Religious Standing?

Dean Esmay, seeking to answer the question, “Does Islam Call For Murder of Infidels?” relies on four posts from Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa who says it does not.

Dean then states, “Generally speaking, as I have said many times, I will take the word of practicing muslims about their faith over the word of members of competing faiths–including atheists–over what the religion ‘really means.'”

That strikes me as an odd policy. Most people who are “members” of anything–whether a religion, an organization, a democracy, or whatever–have an incredibly shallow understanding of it. I’d much prefer to read the opinions of people who are experts by virtue of their knowledge (a class to which Dr. Hassaballa may indeed belong) rather than their simple being.

“Members” have some excellent insights into what life as a part of a religion (etc.) is like that non-member experts may lack, to be sure. A military sociologist who has never served in combat may not fully understand the nature of war, for example. On the other hand, he or a military historian almost certainly knows the bigger picture better than the average soldier.

Similarly, Bernard Lewis or Stephen Schwartz, who Dean often cites, are far more likely to know what Islam teaches about the murder of infidels than the average Muslim.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dean Esmay says:

    No offense, but I think you’re splitting hairs here James; the point is that I’ll take the word of someone who is a member of a faith and an expert in it over that of people who are outside of it who say they are wrong.

    Steven Schwartz is, by the way, a Muslim.

    There are lots and lots and lots of people out there in the blogosphere and among American Christians (especially of the biblicist/evangelist variety) who expound at length about the dangers inherent in the Islamic faith–a faith that, when you scratch them hard enough, they’ll admit that they think is possibly satanic and certainly an evil religion that leads people away from the true faith of Christianity. And a lot of these people are very fond of pulling various verses out of the Koran, completely out of context, as proof for their thesis of how evil and oppressive Islam is.

    And then, when I point to Muslims who directly address such accusations by explaining how these people are pulling various Koranic verses out of context, these people then turn around and accuse those muslims of obfuscating somehow or even of “not really understanding the truth” about their faith. Their proof? None really–they just think their own non-muslim (and frequently anti-muslim) interpretations are more valid than those of muslims.

    I mean, really: this is absurd. Who better to defend a religious faith’s beliefs and practices from indictment than those who practice it?

    Do you look to atheists to defend Christianity?

  2. Dean Esmay says:

    And by the way, why on Earth are you responding to me, James? Why didn’t you link Dr. Hessabollah’s pieces instead, and argue with him? Why don’t you take your argument to him in fact, and question whether he’s qualified to make this defense of his own faith, whether he’s giving the correct interpretations or not?

    I am frequently stunned by people who want to argue with me over these things, but when I point to actual muslim scholars they could argue with, they insist on arguing with me instead.

    I find that bizarre, I really do.

  3. James Joyner says:


    I’m not challenging Hassaballah’s argument. Really, I think the question of what the “true” teachings of a religion are is somewhat beside the point.

    My argument is an abstract one–that one can be an expert in something even though one is not a member of the class to which one is studying. An ornithologist knows more about birds than do birds, to take a silly example. Likewise, one who has spent years formally studying Islam is likely more expert in it than a mere adherent, regardless of one’s religious persuasion.

    I didn’t realize Schwartz was Muslim, as I didn’t catch that when I read his book or from various articles. It’s really immaterial to me, though. I presume Bernard Lewis is not Muslim but I nonetheless recognize him as qualified to discuss the topic.

    I don’t expect atheists to “defend” Christianity, although I do it myself all the time. But one can be an atheist and still be more knowledgable about Christianity than a random believer.