain the phenomenon of jihadism. Rather, it’s a note of skepticism about the promise of secular democracy—and the wisdom of pushing that model on other cultures and regions. 

Most Islamists—people who, in his words, “believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life”—are not terrorists. But the meaning they find in religion, Hamid said, helps explain their vision of governance, and it’s one that can seem incomprehensible to people who live in liberal democracies.

The article continues with an interview with Hamid, which offers some interesting points not only about Islam, but about the relation between religion and politics generally:

I am arguing that Islam is exceptional. I think there’s a general discomfort among American liberals about the idea that people don’t ultimately want the same things, that there isn’t this linear trajectory that all peoples and cultures follow: Reformation, then Enlightenment, then secularization, then liberal democracy.

Where I would very much part ways with those on the far right who are skeptical about Islam is that I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for Islam to play an outsized role in public life.

…There are many of us here in the U.S. who are skeptical [of theology in government], but ultimately I think it’s up to the people of the region to decide what’s best for themselves through a democratic process that would play out over time.

I see very little reason to think secularism is going to win out in the war of ideas. But the question is: Why would it in the first place? Why would that even be our starting presumption as American observers? It’s presumptuous and patronizing to think a different religion is going to follow the same basic trajectory as Christianity.

Hamid touches on Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries which are often ignored because “they’re not very central to U.S. national-security interests”:

Those two countries are often described as models of pluralism, tolerance, and relative democracy. But there are actually more sharia bylaws on the local level in those two countries than you see in much of the Arab world, including Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and certainly Turkey, in the broader region.

That tells us something: It’s not just an Arab problem. It’s not just a Middle Eastern problem. What I do think is quite different is that Malaysia and Indonesia have come to terms with this reality. [Islam] doesn’t have the same kind of polarizing effect on the body politic [in those countries] as it does in the Arab world, because those two countries have reached a conservative consensus, where people say, “Yes, Islam does play an outsize role in public life, but we’re going to agree to adjudicate our differences through a democratic process, or at least not through violence.”

Unfortunately, too many Westerners refuse to take the metaphysical and spiritual claims of Islam (and religion in general) seriously:

As political scientists, when we try to understand why someone joins an Islamist party, we tend to think of it as, “Is this person interested in power or community or belonging?” But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. It [can be] about a desire for eternal salvation. It’s about a desire to enter paradise. In the bastions of Northeastern, liberal, elite thought, that sounds bizarre. Political scientists don’t use that kind of language because, first of all, how do you measure that? But I think we should take seriously what people say they believe in…There’s a desire for a politics of substantive meaning. At the end of the day, people want more than economic tinkering.

I think classical liberalism makes a lot of sense intellectually. But it doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives, whether that means [they] resort to ideology, religion, xenophobia, nationalism, populism, exclusionary politics, or anti-immigrant politics. All of these things give voters a sense that there is something greater.

What about the supposedly inherent violence within Islam?

A question I get a lot is, “Wait, ok, is Islam violent? Does the Quran endorse violence?” I find this to be a very weird question. Of course there is violence in the Quran. Muhammad was a state builder, and to build a state you need to capture territory. The only way to capture territory is to wrest it from the control of others, and that requires violence. This isn’t about Islam or the Prophet Muhammad; state building has historically always been a violent process.

…ISIS has gone well beyond the al-Qaeda model of terrorism and destruction…ISIS one of the most successful Islamist state-building groups. And that’s what makes it scary and frightening as an organization: They have offered a counter model. They’ve shown that capturing and holding territory is actually an objective worth striving for. An overwhelming majority of Muslims dislike ISIS and oppose them. But ISIS has changed the terms of the debate, because other Islamist groups in recent decades have not been able to govern. They have not been able to build states, and ISIS has.

One of his final thoughts is probably one of the most important:

Islamism is a very modern thing. It was inconceivable four centuries ago. In the pre-modern era [in the Islamic world], Islam imbued every aspect of public and political life. It was the unquestioned overarching legal and moral culture in these territories. With the advent of secularism as a competing idea, or ideology, for the first time Muslims have to ask themselves these kinds of questions of who they are and what their relationship to the state is. So, in that sense, Islamism only makes sense in opposition to something else that isn’t Islamism, i.e., secularism.

If I had to sum up mainstream Islamism in a sentence, I would say it’s the attempt to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation-state. But the problem is that Islamic law wasn’t designed for the modern nation-state. It was designed for the pre-modern era. So the question then is, “How do you take something that wasn’t meant for the modern era and adapt it to the modern era—the era of nation-states?” That is the conundrum that Islamist movements are facing.

An insightful, fascinating read.

Who Speaks for Islam?: Interview with Dalia Mogahed

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Image result for who speaks for islamSome of the most interesting and infuriating things to witness on Facebook are the threads on Daniel Peterson’s wall. Peterson teaches Arabic and Islamic studies at BYU (he’s even authored a biography of Muhammad) and has been a big name in Mormon apologetics for some time. Because of the latter, he tends to be favored among conservative Mormons, both religiously and politically. However, his educated, sympathetic, and often favorable views of Islam tend to bring Islamophobic Church members out of the woodwork. I’ve seen ignorant Internet warriors attempt to lecture him on the “threats” of Sharia law, provide decontextualized readings of the Quran, explain how Islam is an inherently violent religion, and justify Trump’s Muslim ban. In the midst of one of these exchanges, Peterson suggested John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed’s Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think based on the Gallup Poll of the Islamic world.

The book was eye-opening. For example, the authors summarize some of their findings as follows:

  • Who speaks for the West?: Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not based on their culture or religion.
  • Dream jobs: When asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don’t mention fighting in a jihad, but rather getting a better job.
  • Radical rejection: Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified.
  • Religious moderates: Those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population.
  • Admiration of the West: What Muslims around the world say they most admire about the West is its technology and its democracy — the same two top responses given by Americans when asked the same question.
  • Critique of the West: What Muslims around the world say they least admire about the West is its perceived moral decay and breakdown of traditional values — the same responses given by Americans when posed the same question.
  • Gender justice: Muslim women want equal rights and religion in their societies.
  • R.E.S.P.E.C.T.: Muslims around the world say that the one thing the West can do to improve relations with their societies is to moderate their views toward Muslims and respect Islam.
  • Clerics and constitutions: The majority of those surveyed want religious leaders to have no direct role in crafting a constitution, yet favor religious law as a source of legislation (pg. xii-xiii).

This is just a taste. The hard numbers paint a very different picture than what we typically see in the media. You can see an interview with Mogahed about her research below.

White women and Trump.

Photo from “9 Women on Why They’re (Still) Voting for Trump,” New York Magazine

53% of white women voted for Trump.

In the circles I run in, there was tons of coverage and discussion about the myriad comments Trump has made over the years that many of us consider blatantly sexist. When the Hollywood Access tape came out, I took (and still take) his comments as an admission of sexual predation, a topic that means a great deal to me. I was already a #NeverTrump conservative, but the Hollywood Access tapes made it much more difficult for me to understand how people of good conscience, especially women, could vote for this man.

My feed started to include articles such as The Atlantic’s “The Revolt of the Conservative Woman” and viral tweets from conservative women feeling betrayed by their party’s defense of Trump. Between his apparent gross disrespect of women and the opportunity to elect the first female president, I thought women would vote in droves for Clinton and against Trump. Article’s like FiveThirtyEight’s “Women are Defeating Donald Trump” seemed to think so too.

But clearly I was missing some major parts of the puzzle. (Apparently a lot of us were, including the pollsters.) As Walker pointed out recently, Trump’s support among (all, not just white) women was only slightly lower than the average for Republican presidential candidates since 2000 (42% compared to an average of 44.2%). Clinton’s support among women was exactly average for the Democratic presidential candidates since 2000 (54%). Women weren’t driven to the polls to vote against Trump or for Clinton—overall turnout among women was only 1% higher than in 2012.

So what happened? What pieces of the puzzle was I missing, that women were neither particularly repelled by Trump nor particularly inspired by Clinton?


Maybe it was bigotry.

Predictably, some of my leftist friends think the missing puzzle pieces are racism and (internalized) sexism. I’ve seen repostings of LV Anderson’s piece at Slate (“White Women Sold Out the Sisterhood and the World by Voting for Trump”), which is filled with explanations like this:

What leads a woman to vote for a man who has made it very clear that he believes she is subhuman? Self-loathing. Hypocrisy. And, of course, a racist view of the world that privileges white supremacy over every other issue.

Sarah Ruiz-Grossman at Huffington Post authored a letter to white women that started with “Fellow white women, I’m done with you.” In sync with a lot of the commentary I’ve read, it showed no curiosity as to the perspectives, hopes, fears, or values of millions of women that led them to vote for Trump (or at least not vote for Clinton). Instead, and again, it simply told them what they didn’t care about, what their moral failings were, and what they must do now.

While I appreciate the frustration, I think this approach is an awful strategy. Lambasting people, especially conservatives, for bigotry has not been terribly effective at changing their minds (or votes). Berating the other side seems to mostly get them to tune out entirely when the inevitable accusations of prejudice begin. And the rampant shaming of Trump supporters clearly did nothing to dissuade them throughout the primaries (when shaming was coming from conservatives and liberals alike) or the rest of the election. Why would it work now, when they’ve won? They have less reason than ever to be concerned about the opinions of people who show no understanding of their perspectives or interest in their wellbeing.

But it’s not just that I think accusing people of bigotry is poor strategy; I think it’s poor reasoning too. In this post I go through three theories of how voting for Trump was bigoted and explain whether I think those theories make sense.


Theory 1 – Internalized sexists: women voted for Trump instead of Clinton because they are sexist against female candidates.

How Trump measured against Clinton is a major factor. The pantsuit nation adored Clinton, of course, so for them this was no contest at all. But we aren’t looking into what HRC’s biggest fans thought; we’re exploring the millions of women who disagreed.

It’s not that everyone who voted for Trump thought he was wonderful: exit polls show that 20% of people who voted for Trump had an overall unfavorable opinion of him. Nearly a quarter of Trump voters said he wasn’t qualified for or did not have the temperament to be president, and a full 17% of people who voted for Trump to be President said they would be “concerned” if he were elected!

But 28% of Trump voters said they chose him mainly because they disliked Clinton. Trump received about 60M votes, which would mean about 17M cast their votes primarily as a vote against Clinton. Along the same lines, while voter turnout for Trump was slightly lower than it had been for Romney, voter turnout for Clinton was much lower than it had been for Obama.

Some will argue that these numbers show sexism: people so rejected the idea of a female leader they either stayed home or voted for someone they despised just to stop Clinton. Actually women get accused of sexism no matter which way they vote: Women who backed Clinton are accused of bias, just “voting with their vaginas,” and the rest of us are accused of not voting for her because we’re misogynists. It’s a lose-lose.

But these theories ignore the fact that women don’t generally vote based on gender, and gender stereotypes end up being less relevant than party affiliation in voting decisions. In other words, we vote based on political positions. The reality is that most of the women voting for or against Clinton did so based on a variety of competing concerns and priorities, just as most men choose their candidates.


CNN reported that millennial women in particular “rejected the notion that gender should be a factor in their vote.” As FiveThirtyEight put it:

Clinton’s stunning loss Tuesday night showed that issues of culture and class mattered more to many American women than their gender. The sisterhood, as real sisterhood tends to be, turned out to be riddled with complications.

On average, for the last 5 presidential elections, 89% of Democrats chose the Democratic nominee and 91.4% of Republicans chose the Republican. Last week 89% of Democrats chose Clinton and 90% of Republicans chose Trump. If internalized sexism were a major factor in terms of female nominees, we’d expect 2016 to show a drop in Democrats voting for the Democrat (as internally sexist Democratic women abandoned Clinton) and perhaps even a jump in Republicans voting for the Republican (as internally sexist Republican women were motivated to stop Clinton). But there was no such change.

Similarly, if internalized sexism was a major factor we’d expect Clinton to get a lower proportion of women’s votes compared to previous Democratic nominees. Yet, as mentioned above, she got exactly the average proportion of women Democratic nominees have had in the last five presidential races. Or, if we’re operating under the idea that only conservatives can be bigots, we’d at least expect a higher proportion of women to vote for Trump in order to stop Clinton. Yet Trump got just slightly less than the average proportion of women Republican nominees have had for the last five races.

If anything, these stats suggest women weren’t influenced by gender at all.


Theory 2 – Indifference to sexism: women cared more about party lines than taking a stand against Trump’s misogyny.

There are several assumptions embedded in this line of thinking: (A) The women who voted for Trump accessed the same information we did about him. (B) When they assessed that information, they came to the same conclusions we did about the degree of Trump’s misogyny. (C) There was nothing else in the balance for them in this election that could have meant more to them than Trump’s misogyny.

2a. Trump voters were likely accessing different information.
Hopefully it’s not a secret that conservatives and liberals consume different media. I wish I had time to do an entire blog post on how drastically this impacts our views of each other and of our political landscape. But the main point is we should be very careful when assuming that everyone else—especially people that run in different social circles and already hold different perspectives—“knows” the same “truths” we know. Which stories get reported and how they’re described varies a lot, and sadly, at least in my experience, most people don’t look for sources from worldviews they don’t hold. Or, if they do, it’s not in an attempt to observe and understand, but to feel outraged and argue.

So when John Oliver does a witty, biting piece on “making Donald Drumpf again” and you see it reposted over and over, that doesn’t mean everyone saw it. The people who already hated Trump were a lot more likely to see it than anyone else. Late night comedy is, after all, a bastion of liberal derision.

Pictured: Echo Chamber with John Oliver
Pictured: Echo Chamber with John Oliver

2b. Trump voters were likely interpreting information in different ways.
That’s not to suggest Trump supporters were wholly unaware of criticisms against him. I think it’s unlikely, for example, that many Trump supporters didn’t at least hear about the Hollywood Access recording. But the context in which conservatives in general, and enthusiastic Trump supporters specifically, interpreted that was often quite different than how leftists saw it.

Many people (including me) were disgusted and horrified by Trump laughingly talking about getting away with kissing and groping women without their consent. But many others mostly heard politically-motivated faux outrage. The same people so focused on Trump’s comments and the sexual assault allegations against him remained dismissive or defensive about the long history of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Bill Clinton—and Hillary Clinton’s role in silencing Bill’s accusers. Clinton fans retorted that Hillary isn’t responsible for Bill’s behavior, but that misses the point. She’s responsible for her behavior: she referred to these women as “floozy,” “bimbo,” and “stalker,” and put great effort into “destroying” their stories.

Yeah, okay.
Yeah, okay.

Good luck telling conservatives they must take a principled stand against sexual assault while refusing to acknowledge that the Clintons basically embodied rape culture.


Of course the Hollywood Access tapes are only one example of Trump’s sexism, but the pattern remains the same. Whatever example you point to, if outraged accusations of bigotry are coming from leftists or the media, conservatives are extremely skeptical. In fact, getting back to point 2a, conservative circles are more likely to have articles about people who made up stories of hate crimes – stories which, before being shown to be false, often caused viral online outrage (as well as extensive donations to the alleged victim).

I find this problem very frustrating. I do believe the left is too quick to claim bigotry, but I believe the right is therefore too quick to dismiss actual bigotry. Robby Soave of summarized this view well:

[It’s] the boy-who-cried-wolf situation. I was happy to see a few liberals, like Bill Maher, owning up to it. Maher admitted during a recent show that he was wrong to treat George Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain like they were apocalyptic threats to the nation: it robbed him of the ability to treat Trump more seriously. The left said McCain was a racist supported by racists, it said Romney was a racist supported by racists, but when an actually racist Republican came along—and racists cheered him—it had lost its ability to credibly make that accusation.

Kirsten Powers explained the same idea in terms of misogyny:

After all, these same voters have watched as every Republican candidate in recent memory has been accused of waging a “War on Women.” If Democrats are going to claim that Mitt Romney and John McCain hate women (and they did), then they shouldn’t be surprised when voters ignore them when they say Donald Trump hates women. If every Republican is a misogynist, then no Republican is.

I don’t believe the right’s resistance to recognizing bigotry is all the left’s fault. I think that’s a factor, but ultimately we’re all responsible for assessing each situation and trying to be fair-minded about it.

Even so, I think many conservatives viewed the outrage over Trump as nothing more than yet another chapter in a long history of selective and manufactured leftist outrage, and so they discounted it. So even if they had watched John Oliver, they probably would have just rolled their eyes at another leftist show mocking conservatives again.

2c. Trump voters were weighing a lot of additional concerns apart from bigotry.
But there were a lot of conservatives who heard about the problems with Trump and were seriously concerned. Many of them became the #NeverTrump crowd, but others still voted for Trump. Why? Because they weren’t balancing the problems of racism and sexism against nothing. They were taking those issues and factoring them in with a lot of other issues, weighing each one, and coming to a decision. Even women who voted against Trump had other concerns they considered more important than sexism.

Many reject as ridiculous this concept of weighing multiple factors, saying it’s a weak excuse to try to cover up bigotry. They assert nothing could outweigh the civil rights threats Trump represents, and therefore the people who came down on Trump’s side, by definition, just didn’t care enough about civil rights.

Keep lecturing people about what they don’t care about while showing no understanding of what they do care about. That’s been so effective so far.

Interestingly, I saw the same reductive thinking from conservatives trying to berate #NeverTrump people into voting for him. If you didn’t vote for Trump—if you voted for Clinton, or even if you voted third party—you must not care about massive government abuse and corruption, our country’s impending economic collapse under an overregulated welfare state, and, possibly above all, the killing of tens of thousands of babies.

Does that last part sound hyperbolic to you? Because, for a huge portion of the pro-life movement, that was the assertion. Many pro-lifers view abortion as morally equivalent to any other unlawful human death. If you want to imagine the abortion debate from a pro-life perspective, just replace the concept of “fetus” with “toddler,” and listen to how the arguments sound. So when Hillary Clinton campaigned on a platform of no restrictions through all three trimesters and requiring Medicaid to cover abortions, that was an absolute deal breaker for many people. Abortion happens in this country roughly 1 million times a year. Imagine for a moment you were choosing between (1) a candidate who stirs racial animosity and blatantly disrespects women and (2) a candidate who unapologetically embraces policies making it legal to murder a million toddlers a year. Who would you pick?

If your first response is to explain why that second description is false, you’re missing the point. Yes, I understand that for many, abortion is nothing at all like killing a toddler and even the comparison is offensive. I’m not trying to convince anyone here how to feel about abortion. I’m trying to convince people that you can’t sincerely talk about what motivates others if you refuse to acknowledge their actual perspectives. People who voted for Trump could (a) recognize Trump’s racism and sexism, (b) care greatly about those issues, and (c) still believe the threats Clinton represented were more dire. The only way you can genuinely believe that every single vote for Trump represented at minimum a callous disregard for civil rights is if you ignore or dismiss the circumstances and value systems of millions of people.


Passion about abortion likely affected many of women who voted for Trump. LV Anderson was aghast that more than half of white women would vote for a man who said he’d appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is amazing to me that so many people are still taken off guard when women are antiabortion. Half of American women are against abortion, and that has been true since long before Trump entered the primaries. Yet each time thousands or millions of women don’t go for the pro-choice position, pro-choice people are just so surprised. This is another example of the same pattern: be totally unaware of what people have repeatedly said they care about, and then be surprised and angry when they vote for the things they said they cared about all along.

I’ve used abortion as an example of competing values, but it’s only one of many. A recent New York Times article profiled women who voted for Trump. While 22-year-old Nicole Been mentioned her deep opposition to abortion as part of her stance, other women discussed Trump’s approach to veterans, their own dire financial situations, and their disillusionment with Democratic efforts to improve their lives. Another New York Times article profiled college-educated women who voted for Trump; they, too, opposed abortion, but focused more on economic security and job and college prospects for their children.

Article after article about the parts of the nation that went wholeheartedly for Trump (including many counties that had previously voted for Obama twice) describe recurring themes of economic and cultural despair, resentment at being derided by the rest of us, and the way economic and racial anxiety intertwine. (Here’s one or two more.)

Note that racial anxiety is one of the recurring themes. The left seems to want to reduce this narrative to bigotry and nothing more, and I’ve spent a lot of time here explaining why I think that’s inaccurate. But the right seems to want to reflexively deny bigotry had any part to play, and I don’t think that’s true either. At minimum there was certainly a racial component to Trump’s candidacy. Looming large in the support of Trump were concerns about minority groups getting unfair preferential treatment and resources, immigrants taking resources and increasing criminal activity, and terrorists threatening our safety.


Theory 3 – Institutionalized sexism and racism – regardless of personal motivation, women who voted for Trump supported a platform that would disproportionately harm minority groups.

A major hurdle with discussions of racism and sexism is the use of the same words to mean very different things. In my right-leaning circles, “racism” generally means an individual’s disdain or animosity towards others based on race. Same thing with “sexism,” but based on sex. In my left-leaning circles, “racism” and “sexism” often mean individual disdain or animosity, but can also mean cultural norms and systemic and institutionalized systems that disproportionately negatively impact minority groups.

So when someone claims that a vote for Trump was racist, they could either mean (a) the person casting the vote has disdain or animosity toward people of other races or (b) the person casting the vote, regardless of his or her motivations, helped to uphold systems that have major negative impacts on women and nonwhite people.

The interesting thing about the “effects not intentions” version of racism is that it can be empirically verified. Motivations can be pretty complicated, multifaceted, and irrational. Effects can be objectively measured. So if “racism” (or sexism or Islamophobia or homophobia) is defined as “policies and practices that hurt these groups,” and if electing Trump ends up hurting these groups, then it follows that electing Trump was racism, by this definition.

3a. It’s reasonable to believe electing Trump will end up hurting these groups.
Trump campaigned on ending sanctuary cities, suspending visas, and deportation. If implemented, those policies would disproportionately affect undocumented immigrants (about half of which are Hispanic or Latino, followed by Asian) as well as American citizens from families with mixed citizenship statuses. Whether you agree with these policies or not, and whether you personally care how these policies affect others or not, it’s hard to deny that they will negatively impact immigrants and their family members who are American citizens.

Trump has talked about requiring immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries to register upon entering the U.S.  Alternatively he called for a ban on Muslims immigrating to the country; while he clarified this would not apply to American citizens, it’s hard to believe such policies and related rhetoric about Muslims won’t affect public perception of and reaction to Muslims already living here. The FBI has released data showing a 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015. Some are worried this trend is related to Trump’s rise and campaign rhetoric; others say there are other factors–such as 2015 terrorist attacks–that likely played a part. But I think either of those reasons underscores the central point: when the public increasingly perceives a group as dangerous, violence against innocent people in that group becomes more likely.

It seems like Trump’s potential effects on African American communities have been less of a focus, but there are reasons for concern. (This link includes some reasons I think conservatives will dismiss as more faux outrage, but, for what it’s worth, I believe some of these points are pretty valid.)

While Trump didn’t propose specific policies against LGBT folk, the 2016 Republican Party platform did object to legalized gay marriage and take other positions seen as anti-gay. Because Trump was the Republican nominee and can now nominate SCOTUS judges, many believe he will work to adopt those Republican positions. I think it’s unlikely gay marriage will get overturned, but I don’t think it’s a certainty, and I see why many people are worried their marital status could be threatened.

Trump has a history that suggests a pretty disrespectful view of women, not to mention (again) his statements in the Access Hollywood recordings. To the extent women believe support for Trump signals societal dismissal of sexual assault, that belief could have another chilling effect on women reporting assaults and seeking help. I watched this play out on both the national level and with women I know personally after the Access Hollywood firestorm. Women (and men, for that matter) who have experienced sexual assault listened as friends and family who were Trump supporters minimized, dismissed, and, in my opinion, very generously interpreted Trump’s statements. That was difficult. Victims of sexual assault hear those reactions and believe the reactions would be the same if they came forward with their own stories. I can understand why people fear this kind of dismissal of sexual misconduct will only get worse now that Trump will be president.

A vote for Trump lent support to these policy proposals and attitudes, even if the person voting didn’t personally support one or any of the above. In this sense I think Theory 3 is truer than the other theories—I think a Trump administration will very likely make life harder for these groups.

3b. First problem: negative effects count as racism regardless of what they’re being weighed against.
Consider Trump’s campaign regarding Islamic terrorism. I do believe requiring (mostly) Muslim immigrants to register upon entering the country, or refusing to let them enter at all, will negatively affect the public’s views and behavior toward Muslim Americans and Muslim immigrants already here.

But I also recognize that the people who support these measures believe they will significantly increase our national security and safety. Based on my understanding of Theory 3, what Trump voters believe about these measures (and how those beliefs speak to their motivations) is irrelevant, because Theory 3 is all about effects on minority groups, not the intentions of the people pushing these policies. Whether they sincerely believe these measures will save American lives doesn’t change whether or not this approach is defined as racist.

And we’ve only talked about what they believe, not what is objectively true. Apparently NSEERS, the similar Bush-era program that required immigrant registration, was ineffective at preventing terrorism; it sounds like it was just more security theater, but in this case directed at specific groups. But suppose, hypothetically, immigrant registration made a huge difference in national security. Suppose—as I suspect is the belief of some who support this idea—that without immigrant registration we’d have more San Bernadino and Pulse nightclub shootings. Or another World Trade Center.

If these policies actually prevented terrorism deaths in our own country, does that change whether they are racist? If I understand Theory 3 correctly, it does not. In this way Theory 3 rings a bit hollow for me, because while it is at least technically accurate and objectively measurable (does X policy negatively impact Y community or not?), if it ignores all other factors I still consider it misleading.

3c. Second problem: conflating Theory 3 with Theories 1 & 2.
In my experience, the left frequently blurs the line between “negative impacts” and “personal animosity.” A great example is the Slate article “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Supporter.” Chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie argues that Trump supporters do not merit empathy because they “voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes.” He cites other authors who have claimed Trump’s victory does not reveal an “inherent malice” in the populace (referring to the “personal animosity” definition of racism). Bouie counters with the “negative impacts” definition:

Whether Trump’s election reveals an “inherent malice” in his voters is irrelevant. What is relevant are the practical outcomes of a Trump presidency…If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question.

But, as the title of the piece suggests, Bouie is not condemning only the effects of voting for Trump; he’s condemning the Trump voters themselves. He asserts that it is myopic and even “morally grotesque” to suggest Trump supporters are good people. He compares Trump voters to the men in the early 20th century who organized lynchings (they “weren’t ghouls or monsters. They were ordinary.”) and the people who gawked and smiled at those lynchings (“the very model of decent, law-abiding Americana.”) He sums up: “Hate and racism have always been the province of ‘good people.’”

Note the switch here. Bouie is no longer talking about practical outcomes; he’s talking about hate. He has switched from the “negative impacts” definition of racism back to the “personal animosity” definition. So is he saying that most Trump supporters did not have inherent malice but should be condemned for the policies they supported? Or is he saying that anyone who can support Trump has to be, at least in part, motivated by hate?

And this is often how I see the conversation going. To (heavily) paraphrase:

Person A: If you voted for Trump, you’re racist.
Person B: I’m really not. I disagreed with a lot of what he said but I thought Clinton would do more damage in XYZ ways.
Person A: Yeah, you may not personally feel racist but you supported racist policies. It just shows you think the concerns of white people are more important than the actual human rights of everyone else.
Person B: That’s not what I think at all!
Person A: It’s not about what you personally think! It’s about what you supported!

And repeat.

In other words, in principle motivation is supposed to be irrelevant because racism is about effects, but in practice accusations of racism nearly always boil down to motivation—at best a selfish indifference and at worst outright malice. So, in principle, I think Theory 3 has some merit and is worth talking about. In practice, I find I just end up repeating the arguments I made for Theories 1 & 2.


The Jew Who Helped Invent the Modern Islamic State


Despite the misleading title, Tablet has an excellent essay by Shalom Goldman on Muhammad Asad, one of the most important Muslim thinkers of the 20th century. What makes Asad’s story particularly remarkable is that he was born Jewish, in what is now western Ukraine. After converting, Asad gained such proficiency in the Quran and other classical Muslim texts that lifelong Muslims such as the founders of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan sought his advice on how to run a modern state in harmony with religious values. The essay is not a blanket endorsement of Asad (and it only scratches the surface) but if you want to go beyond the headlines when it comes to Islam, sharia, and just politics and religion in general, this is a great place to start.

European Labor Laws and Radical Islam

The Boston Globe made this interesting observation last week in the wake of the terrorist attack in Brussels:

Long before Tuesday’s terror attacks in Brussels, it was clear that Belgium had become a breeding ground for Islamist extremists. Hundreds of Belgian Muslims — as many as 500, according to one estimate — have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS, making Belgium by far Europe’s leading supplier of foreign jihadists. Last November’s horrific slaughter in Paris was masterminded by a Belgian radical, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and at least four of the men who carried out those attacks were from the Brussels district of Molenbeek. One of them was Salah Abdeslam, who was captured in Molenbeek, after an intense manhunt, on March 19.

For Islamist imams and terrorist ringleaders, such neighborhoods — heavily Muslim, densely populated, with high unemployment and crime rates — have proved fertile territory for recruiting violent jihadists. “There is almost always a link with Molenbeek. That’s a gigantic problem, of course,” Belgium’s prime minister said after the Paris atrocities.

The article continues by explaining that “Muslim communities are not inherently predisposed to violence. The presence of a sizable Muslim population in a non-Muslim-majority country does not inevitably presage jihadist bloodshed or demands for the imposition of sharia. It is true that some 650,000 Muslims live in Belgium, but five times as many — 3.3 million — live in the United States. Why hasn’t America become a hotbed of Islamic extremism? Why aren’t American Muslims by the thousands flocking to fight for ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations?” Drawing on Pew Research data, the columnist points out that the “United States has been far more successful at assimilating and integrating Muslim immigrants into American society and culture than has Western Europe.” And this is all despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, “America’s melting pot still works.”

Much of this is surely cultural. But are there any economic factors involved? Journalist and Reason analyst Shikha Dalmia thinks so. “The standard explanation,” she writes, “is that Europe has admitted more Muslims than it can afford to integrate…Failure to spend money on integration means consigning these refugees to segregated Muslim ghettos or banlieues without jobs and without prospects — other than their monthly welfare check — where they become sitting ducks for radicalization.” But this narrative is flawed:

Immigrants don’t need job programs. They need jobs. And, for a variety of reasons, Europe provides much more of the first and America much more of the second. Europe has an army of social workers in various NGOs whose job is to prepare immigrants for jobs. Not so much in America, which may be partially why America has a far better assimilation track record than Europe. Jobs offer immigrants not just a paycheck, but also an entry into their new society, providing them with both the means and motive to learn its language and customs, all of which eliminates the need for formal programs. What is striking in any conversation with Syrian refugees in America is just how ready and willing they are to take just about any job, no matter how lowly or arduous…Yet many European countries have gone out of their way to deny or severely limit job opportunities for asylum seekers and refugees.

…Even after refugees obtain work permits, their upward mobility is greatly restricted in Europe, thanks to the exceedingly rigid labor market in many countries. The unemployment rates of France and Belgium are nearly twice that of the United States. This dismal job market affects immigrants much more than the native born, thanks to Europe’s tough minimum wage laws and other labor regulations that protect incumbents at the cost of newcomers…Europe’s tough hiring-and-firing provisions, demanded by labor unions, are poison for immigrants. Why? Because immigrants inevitably involve more risk and uncertainty than natives, and if employers can’t fire them, notes George Mason University’s Alex Tabarrok, they won’t hire them either. It is not surprising that Muslims in France, which has some of the most protective labor laws in the industrialized world, are two-and-a-half times less likely to receive job interviews than non-Muslims.

This counterintuitive explanation is worth considering.



Four Mistakes to Avoid When Talking About Radical Islam


One of the best-written pieces in the aftermath of the Paris attacks has not received significant exposure so far. It is a pity, because Shai Held’s 4 Mistakes To Avoid When Talking About Radical Islam goes right to the heart of how public dialogue on religious extremism should be handled. As Held indicates, “the public conversation about radical Islam is often tedious at best, and downright toxic at worst,” because, predictably, each side cares more about defending its own worldview than engaging in nuanced consideration of the problem posed by radical Islam (or any other religious extremism, for that matter). Both sides become entrenched in their opinions, something which isn’t helped by the nature of social media. Those with a positive view of Islam and Muslims are understandably inclined to distance ISIS and other expressions of extremism from Islam as practiced by millions. On the other side of the debate are those who are legitimately concerned with violent acts committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, but wildly exaggerate its role in Islam. Each view feeds on the other. How do we step out of yet another vicious circle of partisan strife and find effective solutions to the problem posed by radical Islam?

In facing the current moment, there are four pitfalls we must avoid. The first two, the mistakes of misguided liberals, are (1) denying that Islam has anything to do with ISIS, and (2) refusing to admit that Islam is in unique crisis. The latter two, the mistakes of reactionary conservatives, are (3) declaring that Islam is irredeemably evil, and (4) painting all Muslims with the same brush. All four of these illusions are appealing to some, but all are false, and ultimately noxious.

I highly recommend reading the rest of Held’s piece, it is a reasoned and reasonable response to a controversial topic that does not dismiss legitimate concerns on either side. Something rare indeed.

Ahmed and Charlie

994 - We are Charlie
Over at Times and Seasons, Walter van Beek has an article in which he shares one of the most popular reactions to the murder of 12 at the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo: We are all Charlie. He’s getting some pushback in the comments. I’m torn. On the one hand, I agree very strongly with the commenters who are pushing back. Charlie Hebdo was, by my standards, a vile and disgusting publication. I do not wish to identify myself with it. And yet I wish very  much to identify myself with the principle of free speech, and also express some solidarity with those who are reeling in the wake of this traumatic event. Is there a way to do both?

Mormons have our own perspective on this, especially given the overwhelming popularity of The Book of Mormon musical. It’s long been fair game in the United States and elsewhere to make comments about Mormons that one would never make about most other religious groups. We don’t generally enjoy these kinds of attacks, but we don’t protest them either. We tend to just make the most of it and get on with our lives. As a Mormon, I support the right of  Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone to publicly deride and mock my faith. But it doesn’t mean I have to identify myself with them.

Well, it turns out that there is an alternative to the “We are Charlie” sentiment. And it is “We are Ahmed.”

Two of those killed, 42-year-old Ahmed Merabet and 49-year-old Franck Brinsolaro, were police officers…Merabet was himself Muslim.

Merabet, then, died at the hands of one of his own — albeit its fanatical and dangerous minority. It is especially and darkly ironic given that the gunmen allegedly shouted, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” The name “Ahmed” shares linguistic roots with “Muhammad,” and the prophet was sometimes referred to as Ahmed.

He gave his life to protect Charlie Hebdo’s right to ridicule his religion.

Ahmed’s example shows it is possible to bypass identification with vulgar and demeaning expressions of free speech and still give utmost dedication to the principle itself. I don’t have to like what everyone does with their free speech to be passionately dedicated to the ideal of free speech itself. There is a way to eschew vitriol and still defend the principle of those who chose to spew it. Ahmed showed us that example, and so I can say “We are Ahmed” with far less reservation than I could say “We are Charlie.”

Do Muslim Women Need to be Saved?

upper egypt

Ironically, even feminism can become a form of imperialism, colonialism, and oppression­­- the very constructs that figure so prominently in academic and popular feminist discourse.

In 2010, the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod visited a friend in an Egyptian village.

“I said I was now writing a book about how people in the West believe Muslim women are oppressed.

She objected: “But many women are oppressed! They don’t get their rights in so many ways – in work, in schooling, in …”

I interrupted her, surprised by her vehemence. “But is the reason Islam? They believe that these women are oppressed by Islam.”

It was her turn to be shocked. “What? Of course not! It’s the government,” she said. “The government oppresses women. The government doesn’t care about the people. It doesn’t care that they don’t have jobs; that prices are so high that no one can afford anything. Poverty is hard. Men suffer it too.”

It was just three weeks from the day that Egyptians would take to the streets and the world would watch, riveted, as they demanded rights, dignity and the end of the regime that had ruled for 30 years.”

Abu-Lughod describes her friend as a traditional, observant Muslim villager covered from head-to-foot in black, the mother of seven children. However, she was also deeply involved in community affairs and politics, and had even started her own business. She knew what her rights should be, and she cared about providing opportunities for her village and family. From Abu-Lughod’s brief description, her friend emerges not as a hapless victim of patriarchal and religious oppression, but as an intelligent, savvy, and committed individual working to better her community. It can be argued that it is precisely her traditional and religious outlooks that inspired her to fight injustice. “Her shock at my suggestion that anyone would think Islam was oppressive was telling. Her faith in God and her identity as a Muslim are deeply meaningful to her.” This, in fact, is why Abu-Lughod insists that indiscriminately applying the ideas and ideals of western feminism to women in Muslim societies can, in fact, do more harm than good. At the very least, it shows insensitivity to them as human beings, and marginalizes their voices.

“So why are conservatives, progressives, liberals and radical feminists in the West convinced that Muslim women – everywhere and in all time periods – are oppressed and in need of rescue? Why can’t other voices be heard? Even more troubling, why does it seem so hard for them to focus on the connections between worlds instead of imagining Muslim women as distant and unconnected to themselves?”

This in no way is meant to bash western feminism. There really is no need to stress the obvious good that it has done, and still does. What I find so compelling about Abu-Lughod’s perspective is that it doesn’t dismiss the plight of women, but asks that we see them first and foremost as human beings with individual views and voices.

We can learn from Muslim women no less than they can learn from us.

Muslims in WWII and the Holocaust



The Washington Post has recently published an article by Michael Wolfe entitled “Meet the Muslims who sacrificed themselves to save Jews and fight Nazis in World War II.”

I’m glad that the article tries to present a forgotten side of Jewish-Muslim relations and the positive role of Muslims in Western society, but after reading it I have some concerns.

First, Wolfe somewhat blurs the distinction between rescuing Jews and being involved in the Allied war effort.

Noor Inayat Khan was certainly remarkable, and deserves her own article. Her fiancé had been Jewish, and the Nazi treatment of Jews was one of the factors leading to her involvement in the war effort. She found Nazism “fundamentally repulsive and opposed to all the principles of religious harmony that she had been brought up with by her father.” Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was fond of an old Sufi proverb, “Be the follower of love, and forget all distinctions.” This is a beautiful example of how religious spirituality (in this case, Muslim), however, Noor Inayat Khan was not directly involved in the rescue of Jews, and her motivation was universalist.

It is unlikely that the majority of Senegalese Tirailleurs- conscripts- were motivated by a desire to assist Jews, let alone sacrifice themselves for that cause. There was growing resentment of France for the distinctive uniforms they wore (“slave’s clothing”), and for the insensitive treatment by their officers, so when they helped liberate French towns and discovered that not everyone was fighting in the resistance, they were understandably outraged. This is not to denigrate the Senegalese in any way. They fought bravely, loyally, and often suffered more than other troops. All it means is that they were human, and did not necessarily respond enthusiastically to sacrificing themselves for what they considered a stranger’s cause.

Second, Wolfe presents an entirely rosy view of Muslim efforts to rescue Jews.

The Iranian diplomat Abdol-Hossein Sardari comes across as genuinely good, a dedicated servant of his country. However, the claim that he issued Iranian passports to 500 French Jews is unsubstantiated, appearing only in a statement made by his nephew many years after Sardari’s death. Sardari himself never mentioned it. The actual story involves the Jugutis- a community of crypto-Jews whose ancestors had been forcibly converted to Islam in Meshed in 1839. They lived outwardly as Muslims whilst secretly adhering to Judaism. Several of them resided in France, alongside Jews from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran. One of their leaders, Dr. Atchildi, came up with a plan to save his community by claiming that Jugutis were religiously Jewish, but ethnically Aryan. Sardari helped him achieve legal recognition exempting Jugutis from anti-Jewish laws, and then requested that he place Iranian Jews on the list of Jugutis as well. Sardari’s chief concern was to help his compatriots, which is not a bad thing at all.

The other diplomatic examples in the article pale in comparison. Corry Guttstadt extensively researched Turkey’s role in the Holocaust, and her findings exploded the myth of Turkish rescue. Some consuls, it is true, did save Jews, but the documented cases do not reach thousands of people saved, and the motivations were rarely very noble (though on this score many diplomats of other nations also fare rather poorly). Rescue was often the result only of sexual and monetary exchanges. Lives were saved, which is a good thing, but it hardly does credit to those diplomats who primarily benefited themselves. The Neçdet Kent story of the train seems very moving and inspiring, but is pure fabrication. Kent is the only source of the story, no survivor testimony corroborates it, and it is contradicted by material evidence.

Wolfe’s other Turkish example is even uglier. Not only did Behiç Erkin not issue Turkish passports to thousands of Jews with only distant connections to Turkey, he actually stopped the one individual on his staff- a French national- who did. Beginning in 1942, the Nazis had Jewish nationals of neutral countries deported. The passage to Turkey was neither funded nor organized by Turkey. Individuals either had to pay from their own pocket, or receive funding from a Jewish relief organization. Turkey, in fact, was not only slow to save its Jewish citizens, it even rescinded the citizenship of many Turkish Jews, leaving them stranded and vulnerable.

Ahmed Somia apparently was a dedicated resistance fighter, and the hospital did rescue many parachutists and members of the resistance, although everything that I have read accords Abdelhaffid Haffa- the hospital’s guardian- with a far bigger role than Somia. Haffa led the resistance activity, working secretly with a Jewish doctor. Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a religious leader of Paris’ Algerians and rector of the Grand Mosque, played a far more ambiguous role. Benghabrit saved some Jews, washed his hands of others (even as late as 1944), and generally pursued a range of actions from collaboration to resistance. In Benghabrit’s defense, we tend to approach WWII and the Holocaust with considerable hindsight. Things were usually not as clear to participants. Benghabrit pursued what he considered the best course for preserving his community. This did not always involve rescuing Jews.

By all means, Muslim assistance to Jews in the Holocaust should be highlighted, but romanticized myth-making does not build better bridges, and might make reconciliation and cooperation even harder.

“Generally, the myths historians interrogate are those that reinforce, rather than contradict, univocal narratives of conflict. In such cases, while the more complex truth may be painful, it can offer recognition to both sides, providing a more blended version of a disputed history and paving the way for possible reconciliation. By contrast, in the case of the Grand Mosque, the more mythical story does not seem to reinforce entrenched hatreds but rather to offer promise for reconciliation. Yet in so doing, it obscures a more complicated historical reality, and… reinforces a wider series of problematic perceptions that mar Jewish-Muslim understanding.”

In other words, we cannot have a meaningful discussion about Jewish-Muslim relations, or Muslims and the Holocaust, or the modern role of Muslims in Western society if we stick to myths. Even if the myth is positive, it obscures the real history and the real problems.

Of course, I also think that history matters, whether or not it leads to meaningful dialogue.

Still, I would like to end with a very positive example from Wolfe’s list. Albanian Muslims (and Catholics, too) were dedicated in saving Jews to an extent rarely found elsewhere. They were moved not only by besa– their code of honour- but also in many cases were influenced by the teachings of the Bektashi Sufi order.

Leading British Muslims Issue Fatwa condemning ISIS

2014-09-03 ISIS

According to the Independent, some prominent clerics based in the UK have jointly issued a fatwa condemning ISIS and specifically condemning British men who run off to join the militant group. On the one hand, this isn’t really big news. Al Qaeda has called ISIS extreme, after all. Still, it’s encouraging to see a prominent example of Islamic religious authority being used to counter Islamic terrorism.