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Religion and the Dangers of Ignorance

In reading this New York Times profile of Atlas Shrugs blogger Pamela Geller, I was simultaneously amused and disgusted by this note on her “education” in Islamic thought:

She spent the next year educating herself about Islam, reading Bat Ye’or, a French writer who focuses on tensions over Muslim immigrants in Europe; Ibn Warraq, the pseudonym for a Pakistani who writes about his rejection of Islam; and Daniel Pipes, whom she ultimately rejected because he believes in the existence of a moderate Islam.

This is grotesque to me. It’s like saying that that someone

spent a year educating themselves about Christianity, reading Chrisopher Hitchens, an English writer who wrote articles focusing on the “crimes against humanity” of Mother Teresa, Friedrich Nietzsche, a former seminary student who wrote at length about his rejection of Christianity, and Sam Harris, whom they ultimately rejected because he believes in the existence of moderate Christianity.

If you put that in a profile of an anti-Christian blogger, you would know immediately that they’re a fraud and simply not worth listening to. You definitely wouldn’t describe them honestly as having “educated themselves” in Christianity. While studying those opposed to a religion can certainly be a part of one’s education, a study of Christianity certainly isn’t complete without reading the Bible and important Christian writers such as Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Simone Weil, Paul Tillich, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and many many others. To understand Christianity as practiced today means familiarizing yourself with the myriad ways in which Christianity is lived and practiced, from an Amish community in Pennsylvania to a Megachurch in the suburbs to a Yoruba flavored sect in Africa to an underground Catholic cell in China.

The same goes for Islam. If you don’t read the Qu’ran and Hadith, if you don’t familiarize yourself with the great Muslim relgious writers such as al-Shaf’fi, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, Averroes, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazzali, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Syed Ameer Ali, Fazlur Rahman Malik and many many others, then you’re not educating yourself in Islam. Further, to understand Islam as practiced today means familiarizing yourself with the ways in which it is lived and practiced, from the pilgramages to Mecca to a suburban Mosque in a strip mall in Texas to the ecstatic rituals of Sufis in Indonesia to the call to prayer in Mali.

The bottom line is that to speak of Islam as a monolith is as absurd to say that all Christians agree with the Pope. To say that all Muslims want to impose one version of Sharia law is as absurd to say that all Christians agree with the Christian Reconstructionist dogma of Gary North and R.J. Rushdoony. To say that al-Qaeda and Hamas are representative of Muslims is as absurd as saying that the Army of God and the IRA are representative of all Christians.

Understanding religion isn’t easy. As the recent Pew Research Study showed, there are plenty of Americans who don’t know much about their own professed faith, much less the faiths of others. This is a shame, for a number of reasons. First and most obviously, ignorance can be exploited by vicious demagogues who feed on hate and fear to serve their own ends (like Ms. Geller).

Second and more importantly, though, knowledge of different religious ideas and traditions provides an incredibly rich expansion of your own worldview. The varying faith traditions of humanity have provided comfort, wisdom, and inspiration to people throughout our history. To live your life without exploring yourself with the poetry of Mohammed, the playfulness of Lao-Tzu, the compassion of Jesus, the wisdom of the Buddha, the discipline of Confucius, the hymns of the Vedas or the centuries-long arguments in the Talmud is to live a very deprived life indeed.

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About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

Comments

  1. Peter says:

    At least in the United States, most people are deathly afraid of Islam, and therefore they’ll read only the worst things about it.

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  2. legion says:

    Peter-
    While (unfortunately) true, it doesn’t render hatemongers like Geller worthy of the slightest respect, let alone ink. The line in there about rejecting Pipes because he considered the existence of a ‘moderate’ Islam pretty much puts the lie to the claim that she’s “educated” about the religion in any sense of the word. Ugh.

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  3. John Burgess says:

    There’s certainly an anti-Muslim media industry out there and it’s easy enough to make a bundle if you’re happy over-simplifying and tossing in a mis-truth or two. But for writing even neutrally about Islam? Not so much.

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  4. Steve Plunk says:

    That’s a quick and easy way to dismiss any criticism of Islam. Just point out the critic is properly educated. I’m not defending Geller since I’m not familiar with her writings but playing the credentials game limits discussion and new ideas. There is still common sense, logic, and reason that can be applied by anyone regardless of credentials or education. Every person can bring their own perspectives to the table and if what they say doesn’t pass the reason and logic test then, sure, throw it out. But throwing out input based solely upon what one might consider inferior education doesn’t make sense it only further insulates those who don’t want to hear competing ideas. To expect every citizen who participates in the public forum to have the education suggested is unrealistic.

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  5. Alex Knapp says:

    Steve,

    That’s a quick and easy way to dismiss any criticism of Islam. Just point out the critic is properly educated.

    In order to criticize something, you have to learn about it and understand it. So yes, someone like Geller who “studied Islam” by only studying the works of its enemies makes her dangerously uninformed. Would you take criticism of your faith seriously if the critic didn’t know what he was talking about?

    There is still common sense, logic, and reason that can be applied by anyone regardless of credentials or education.

    Logic is GIGO. “Garbage in, garbage out.” If you’re reasoning from false premises, your entire chain of reasoning will be false.

    But throwing out input based solely upon what one might consider inferior education doesn’t make sense it only further insulates those who don’t want to hear competing ideas.

    I am glad to hear competing ideas, so long as they are informed ideas. But my time on this earth is limited and however insightful that, say, David Ickes might be, I’m willing to ignore him completely as I’m pretty sure that the leaders of the world aren’t alien lizards in disguise.

    To expect every citizen who participates in the public forum to have the education suggested is unrealistic.

    I think that to speak on a topic that you’re not informed about is doing yourself and your listeners a disservice.

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  6. legion says:

    Alex,
    Steve Plunk is a consummate apologist. There is literally _no_ action a Conservative Darling can take that he won’t find some way to justify. Even if it means blatantly ignoring reality. The idea that someone is too uninformed to discuss a major religion without having examined _any_ of its actual core works or treatises isn’t some ivory-tower academic bigotry, it’s plain ordinary sense. Also, to compare Geller, who has a very influential conservative blog and is getting increasing cable air time, to “every citizen who participates in the public forum” is beyond dishonest – it’s pathetic. I particularly enjoy how he has to write like someone who just finished a UC-Berkeley sensitivity seminar just to avoid admitting she’s a buffoon.

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  7. Steve Plunk says:

    legion, I never stop defending the right of all citizens to speak their minds. Elitists may want to shut up those who they might oppose but the more reasonable sees that as a dangerous path.

    In Geller’s case (again, I don’t know her writings) her blog is an open forum that each of us can visit or not visit. If her opinions are uniformed and unreasonable then soon enough people will stop going there. Blogs are a form of public forum aren’t they?

    As for my civility, it didn’t come from a UC-Berkeley seminar it came from years of public service in my community.

    Alex, if she’s uniformed then quit reading her. Otherwise take down her points rather than her. That’s the way we should do it in the public arena.

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  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Alex,
    Steve Plunk is a consummate apologist. There is literally _no_ action a Conservative Darling can take that he won’t find some way to justify. Even if it means blatantly ignoring reality.”

    The Brits used to have a hilarious satire show called spitting image in which all the characters were portrayed by puppets. Some of Thatcher’s cabinet members were portrayed with small radio antenna protruding from their heads and through which she controlled them from a remote control box. When I read some of the knee jerk commentary from the usual suspects you have to wonder whether there hasn’t been some technology transfer.

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  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    Of course Geller’s “education” in Islam is preposterous. But then so is the entire effort to stir up animosity against Muslims and the muslim religion which is essentially a by product of the continuing search for casus belli by neo cons and apologists for Israel. But we’re at war against Islam they say when in fact were at war with a tiny minority of the 1.5 billion muslims in the world and the reasons are almost entirely secular. We’re occupying their countries or giving blind support to a nation that is perceived to have stolen their land. Sure Islam has some unattractive features but then so has christianity when it comes to their records there isn’t much to choose between them when it comes to intolerance. Most muslims of course approach their religion with a mixture of respect tempered by practicality. Rather as catholic women approach birth control and this explains why I’ve drunk whisky in Saudia Arabia.

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  10. sam says:

    @Plunk

    Elitists may want to shut up those who they might oppose but the more reasonable sees that as a dangerous path.

    There it is, that’s the Plunk we all know — singing them ole persecution blues, offkey as ever.

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  11. steve says:

    ” I’m not defending Geller since I’m not familiar with her writings but playing the credentials game limits discussion and new ideas. ”

    I am puzzled by this. She wrote down what she has read to study Islam. She cited only people who dislike Islam. Kind of like studying capitalism by reading only communist writers. While I heartily recommend reading those who criticize your own beliefs, I also think that in order to qualify as informed, certainly to claim any level of expertise, one needs to read on both sides of an issue.

    This may be just a normative judgment on my part, bit I dont think so. I read extensively on the left and right and libertarian sites. Even an occasional Marxist. I think it is important to challenge your own ideas. It is what I expect of anyone claiming expertise.

    “If her opinions are uniformed and unreasonable then soon enough people will stop going there.”

    I disagree. Some of the most popular sites on the left and right are the least factually correct. They offer propaganda and faux outrage. That has always sold pretty well.

    Steve

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  12. […] Knapp responds: […]

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  13. […] Religion and the Dangers of Ignorance (outsidethebeltway.com) […]

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  14. Steve Plunk says:

    steve, I have to thank you for a reasonable response. Too often around here the minute you cross the liberals all you hear is ‘talking points’, ‘parroting’, or even out right name calling. I find Alex’s habit of dissecting individual sentences especially irritating. Nothing beats attacking the little pieces rather than the message as a whole. You make your case and I appreciate it.

    In Geller’s case I don’t find issue with reading a few authors rather than Alex’s method of reading everything that’s out there. I’ve read a few books concerning modern Islam and it’s relationship with the West and while I don’t consider myself expert I feel I can converse hear amongst the other posters. Over time I have heard those other points of view you speak of here and will continue to give them a fair reading. That fair does not include asking what education or credential the poster may have as I see it immaterial to the content. I can’t help but see Alex using this as an excuse to dismiss certain ideas rather than take the time to engage them.

    Many of us have limited time we can devote to public discourse so the idea we should all have read the Koran and all the writers listed before we speak about honor killings or 9/11 is silly. I may not know everything about fuel injection or exhaust gas recirculation but I do know not to step in front of a moving car. There are plenty of laymen who have learned enough about Islam in the world to comment on it without being ask what books have you read. With that sort of attitude citizens will lose the right to comment on most anything and the elites will decide everything for us.

    I may have been mistaken about people not going to websites with uninformed and unreasonable viewpoints. Sometimes I assume people think like I do and I avoid those.

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  15. steve says:

    “There are plenty of laymen who have learned enough about Islam in the world to comment on it without being ask what books have you read. With that sort of attitude citizens will lose the right to comment on most anything and the elites will decide everything for us.”

    Agreed. It was my impression that Geller is holding herself out as an expert. If that is the case, she should read a wider selection. If she is writing from the POV of just an average person with some attempt to inform herself on the topic, which is what she seems to be telling us by citing her list, then ok. People just shouldnt cite her as any kind of expert and should be aware that she is writing from a one sided POV.

    Steve

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  16. […] Knapp responds: This is grotesque to me. It’s like saying that that someone spent a year educating themselves about Christianity, reading Chrisopher Hitchens, an English writer who wrote articles focusing on the “crimes against humanity” of Mother Teresa, Friedrich Nietzsche, a former seminary student who wrote at length about his rejection of Christianity, and Sam Harris, whom they ultimately rejected because he believes in the existence of moderate Christianity. […]

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  17. Tano says:

    “..If her opinions are uniformed and unreasonable then soon enough people will stop going there.”

    Really? Are you saying that people who put forth uninformed and unreasonable ideas never find fertile ground, and sometimes enormous grassroots support?
    Were you alive at any point in the 20th century, or ever read a history of it?

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  18. sam says:

    @Plunk

    That fair does not include asking what education or credential the poster may have as I see it immaterial to the content. I can’t help but see Alex using this as an excuse to dismiss certain ideas rather than take the time to engage them.

    Ah, Jesus. Alex was criticizing her for her one-sided and narrow readings on Islam, not her lack of credentials or education or some such. Where do you get this crap, Plunk?

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  19. PG says:

    I find it incredibly sad that the process of *self-educating* oneself — one that even fricking Glenn Beck has endorsed, pointing out that library books can be borrowed for free — is now deemed to be “elitist” and “credentialing.” Exactly how ignorant do some conservatives think we need to be in order to avoid those labels?

    I had thought that not going to an Ivy League school … OK, not going to college … how about just readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic? … might suffice, but evidently even using those basic skills to learn about something, before determining whether it ought to be tolerated in our country (Geller isn’t just speaking against honor killings and terrorism — she’s declaring Islam to be fundamentally opposed to U.S. interests), is too much.

    Thank God our country was founded by people who didn’t all go to college, yet didn’t consider books to be their enemies. Much as Christine O’Donnell forced me to reconsider Sarah Palin’s abilities as a stateswoman, Steve Plunk has forced me to reconsider Glenn Beck’s virtues as an intellectual.

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  20. […] Knapp responds: This is grotesque to me. It’s like saying that that someone spent a year educating themselves about Christianity, reading Chrisopher Hitchens, an English writer who wrote articles focusing on the “crimes against humanity” of Mother Teresa, Friedrich Nietzsche, a former seminary student who wrote at length about his rejection of Christianity, and Sam Harris, whom they ultimately rejected because he believes in the existence of moderate Christianity. […]

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  21. N. Friedman says:

    Mr. Knapp,

    I am not writing to defend Ms. Geller, about whom I know little other than she makes incendiary remarks. I am, instead, writing to question the manner of your critique, which does not seem to be reasonable, if I understand you correctly.

    If we go by your recommendations, we find thinkers with more grotesque ideas than Ms. Geller seems to know, much less has, about Islam. Take Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, father of Wahhabism, whom you suggest as a source for understanding Islam. He surely holds more radical views of Islam than do any of those from which Ms. Geller is accused of reading – if she has read such writers. In fact, his views are very far from what has traditionally been considered normative Islam (i.e. the Islam taught at schools such as the great al-Azhar Univerisity).

    The fact is that Ibn Warraq is a scholar of Islam and Islamic civilization, with ideas compatible with those of scholars such as Bernard Lewis. Ms. Bat Ye’or is, if we go by her best known book, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, an an authority on the treatment of non-Muslims under Islamic rule, one with sufficient heft to be cited by the great historian, Bernard Lewis. Both of these writers present normative Islam, when they address the religion. Writers like al-Wahhab do not, unless you consider the development of Islamic civilization post 9th Century to be an adventure in the demise of the pure Islam of the Muslim Prophet and his companions.

    I have not read any books by Dr. Pipes, so have no thoughts on his views except to note that he, unlike Mr. Warraq, believes in a moderate Islam – which, from the little I know about Ms. Geller, suggests that Ms. Geller may not have read much Pipes. Warraq’s view, if you bother to read him, in line with that of Bernard Lewis, is that there are numerous Islams that we can speak about. His view is that the Islam of the Muslim Prophet, as disclosed in the Koran, and the Islam of those who formed normative Islamic teachings in the centuries that followed, are not very moderate. However, his view is that the Islam which was practiced by actual people was, at times, moderate and at other times, not. The doctrines, on his view, are not. However, he is meticulous in setting forth the doctrines in his writings. Which is to say, one can get a very accurate understanding from reading his books.

    On the issue of Jihad, Warraq and Ye’or’s views are identical to those of the Muslim scholars which you recommend. Even the famed al-Ghazzali wrote in favor of pursuing Jihad as war to spread Muslim rule to the entire world.

    In adding al-Wahhab to the list, you basically substitute a true radical for what, until fairly recently, was mainstream Islam – i.e. the Islam which, at times, could be moderate but not always so. Not such a great recommendation, if you are trying to discredit that readily discreditable Ms. Geller, who seems to leave out the Islam, as practiced, as a possibility, in contradiction to the careful scholar Ibn Warraq.

    And, by the way, one does not need to read all the major writers on Islam, as you suggest, to form reasonably clear picture about the teachings of Islam. There are perfectly reasonable summaries of what Muslims believe, written in English by first rate scholars. This would include learning Islam’s political teachings, spiritual teachings, etc., etc. And, I might add: Warraq, while he is critical, presents the views actually taught by Muslims as being classical Islam. So, your criticism of him (and of Ms. Ye’or) is simply wrong.

    In any event, they are nothing akin to reading Harris or Hitchens on Christianity. Ibn Warraq, who is an apostate, knows the difference between his opinion and facts. And, his critique is not, as I noted, so unfair. For example, he notes that, while the Islam of its origins, favored the killing of homosexuals, the Islam that came to be was more tolerant than in the West – although this has definitely gone downhill. The traditional policy was akin to don’t ask, don’t tell, which is far better than the policy in the West not very long ago. One can learn such things from people like Ibn Warraq. That is not really the case with interesting essayists like Harris and Hitchens who present arguments for their views, not histories and not analyses.

    One can, I think, get a sufficient view of Islam, reading any of a number of goods summary books. One does not have to become an expert, as your comment suggests, before forming an opinion about what goes on today with Islam.

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