Sects and Violence

I want to talk today about what "Islam" means. I am not a muslim and I am a complete outsider. I see danger in some ideas associated with Islam and beauty in some of the ideas. I see people saying Islam is peace. And I see mobs and violence associated with it. And so I think it's long overdue to ask whether we are all referring to the same thing when we refer to "Islam".

From what I can see, Islam means peace to most Muslims I know. And to some Muslims, it means violence visited upon other people for various different reasons: some political, some moral, always opportunistic, and always justified by some grandiose vision (a story). And the latter part is a bit sticky since the spectacle and tragedy creates a more vivid impression in the mind than the many Muslim neighbors we know and work with.

Let's Talk About Sects, Baby

Let me tell you about a trick of the human mind. It is a tendency for non-Muslims to think about Islam as one enormous monolith with complete homogeneity of belief and action. But Muslims are 1.6 Billion+ in number. And the idea of one great Islam doesn't withstand scrutiny.

Every religious or philosophical movement has within it a manifold of sects. People just can't seem to agree on things. Take any belief system and you can break it down to subgroups based on the disagreements.

To provide specific examples, I have collected here an accounting of the major religions I could think of and their sub-sects scraped from Wikipedia:

  • Chrisitanity: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical,...
  • Judaism: Rabinnic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Humanistic,...
  • Hinduism: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Smartism,...
  • Buddhism: Therevada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen,...

And as for Islam? Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafi, Wahhabi,...

There are no incidents of complete uniform belief within any belief system. Humans are messy, sloppy creatures subject to entropy. Our brains are meat-machines driven by huge variations in chemistry. Fuzzy logic? check. Non-logical leaps? check. Context-dropping? check. Mistakes of thinking? check. Hormone-driven teenagers? check.

You know why clear thinking is beautiful when you hear it? Because it is rare. Reason is slow and requires discipline and it is always impressive to hear an idea that is simple and clear and true.

Aside: Beware of Mob Think

There is a sort of situation worth mentioning where uniformity does arise... where an idea can become so loud that it drowns out other ideas. When human beings are in a mob driven by fear and anger whipped into a frenzy, we have shown ourselves to be capable of frighteningly uniform non-thinking. The Rwandan genocide comes to mind. Nazi Germany comes to mind.

People are capable of their ugliest actions when they blindly react rather than stepping back and thinking about things rationally, and acting accordingly. And, in the case of Rwanda and Nazi Germany, both resulted in the creation of cultures that slaughtered unimaginable numbers.

Labels Fail Us

Back to the main point. The labels: Islam. Muslim.

There is a visual that Sam Harris mentioned in his chat with Neil Tyson about what a Christian imagines when they find out that a person can be painted with the term "Atheist":

they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.

Don't we do this with "Islam"... just a little? We imagine Islam as one thing. We imagine Muslims as one people who conform perfectly to some expectation.

The labels fail Muslims and the labels fail non-Muslims alike. The labels expose non-Muslims to the mistake of thinking in "Us vs. Them" terms with Muslims as the other. And the labels expose Muslims to taking a defensive posture where "We are under attack" by an unjust world who will not accept them. The labels expose Muslims to having their fear and frustrations manipulated.

But these are just stories and they are divisive ones. These are the ones that deliver us into the hands of Neo-fascists. And we don't want those hands anywhere near us so it's time to abandon these stories, which divide us.


Beyond Us Vs. Them

We need some new narratives to give us hope and something to strive for.

Instead of Us vs. Them... What if we just thought of this whole mess as a bunch of people with a bunch of mixed-up ideas and some of them are poison?

Rather than considering Islam as one set of ideas interpretable only one way, we can remember that ideas are subject to fashion trends. They are subject to trending upward or downward at any given point in time.

Here are ideas I would love to see trend upward:

  • Non-Muslims reflect and realize that Muslims are our neighbors and friends and co-workers. Most of them want to live their lives and raise their families. We act accordingly. We love our neighbors.
  • The world notices that Muslims have their versions of Goebbels and Hitler. And the world will need to put these tyrants down in exactly the same way: total war ending in unconditional surrender. This is the only way to defeat evil that has decided to wage war: Force met with overwhelming force.
  • Muslims embrace freedom of speech and dissent by all, especially other Muslims, and Non-Muslims unilaterally choose to stop disrespecting Muhammad because it's nearly always a gimmicky cheap shot that is not doing anybody any good.
  • Muslims come out in support of liberal values. We will support and encourage these people because they have right on their side. Further, we work to encourage the conservatives among Muslims to respect the rights of all human beings alike (male, female, gay, straight), just as we do with non-Muslim conservatives. Live and let live becomes the universal norm.
  • "Islam means peace" becomes a statement of intention... a movement and a mantra owned by Muslims: they are defiant, vocal, and visible movement of the majority.
  • Secularism: All people of all religions work to keep their religions separate from the state. There are no state religions. Just respect and protection of rights for all beliefs and creeds.

The only way we can do this is to see the bigger "Us". We, as humans, need to see Universal principles describing fundamental rights. In other words: the conditions under which we are able to live with one another.

We don't need to be innovators who must define fundamental rights for the first time. We have the shoulders of giants to stand on. But as I said, ideas are subject to fashion and we do have to keep these ideas trending upward. It's constant upkeep... yes. There is no magic bullet to make humans respect rights for all time.

But it's good work if you can get it. And as always... Discipline Equals Freedom.

News is Not Information And Liberty Needs Church/State Separation

It's easy to view #muslims as a monolithic other. But 1-billion plus others is a lot of people.

Agreement is Rare

I want to take us into a thought experiment in the lives we know best... our own. Consider any ism that you have ever been a part of. Libertarianism, Vegetarianism, Christianity-ism.

Now take a random sample set of yourself and any 1 or 2 other people whom you can think of that have self-identified under that label.

Then ask yourself the question: "did we agree on everything that fell under the principles of that ism? Did we agree on how those principles translate into action?"

No matter what ism, you will not find 100% agreement on principles and implications. The more people you add, the lower the overlapping level of agreement in the massive venn-diagram.

One Billion Ideological Carbon Copies?

How then does this apply to a billion such people? It becomes impossible to believe that they see exactly the same things as true and important and worthy of action. Except for the sorts of things that most human beings have in common:

  • we want to live our lives
  • we look out for the well-being of those we care about

We, as non-muslims, can take a moment to fully take in the heterogenity of the full body of muslims. Not all of them will be conservative or bigotted or sexist. Some of them may not even care about politics: live and let live.

Ideas come and go in perpetual motion and there is constant change on which ones are fashionable.

Our mainstream media do a bad job of representing reality in a statistically correct way. Anything that gets reported on seems to be statistically prevalent to our easily-fooled psyches. People who want to just live their lives are not news. People getting along with one another is not news.

We have this conception that "news" is information. And while this is true, as far as statistical impressions go, it is total misinformation.

Regardless, I'd like to take heart in the news story listed below under References (1), "Tunisian Islamists Ennahda move to separate politics, religion".

The separation of church and state is a fundamental principle with huge implications to liberty. Every innovation, including the ones made in the realm of liberty, begins as heresy against the mainstream fashion that came before. Heresy is attacked with prejudice by any state that is involved in policing your ideas.

We must support the freedom to express ideas and therefore we must support any effort no matter how small toward states and political movements that compose themselves as independent of religion. We must support secular politics and we must denounce and resist any effort to marry state with religion as an attack upon our lives and liberty.

So what can we do?

People in the mainstream media can certainly do something: stop putting forward the loud obnoxious conservative bigot muslims as their "authentic" voices. You are not an authority on one billion plus people.

People who are not media can stop watching CNN and Fox News. They are not in the business of informing you. You are not "learning" when you hear their interpretations. Remember: They are in the business of selling your eyes to advertisers.


1: Tunisian Islamists Ennahda move to separate politics, religion | Reuters
2: Maajid Nawaz