Over the past few years, distinguished British author Martin Amis has been scathing about contemporary political Islam, and concerned about how we should respond to it politically. There is an argument that some of his musings take him too far into the "war with Islam" camp. Some of the statements I've seen from Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and (I now see) Dan Simmons also strike me as too pessimistic about the possibility of Islam finding the resources to take a more liberal direction.
But that said, Amis and company have every right to make the contributions that they do to public debate. If, from time to time, we think they are wrong - or not entirely correct - we should engage with their arguments on their merits, not try to shut them up.
It's tiresome that there's a need to defend Amis from misplaced charges of racism as Hitchens does ably in this newspaper comment, where he responds to an intemperate rant by Ronan Bennett. We really must find a (non-coercive) way to stop people trying to suppress legitimate criticism of ideas by accusing the critics of being racists. I suppose all we can do is hammer the essential points over and over again. And again.
Another good example of the problem is this annoying article by British comedian Chris Morris, who does everything but call Amis a racist (and much of the other commentary on Amis buzzing around the internet does not stop short of that explicit accusation). Morris wonders whether or not Amis' "negativity about Islam" is "technically racist" and seems to conclude that it doesn't matter, since in any event it is "an incoherent creed of hate".
When he says that we need to be able to make distinctions, Morris has a point. Yes, as I've argued before Islam is not monolithic. Let's give the liberal Muslims a chance, if we can. Give them some room to move.
But here's another point: it's about time that debate on these matters in the press and on the internet got beyond people wondering aloud (hmmm, "just wondering") about whether somebody like Martin Amis is being racist when he expresses views on contemporary political Islam. We definitely need to get beyond explicit charges of racism and attempts to stifle strong criticism of Islam, or of any other religious or secular belief system.
Islam is not a race. Islam is not a genetic variation of some kind. It is a belief system. The same applies to its various strands, historical stages and so on. As belief systems, Islam and its particular varieties are fair game for attack, just like any other beliefs that people happen to have. As with many other belief systems, we have reasonable grounds to be wary of it.
Islam is no more immune to scrutiny and attack than communism (or some particular variety thereof), monetarism, Keynesianism, Nazism, Roman Catholicism, Satanism, Randian libertarianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Sikhism, Buddhism, any of the strands of what we call "Hinduism", Shinto, wicca (perhaps of some specific kind), Sartrean existentialism, Scientology, the religious system of the Aztecs, or whatever beliefs were tied up in ancient Middle Eastern fire worship. They are all open to criticism on their merits.
Islam is more worrying than many belief systems precisely because it offers such a comprehensive account of how individuals should live their lives and how societies should be ordered. What we really need right now is not the ongoing attacks on critics of Islam (though reasoned debate with them is always good). We really need to hear more from liberal Muslims about how they are going to reassure the rest of us that they oppose Islam's undoubted theocratic and totalitarian tendencies. How, exactly, are they going to make the distinction between crime and sin, and reconcile Islam with the values of a liberal, secular society? Exactly what resources do they find in their tradition?
We need to hear a lot more about that from Muslim leaders (the same applies to the leaders of other religions, particularly Roman Catholicism with its own theocratic tendencies, but that's a matter for another day).
Meanwhile, racism is not only ugly, nasty, destructive, and cruel; it is also clearly irrational and indefensible. Looking down on somebody for where she fits into some kind of clinal variation of genes and superficial phenotypical traits, such as skin colour, is ignorant and stupid - though it took a long time for people to work this out, and there are plenty around who still don't get it. The very idea of "race" is unhelpful. What clinal variation does exist in the human genome is biologically unimportant.
By contrast, criticising particular belief systems and worrying about how they might motivate the relevant believers are perfectly rational activities. In fact, this sort of criticism and public expression of worry is absolutely necessary. Islam is not a race, Martin Amis is not a racist, and we need the voices of Amis, Hitchens, and others, even if we don't always agree with what they say.