Reading Tarek Fatah

by | January 13, 2015

Guest Post by Eric MacDonald

I have been invited to write a short piece about Tarek Fatah, the moderate Canadian Muslim. I discovered his home page not that many days ago, and was struck by some of the wise things he had to say, and the criticisms of his own religion which, at some risk to himself, he is accustomed to write for the Toronto Sun, as well as to post on his own webpage. I want to begin by saying that I am not setting out to offend anyone. Although some people have accused me of Islamophobia, I agree with Pascal Bruckner who writes that

To speak of Islamophobia is to maintain the crudest confusion between a religion, a specific system of belief, and the faithful who adhere to it.

In other words, to speak of Islamophobia makes it impossible to criticise Islam without being accused of criticising individual Muslims.

However, the question is: is it possible for Muslims to criticise Islam without being hypocritical in claiming to be a Muslim. Is Tarek Fatah hypocritical in condemning portions of Islam while still attending selected services and identifying as a Muslim? Is he honest, a person of integrity, to do this?

In my own experience of religious faith I have to say at once that I do not think that Tarek Fatah is being hypocritical to identify as a Muslim, or to attend Muslim services at a mosque, while being critical of his religion. If this were so, then no one could, in good faith, criticise their own religion. Nor would there be any chance, I would have you notice, of Islam becoming less dangerous than I believe it is, as Christianity, over the last few centuries has become less dangerous than it was. This is a bit like Richard Dawkins’ “Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists.” Evolutionary biologists should have no truck with religion whatever. It is a simple matter of reason vs. superstition. So, accepting the support of Christians in the fight against creationism is a bit like Neville Chamberlain coming back from Munich and announcing, less than a year before the beginning of World War II, that there would be “peace in our time.” In the case of a believer criticising aspects (perhaps even fundamental aspects) of their religion, it is either faith or unfaith; there is no position in between. You are either an evolutionist or you are (to use a coinage from Jerry Coyne’s website) a “faitheist.” Apparently, the theory of evolution implies atheism. And criticism of your religion means that you no longer accept it, and cannot be a member in good standing of it.

This, of course, is an implication of another well-known belief of many atheists, namely, that there is no way that reason can be used in the understanding or revision of a religion. Religion is simply superstition, and the choice is between reason and superstition. So theology is all just “made up,” and no version of a religious system of belief can be more rational than any other. But the atheist who believes this must also accept its implication. No religion can be revised, and whatever your religious beliefs are, they cannot be criticised except from outside, as a non-believer, and then they can only be criticised as superstition.

The consequences are serious. If Islam is dangerous, as I believe it is in its present form (and so Tarek Fatah also believes, I think), then it is dangerous forever, unless we can convince all Muslims to give up their faith because (on the premises assumed) you cannot be both a non-hypocritical Muslim, and make any attempt to change the fundamental beliefs which Muslim tradition hands down to you.

I happen to agree with Tarek Fatah, that it would be better for Friday prayers at mosques not to begin with a prayer to Allah to grant victory to Muslims over unbelievers, and that it was particularly insensitive to use this prayer the day after Muslim terrorists murdered twelve cartoonists and writers at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, along with police officers and other persons. Nor was it acceptable for the Imam to go on to say that “he wished Islam ‘will become established in the land [that is, in Canada] over all other religions, although the ‘Disbelievers’ (Jews, Christians, Hindus and Atheists) hate that.’” If internal criticism of a religion is impossible, then we really are in trouble!

2 thoughts on “Reading Tarek Fatah

  1. Diana MacPherson

    I too respect Tarek Fatah. I think he is a smart, reasonable person and an asset to Canada and to Muslims. I think atheists can find common ground with religious people like him when it comes to secular ideas, especially around ideas like rights and freedoms. In a discussion on SunTV, Tarek Fatah asked a Muslim, who we would probably call extreme (he believes that Sharia Law should be imposed on all states), why Muslims should impose the rule that forbids Muslims from drawing Mohammed, on non-Muslims who don’t believe in Mohammed? It was a good question and a example of what supporting Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience looks like.

    I suspect that Tarek Fatah and I would disagree on some fundamental things, namely that there is a God but because we have shared secular values, we could easily co-exist and even work together. I think liberal believers and liberal atheists tend to have a lot more in common than people see.

    The question then becomes, can religion change from within? I tend to think it can but really slowly and only once insiders start speaking with outsiders. The free exchange of ideas is crucial in changing any big system.

    I think where you and I may disagree, Eric, is I don’t think Jerry Coyne is saying you can’t accept evolution and be religious. From what I understand, Jerry, like me, thinks it’s possible to do this because we see it in practice in the form of religious scientists or even the Pope. Just because someone can hold two conflicting ideas in their minds at once doesn’t make their reasoning sound, however. It just proves that people can live with cognitive dissonance. Jerry Coyne isn’t convinced, nor am I, that accommodating those who hold conflicting views will help get more people accepting evolution and I think it would be disingenuous for me to tell someone that I agree with their distortion of science. Their free to think it but they are getting the science wrong when they do.

  2. Eric MacDonald

    Diana, where I would agree with you is in your statement that you “think liberal believers and liberal atheists tend to have a lot more in common than people see.” I am not sure what to make of your remarks about Jerry’s position, however. Since he has recently come out with the claim that philosophy is the same as what he calls “sophisticated theology” — that is, “made up stuff” — it is hard to see how it would be possible for liberal believers and atheists to have intelligible relationships, for not only are their beliefs (from the atheist standpoint) conflicting, they are in some sense incoherent.

    It is also a bit condescending to speak about people living with cognitive dissonance, since religious believers who hold the view that religious beliefs and the theory of evolution need not conflict, do not think of their position as one of cognitive dissonance at all. So long as atheists speak with this kind of condescension towards liberal believers, basically holding that their positions are rationally unsound, because, from Jerry’s point of view, anything that does not meet the parameters of scientific knowledge does not qualify as knowledge at all, he is in fact saying that you cannot coherently hold religious beliefs and accept the theory of evolution. Jerry, of course, should realise that, when he is saying this, he is doing philosophy, and so, by his own criteria, it is just made up stuff. Naturalism itself, as a philosophical theory of what is real, and what can be true, is in fact, therefore, simply made up stuff. Indeed, anything which reflects on science, but does not itself constitute science, is also just made up stuff. The corner Jerry has painted himself into is much smaller than you seem to think.


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