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Why Cenk Is Wrong -- Let's Nurture Enlightened Islam

Wholesale condemnation of Islam will fuel the sense that America is at war with all Muslims.
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I have no quarrel with those who reject organized religion. So do I, by and large. My problem is with people who claim to defend reason over irrationality, and then ignore the data in order to push their own emotion-based intolerance. They claim this intolerance is based on logic and information. It's not.

Take Cenk Uyger's latest piece, "No Tolerance For Islam." The "no tolerance for religion" meme is the creation of Sam Harris, whose writings unfortunately ignore the extensive social science research on the internal dynamics of religion and religious fanaticism.

Cenk, Sam -- I recommend that you spend some time with the work of Martin E. Marty and the Fundamentalism Project, an extensive research effort into the nature of fundamentalism across religions, cultures, and geographies. What you will find is that fundamentalism is a minority movement in each religion, including Islam, but one with enormous power to generate conflict -- and publicity.

Cenk's wholesale condemnation -- his self-described "intolerance" -- is an emotional response to the horror of a Muslim man possibly being condemned to torture and death for converting to Christianity. That's a hideous act, and he rightfully wants to change the culture that would produce such a barbarity. So do I. But emotions must not blind us to the facts.

Intolerance and wholesale condemnation of Islam won't get Cenk -- or any of us -- the result he wants. Instead, it will fuel the sense that America is at war with all Muslims -- playing right into the hands of those fanatics and weakening the hands of the true moderates of Islam. (And despite the article Cenk quotes, the cleric calling for death is not a "moderate." The writer of the article displays his own lack of information.)

Fact: There are 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, and only 20% or less are Arabs. When Cenk or others talk about "changing the culture," we need to distinguish between the culture of Islam, the culture of Arabs, the culture of the Afghan tribes -- and so on -- when we talk about changing culture.

Fact: Despite what Islam-bashers say, the vast majority of Muslims are moderate and peaceful. There are many moderate Muslim leaders around the world.

Fact: Islam's foundational texts do not demand barbarity and extremism, although -- like those of other religions -- they can be interpreted that way. There are only two groups who insist on interpreting them that way: Muslim fanatics, and Muslim bashers. (Many others in the West simply misunderstand, but addressing that would require a separate piece.)

Fact: There is no data to suggest that Muslims are any more violent as a group than any other faith.

Fact: Afghanistan is a primitive country that needs a lot of help moving into the 21st Century.

Fact: The most important fact of all -- Our blundering government policy is empowering the fanatics in Afghanistan, just as it is in Iraq. Our leaders are ignorant of the history and sociology of Islam, and are empowering a combination of Afghan extremists and warlords.

Fact: The blowback is coming.

We need to find the world's moderate Muslim clerics and empower them -- and to help build a reformist and enlightened Islam that is based on peace, tolerance, and personal experience of the transcendent.

We need to do exactly the same work within Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism as well. We progressives can't help with this important work if we buy into the clumsily crafted and ill-informed "intolerance" meme. Nor can we let our understandable horror at situations like this death sentence allow us to condemn an entire faith -- one-sixth of humanity -- for the actions of a horrible few.

We must band together and fight our government's policies, which empower the fanatics. We must also be a voice for enlightenment and reason in the world of faith. We can only do these things with knowledge, reason -- and tolerance.

Cenk, you're a strong new voice in the progressive community. I hope you'll join us.