4 Mistakes You Make When You Talk About Islam

Hello folks! I want to start off by checking in and and telling you that I had an exciting weekend in Washington DC, where, along with some of my dear and brilliant fellow members in Muslimish and the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), I met with secular activists and leaders Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI). We met to discuss secular outreach and support for the ex-Muslim and apostate cause. Here is a photo! I will be writing about the event and the plans set in motion by it very soon, so stay tuned.


Also, please ‘like’ the Ex-Muslims of North America’s Facebook page! It went live just about a day ago. Yay!

To close with the newsy things: in anticipation of the future, here are some things I’m going to be writing about very soon: Part 2 of What It Is Like to Be a Muslim Woman, since everyone seems to like that post the most (incidentally, a longer, revamped version is coming out in print from 580 Split after New Year), and a post about Hezbollah and how they are normal everyday people (wait for the punchline).


This will be a quick post. I want to outline 4 very common trends of thinking about Islam that I’ve encountered over and over again, both when I was living and socializing within Muslim communities and in Western liberal discourse.  I want to highlight them to show how they are problematic and suggest alternatives to them. So here is the question:

What are some counterproductive moves of thinking we commonly make when discussing Islam?

1. Islamophobia vs anti-Muslim bigotry

2. The ‘that’s not the true Islam’ argument

3. The ‘it’s not religion, it’s culture’ argument

4. Treating Islam as a monolith, aka the ‘Islam is perfect, Muslims are imperfect’ argument and its converse

1. Islamophobia vs anti-Muslim bigotry

The first counterproductive way of thinking about Islam is talking about Islamophobia rather than anti-Muslim bigotry or Muslimophobia. Both of the latter terms are posed to make a robust distinction, and the precise point of making this distinction is an attempt to eradicate the term Islamophobia from discourse entirely because it is both misleading and vacuous.

It is misleading because it is incoherent. A phobia is an irrational fear, and is a descriptor of the sort of object or subject the fear of which is unjustified rationally. Except that you can indeed accurately and rationally fear many aspects and dictates of Islam. An irrational fear is usually based on misconception and misunderstanding of the nature and consequential effects of the object or subject in question. The term Islamophobia, however, does not make the distinction between discussion of Islam based on misconception and thus leading to irrational fear and a reasoned critique based on an understanding of the faith in many of its forms. It does not admit of any legitimate critique of Islam whatsoever, and lumps every attempt at reasoned critique under that label, thereby negating the work of those who attempt to peacefully reform oppressive parts of Muslim systems and societies. This also serves to enable a very unfortunate view that any discussion of Islam buys into xenophobia and orientalism, thus drowning out the voices of people incredibly informed and invested in the issues of Islam and societies in Muslim-majority countries.

Using the term Islamophobia is also vacuous because it refers to a signifier (Islam) in a unified, monolithic way when there is no actual real-world unified entity in reflection of that signifier–which application or interpretation of Islam is being talked about when somebody says something labelled as Islamophobic? It is arguably a disservice to both critique aimed at reform of interpretations of Islam and Muslim thought and living to classify Islam as one entity, a monolith, rather than real people with real lives who interpret and practice their faith in a consequential manner.

Thus when we talk about bigoted, racializing, and misinformed ways of discussing Islam, which instances are context-specific to a particular practice, doctrine, and interpretation by Muslims, anti-Muslim bigotry is a more appropriate term. It humanizes and makes real the very crucial plight of bigotry and unjustified hate towards many Muslim individuals and groups according to who they are, what their lives are like, and the rights they deserve as human beings.

2. The ‘that’s not the true Islam’ argument

Muslims do horrible things in the name of their religion, often while uttering the Shahadatein. These horrible things are often egregious violations of human rights and life, horrible beyond imagining. They are acts of war, terror, torture, control, maligning, and violent physical punishment. Muslims who feel shocked and betrayed that people of their faith or culture would do such things in the name of Islam repeat the following mantras: That’s not the true Islam. This is not religion. Islam means peace. They are misapplying and misunderstanding it. We do not support this.

While often this is said with good will, stripping Islamic doctrine of responsibility for any influence and contribution  to these events entails prioritizing the defense of an ideology over horrendous human suffering that is both pandemic and a repeated phenomenon. This is severely misguided. The only merit in viewing every horrible thing done by Muslims and Muslim organizations in the name of Islam as a misinterpretation or misapplication of Islam is defending the name of Islam. The harm of this approach, on the other hand, is that it automatically bars the possibility of opening productive discussion of how and why Islamic tenets and principles contribute and influence that behavior, and what can be done about it. It is simply incorrect and dishonest to claim that some Muslims, just because they are operating according to a disagreement on the ‘correct’ interpretation of scripture and religious teachings with other Muslims, are not in fact influenced by the Qur’an or corroborated ahadith or mainstream understandings of certain religious teachings. Attempting to identify and explore the factors influencing and inspiring violence is an incumbent moral responsibility in order to help prevent even further human rights violations.

3. The ‘it’s not religion, it’s culture’ argument

Here’s a second easy cop-out that shrugs off responsibility for horrible things done in the name of Islam:  claiming that these things are misattributed to Islam when really they are caused by cultural influence rather than religious doctrine. This argument is detrimental for a similar reason as the above: because it impedes productive exploration of the causes and influences of human rights violations by pretending religion and culture are distinct entities that do not feed into each other and themselves.

(This is why Muslimish is called Muslimish: we do identify with a Muslim cultural identity although most of us are apostates or atheists, in much the way secular Jews maintain cultural elements.)

 4. And here is the big one: Treating Islam as a monolith, aka the ‘Islam is perfect, Muslims are imperfect’ argument and its converse.

All three of the above counterproductive modes of thinking really rest on some iteration of this underlying assumption: that there is one, true, free-floating, infallible ‘Islam’ (and thus when bad things happen it’s because of culture, or it’s a misapplication, and any critique of Islam is a phobia because Islam is perfect).

Except that this perfect Islam is a concept rather than an actualization; since nobody practices Islam perfectly or even agrees on what perfect practice of Islam entails, then this free-floating concept exists independent of Muslims, that is, it exists independent of the way anyone anywhere practices, adheres to, and interprets Islam. And then this non-existing conceptual Islam is the Islam that is pointed to as above critique and discussion, with much of the same inviolability of expression used to assert that the Qur’an is divine in origin, timeless, and infallible.

And really, it is not only a perfect Islam that is concept rather than actualization– it is any monolithic version of Islam. Islam does not exist independent of Muslims.

Here is a comic strip that expresses that idea perfectly.

It’s worth noting that the converse of this counterproductive method of thinking is one commonly made by people who critique Islam, by reducing the entire thing to its most problematic fundamentals and blurring distinctions in practice and interpretation together, and thus speaking of a monolithic Islam when attempting to critique it and highlight its problems as well as in attempt to defend it.

Here is why I think we should avoid both extremes: if  we instead begin to think of non-monolithic forms of Islam as synonymous with the multivariate applications, interpretations, and practice of Muslims. including their intermeshing with background cultures, then the discourse will become much more practical, grounded, meaningful and productive.

What do you think?


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11 thoughts on “4 Mistakes You Make When You Talk About Islam

  1. I can’t help but strongly disagree with you on your last point. I think that if one is to maintain objectivity – and one strives to do so – then one must at some point divorce the practice from the practitioners. Else a malignant moral code can, theoretically, be deemed acceptable by the coincidental kindness of its proponents, and a more compassionate belief system can be deemed abhorrent by the coincidental evils of its followers.

    While I do concede that in the end of the day what really matters is what MUSLIMS do and say, rather than what ISLAM advocates, any fair evaluation of the latter (rather than the former) must be carried with dispassionate objectivity – and preserved from interference from the former.

    In doing so, the problem of interpretational differences, one thinks, would be dealt with by considering all possible interpretations of the given scriptures and religious texts/doctrines – eliminating the problem of ‘You’re doing it WRONG’ entirely. The question is less, ‘What is the correct interpretation?’ and more ‘Are all of these reasonable interpretations to make, and firstly, why is there so much room for ambiguity in what is essentially a legal and ethical guide, and secondly, how do these unflattering interpretations – each as valid as the other, gentler ones, if not more so – find themselves in a supposedly perfect code of ethics?’.

    • We don’t disagree. Note that I include interpretation and application by Muslims along with practice. Apologies if it was unclear and it seemed that I was making a distinction between theory and practice rather than one between conceptualization and actuality. Interpretation and theory by Muslims fall into the category of actuality. Also, I at least am arguably only concerned with those aspects of actual theory with relevant results as would concern a moral consequentialist. I dont have any desire to object to religious doctrine out of a moral love for truth or freedom of conscience. I’d be radically unconcerned if religion was only volntarily influencing those who freely chose it.

    • “any fair evaluation of the latter .. must be carried with dispassionate objectivity – and preserved from interference from the former”
      I absolutely disagree. This shows your lack of knowledge about Muslim societies. Islam has very great control on a Muslim’s psyche. Every muslim guy tries to emulate their prophet, on varying degrees. If you decouple the two, you will end up with a wrong analysis.

      • I think you’re being somewhat presumptuous here in your assertion that simply because we disagree, I must therefore be lacking in knowledge about muslims societies. As a point of fact, barring a few months here and there, the entirety of my life has been spent deeply immersed in muslim society.

        As for the point about the grip of the religion or its prophet on the Muslim psyche – well, if such a thing were true (and it certainly is), this reality is borne out by examination of the religion itself, its scriptures, and generally accepted biographies of Mohammad – as compared to being critical of muslim behavior today, which can be (and invariably is) defended by proponents as the result of some sort of ‘misinterpretation’ of an otherwise perfect creed.

        That, right there, is the trap.

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  3. They had to divert the blame on muslims, culture, imperfect application etc. They got so identified with Islam that they are blind to its faults. When one’s culture/religion is not critiqued it leads to cultural stagnancy and inertia. It becomes more difficult to criticise it as time passes because of the bigger cultural inertia and conservatism.

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