Reza Aslan's Marxist Account of Islam

Reza Aslan effectively provides us with a perfect Marxist (or at least materialist) analysis of Islam (if not of other religions). Or at least Aslan does so when he's rationalizing or explaining the systematic and large-scale violence done by Muslims almost every single day in at least two dozen countries.

Aslan essentially argues (without using these precise words) that Islam is a mere "epiphenomenon of material conditions" (as Marxists once put it).

Basically, the argument is this: all the violence actions carried out by Muslims in the Muslim world and in Europe have absolutely nothing to do with Islam. It's all really to do with economics, colonialism, ethnic conflict, the malign influence of the West... anything as long as it isn't Islam.

So why would a Muslim be saying that Islam is a mere epiphenomenon of material conditions? The answer to that is simple. A Muslim would need to say such a thing in order to excuse Islam of all the negative and violent actions done in its name.

Does Reza Aslan also apply his Marxist analyses of Islam to all the positive deeds and actions which are carried out by Muslims? For example, when Muslims criticize the Islamic State (as mentioned by Aslan and others recently) or give to charity (though only to fellow Muslims -- which is something we aren't often told) are they merely responding to material conditions or to Islam? Or is it that only the negative or violent deeds and actions of Muslims yield to such a Marxist/materialist analysis?

So it can be said that when Reza Aslan claimed that Bill Maher, for example, is “not very sophisticated in the way that he thinks” about Islam, he basically meant that Maher doesn't offer us a Marxist (materialist) analysis of the religion similar to his own. Reza Aslan has also said pretty much the same thing about Sam Harris. Indeed Aslan says something similar about all the critics of Islam.

Clearly, Aslan is partly playing on his academic credentials here (some of which have been classed as bogus by various commentators). And as everyone knows, every academic on the planet offers nothing but profoundly sophisticated and unbiased accounts of every subject they tackle. It's also highly elitist and even dangerous to say (as Reza Aslan does) that if you're not an academic specialist on Islam, you should keep your mouth shut. Except, of course, that he never questions people's academic qualifications when they say positive things about Islam.

The Islam-Culture Binary Opposition

Muslims and their Leftist defenders often tell us that we must distinguish Islam from the independent cultures in which Islam is the main religion.

Reza Aslan himself is at his most Marxist (or materialist) when he reiterates that very common binary opposition (Jacques Derrida's term) between Islam (or religion) and culture. Aslan, for example, states:

“It is really the single most basic idea about religion, that it marries itself to whatever culture it comes into contact with.”

As it stands, the statement above contains some truth. Nonetheless, it also has to be said that it is Islam (or the Koran, hadith, sharia law, etc.) which “marries itself to whatever culture it comes into contact with”. After all, it's not atheism or astral travelling which does so.

So no matter what differences these Muslims cultures may well display, nearly all of them still practice (to various degrees) jihad, female genital mutilation, stoning to death, honor killings, death for apostasy, etc. It's all fare enough for Reza Aslan to point out differences when similarities such as these are far more noticeable. Reza Aslan, for example, cites the case that Saudi women aren't allowed to drive cars; though they are, I assume, in Turkey. However, perhaps no law is needed in, say, Pakistan because -- outside of rich political families, etc. -- Muslim women will simply accept that they're not allowed to drive cars. As for Turkey, liberality when it comes to women driving cars has occurred in spite of Islam, not because of it. In other words, it has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with the secularization of Turkey which began some 90 year ago (in 1923).

And what of this Islam-culture binary opposition itself?

This is strange because for decades Marxists were at pains to tell us that religion is a cultural and therefore material phenomenon. Then all that changed with the rise of Muslim demographics in the West and the concomitant rise in Islamic terrorism and Muslim radicalism. As a response to all this, Leftists -- in order to “tap into the revolutionary potential of Muslims” -- had to invent a divide between Islam and culture in order to excuse Islam itself of all its responsibility for misogyny, violence, etc.

Aslan puts his own twist on this Islam-culture duality by saying that all critics of Islam have a genetic “inability to understand the difference between a cultural practice and religious belief”. That shameful inability to offer a Marxist or materialist analysis of Islam is “shocking among self-described intellectuals”.

There are other problems with this neat and convenient Islam-culture distinction.

In terms of honor killings, for example, the main problem is that Islam -- or, more correctly, the Koran, the Sunnah and the hadith -- are full of references to 'honor' and the concomitant need to abide by the 'principles of honor'.

In sharia law there's also the notion of 'ird. This applies to the honor of the individual Muslim. Abdul Wahid Hamid (in his Islam the Natural Way), for example, writes that

"preserving honour...  is the goal of... sharia laws that punish sexual relations outside marriage'. In addition, the 'severe punishments' of Sharia Law are there to 'protect honour and chastity (125)”.

In Islam it's also said that a Muslim becomes a mukallaf at the age of puberty onwards. After that, each Muslim has many duties to fulfil and obey. One of those duties is 'maintaining honor' through chastity and in various other ways.

So yes, Islam, or sharia law, may well respect “local laws and customs”. Though there's still a big but here. Islam, according to Wahid Hamid, respects various customs only as “long as these are not in conflict with the Qur'an”. Thus, if anything in a given Muslim culture is in conflict with the Koran or sharia law, it must be stamped out. It must surely follow, then, that FGM, honor killings, jihad and what not must be in accordance -- at least to some extent -- with Islam otherwise such practices would have been stamped out.

One other point is that many Muslim populations, such as Saudis or Arabs generally, Pakistanis, Egyptians, etc. have been Islamic for up to 1,400 years (or at least their cultures and traditions have). Therefore after such a long period of Islamic history, how valid can the distinction be between culture and Islam?

Generalisations about Islam & Muslims?

Reza Aslan also relies on the generalizing-about-Islam/Muslims trope. And guess what, he too is a super-generalizer when he talks about all the critics and criticisms of Islam. This is the case, for example, when he assumes - or pretends - that all such critics and criticisms are “not very sophisticated”. (This is also a Loonwatch idea, along with the ad hominems that all critics of Islam are “loons”, “fascists”, “racists”, “pseudo-intellectuals”, “self-described intellectuals”, “bigots”, “haters”, whateverists, etc.)

You can also say that it is a perfect case of generalization to argue that virtually all the negative and violent acts carried out by Muslims have nothing to do with Islam itself.

Reza Aslan, for example, has recently said (in response to Maher and Sam Harris) that the

"problem is that you’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people, and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush”.

Now I don't think I've ever heard any single commentator or writer generalize about the “one and a half billion ”Muslims on this planet. Sure, some people on Facebook may well do so. However, I doubt that Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Robert Spencer, Gert Wilders, etc. have ever done anything like that because they don't need to do that. Criticisms of Islam – to state the obvious –simply don't need to be about every Muslim on the planet. Indeed just as one doesn't need to account for every Nazi, Communist or Liberal Democrat in order to criticize Nazism, communism, or the Liberal Democrats, so one simply doesn't need to account for every Muslim on the planet in order to offer a criticism of Islam.

Reza Aslan effectively provides us with a perfect Marxist (or at least materialist) analysis of Islam (if not of other religions). Or at least Aslan does so when he's rationalizing or explaining the systematic and large-scale violence done by Muslims almost every single day in at least two dozen countries.

Aslan essentially argues (without using these precise words) that Islam is a mere "epiphenomenon of material conditions" (as Marxists once put it).

Basically, the argument is this: all the violence actions carried out by Muslims in the Muslim world and in Europe have absolutely nothing to do with Islam. It's all really to do with economics, colonialism, ethnic conflict, the malign influence of the West... anything as long as it isn't Islam.

So why would a Muslim be saying that Islam is a mere epiphenomenon of material conditions? The answer to that is simple. A Muslim would need to say such a thing in order to excuse Islam of all the negative and violent actions done in its name.

Does Reza Aslan also apply his Marxist analyses of Islam to all the positive deeds and actions which are carried out by Muslims? For example, when Muslims criticize the Islamic State (as mentioned by Aslan and others recently) or give to charity (though only to fellow Muslims -- which is something we aren't often told) are they merely responding to material conditions or to Islam? Or is it that only the negative or violent deeds and actions of Muslims yield to such a Marxist/materialist analysis?

So it can be said that when Reza Aslan claimed that Bill Maher, for example, is “not very sophisticated in the way that he thinks” about Islam, he basically meant that Maher doesn't offer us a Marxist (materialist) analysis of the religion similar to his own. Reza Aslan has also said pretty much the same thing about Sam Harris. Indeed Aslan says something similar about all the critics of Islam.

Clearly, Aslan is partly playing on his academic credentials here (some of which have been classed as bogus by various commentators). And as everyone knows, every academic on the planet offers nothing but profoundly sophisticated and unbiased accounts of every subject they tackle. It's also highly elitist and even dangerous to say (as Reza Aslan does) that if you're not an academic specialist on Islam, you should keep your mouth shut. Except, of course, that he never questions people's academic qualifications when they say positive things about Islam.

The Islam-Culture Binary Opposition

Muslims and their Leftist defenders often tell us that we must distinguish Islam from the independent cultures in which Islam is the main religion.

Reza Aslan himself is at his most Marxist (or materialist) when he reiterates that very common binary opposition (Jacques Derrida's term) between Islam (or religion) and culture. Aslan, for example, states:

“It is really the single most basic idea about religion, that it marries itself to whatever culture it comes into contact with.”

As it stands, the statement above contains some truth. Nonetheless, it also has to be said that it is Islam (or the Koran, hadith, sharia law, etc.) which “marries itself to whatever culture it comes into contact with”. After all, it's not atheism or astral travelling which does so.

So no matter what differences these Muslims cultures may well display, nearly all of them still practice (to various degrees) jihad, female genital mutilation, stoning to death, honor killings, death for apostasy, etc. It's all fare enough for Reza Aslan to point out differences when similarities such as these are far more noticeable. Reza Aslan, for example, cites the case that Saudi women aren't allowed to drive cars; though they are, I assume, in Turkey. However, perhaps no law is needed in, say, Pakistan because -- outside of rich political families, etc. -- Muslim women will simply accept that they're not allowed to drive cars. As for Turkey, liberality when it comes to women driving cars has occurred in spite of Islam, not because of it. In other words, it has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with the secularization of Turkey which began some 90 year ago (in 1923).

And what of this Islam-culture binary opposition itself?

This is strange because for decades Marxists were at pains to tell us that religion is a cultural and therefore material phenomenon. Then all that changed with the rise of Muslim demographics in the West and the concomitant rise in Islamic terrorism and Muslim radicalism. As a response to all this, Leftists -- in order to “tap into the revolutionary potential of Muslims” -- had to invent a divide between Islam and culture in order to excuse Islam itself of all its responsibility for misogyny, violence, etc.

Aslan puts his own twist on this Islam-culture duality by saying that all critics of Islam have a genetic “inability to understand the difference between a cultural practice and religious belief”. That shameful inability to offer a Marxist or materialist analysis of Islam is “shocking among self-described intellectuals”.

There are other problems with this neat and convenient Islam-culture distinction.

In terms of honor killings, for example, the main problem is that Islam -- or, more correctly, the Koran, the Sunnah and the hadith -- are full of references to 'honor' and the concomitant need to abide by the 'principles of honor'.

In sharia law there's also the notion of 'ird. This applies to the honor of the individual Muslim. Abdul Wahid Hamid (in his Islam the Natural Way), for example, writes that

"preserving honour...  is the goal of... sharia laws that punish sexual relations outside marriage'. In addition, the 'severe punishments' of Sharia Law are there to 'protect honour and chastity (125)”.

In Islam it's also said that a Muslim becomes a mukallaf at the age of puberty onwards. After that, each Muslim has many duties to fulfil and obey. One of those duties is 'maintaining honor' through chastity and in various other ways.

So yes, Islam, or sharia law, may well respect “local laws and customs”. Though there's still a big but here. Islam, according to Wahid Hamid, respects various customs only as “long as these are not in conflict with the Qur'an”. Thus, if anything in a given Muslim culture is in conflict with the Koran or sharia law, it must be stamped out. It must surely follow, then, that FGM, honor killings, jihad and what not must be in accordance -- at least to some extent -- with Islam otherwise such practices would have been stamped out.

One other point is that many Muslim populations, such as Saudis or Arabs generally, Pakistanis, Egyptians, etc. have been Islamic for up to 1,400 years (or at least their cultures and traditions have). Therefore after such a long period of Islamic history, how valid can the distinction be between culture and Islam?

Generalisations about Islam & Muslims?

Reza Aslan also relies on the generalizing-about-Islam/Muslims trope. And guess what, he too is a super-generalizer when he talks about all the critics and criticisms of Islam. This is the case, for example, when he assumes - or pretends - that all such critics and criticisms are “not very sophisticated”. (This is also a Loonwatch idea, along with the ad hominems that all critics of Islam are “loons”, “fascists”, “racists”, “pseudo-intellectuals”, “self-described intellectuals”, “bigots”, “haters”, whateverists, etc.)

You can also say that it is a perfect case of generalization to argue that virtually all the negative and violent acts carried out by Muslims have nothing to do with Islam itself.

Reza Aslan, for example, has recently said (in response to Maher and Sam Harris) that the

"problem is that you’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people, and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush”.

Now I don't think I've ever heard any single commentator or writer generalize about the “one and a half billion ”Muslims on this planet. Sure, some people on Facebook may well do so. However, I doubt that Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Robert Spencer, Gert Wilders, etc. have ever done anything like that because they don't need to do that. Criticisms of Islam – to state the obvious –simply don't need to be about every Muslim on the planet. Indeed just as one doesn't need to account for every Nazi, Communist or Liberal Democrat in order to criticize Nazism, communism, or the Liberal Democrats, so one simply doesn't need to account for every Muslim on the planet in order to offer a criticism of Islam.