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Why Islam Offends the West

It’s no secret that Islam is incompatible with Western values.  Even overlooking the character deficiencies of Islam’s prophet–a mass-murderer, thief, slave-trader, rapist, pedophile, and terrorist–the religion’s values are in conflict with Western sensibilities on a fundamental level.  Interestingly, the non-religious are often offended by Islam for the very same reasons as Christians, even if they don’t acknowledge that this difference in culture is due to Christianity.

Modesty

Follow any internet discussion about the burqa or Muslim headscarves, and somebody will eventually always suggest the Muslim men should cover themselves rather than the women.  This suggestion may not even come from a Christian, but the idea behind it is certainly derived from Western society’s Judeo-Christian background:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.   Matthew 5:28-29

The burqa and other compulsory head coverings offend Western sensibilities because we’ve taught that men are personally responsibility for their behavior, regardless of the temptation, whether inadvertent or intentional.  In Islam, however, the woman ultimately bears responsibility for causing temptation whether she means to or not.  The only defense of the burqa that has ever gained popularity in the West is if the woman claims to feel empowered by wearing it out of her own free will, but this ultimately misses the whole point about a garment designed more to protect men with little willpower from facing temptation.  These women may explain how being completely covered protects them from  being sexually harassed by passing men on the street, but this is again a problem caused by the Muslim male, not the female.  Western Civilization expects its men to be disciplined, self-controlled, and respectful, to the point of hyperbolic blindness.  There is no reason why the Muslim man should seem helpless to restrain himself from jeering, groping, or raping just because he sees a woman’s face, arms, or legs, when men in the West are perfectly able to behave respectfully and decently.  If Islam is the only reason why self-control is in such short supply among Muslim men, then Islam is conclusively an inferior ideology.

Public Displays of Worship

From public Christmas decorations to prayer in public schools, the West is often offended by religion in public, but this isn’t necessarily exclusive to the anti-religious.  The post-Christian heresies of the modern atheist are still very much rooted in Christian principles, and the disdain for public displays of worship can be traced back to Christ’s teachings on hypocrisy:

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  Matthew 6:6

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”  Matthew 6:16

Whatever the religious persuasion, Westerners tend to view displays of piety with suspicion and mistrust.  We see religion as a personal issue partly because when we see it in public we see it as an ingenuous cry for attention.  Islamic  culture, on the contrary, has no concept of private worship, rather believers are expected to be seen in the community performing salat and not seen eating during Ramadan.  Muslims who develop a “prayer bump” on their foreheads are respected as devout members of the community.  Islam demands public visibility of one’s faith, yet sadly has no safeguards to prevent hypocrisy.

Childhood

Dutch psychologist Nicolai Sennels identifies that Muslims, particularly men, start out with more relaxed freedom in childhood, which is then curtailed as they grow older.  Girls, for instance, do not need to wear burqas, but they do when they reach puberty.  Eventually, even the decision of their marriage is outside of their control when they enter into adulthood.  This is the complete opposite of Western parenting, where children gradually acquire freedoms as they mature.  What Sennels may not have noticed, though, is how these are both related to each culture’s theological beliefs on sin.  Western culture has been shaped by the doctrine of Original Sin, or in simplest terms, the reality-based idea that children are born imperfect with the tendency to do wrong.  Islam, on the other hand, teaches that children are born sinless and acquire sin as they grow older.  This difference in parenting style results in an individual completely at odds with the Western mindset.  When Muslims act infantile, it is the result of an upbringing that raises boys into babies instead of men.

Turning the Other Cheek

Without fail, whenever a harmless cartoon is published or even if a Qur’an is unintentionally burned, it will result in worldwide Islamic protests, riots, and the deaths of non-Muslims.  Even non-Chrstiains can be heard telling Muslims to turn the other cheek when they react with such disproportionate violence, but this is futile because Islam has no such concept.

O you who have believed, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered – the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. But whoever transgresses after that will have a painful punishment.  Surah 2:178

[Fighting in] the sacred month is for [aggression committed in] the sacred month, and for [all] violations is legal retribution. So whoever has assaulted you, then assault him in the same way that he has assaulted you. And fear Allah and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.  Surah 2:194

And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution. But whoever gives [up his right as] charity, it is an expiation for him. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.  Surah 5:45

And the retribution for an evil act is an evil one like it, but whoever pardons and makes reconciliation – his reward is [due] from Allah . Indeed, He does not like wrongdoers.  Surah 42:40

Retaliation is a legal obligation in Islam, the exception being when the victim opts for monetary compensation instead, the “expiation” and “reconciliation” mentioned above, which is not actually forgiveness.  Even if one accepted the incorrect explanations of an apologist, and disregarded the vast majority of Muslim scholars, that these exceptions are comparable to turning the other cheek, Western values are still in conflict with Muhammad commanding followers to repay evil with evil in the first place.  It’s laughable to imagine Jesus Christ saying “repay evil for evil except when you turn the other cheek”, and this predictably explains just why, if given the choice, Muslims always retaliate with evil instead of forgiving.  Anybody raised to believe that these were both morally equivalent choices would elect the most despicable of the two every time.

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When Fundamentalism Isn’t Really Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the American lexicon.  Its negative connotation conjures images of religious radicals, extremists, and anti-intellectuals..  Critics of Fundamentalism like Karen Armstrong, Bruce Bawer, and John Shelby Spong often develop their own criteria to define the ideology, which usually has less to do with fundamentalist beliefs and more to do with their positions on science, abortion, and sex.  Ironically, some people consider themselves not to be fundamentalists simply because they take relaxed stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage, when theologically they are still very much fundamentalist in their beliefs.  An unusual phenomenon is that Christian fundamentalists may become skeptics after being unable to reconcile an unreasonable Biblical literalism, essentially retaining fundamentalist interpretive methods even as nonbelievers.  More recently, the term has been extended to people of other religions in addition to Christianity, as if it were an all-encompassing ideology that could be applied in equal measure to any belief system.  This, however, is a misnomer that only creates further confusion about the definition of a fundamentalist.

The first problem with calling members of other religions “fundamentalists” is that fundamentalism is a term specifically coined to refer to Christians who subscribed to the “Five Fundamentals” (Biblical inerrancy, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the reality of miracles), a theological package which is exclusively Christian.  The second problem is that Fundamentalism was a reactionary ideology to the emerging Modernist and liberal schools of the 19th century.  Other religions that have acquired a label of “fundamentalist” by some adherents have not even yet had such an encounter with Modernism.  For instance, Islam has no comparable school of textual criticism of the Qur’an as there exists for the Bible, while their beliefs about revelation differ tremendously from the Christian concept of inspiration, its closest comparison is  to Biblical inerrancy.  There is no organized body in Islam that dares to question the virgin birth, and while the atonement and resurrection of Christ are rejected by the Qur’an, these beliefs are absolutely held in common by all Muslims.  In other words, if we were going to apply the same definition to Islam, we would be forced to conclude that all Muslims are fundamentalists, not just the Ayatollah or Al Qaeda.

Similarly, Mormonism includes a splinter sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the line of demarcation between them and mainline Mormons is the continuation of beliefs from the time of Brigham Young, namely polygamy.  Like Islam, Mormonism has a long history of rejecting textual criticism and non-literal interpretations of the Book of Mormon and other later scriptures (although, ironically they employ peculiar, unscholarly criticism of the Bible).  Proponents of theories suggesting the Book of Mormon is inspired folklore, for instance, have resulted in reprimanding and disciplinary action.  In essence, all Mormons subscribe to a fundamentalist worldview, whether they see it that way or not.  Like some Christians, they may even entertain evolutionary theory as possibly compatible with their scriptural beliefs, but they still do so on fundamentalist terms (it may shock many of today’s Christians to discover that the essays in “The Fundamentals” did not actually denounce biological evolution).  I would go so far as to say Mormons and Muslims could not possibly relate to a non-fundamentalist worldview and still believe in their religion, because textual criticism would naturally unravel it.

It’s clear that not all Fundamentalism is created equal.  While generally a best practice is not to refer to any group as fundamentalist unless they take that title for themselves, even among those who make that claim it is evident that their reasons for calling themselves such, like fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Mormons, are completely dissimilar.  Ironically, when apologists try to defend a religion like Islam from criticism about jihad or human rights violations, suggesting that fundamentalism is the problem, not the religion itself, they would technically be categorically denouncing their entire religion anyway if they honestly applied the term the same as they do to Christianity.

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Mormonism: The Other Brand X

In 1981, the Book of Mormon was printed in the edition currently in circulation today.  Under the radar of most non-Mormons, even its title was revised, to the now familiar “Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”  This edition was to usher in a new public relations-driven mission which would effectively change the Latter-day Saint image and double the church’s size outside the U.S. in the next few decades.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been fond of the LDS church’s version of the Book of Mormon.  Although it has a plethora of useful cross-references and footnotes (usually, but I could write another entry on some of the references that are deliberately and suspiciously left uncited), its double-column format and tiny margins don’t leave enough space for my hands-on method of analysis.  That’s not surprising, really, most other religions I’ve encountered aren’t as accommodating with their sacred texts as I’m accustomed to with the Bible.  I just may have outgrown my wide margin NIV, but it looks like Zondervan discontinued that model anyway, in favor of an edition with a full blank page for note taking.  On the other end of the spectrum, Muslims discourage writing anything in the Qur’an, which I believe is a major impediment to Islamic scholarship.  Baha’i publications are serviceable but limited to a single edition of each, many times just a cherry-picked anthology.  The ISKCON edition of the Bhavagad Gita is useful in that it has Hindi, English, and Swami Prabhupada’s commentary for each verse, but it doesn’t leave much room  for anything but his concentrated focus.  The Bible has been subject to much more extensive critical analysis than any other sacred text on earth, yet even when other religions seem to promote study, their publications have confined parameters outside of which the faithful do not venture.

On a recent visit to the local temple’s visitor’s center to ask some questions, I brought my own copy of the Book of Mormon that I use for research.  I had found a reader-friendly edition online which is exactly the same text, just in single-column paragraph form; it still doesn’t meet my needs, but the version that would doesn’t exist in print (I hope to change that someday).  Despite my having been flipping through this edition to read passages, and even using its fore edge to demonstrate my Biblical analog theory, after we’d been discussing for a half hour the sister interrupted me to inquire what book I was using.  She was noticeably surprised when I told her it was the Book of Mormon.

At that moment, I was suddenly aware of how foreign this was to them, and how much of an outsider it made me.  Go to most churches and (aside from pew Bibles) you’ll see people carrying diverse translations of the Bible in a wide range of editions from various publishers; it’s unusual for two people to have the exact same Bible by coincidence.  You couldn’t tell people in your church to turn to 1 Chronicles 1 and expect any of them to be on the same page number.  At the temple, however, one is surrounded by translations of the Book of Mormon in dozens of languages, yet they still

the Book of Mormon's trademark look is instantly recognizable in any language

look uniform.  The text is different for each language, but the fonts and formats are all the same.  In fact, the primary differences in the versions carried by the missionaries and visiting Mormons seem to be symbols of status.  Only prospective converts ever use the cheap, free copies.  Initiated members have at the very least the hardcover edition, but more likely a “triple” combination (Book of Mormon+Doctrines & Coventants+Pearl of Great Price), and others a “quad” (the triple with the Bible).  The most well-to-do, of course, have the deluxe leather bound quad with their name engraved.  Even though the shape and size may vary, their configurations are homogenous, with identical typeset and printing common to all of them.  Every page is alike in every one of them, so that Ether chapter 8 is always on page 500.  Every English Book of Mormon was the same, except mine of course.

When the title was changed in the 80’s, the LDS church began a campaign to re-brand themselves and their sacred texts, so that Mormons now have a cultic loyalty to their brand that borders on fetishism.   The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now a corporate logo with worldwide recognition, displayed prominently on employee elder name tags, publications, and buildings.  The Book of Mormon is no longer a book in the traditional sense: words transmitted through a physical medium, that could exist hypothetically in print, in speech, or even in memory.  Instead, the Book of Mormon is a household name product, and its loyal customers refuse any generic facsimile, no matter that all the contents inside are the same.

Mormons certainly aren’t the only ones who do this, of course.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are as fanatically loyal to their Awake! and Watchtower magazines, not to mention their own branded translation of the Bible.  Hare Krishnas visibly recoil if I mention the Gandhi or Vivekananda translations of the Bhagavad Gita.  Baha’i scriptures are published with a uniform trade dress in ersatz King James English, and even though none of the Bab’s major works have been translated or printed in full in any language (not even the original Arabic or Farsi), Baha’is I’ve encountered are hesitant if not reluctant to read unofficial, provisional or modernized translations available online because they are lacking the Universal House of Justice “stamp” of approval.  And while translations of the Qur’an are abundant in English, every self-respecting Muslim knows that the only real version is the standardized Arabic text.

They all seem to feel a sense of comfort and familiarity from their preferred brand, the same way I can flip through a bargain box of comic books and stop every time I see the DC comics logo while paying little attention to Marvel or other companies.  DC knew the power of their brand recognition, which is why they retained the DC “bullet” logo for nearly 30 years, only changing it for a major event; and why they’ve almost never altered the Superman logo, except for minor tweaks.  As a comic collector, I can completely understand the psychological propensity to want to accumulate a line of books of uniform design, which is essentially a cult, or religious following.  But preferring a religion isn’t like buying DC over Marvel or Coke over Pepsi; loyalty of this extent not only prevents the consumer from examining any alternatives, it also prevents them from any serious inquiry into their own faith.  Like a faithful customer who eats a certain food brand because that company tells them it’s good for them, but never independently researches a consumer report or outside nutritional information, these fetishists don’t approach their sacred books with the same critical questions that have long been standard to Biblical scholarship.

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