What is a “Muslim” and Who Gets to Decide?

Excellent article in The Weekly Sift about how many non-Muslims speak about Islam. (This title is a nod to my earlier post on “What is a Christian?“)  Doug Muder records his reactions after seeing an episode of The Bill Maher in which Maher and panelist Sam Harris argue that liberals “have a blind spot” on Islam and that they abandon their principles when it comes to discussing Islam. As Maher said in his intro to the segment “these principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say ‘In the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking’ — then they get upset.”

The problem with this argument, Muder says, is that there is no one thing called “Islam” and no single quality that defines a Muslim. The main thing that holds diverse groups of Muslims together is that they debate amongst themselves as to what it means to be a real Muslim. (Just as Christians are united by the agreement to keep discussing what Christianity means and Jews are united by the question of what is a Jew.)

The problem here is the one that Edward Said wrote the entire book Orientalism about: The privileged outsider encloses some large group of diverse “others” inside a conceptual fence, gives the enclosure a name like “the Orient” or “the Muslim world”, and then takes it on himself to pronounce what the defining essence of that fenced-off region is.

Remember when Cliven Bundy said, “I want to tell you one thing I know about the Negro”? It doesn’t really matter where Bundy goes from there. The racism is already built into the idea that there is such a being as “the Negro”, and that a white man like Bundy is qualified to make pronouncements about the defining characteristics of “the Negro”.

Now look at what Harris snuck into the Islamophobia quote above: “the doctrine of Islam”. To Harris, Islam is not a cacophony of people who have been arguing with each other since the 7th century. It’s one thing. It has a unified body of doctrine, and Harris can tell you what that doctrine is. And if there are people who consider themselves Muslims but disagree with whatever Harris defines from the outside as the essence of Islam, well, too bad for them.

…The reason to pause before you criticize Islam or religion isn’t that these topics are or should be surrounded by some special aura of protection. It’s that there’s really no such thing as Islam or religion, at least not in the sense that most critics would like to assume.

Of course the Maher/Harris argument is wrapped up neatly in another identity package. It is “liberals” who have a blind spot about Muslims. Liberals. Who are they?

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