In the wake of the Orlando shooting, we return to the same public conversation that has raged for over a decade now: What is the relationship between Islam and terrorism? The details of this attack — namely that it took place at a gay night club on national pride day — have inspired a new vein in the conversation: What is the relationship between Islam and homophobia?
When discussions about Islam surface, the political poles run to their partisan trenches and espouse dogmatic talking points. For the Left, this involves always working backward from the premise that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam or religion in general. The Right, on the other hand, cannot see it as anything but a product of Islamic doctrine.
Many have weighed in on the conversation’s new development, and we see the singular sound bites carrying over from the terrorist discussion into the homophobia debate. For the Left, Islam has nothing to do with homophobia, and the Right sees Islam as the primary culprit.
If we are ever going to make progress in this conversation, whether we are talking about homophobia or terrorism, we must be careful with our language and critical of commonly cited arguments. There is one talking point in particular that needs perish: the constant comparisons between Islam and Christianity (or other faiths).
The media is saturated with quotes like this one from a recent Salon article.
“‘Homophobia and transphobia, unfortunately, exist everywhere,’ says Sahar Shafqat, a gay Muslim woman. ‘They exist in all societies; they exist in all faith traditions. To say that they exist in Muslim societies and Muslim communities is to state the obvious. Yes, of course, it does exist. But to suggest that it exists uniquely just within Muslim communities is a really dangerous proposition to put out there.'”
I am not challenging the claim that bigotry is widespread. Instead, I take issue with this conversation tactic. Comparing religions is simply a deflection technique that achieves nothing but is constantly utilized. The fact that Christian doctrine (or any other faith) can produce homophobia does not absolve Islam of its own contribution to hatred. Why should merely acknowledging the dangers of Christianity act as a defense of Islam or vice versa?
It is either the case that (a) Islamic doctrine contributes to homophobia, or (b) it does not. To proclaim that Christianity also causes homophobia is simply not an appropriate response when discussing the link between Islam and homophobia. Islamic advocates can defend their position whether they believe (a) or (b) without appeals to what Christianity preaches. In fact, what Christianity preaches is simply irrelevant.
To be clear, the same standard should apply to Christian advocates when talking about Christian-inspired bigotry. No religion should defend its own shortcomings by pointing out similar failures in other doctrines.
Such comparisons are meaningless statements, and their propagation has adverse consequences.
First, this talking point latently normalizes the problem. Quotes like the one above validate the notion that homophobia is natural and everywhere. This is simply untrue (at least proportionally speaking) and obfuscates what is needed to resolve the problem. Homophobia is present where such bigotry is propelled by intolerant cultural and ideological commitments and is absent where the culture embraces harmless differences.
To draw moral equivalencies that don’t exist causes tolerant (non-homophobic) doctrines to appear worse than they are and the intolerant (homophobic) doctrines to appear better than they actually are. This is wildly unhelpful in the struggle for progress and merely produces moral confusion. There is a reason that homophobic hate crimes are more prevalent in certain parts of the world than others, or that gay’s rights aren’t uniform across the globe. It is critically important that we be honest about why this discrepancy exists and explore religion’s actual role in perpetuating such differences.
Second, the comparison response shields the doctrine under scrutiny from further examination by diluting the issue. To say that homophobia is everywhere causes people to look for broad non-specific solutions. This is a problem. If Islam (or Christianity) is responsible for inspiring intolerance of gays, then it is likely that specific solutions will be required in each respective case. Lumping all religions together muddies the waters and bars independent analyses of each faith.
Sam Harris has often argued that specific beliefs have specific consequences. We must discern the specific beliefs within each specific religion that contribute to homophobia. Condemning all religions in a sweeping blanket fashion makes that process much harder. It may be that Christian homophobia requires a different solution than Islamic homophobia. Treating these as independent cases, then, becomes key in solving the problem.
Discussions on Islamic homophobia should focus on how Islam contributes to the problem and discussions on Christian homophobia should focus on Christianity contributes to the problem. Nothing is achieved by pointing out the other religion’s flaw as an apologetic tactic. Further, the comparative talking point could have harmful consequences.
I recognize, however, that this talking point has a positive function: It encourages equal criticism. We must challenge bigotry wherever it exists, whether in Islam, Christianity, or any other religion. A requisite of equal justice is equal exposure and condemnation. However, this is an independent point, and should be raised separately, outside of conversations attempting to uncover the link between a specific faith and intolerance.
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