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Idiot: The Life and Times of Reza Aslan — Part V: The Open Letter

I know I promised I’d stop blogging about Reza Aslan, but his latest effort is simply beyond the pale. With Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj, he penned “An Open Letter to American Muslims on Same-Sex Marriage,” which seeks to enlighten American Muslims who have come out against the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. It offends me on two fronts: first, by attempting (in the most condescending ways imaginable) to regulate the behavior of fellow Muslims; and secondly, but much more importantly, by resting their reasoning on Muslims’ minority status rather than principles.

The letter begins with an inauspicious but still hilarious paragraph:

To Our Fellow American Muslims,

Hey there. It’s two of your brothers. We’re writing to you about the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in all fifty states. The good news is that a whopping 42% of you support marriage equality, as do both of our Muslim elected officials in the United States Congress. One even serves as vice chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus! There are many faithful gay and lesbian Muslims in the US and we love and support all of them.

Wow! A “whopping” 42%! That is, indeed, “good news.” Because, you see, contrary to the far-left assumption that the majority of Muslims who oppose gay marriage will be castigated by the white, Christian ruling class, this majority opposition puts American Muslims in agreement with the single largest religious group in this country: evangelical Christians. According to the same poll Aslan and Minhaj cite, a narrow majority of 54% of all Americans favor same-sex marriage, and those numbers are brought down dramatically by the large number of white evangelicals (28%), non-white Protestants (black Protestants at 38%, Hispanic Protestants at 35%, and “other” Protestants at 41%), and notoriously conservative fringe Christians (27% for Mormons, 12% for Jehovah’s Witnesses). With depressing numbers like these, it’s clear that conservative American Muslims are largely in step with (if not slightly more progressive than) their Christian counterparts.

Why, then, do Aslan and Minhaj think they need to tell their “brothers” (and “sisters”?) what to think and how to behave? Is it a genuine belief that all Americans, including conservative Christians in full agreement, will turn against Muslims who don’t support gay marriage—or is it that these conservative Muslims make it more difficult for Aslan (and, I suppose, Minhaj, though I know very little about him beyond his great hair) to present all Muslims as good-humored, westernized, Sufi-fied progressives? Let’s continue reading to find out!

At the same time, many of you are scandalized by the ruling (we know because you keep tweeting about it), and many more of you are equally perturbed but have chosen to keep it to yourself. With all the rainbow-flag waving and self-congratulatory pats on the back this country is giving itself right now, you don’t need another reason for Americans to dislike you.

What about all the chest-thumping about the Supreme Court legislating from the bench, shitting all over the Constitution, and denying states their God-given right to determine the gay marriage issue? Aslan typically throws around the word “Islamophobia” at the drop of a hat, preaching tolerance and understanding as the only road to eliminate the fear and hatred of Muslims. What better way to develop tolerance and understanding than finding common ground? The proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is rumored to have a Bedouin origin, so it’s a fitting way to gain acceptance with the portion of the population that generally disdains Muslims as terr’ists.

Of course, that presumes Aslan and Minhaj are actually interested in American Muslims gaining acceptance among conservatives; they aren’t.

Sure Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee can call the Supreme Court decision the precursor to the End of Days and the final battle of Armageddon. But if you try saying something like that on TV you may end up in Guantanamo. So you’re staying quiet. You may not like the Supreme Court’s decision but you’re willing to tolerate it.

The implication here is that conservative Muslims have kept silent, which in typical Aslan fashion contradicts the earlier note that conservative Muslims are speaking out all over Twitter. My question is this: where, on TV, would conservative Muslim commentators find a voice? Two major news outlets, CNN and MSNBC, have demonstrated their desire to portray Islam, especially as practiced by western Muslims, in its most positive light (in part by employing Aslan as a frequent commentator). Fox News has no such agenda, but they also have a fairly obvious Christian bias. As far as I know, they do not employ any conservative Muslim commentators to discuss their religious compatibility with white right-wing establishment. Maybe something like Al-Jazeera America would give voice to such views, but I don’t know much about their content.

Admittedly, the letter is intended to have a casual, charming, tongue-in-cheek attitude, so let’s assume the reference to “saying something like that on TV” is a joke, because Aslan and Minhaj must be aware that TV wouldn’t let a Muslim with that viewpoint speak out. Does that also mean the possibility of “end[ing] up in Guantanamo” is also a joke, or is that just casual fear-mongering?

We understand where you’re coming from. Being Muslim in America is not easy. On the one hand you’re a part of mainstream culture. You’re a Warriors fan. You listen to Kanye. You watch Game of Thrones. You even went to the office Christmas party and sang Silent Night!

On the other hand, you want to stay true to your faith and traditions: You go to the mosque and send your kids to Islamic school, fast during Ramadan, and swap Turkey bacon on your BLT, all in an attempt to establish a firm Muslim identity in a non-Muslim country.

But now that same-sex marriage is legal in America, it’s shaking up your faith. You’re afraid of the future and what this could mean for your kids. You recognize the growing acceptance of gay rights, but personally you just can’t bring yourself to embrace the shift. You may feel okay with having gay acquaintances or coworkers. You may even agree that being gay doesn’t disqualify you from also being a Muslim. But privately, you still feel like the LGBT community is a living contradiction to what you were brought up to believe.

First of all, I hate it when people put song titles in italics instead of quotes.

More importantly, these three paragraphs hit on that strange blindspot in the way Aslan thinks about religion: the idea that Muslim identity is so unique, so different, so non-western, that Obergefell v. Hodges could only shake up the faith of American Muslims. I’ve already gone through the poll numbers showing that this clearly is not the case: many American Christians oppose the ruling, an opinion that transcends race and gender and rests entirely on religious beliefs.

To that end, I’m not convinced the decision is “shaking up their faith.” I think the heart of the issue is that decisions like this don’t shake up religious conservatives’ faith—they cause the faithful, in their fear of an increasingly secular and tolerant world, to double down on their existing beliefs. Gay marriage was bad enough when it was only legal in a few states; now, it’s an abomination. A man-made court has ruled against the inerrant word of God. Their decision must be fought by every good, God-fearing American. This stubborn desire of the religious to control the behavior of others really could be the unifying force among these two seemingly opposed faiths—and ironically, if conservatives were smarter, they’d see that and start working together. And I’d laugh at the stupefied expression on Aslan’s face as Islamophobia finally melts away, with imams and pastors joining hands to fight the Godless horror our country has become. That will never actually happen, but I think it would be hilarious if it did.

But here’s the thing. When you are an underrepresented minority—whether Muslim, African American, female, etc.—democracy is an all or nothing business. You fight for everyone’s rights (and the operative word here is “fight”), or you get none for yourself. Democracy isn’t a buffet. You can’t pick and choose which civil liberties apply to which people. Either we are all equal, or the whole thing is just a sham.

So begins the offensively unprincipled portion of the letter. “You can’t pick and choose which civil liberties apply to which people” is a principled stance, surrounded by unprincipled reasoning: the only reason “[American Muslims] can’t pick and choose,” Aslan and Minhaj imply, is because “you are an underrepresented minority.” The reason American Muslims should “fight for everyone’s rights” is because if you don’t, “you get none for yourself.”

Three paragraphs follow elaborating on this thesis, but none of them take a principled stand against archaic theological rules. Aslan and Minhaj do not urge American Muslims to support gay marriage on the American principle that what two consenting adults do in their bedroom is not the business of religion or law. They appeal to Muslims’ marginalization by Americans: “We shouldn’t be perpetuating our marginalization by marginalizing others.”

Aslan and Minhaj instruct Muslims to empathize with gay men and women, call them hypocrites, and support their agreement with gay marriage by misquoting the Qur’an:

We don’t know about you, but our faith teaches us to care for the weak and the marginalized, the poor and dispossessed, those who are trampled underfoot, those who are persecuted—no matter who they are, no matter what they believe, no matter who they choose to love. “Believers, stand firm for God, be witnesses for justice. Never allow the hatred of people to prevent you from being just. Be just, for this is closest to righteousness” (Quran 5:8). It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

Actually, it does: “O you who believe, stand up as witnesses for God in all fairness, and do not let the hatred of a people deviate you from justice. Be just: This is closest to piety; and beware of God. Surely God is aware of all you do” (Qur’an 5:8). I re-quoted (from Ahmed Ali’s translation; presumably, the translation in the open letter was performed by Aslan) to make it clear that Aslan and Minhaj omit an important part of this command: be just, ’cause God’ll kill you if you aren’t.

Is it any wonder Aslan and Minhaj can’t make an argument based on actual principles of justice? Their faith instructs them to “be just” not because it’s right, but because they should fear divine consequences.

More importantly, this verse obviously presumes “justice” based on God’s instructions elsewhere in the Qur’an. For example:

And We sent Lot, who said to his people: “Why do you commit this lecherous act which none in the world has committed before? In preference to women you satisfy your lust with men. Indeed you are a people who are guilty of excess.” His people made no answer, and only said: “Drive them out of the city. They profess to be pure.” But We saved him and his family, except for his wife who was one of those who stayed behind. And We rained down on them a shower (of Stones). So witness the end of sinners! (7:80-7:84)

“Why do you go for males unlike all other creatures Leaving the consorts your Lord has made for you? But you are a people who exceed the bounds.” … So We saved him and his whole family except one old woman who remained behind. Then We destroyed the rest of them, and rained on them a shower (of Stones). How terrible was the rain (that fell) on those who had been warned! Verily in this was a sign, but most of them do not believe. Yet surely your Lord is mighty and powerful. (26:165-166, 26:170-175)

(Remember) Lot, when he said to his people: “Why do you indulge in obscenities when you know (it is evil)? You lust after men in place of women. You are indeed a stolid people.” His people had no answer except saying: “Expel the family of Lot from your city. They are a people who would (rather) be pure!” So We saved him and his family except his wife who was destined to stay behind. And We rained down on them a shower (of stones). How ruinous was the rain that fell on those who had been warned (but warned in vain)! Say: “All praise be to God, and peace on those of His creatures whom He has chosen.” (27:54-59)

And (remember) Lot when he said to his people: “You indulge in lecherous acts which none of the creatures had done before you. (28) You commit unnatural acts with men and cut off the way (of procreation), and commit obscenities in your gatherings.” The only answer his people made was: “Bring the punishment of God, if you are truthful.” … Verily We have left a clear sign of this for people of sense to see. (29:28-29, 29:35)

Lot occupies a sizable chunk of the Qur’an; his story is told and retold (marvel at the contradictions in the four of the variations quoted above) and his virtue is repeatedly extolled, for one simple reason: Lut acted as God’s messenger, warning the people that their chief sin—homosexuality—would be punished if they didn’t cut it out. They didn’t, and they were punished. Why would the Qur’an put such emphasis on this particular prophet, and this particular story, if it didn’t interpret their punishment as just? And if their punishment was just, and it exists as “a clear sign,” then what is the appropriate reaction of a Muslim—any Muslim—to living in a free country where gay marriage is legal under the law?

[Lot] had warned them of Our might, but they passed over the warnings. They lusted after his guests, so We put out their eyes (and said): “Taste My punishment and My commination.” And early in the morning the decreed punishment came upon them. So now taste My punishment and My commination! Easy have We made the Qur’an to understand: So is there any one who will be warned? The warnings came to the people of Pharaoh. They rejected each one of Our signs. So We seized them with the grip of one mighty and powerful. (54:36-42)

So, the Qur’an itself is “easy… to understand” because, unlike easily misinterpreted prophets of the past, it is a clear warning from God? The Qur’an itself defines its own inerrancy (53:1-5), and while I’m not suggesting all Muslims do or should take every verse of the Qur’an literally, why should those who do change their opinion, simply for the sake of sticking up for a minority group they find abhorrent?

That’s the funny thing about this open letter: it’s not asking American Muslims to change their opinion. Rather, it’s telling American Muslims to stay silent about those opinions, and support gay marriage as a way of supporting themselves:

No one is asking you to change your beliefs. If you feel your faith tells you that homosexuality is haram, fine. We disagree with your interpretation, but you’re entitled to it.

Ain’t America grand?

But if you can’t find it in your heart to accept gays on principle, think about the country you want to live in. After all, the constitution that just ensured the rights of LGBT communities is the same constitution that protects our mosques and community centers, that keeps our Islamic schools open, that allows us equal rights and privileges in the face of overwhelming hatred and bigotry from our fellow Americans. You can’t celebrate one without the other.

That’s why it’s not enough to simply “tolerate” the Supreme Court decision. Tolerating another community only stirs up concealed fear toward the marginalized and apathy toward the political process. As minorities we don’t have the luxury to have either of those emotions. We have to do more than tolerate. We have to embrace. We have to fight for the right of others to live their lives as freely as we want to live ours.

Bottom line is this: standing up for marginalized communities, even when you disagree with them, is not just the right thing to do, it’s the Muslim thing to do. Remember that whole God is merciful and compassionate thing? That extends to all people, not just those who are straight.

Celebrate. Don’t tolerate. Love really does win.

Yours Truly,

Reza Aslan and Hasan Minhaj

How one can simultaneously “celebrate” while “standing up for marginalized communities, even when you disagree with them”? What Aslan and Minhaj are ultimately telling conservative Muslims to do is to lie about their beliefs, lie about their true feelings, and lie about what their religion dictates (whether it’s a matter of “interpretation” or the cold, hard facts of an ancient text), for the sole purpose of gaining acceptance among mainstream liberal Americans. Here’s a newsflash for Aslan and Minhaj: American Muslims already have acceptance from liberals—at least among the intellectual set—to a crippling degree; they certainly won’t gain acceptance from conservative Americans by celebrating gay marriage.

Like so many things involving Aslan, this stupid letter—at less than a thousand words—manages innumerable contradictions in terms, and it all comes back to principled honesty. Aslan and Minhaj are forced to pretzel-logic their way into commanding conservative Muslims to swallow their religious pride and feign gay pride as a means to an end. They have no ability to appeal to the principles of the American Constitution, because they know that for conservative Muslims—just like conservative Christians—divine law trumps the law of man.

And yet, in a free society, it’s very difficult to rationally argue against the most basic principle of freedom: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Let’s ignore, for a second, that the American government (and the people themselves) violate this rock-solid principle on a regular basis. The fact that some people ignore it is irrelevant to the fact that this sentence is the bedrock upon which the American political system lay. Regardless of innumerable laws that flagrantly thumb their noses at individual freedom, the fact remains that in this country, an adult of sound mind should be allowed to do what they want, so long as their actions don’t directly harm others.

It’s as simple as that. Aslan and Minhaj don’t make this argument, though. Like far too many pseudo-liberals, they have a fundamental misunderstanding of individual freedom—not to mention a fundamental misunderstanding of tolerance and disagreement. The argument from principle here is that a religious person has the right to his or her beliefs about gay relationships and marriage, but they do not have the right to infringe upon the rights of others based upon those beliefs. That incredibly simple fact is what is right in this situation.

Aslan and Minhaj don’t understand this to be the truth, though. It’s not (just) their attempts to pander to conservative Muslims who would disagree; it’s the fact that they, themselves, disagree. They would rather have conservative Muslims pretend to agree with something they don’t, in order to gain acceptance. They would rather have conservative Muslims repress or ignore their core beliefs, in order to curry liberal political favor. They might quote the Qur’an and insist these actions are “the Muslim thing to do,” but under what circumstances is it “right” to lie to others and possibly yourself about your true nature? American Muslims are still struggling to gain acceptance, but they’re not living in Nazi Germany or occupied Egypt—and frankly, if that’s the way they think of the U.S., they’re free to leave (probably encouraged to, by some).

In this country, a person doesn’t have to go with the flow. The actual risk of “end[ing] up in Guantanamo” for merely expressing an opinion on gay marriage is nil (hint: Guantanamo hasn’t taken any new prisoners since 2008). This is little more than a polite command to silence fellow Muslims who disagree with their western, progressive take on Islam. It hurts Aslan and Minhaj in their efforts, especially the former’s, to portray Islam and Muslims in a very specific way that is not always (maybe even not often) true.

In much the same way Aslan throws around words like “Islamophobic” and “unsophisticated” to shut down critics, he and Minhaj want to silence the American brothers and sisters who “interpret” Islam in ways that they consider damaging to their desire to convince a suspicious American public that Muslims—especially those in America—are all progressive and cheerful liberals. It’s very easy for them to dismiss or silence white critics of Islam by playing the race/ignorance cards; it’s a bit more challenging to silence conservative American Muslims, whose pigmentation and clothing and rituals and religious knowledge make the “Islamophobe” label impossible. With this letter, Aslan and Minhaj have unleashed a brilliantly stealthy campaign to silence the Muslims making the “good” ones look bad: by telling them to lie and deny, with the incentive that doing so will someday make their own lives better.

That’s not freedom. It’s not principled. It’s not honest.

Just like everyone else in this country, Muslims have the right to think what they think, feel what they feel, and express those thoughts and feelings. Nobody, not even their “brothers” in Islam, should discourage them from exercising this right. Encouraging the 68% majority, who disagree with Aslan and Minhaj’s “interpretation” of Islam, to perpetrate a fraud not of mere silent tolerance, but of active deception, is unconscionable. It’s a con designed to make liberal American Muslims look better to their liberal non-Muslim friends, regardless of what a conservative American Muslim might think. To a pseudo-liberal, such disagreements don’t matter; conservatives of any stripe are clearly on the wrong side of history, so why shouldn’t they be instructed to lie and deny?

For me, the answers are obvious. For one thing, I value freedom of expression—even for those who express things I disagree with. For instance, I think Reza Aslan is a complete idiot; I value my right to say that, and elucidate at length on the topic. But I also value his right to say idiotic things, even though I disagree with him almost all of the time. I would never ask him to silence himself, no matter how vehemently I disagree. I would say the same of other inexplicably beloved idiots, from Rush Limbaugh to Lena Dunham, and I would expect them to say the same of me.

“We have to fight for the right of others to live their lives as freely as we want to live ours,” Aslan and Minhaj write, immediately after commanding the silence of those who disagree with them. I agree with that, in principle, but nothing in their open letter suggests it’s a genuine statement. The letter itself contradicts it in every paragraph. They don’t want freedom and equality if it allows criticism and disagreement—especially if it makes their version of faith look bad to outsiders.

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