If there is a poster child for the Regressive Left, it’s Reza Aslan. Appealing to soft-headed liberals like Oprah Winfrey, Aslan gives comfort to those who simply can’t believe that any faith, including Islam, could promote evil. For if one religion can, so can they all, and the conclusion would be that superstition has a dark side. Aslan also helps resolve the cognitive dissonance of liberals who are torn between two Enlightenment values: a humanistic concern for the oppressed on the one hand (Muslims, seen as an oppressed people of color), and a promotion of equality among groups like gays and women. What do you do with a religion held by people of color that, at the same time, largely demonizes gays and women, often calls for the death of nonbelievers and apostates, and wants to spread theocracy via sharia law? Well, you simply assert that that religion simply doesn’t do those things—that the true form of Islam is what Aslan says it is: a kindly and enlightened faith, corrupted by bad people who would have done bad things even if they were Quakers.
This saccharine clip is part of the theme of Jeff Tayler’s new piece at Quillette: “Straight talk about religion: Reza Aslan peddles false wares to influential dupes.” And, sadly, in this case the dupe is Oprah:
You can see Aslan’s unctuous manner, appealing to those who don’t think too hard about what he’s saying. It is this amiable demeanor that makes what he’s saying seem palatable, while those like Maajid Nawaz, Maryam Namazie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who point out that the persecution of minorities and nonbelievers is inherent in Islamic scripture, are dismissed as “native informants.” The sad part is that Tayler quotes Aslan as admitting that people do indeed commit barbarous acts in the name of Islam. But, as Tayler notes, “Yet this [admission] is not what Aslan has done, either on the air with Oprah or elsewhere.” Indeed. If you just listened to Aslan, and didn’t know anything about ISIS, the oppressive restrictions on women in many Muslim countries, the association of the faith with female genital mutilation, the widespread support for sharia law, the near-universal notion that the Qur’an is to be read literally, word for word—all of that would be incomprehensible. No, Aslan’s own myth is that nearly all Muslims are swept up in the all-loving symbolism and metaphor of that book.
But I digress; the point here is to call attention to Tayler’s piece, from which I’ve taken a few excerpts. It bears reading in its entirety:
The line Aslan is selling us — that Islam consists not of propositions (conveyed through the Quran) regarding the origins and future of the universe and our species, accompanied by instructions to all of us about how to behave, but of ethereal, infinitely malleable abstractions — “symbols” and “metaphors” and such — may pass as credible on a talk show. Yet among those for whom the faith retains its genuine, primordial characteristics as a divinely inspired blueprint for control and exploitation, backed by a harsh apparatus of enforcement — it would sound blasphemous, and would surely earn its telegenic peddler a caning — or worse. Aslan is free to espouse whatever sort of Islam he chooses, obviously, but we should not confuse his fanciful version of it with reality.
Tayler handily takes down Aslan’s claim that religion isn’t about reality or truth, but about nice stories:
. . . When Aslan then informs Oprah that “symbols and metaphors . . . define the relationship between human beings and God” he is begging the question, assuming that we already accept the existence of a supernatural being (as he can expect the famously pious Oprah to do), but which has been a matter at least thought worthy of argument, even among theologians of yore. Lest we forget, the validity of the entire Abrahamic enterprise rests on God’s factual existence, if for no other reason than He had to exist to issue the “revelations” providing the sole basis for regarding the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Quran as anything more than oversize compendia of lurid, often cruel fairy tales, and not the inerrant, irrevocable Word of God. Absent divine authorship, these tomes would merit no more respect than The Epic of Gilgamesh (from which the Flood legend surely derives) and certainly less esteem than, say, Homer’s magnificent, far more imaginative oeuvre.
. . . A shrewd operator, Aslan demonstrates that nonbelievers and skeptics have left their mark on him. He next tells Oprah that:
[W]hat I always say to people is that there is no proof for the existence or the non-existence of God. Faith is a choice. But it’s not an irrational choice. That it’s actually quite rational and reasonable when confronted with reality and the world and life itself.
The rapidly expanding sector of wised-up Americans would beg to differ, as would citizens of nine of the most peaceable, developed countries, where religion is destined to become extinct. Easy access to information (via the Internet) combined with science’s growing ability to explain away once-unfathomable mysteries are, day by day, shoring up the case for a worldview based on evidence, not superstitious dogma. Reverence for ancient texts, composed before people knew what germs were or that the Earth revolves around the sun — now that’s irrational.
If you haven’t read the Qur’an, I urge you to do so. It’s available online in several versions, including an annotated Qur’an for skeptics, with various symbols indicating the pernicious bits (and the very few kindly bits). At the American Humanist Association meetings, John De Lancie said he finally gave up on faith when he read the Bible—the well known cure for religiosity among seminarians. If you read the Qur’an, you’ll see that characterizing Islam as a “religion of peace” means that you not only have to ignore the scripture itself, but also the universal Muslim belief that its words are accurate and inerrant.