After the attacks in Paris, the debate over Islam is predictably reaching levels of mass hysteria and stupidity. On the right, we have seen rhetoric literally reminiscent of Nazi Germany, and on the left, we have seen the lazy defense of a religion that has long history of repression and violence.
As Donald Trump calls for a national registry of Muslims in America, Salon type liberals are insisting Islam is a religion of peace. Both depictions of Muslims and Islam are wrong, yet each extreme apparently represents the parameters of debate within which we are allowed to think about a very complicated subject.
The truth is, Islam is not a religion of peace, and the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists in waiting. This is self evident if you have a) read the Qu'ran and b) know any Muslims. Just as Judeo-Christian texts contain all sorts of abominable moral teachings, Islam is no different. There are very, very explicit texts about fighting and killing non-believers in the Qu'ran, and appallingly sexist directives about how women should be viewed and treated. Of course this isn't to say that all Muslims are sexist or want to kill non-believers, just as the majority of Christians don't want homosexuals to be stoned to death. But it is in the religion whether you like it or not, and to excuse or deny it is not only intellectually nonsensical, but willfully ignorant.
Having said that, my personal experience with Muslims has been almost unanimously positive. I grew up in south London with a huge population of Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants. I never saw any hate, violence or discrimination towards women. On the contrary, I was always struck by how well raised my Muslim friends were and how respectful they were towards women. Almost everywhere I have traveled, I can only attest to seeing the same thing over and over again. This is of course not the whole picture, and there is markedly more Islamic extremism in the UK than there was when I was growing up, but if you don't formulate your opinions of a people from TV, I'd venture to say that pretty much everyone else would come away with the same experience. I have also spent a good deal of time with very religious Christians and can say exactly the same thing -- they are all (in my experience) incredibly nice, respectful and abhor violence in the name of their religion.
While followers of a particular religion might be overwhelmingly nice, moral people, the problem is that their religions often contain text that explicitly justify violence. Regardless of whether the majority of followers take it seriously, it is there to be misused. If a Muslim kills someone in the name of Allah and uses the Qu'ran to justify it, Muslims cannot state that he is not following Islam, because according to the Qu'ran, he is. This goes for Christians who discriminate against gays using the bible as justification. Leviticus is clear about homosexuality, and if you take it seriously, homophobia is not hateful, but merely a part of your religion.
One obvious way to absolve the major religions from criticism of violence or hatred would be to simply take out the violent and hateful bits. Then, if someone killed an infidel in the name of Allah, Muslims around the world could say with absolute certainty that he/she was not a Muslim.
Of course this won't happen any time soon, so in the mean time, we have to exercise a great deal of nuance. And that means separating Muslims from Islam, and judiciously defining exactly what it is we are attacking. Because attacking Islam is not the same as attacking Muslims -- a distinction that needs to be made if we are at all serious about discussing the subject. Islam is a religion -- an idea and a philosophy that should be held to the greatest degrees of scrutiny. Liberals must come to terms with the fact that much of Islam is the exact opposite of the ideals they supposedly believe in. And conservatives must come to terms with the fact that Muslims are people who should be treated like any other people on the planet -- with kindness and respect.
Just as we are free to attack Christianity and the absurd teachings in Leviticus, we are not free to insist all Christians register with the government in case they happen to be terrorists -- even if it happens to be true.