Why describing Islam as ‘evil’ is not helpful
In recent days there has been some discussion on Twitter regarding Richard Dawkins' use of the word ‘evil’ to describe Islam.
As ex-Muslims, we feel strongly that using the word 'evil' to describe Islam is not helpful. We agree with other sceptics that Islam - like other religions - contains unethical teachings that are oppressive and unjust. We also know that Islam can influence and inspire some adherents to commit acts that could reasonably be described as 'evil'.
Here are some reasons why we believe that describing Islam as 'evil' is actually the wrong approach.
Calling something 'evil' actually comes across as a totalising religious-sounding rhetoric itself. In an earlier article we wrote about how as ex-Muslims we believe that Islam is a creation of men:
“ [that] is to say that Islam is a man made religion created at a certain time and place in history that requires certain beliefs and precepts to change to make it compatible with modernity, liberal ideas and free conscience. To describe Islam as 'evil' is to utilise the rhetoric of religion itself – to engage in a [binary] way of thinking.
Religions are products of societies – and just as societies can change, so can religions. Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism have all had reformist movements that sought to change aspects of belief and dogma inimical to what reformists believed was just and truthful in modern times”
Simply describing Islam as 'evil' can imbue it with a diabolical metaphysical lure, that tends towards reductive caricature. And using religious language to try to describe religion may also encourage a kind of laziness about the need for specific structural criticism and inquiry of the aspects of scripture and mechanisms that deserve to be repudiated. If something is reduced to just being 'evil', then there is no room left for reform, for change, for progress or improvement in the minds of those who may be beginning to move in such positive directions.
This nuanced understanding is crucial at this point, because so many sceptics, atheists and humanists from non-Muslim backgrounds are sadly lacking in specific knowledge about Islam, and the details and technicalities of its theology and tradition. This is especially unfortunate because it is not that difficult to get an understanding of these issues – particularly when there are increasing numbers of ex-Muslims speaking and writing about these matters, and whose experiences are easily accessible on social media.
We should never defer to the taboos of religion when criticising aspects of theology or tradition that are unjust, reactionary and irrational. We find some aspects of Islamic scripture to be unethical, and we find the apologia rendered for them by some people to be deceitful. But we will always refrain from extending that to a diagnosis of Islam as simply being ‘evil’, because we believe it reduces the agency we have to challenge what is a set of ideas created by human beings, that can be criticised, changed, reformed, repudiated, and transcended by human beings.
Describing Islam as 'evil' frightens many Muslims because they hear in it echoes of the rhetoric of far-right xenophobes who view Islam in a manner that does not differentiate between them as individuals and an undifferentiated entity which becomes freighted with irredeemable, metaphysical ‘evil’.
A liberal Muslim activist contacted us recently and said: "The concept of 'Evil Islam' is truly terrifying. If you honestly believe that, then you are compelled to repel 'Evil' and any act against the Perceived Evil becomes Good. It can be a dangerous way of thinking. Of course Richard Dawkins can't be thinking this way, but him saying it risks validating the rhetoric of simple minded bigots whose agenda is malicious."
Occasionally, the accusation of considering Islam to be ‘evil’ has been laid upon us. It is obvious that this charge is often made to try to marginalise our voices and impose a kind of blasphemy code. In order to effectively address the myriad oppressive aspects of Islam and other religions, it is absolutely critical that critics of religion are careful and deliberate in the language we use.
You can read our article addressing this here:
"“Ex-Muslims and the EDL-esque Idea That Islam Is Evil “http://www.councilofexmuslims.com/index.php?topic=22740.0
We admire Richard Dawkins in so many ways. We don’t take issue with his view that religion tends towards the reactionary and is frequently an oppressive institution. We also understand how the most deceitful and ignorant proponents of religion can, in their opposition to progressive values, appear cruel, and proud of their aggressive reactionary beliefs. We know how easy it can be to slip into rhetoric that describes religions' oppressive qualities in paradoxically similar terms as they ascribe to others - in terms of 'evil'.
However, what is needed is subtlety and nuance of language and thought, along with fearlessness to challenge religion, particularly when confronting the taboos of the Islamic religion. Some religious ideas are cruel, and in social circumstances can have brutal effects. As ex-Muslims, who face the stigma of the teachings on apostasy, we know this only too well. In fact we know it better than anyone.
We hope that Richard Dawkins can appreciate our point of view. His exemplary focus on clear observation and accurate description is what has made him one of the greatest scientists of our age. As ex-Muslims we feel that this can and should be applied to language when addressing religion too.