The next time you find yourself articulating a reasoned critique of Islam, please know that you’re sowing the seeds of the next Holocaust. That’s the warning from writer Karen Armstrong, who was asked in a recent interview with Salon what she thought of the opinions Sam Harris and Bill Maher have about Islam. She responded by alluding to the rise of Nazism:
“It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.”
What’s truly despairing is when a presumably intelligent person is either unable or unwilling to distinguish between criticism of ideas and a dehumanization of those who hold them. (Then again, Armstrong has a history of grossly misrepresenting the contents of the Quran and the life of Muhammad to fit her Islam-friendly narrative, so this isn’t all that surprising.)
Anyone who hears the arguments of the most notable critics of Islam — Harris, Maher, Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, etc. — and concludes that these are in any way comparable to the rampant anti-Semitism that pervaded society in Nazi Germany is someone who cannot be engaged in rational discourse.
The irony here is that Armstrong employs the same kind of overgeneralizing that she mistakenly accuses Islam’s critics of using. Time and again, Islam’s defenders have explicitly stated or implied that the religion’s critics are smearing all Muslims, even though as a matter of routine those critics are sure to note that not all Muslims are violent and that most Muslims are peaceful. Despite an abundance of such caveats and qualifiers, our oft dishonest and nuance-less public discourse regularly yields non sequiturs in which those who criticize the faith are somehow branded racists or bigots.
Like Reza Aslan, Armstrong is a scholar of religion, and apparently this entitles her to believe that the Quran is so complicatedly brilliant that it can’t be interpreted by merely reading it and knowing some history. Consider her response to this question of where she, a non-Muslim — “get[s] the authority to say what is or isn’t Quranic”:
“I talk to imams and Muslims who are in the traditions.
“Previously, before the modern period, the Quran was never read in isolation. It was always read from the viewpoint of a long tradition of complicated, medieval exegesis which actually reined in simplistic interpretation.”
As Armstrong herself knows, oftentimes there is a lack of consensus on important theological matters even among Muslims. Occasionally, the sectarianism that results from such disagreement produces horrendous and violent results. It can certainly be worthwhile to solicit the input of Muslims and Muslim scholars when interpreting some of the Quran’s more ambiguous passages, but that input isn’t necessarily shared by all Muslims.
When she decries “simplistic interpretation” of the Quran, she’s employing a favorite tactic of religion’s defenders by which we critics are told that the holy books that draw our ire don’t actually mean what they say. We can only understand these texts in their proper context, we’re told, and of course that proper context will invariably show those of us who are “unsophisticated” that these religions are actually very positive.
Were Armstrong merely content with offering hollow defenses of Islam and religion in general, this would be no great offense. But by drawing a ridiculous parallel between criticism of Islam and Nazism, she’s officially gone Godwin.
RELATED: Reza Aslan is a deeply confused individual.