Hamed Abdel-Samad, the German journalist of Egyptian origin who went missing on Sunday, is safe. It turns out he was not abducted by radical Islamists, as most people suspected, but apparently got caught up in some rough stuff with people he had financial dealings with. The story isn’t all there yet, so we need to avoid jumping to any conclusions. It’s still wait and see.
My first response to the good news was not relief, but “oh dear.” Another blow to the good folk fighting organized religion. Here it looked for all the world like Abdel-Samad was being mugged by religious fundamentalists, and it turns out he may simply be involved in something seedy. Advantage goes, unfortunately, to the other team.
I really hope it turns out that Abdel-Samad is not a jerk and that he is innocent of any foolishness. Whatever happens, though, I hope we will focus on the donut. The work he does is important.
On the one hand, the world of liberals and progressives and bleeding hearts I call my people are quick to condemn the right-wing and its brainless mouthpieces like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin for being unable to distinguish between Islamic terrorists and peace-loving Muslims. That image of the old lady standing up in a public meeting and declaring Obama is a Muslim sticks in my mind. She doesn’t need to say anything about his policies. Declaring him a Muslim, in this country, cuts him down to size. Never mind that it’s not true. The point is I don’t hear many people asking, “Well, what if he is?”
What bothers me, though, is that while the right’s simplemindedness often makes it useless and sometimes dangerous, their folly does not hand the left any moral superiority. In its justifiable inclination to come to the defense of Muslims, because of our wretched need to see everything in black and white, folks on the left often miss what is insidiousness about the Muslim faith. I’m talking about not what might be called essentially Muslim – that’s open to interpretation, and that’s the problem – but what so many make of it.
You can immediately discount criticism of Islam when it comes from the likes of Protestant evangelicals like Pat Robertson (“radical Muslims are Satanic”) and that Mohler guy at the head of the Southern Baptist Convention who also believes Muslims are motivated by demonic power. But when former Muslims speak out, you want to sit up and take notice. Not all criticism of Islam is worthy; the quality of the criticism and the authority of the critics matter.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Dutch politician who was born in Somalia and raised in Kenya. Her story, published in English under the title, Infidel, has won widespread endorsement. Her other titles, The Caged Virgin and Nomad:From Islam to America, tell you right away where she’s coming from. Taslima Nasrin had to leave her native Bangladesh homeland – couldn’t even get back there for her mother and father’s funerals – for her outspoken atheism. Even India, that she calls home, can’t protect her from death threats. The Muslim radicals are simply too powerful. These women’s personal stories put substance behind the common view that the status of women in the Muslim world is abysmal.
What most troubles the Islamicists about Hamed Abdel-Samed would seem to be his declaration that Islam is a “once high culture in decline,” that while it was once morally superior to the cultures around it, it has fallen behind the West both in science and technology and culturally. And instead of fixing its own house, it has developed an inferiority complex and portrayed itself as a victim of Western imperialism. Not particularly original, and makes you think of the notion, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn't mean they’re not out to get you….” But provocative and controversial as hell when uttered by Muslims in the public eye. Abdel-Samed is member of Germany’s Islam Conference, but he's no diplomat, and whatever his influence, the conference in recent years has ended in failure. The Salafists are simply too powerful. One of the issues the conference tried to address was the fact that over 80% of young people in forced marriages in Germany come from Muslim families, for example, despite their minority numbers. There is work to do in Germany in improving relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. The left there is no different from the left here and many argue Abdel-Samed is not helping by portraying Islam in such a negative light. Maybe so. But let's not be too sure.
Abdel-Samad doesn’t stop there. Muslims need to stop being dictated to by the Koran, he says, and do as the Christians do – use their scriptures for spiritual inspiration and stop taking them literally. One might fault him for falling in the biggest trap of cultural comparisons, comparing the best of Culture A with the worst of Culture B instead of finding proper parallels. But he would respond, I'm guessing, he's only addressing the relative gaps, and not speaking in absolutes.
Still, it's bad enough when you dictate to religious groups how they should interpret their religion. To tell Muslims, in particular, who insist there should be no separation between mosque and state, that their beliefs are not legitimate, but those of their perceived greatest religious rivals are, is asking for trouble. He pushes the right of free speech to the limit.
But that’s precisely why I admire him so much. I am in total agreement with his friend, another ex-Muslim renegade with a (blessedly) big mouth, Swiss-Moroccan Berber Kacem El Gazzali, an outspoken atheist, who argues we cannot stop fighting against organized religion until heretics are free to walk the streets everywhere. We can't sweep ideological differences under the rug. In the end, separation of church and state is one thing, but equally important is keeping the state on its toes and reminding it its citizens need protection from religious fanatics. We may offend each other, but we have to "defend to the death" the civil right to do so, and that has to be the ground rule and the starting point of all discussion.
The Roman Catholic Church official hierarchy claims to speak for the church. It is becoming increasingly evident, though, in recent years, that that is no longer true, if it ever was. Hans Küng, the Catholic theologian whose right to teach at Catholic institutions was taken away from him, has not lost any of his civil rights. He was in the news recently for his thoughts on euthanasia. One's life is a gift from God, he says, and what one does with it is one's highest responsibility. That responsibility includes taking charge of the end of life. Pure heresy, says the hierarchy. Common sense, say most Catholics. The church is not the hierarchy; it's the collective "body of believers" according to Vatican II. And when we speak of the church we need to know what we are referring to.
People like Abdel-Samad, Kacem El Gazzali, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other Muslims and ex-Muslims are as much a product of the Muslim cultural world as any religious voice, and they should be allowed to criticize and to define Islam and be listened to for their insights.
I don’t want to go too far off on another tangent, but watching these courageous Muslims speak out against the negative aspects of their religious cultures reminds me of another courageous critic, Daniel Goldhagen. Goldhagen wrote two books that came out as shockers. One, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, charged we should place less of the blame for the Holocaust on Hitler and more on the entire German people. The second, A Moral Reckoning, charged not only that that it’s not a few anti-Semitic notions that crept into Christianity over the years, but the Catholic Church in particular to blame for fostering anti-Semitism through the ages. And he didn’t stop there. It’s the Gospels themselves that are anti-Semitic.
When you go this far over the line of conventional thinking, you risk losing your audience entirely. Who wants to believe that an entire nation of people are inherently evil. The charge is not only bogus, but stupid. It overlooks the complexity of German civilization, ignores the innocents who suffered as much as anybody when the bombs rained down on them, and the efforts of Niemöller and von Stauffenberg, who were motivated as much by a sense of honor and pride in being German as by anything else. And yet, Goldhagen took time to compile an entire book of evidence to make the case that the anti-Semitism and the inclination to blind obedience inherent in German culture was the sine qua non that brought the Nazis to power and followed them into the abyss. His attacks on the church are based on critical research and well-documented.
Finding anti-Semitism in the Gospels is not an original idea. Biblical scholars have pointed out that the Gospel of Mark was written at a time when Christians were splitting away from their Jewish origins and there was resentment against those who would not come along and follow the new Messiah and that the negative portrayal of Jews was no accident. A. Roy Eckardt (Elder and Younger Brothers), a Christian, comes at it from the same perspective that Goldhagen does. Writers of scripture had a political orientation and were products of their time. Jewish scholars Michael J. Cook (Modern Jews Engage the New Testament and Lillian C. Freudmann (Antisemitism in the New Testament), as well. But these are books for scholars, and there is something to be said about writers like Goldhagen who, for all the criticism he is a journalist and not a biblical scholar, brings complex countercultural notions to the public arena, where many of us non-scholars can gain easy access and are likely to engage in a critical way. This is the level where Abdel-Samed is working and should be judged.
I see two points in all this. One, a dedication to truth involves a constant review of received beliefs, and when shitkickers, muckrakers and skeptics show up to do that job for us, we need to thank them and make sure they are well-received, even when our bullshit detectors are going off and we want to swat them one. Good as those detectors may be, they need constant tuning.
Two, if it turns out that Abdel-Samad got his own ass in trouble (and I repeat – that’s not at all clear at this point), it shouldn’t make any difference. We have no call to insist our very useful troublemakers be angels.