Co-published with Literati Press.
For those who prefer a particular narrative about what constitutes Islam, any reasonable words about the attack on Charlie Hebdo will be met with adamantine cynicism. For them, Islam is and has been a religion of violence. In spite of the widespread condemnation of the attack from Muslim leaders around the world, including the imam of the Great Mosque of Paris, they will aver that only a fool believes the claims of so-called peace-loving Muslims.
This group includes men and women who ought to know better, who have in fact spent much of their time fighting exactly the kind of irrationality generated by religious movements. Just one example among thousands ought to suffice. David Silverman, the president of American Atheists and (ironically) the chair of the Reason Rally, tweeted this amazing non sequitur today:
@MrAtheistPants: If you call yourself a Muslim, you legitimize all parts of Islam, including the terrorists.
Thinking like this would garner an F in nearly any logic class in the world, but in the superheated matrix of anger and confusion in the wake of the massacre, critical thinking is not considered a virtue. Simple counterexamples abound: If you call yourself a proud German, you legitimize all parts of German history, including the Holocaust. The form of the argument is so stupid, it is difficult to believe that an otherwise intelligent human adopted it, and that he did so with a hashtag #TrueStatement only compounds his unwillingness to think through what is actually being said.
The campaign against Islam from high profile celebrities like Bill Maher and Sam Harris has been all over the news recently, and even the brilliant and compelling Reza Aslan failed to crack Maher’s ignorance of the basic tenets of Islam.  Maher, usually a champion of critical thinking, fails his own test of who should be able to speak about a subject: only the informed. He knows nothing of Islam beyond what is presented by violent factions of Islamists, and he seems not to know the difference between Islam and Islamism.
Isms are helpful when talking about religion because the suffix separates the actual religion from ideologies that use the religion to legitimize their agendas, as is the case with groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Ku Klux Klan, Church of the Creator, Boko Haram, and other racist, reactionary, nationalist, or political extremists. When teaching classes on religion, I insist students know the difference between what Islam teaches and what Islamism teaches, just as they should know the difference between a Christian and an abortion clinic bomber (Christianist).
This is not to say that there are no legitimate concerns with Islam’s global growth, particularly in the areas of free speech, treatment and education of women, separation of church and state, and several other issues, but Islam has a long tradition of talking about these things with frank openness. It was Islamic scholars, after all, who preserved the manuscripts of Greek philosophy while the Catholic Church was destroying them, most notably when Crusaders burned the library at Constantinople in 1204 c.e. The number of cultural treasures lost in that orgy of violence is incalculable. There would have been no Plato for Ficino to translate were it not for Muslim scholars. In fact, the contributions of Averroes and Avicenna to Aristotelian and Neoplatonic studies helped shape Western philosophy.
Discussing the development of Islam as if Al Qaeda is the inevitable evolution of Islamic political theory and without a proper understanding of the history of Islamic thought shows a still-extant colonialist mentality among white Westerners. Bill Maher knows less about Islam than he does about Christianity (not much), but it does not stop him from discussing it from a position of “expertise.” If this isn’t intellectual colonialism, I don’t know what it is.
One of the issues that journalists are concerned about is the support for free speech in Islam, but here, too, there is a lack of understanding. Shi’a Islam has no history of iconoclasm. Images of the Prophet abound in the Shi’a tradition. Sunni Islam has not always been hostile to depictions of the Prophet and his Companions either. The traditions have changed, and they will likely change again. There is more than one Hadith tradition in modern Islam.
Islam is more than 500 years younger than Christianity. Year one on the Islamic calendar is 622 c.e. on our calendar, the year of Muhammad’s flight to Medina, the Hijra (flight). Five hundred years ago, Catholics and Protestants were busy killing each other all over Europe, and the Inquisition was already hundreds of years old.
Additionally, Muslims are painfully aware of how some of the constraints imposed upon them by the Ulama (a group of scholars who interpret the Hadith and Sharia) have kept them in a premodern phase of development. This, too, is likely to change. Islam in America holds great promise for the modernization of Islam. Alan Wolfe, the brilliant professor of religion at Boston College, noted in his wonderful book “The Transformation of American Religion,” that no religion comes to our country without being fundamentally changed. The forces of individualism, materialism, and consumerism create a tremendous pressure to conform to what the market demands. Christianity has clearly gone down that road. Islam will follow. The tradition of free speech in this country and the idea that “everyone has a right to her own opinion” will ultimately transform any faith that seeks to impose in absolutist fashion demands contrary to what Americans truly want.
In the meantime, Muslims who truly practice what their founding Prophet envisioned will have to work hard to fight the tendency of outsiders to define the parameters of what constitutes Islam, and they will have to identify those in their midst who seek to create an -ism of their faith, especially those who would use violence. Allowing lunatics to self-identify as Muslim or Christian or Buddhist, etc., will only allow extremists and murderers to borrow their justification for violence from ancient faiths that were founded by people who envisioned a better world. I don’t practice any faith, but I am averse to allowing ignorant people, be they theist or atheist, to define the world’s great religions in self-serving or politically motivated ways. I have friends in those faiths, and they do not look like the murderers who attacked the great tradition of freedom of the press yesterday.
 The first thing Americans ought to do is read Reza Aslan’s excellent, readable history of the development of Islam, “No God but God.”
 c.e. = Common Era and b.c.e. = Before Common Era. These are the new designations preferred by scholars of various and no faiths who wish to designate a date without reference to “the year of our Lord” or making claims about whether or not Jesus was the Christ.
 The Hadith was originally to be a collection of the deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad, but as Aslan has effectively shown, the various Hadiths morphed into complex layers of justification for teachings contrary to the Qur’an, including the prohibition against images of the Prophet. There is no sura (chapter) in the Qur’an that prescribes iconoclasm beyond the reiteration of no images of Allah, similar to the Hebrew prohibition in the First (Catholic) or Second (Protestant) Commandment.
 The tendency as Americans to let people self-identify is a terrible idea. That is for another column, though.