Liberalism’s Great Challenge: How Can We Critique Ideas while Protecting People?

Islam - MosqueSecular and reformist Muslims plead that we learn to tell the difference between analyzing ideas and attacking people.

When Islam is at question, members of the American Left and Right race into opposite corners. After the Orlando nightclub massacre, to cite one recent example, conservatives spewed anti-Muslim invective to the point that ordinary American Muslims were afraid to leave home. Donald Trump implied that Muslims, broadly, know when a fellow believer is going to shoot up a nightclub or government office but fail to act (as if gun-loving men, broadly, know when one of their fellows is going to shoot up a political rally or Black church or abortion clinic).

From their corner, liberals denied that Allah-blessed homophobia, or Islam’s concept of martyrdom, or the rallying cries of Jihadis might inspire a self-loathing, bipolar believer to redeem his soul through mass murder. Staff for U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch actually edited the shooter’s words of Islamic fidelity out of audio recordings for fear of inciting racist reprisals.

In the weeks that followed, as men claiming Islamist loyalties or shouting “Allahu akbar!” went on bloody rampages in Istanbul, Nice, Baghdad, Dhaka and Ansbach, the rhetorical divide simply got sharper. Left-leaning commentators talked about mental illness, domestic violence, gun access and economic disparities—all valid causal factors—but desperately avoided acknowledging the prayer mat in the room. The DNC put the Muslim parents of an American serviceman on display at their convention, and then waited for the inevitable insults from He Whose Toupee Cannot Hide His Missing Frontal Lobe. They were not long in coming.

“The problem,” said my daughter over dinner, “is that people can’t tell the difference between Islam-ophobia and Muslim-ophobia.” She’s right: The Left recognizes that millions and millions of Muslims are decent people and so insists that Islam itself is benign, while the Right sees Islamic teachings as pernicious and so treats Muslims—and unsuspecting Sikhs and random people who look remotely Middle Eastern—as if they all were capable of erupting into fundamentalist brutalities.

This is a serious problem. Humanity’s future depends on our ability to critique and revise outdated ideas while simultaneously living in an ever-more interdependent global community. That can’t happen if we build walls of suspicion along religious lines, forcing believers into defensive isolation. It also can’t happen if we pretend that Iron Age ideologies provide the blueprint for global harmony and sustainable, shared wellbeing.

Free and fierce debate is the fountainhead of innovation.

After thousands of years of subsistence living under various kinds of dogma and authority, humanity’s circumstances changed radically over the last two hundred years. Daily production increased from $3 to $33 per person, and human life expectancy doubled because most people now survive childhood. Death from pregnancy, which used to kill one in ten women, has dropped to one in one hundred thousand where women have access to modern medicine.

The foundation of this progress is the hard-won freedom to criticize bad ideas, and bad religious ideas in particular. That’s because the biggest barrier to discovery is the false assumption that we already know what’s real. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” America’s engine of innovation owes its existence to Enlightenment philosophies that above all valued fierce debate and intellectual freedom. Where religion treated certitude as a virtue, the Enlightenment valued doubt. This new paradigm allowed people, as never before, to question dogmas, superstitions, power structures, social scripts, and false causal ideas handed down by religious authorities and imposed by force.

Freedom to question is what allowed modernity to emerge from the Dark Ages, when religion ruled with an iron sword. To put it more concretely, this intellectual freedom, coupled with the scientific method (which forces us to ask the questions that could prove us wrong) has brought us the industrial revolution, germ theory, and the information age. As we face the future on an overcrowded planet stripped bare by human need and greed, innovation—cultural, economic, and technological—is our only hope of averting collapse.

Religion fights to preserve Iron Age agreements.

Moving forward, the task of creating broad, sustainable wellbeing is going to take every bit of cooperation, innovation, and intellectual honesty humanity can muster. That makes competing religious factions costly—especially those that make exclusive truth claims and denigrate outsiders. And in this regard, Islam is far from alone.

For centuries the Roman Catholic Church and derivative Protestant religions have done everything in their power to obstruct freedom of thought, inquiry, and speech—from destroying heathen temples and texts, to torturing and executing heretics on a mass scale, to imprisoning Galileo and killing other early scientists, to—in modern times—censoring books and homeschooling children and incessantly threatening hellfire whenever they feel their grip slipping.

Still today, a frightening minority of Christians want to impose their biblical worldview on the rest of us by any means necessary. And that worldview includes truly ghastly concepts—like holy war, chosen people, male headship, blasphemy, genital mutilation, blood sacrifice, and eternal torture—all given the imprint of righteous authority by an inerrant Bible or infallible pope invoking the name of God. Biblical theocracy would look more like Saudi Arabia than America in the 21st Century.

The problem isn’t just religion.

Humanity’s future may depend on free thought and intellectual rigor, but instead of protecting these engines of innovation, many members of the Left and Right are retreating full-speed into a post-modern morass in which mindshare goes to the highest bidder, and each person or institution has the right to their own “facts.”

While the cultural Right frantically tries to re-impose old orthodoxies and hierarchies, the Left is busy imposing an orthodoxy of its own, one in which all opinions are created equal; only white Christian men can be confronted with uncomfortable truths; pontification privileges mirror those on the Right, but in reverse; and evidence—rather than dictating priorities—is simply, selectively, a narrative tool in the service of ideology.

On both sides, feelings win arguments when logic and evidence fail. “I just know in my heart,” says the religious believer. “That offends me,” says the aggrieved social justice warrior, “Therefore, you must be racist or sexist or both.”

These positions abandon the most powerful tools we have to advance knowledge and solutions to problems. They also abandon real people.

Secular and reformist Muslims stand alone.

As the Left and Right race in opposite directions, taking their cues from each other, two of the many groups left standing alone in no-man’s land are apostate and reformist Muslims, both of whom share the Enlightenment values of Western liberals but who view the Quran and Hadith in the way moderate and secular Christians view the books in the Bible—as human documents that reflect the views of the writers. Many feel abandoned by Westerners who love their own freedom but keep silent or echo “religion of peace” platitudes while bloggers are hacked to death in Pakistan and women flogged in Saudi Arabia for the crime of being raped.

Activist Faisal Saeed al Mutar, born in Babylon, raised in Baghdad and now living in the U.S, regularly calls out the hypocrisy of people that he and likeminded activists call the “Regressive Left:”

When the Abortion clinic attack happened, all my Liberal friends were very confident that the attack was partly inspired by Christian beliefs about life and abortion and they were right. When the Orlando attack happened and the guy pledged allegiance to ISIS, my liberal friends say it has NOTHING to do with Islam.

When asked about the idea that the Afghani-American shooter was a closeted homosexual acting out of self-hatred, al Mutar says the theory make sense—within the context of “a repressive family and repressive ideology” which he and others are doing their best to fight, even as they struggle with bigotry against Arab and Muslim communities.

“There is a very growing number of I would say Arab young millennials, between 20 and 30, who are mostly advocating for human rights and secular liberal values, and I think that the United States and the West should stand in solidarity with these people,” says al Mutar. He points to as one place to support this work.

Alishba Zarmeen, though not Arab, is one of those millennial advocates. Of Pakistani heritage, Zarmeen alternates between anger and anguish about human rights violations in the name of Islam. “My heart breaks every time I think of Raif Badawi and his family,” she writes on Facebook. “ISIS is just one version of religious stupidity.” Badawi is a Saudi blogger sentenced to 10 years and 1000 lashings for insulting Islam. To date, he has spent four years in prison while his wife and young daughters in Toronto plead fruitlessly for his release.

When Sufi singer Amjad Sabri was gunned down by fundamentalists in Karachi in June, Zarmeen raged against both Islamist invaders and the Western Left:

The Regressive Left is first to talk about imperialism but they don’t know that European colonialism’s damage was NOTHING compared to the kind of destruction and chaos Arab Islamic imperialism has caused in the East (Persian, Mongol, and Indian empires were all fucked over) for the past 1500 years. My culture is not mindless recitations in Arabic with togas and Niqabs and Hijabs for clothing. My cultural heritage is much more colourful, happier, and full of music and a sense of building a community. But all religion wants to do is destroy colors unless it’s the color of red blood.

Zarmeen’s Pakistani and expat friends lament the spread of Wahhabi fundamentalism fueled by oil revenues. They cheer moderates who defy forced fasting during Ramadan. They post clips of clerics saying that rape and beating are appropriate punishments for uppity females. They share photos of women who claim the ‘stealthy freedom’ to peel out of mandatory hijab long enough to feel the wind in their hair and snap selfies. And, in between, they celebrate life, love, pregnancy, and Pakistani pastries.

Beyond the polarities of denial and racism.

For any religious sect that is caught between archaic orthodoxies and an uncertain future, external criticism is more likely to trigger defensive retrenchment than reform. That is why, as a former Evangelical, I center my critique of fundamentalist religion on my own tradition. Distorted Western criticism of Islam—often infused with bigotry—makes it harder, not easier for the voices of Muslim reformers to be heard.

A better future demands that we get better at acknowledging cultural and psychological complexities and multifaceted disagreements that don’t fit neatly into binary buckets. Yes, some Muslims do terrible things under the influence of terrible dogmas and authorities. So do some Christians. Religion is a powerful intoxicant that can disinhibit humanity’s worst impulses along with expressing some of the best. Fortunately, most believers instinctively recognize the difference, and they manage to get along just fine despite the very mixed messages in the Quran and the Bible.

But mixed they are. So maybe, just once in a while, rather than jumping to either defend or attack Islam, outsiders should listen to the voices of Muslim reformers like Maajid Nawaz or Hamza Yusuf, or former Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Maryam Namazie or Ali A Rizvi. Not that these five are wholly aligned with each other—far from it. But they all speak from a kind of lived experience that most Americans lack. Consequently, they are far less likely than outside pundits or politicians to confuse Muslim people with Islam as an ideology.

Mosab Hassan Yousef is the son of a Hamas commander who worked undercover for Israel’s internal security service and converted to Christianity. Yousef is a harsh critic of Islam, which he calls “a state of consciousness that calibrates in darkness, that calibrates in the seventh or sixth centuries.”

Yousef and I have different religious and political convictions. As a former Bible believer who writes about recovery from religion, I think that Bible-belief, unfettered, is every bit as capable as Islam of promoting spiritual stagnation and atrocity. But on two fundamentals, we both agree: First, people are the same, all over the world, and we must never forget our shared ancestry or shared hopes for the future. Second, though, outdated ideas and ideologies must be challenged if those hopes are ever to be fulfilled.

Disowned by his father and reviled by former colleagues, Yousef nonetheless emphatically differentiates people from ideologies:

I cannot be against my mother and my father and my people. They are just people. And there are idiots everywhere, in every nation. But I am talking about the collective consciousness of nations, of regions, and the cosmic consciousness of all humanity.

The term “cosmic consciousness” dates back to the beginning of the 20th Century, and it refers to humanity’s evolution toward a shared recognition that we all are part of a greater whole. The words are usually associated with Eastern or New Age spirituality, and they sound as bizarre on the tongue of a science-minded atheist as an Arab Bible-believer. But we really are talking about something that dramatic.

Humankind faces an enormous challenge: Can we bring forward our collective consciousness so that Arab and Jew, Christian and atheist, Muslim and Hindu can transcend tribal identities and mutually exclusive truth claims to live together in peace? The alternative is truly as dark as the 6th Century.

Article originally posted on Quillette, read the original article here.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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28 Responses to Liberalism’s Great Challenge: How Can We Critique Ideas while Protecting People?

  1. Paul Douglas says:

    Excellent article, Valerie!


  2. Howard Karten says:

    Great piece!


  3. “The Left recognizes that millions and millions of Muslims are decent people and so insists that Islam itself is benign, while the Right sees Islamic teachings as pernicious and so treats Muslims—and unsuspecting Sikhs and random people who look remotely Middle Eastern—as if they all were capable of erupting into fundamentalist brutalities.”

    As many have assumed, this kind of dualist, black-and-white thinking may be hardwired into the genetics of conservatives. Psychologist Michael Shermer has attributed it to patternicity, the human tendency to see patterns that may or may not exist. An early hunter hearing a rustle in the bushes knew that it was probably just the wind; but it could also be a predator ready to pounce, so running like hell was a useful survival instinct. For conservatives, dark skin and other physical attributes arouse the same response.

    Question: Can education and enlightenment ever replace gut-level fear and instinct, or are we stuck with being a nation of 50% cavemen?

    Another great article, Valerie.


    • mrtapeguy says:

      Both camps are incorrect because as she points out, they go to opposite corners. The left also too often argues that extremists have nothing to do with Islam, when clearly that is not the case.


  4. Karen S. Cooper says:

    Valerie, all of your posts are interesting and enlightening. This last one (Aug.5,) is great. Thank you for your intelligent understanding of the dilemma.


  5. Howard Karten says:

    A few thoughts re this piece:

    It is good to remember that there is a difference betw people and ideologies. TTBOMK in almost *all* religions and denominations the same alleged beliefs in practice differ somewhat from one geographic area to another. Adherents typically disregard the inconvenient parts of their religion, and the religious authorities agree in effect to overlook that departure. A wonderful expl is the way virtually ALL western Catholics practice birth control.

    In the case of Islam, it certainly appears that Muslims in Western countries–the US, Canada, England, etc–for the most part ignore some if not all of the more vicious ideas and practices of Islam.

    That said…let’s be honest, Islam does contain some horrible ideas and practices *that we all know are widely observed*. Why, for expl, is it the business of religious or state authorities if an individual commits adultery? (And of course, there’s never any sort of formal procedure, like a “trial”, to determine the truth of such an allegation.)

    And stoning an adulterer? Is that an example of how Islam is about peace and love? Murdering apostates?

    There are an enormous number of other ideas in Islam that any reasonable person could find objectionable: “traveler’s marriages”? Imams blessing the marriage of middle-aged men and 12 y.o. girls? ETC.

    And all of this said….liberals and conservatives–I guess we could say more generally, ideologues– do themselves, and Muslims, and in fact the rest of us, a very bad disservice with their ideological-based reactions to Islam.

    Liked by 1 person

    • But do you really believe those are exclusively *Islamic* issues? My mother’s family lived through General Franco’s National Catholicism. Women couldn’t travel without written permission from their husband or father. They couldn’t sign checks. Gay men were put in prison under a law regarding “vagos y maleantes”. And that’s long after Cervantes, or the enlightenment, or the many advances of culture including the 2nd republic.
      Our marvelous Western World doesn’t look that marvelous in that context, does it?


      • Howard Karten says:

        So you’re saying that those restrictions imposed by Franco match in any way what Islam does?

        Come up with some better (e.g. more violent, more vicious) examples and you’ll catch my attention.


      • I’m saying the issue is religion as a whole rather than a single religion. Violent examples abound. Millions of people died and millions more were maimed in the French Wars of Religion alone. I don’t need to *catch your attention*, I’m making a point that’s thoroughly backed by verifiable historical evidence.


      • Howard Karten says:

        Whoops, I mist the most important thing:

        please show me the verses in the bible that suggest (or can be mis-interpreted to suggest) that women should be treated in those ways.


      • “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent.”

        “Wives, submit to you husbands as to the Lord”

        “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but [they are commanded] to be under obedience, as also saith the law.”

        “Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so [let] the wives [be] to their own husbands in every thing.”

        If you like, I can keep going. Would you also like the verses that justify genocide? Slavery? Violence?


      • Howard Karten says:


        Re your 5:48 AM post, below, before we get more involved in details of your and my arguments (and I think the details are important), I think it would be helpful if you gave me a summary of the overall points you are making, so I can respond to them and not to any misunderstanding I might have of those points. .


      • Hi, Howard
        My general point is that Islam isn’t unique as an ideology used to enforce a particular socio-cultural power structure. A number of intellectuals are doing the rounds now saying Islam is worse than other monotheistic religions- except history doesn’t really support that assertion. Despite the revolutions of the 18th century, the enlightenment and many a feminist writer, it’s only 200 years later that societies influenced by Christianity are beginning to significantly recognize women’s rights. And the fight is nowhere near over. Despite all the western progress, there are still pastors calling for capital punishment for gays and for women not to have reproductive rights. Our supposed western superiority isn’t because of Christianity, it’s despite it.


      • Howard Karten says:

        Merv. I do not disagree with anything you say above (at least, not strenuously). And I suspect you’re referring, if only obliquely, to Ayaan Hirsi Ali–a woman I greatly admire.

        But the point remains: Islam *today* is far more violent and vicious and dangerous than Xianity or Judaism.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely! But that’s because we defanged xtianity, not because it’s a “better” religion.


      • Howard Karten says:

        Your 5:42 AM post in which you did summarize your argument, slipped my mind. I will reply later.


      • Howard Karten says:


        You say you’re “making a point that’s thoroughly backed by verifiable historical evidence ”

        I do not disagree. No honest, informed person would disagree that in past centuries Xianity has been guilty of encouraging all sorts of horrible things. But note that you used the word “historical”.

        I am talkg about *today*. You cite events from 50, 60 years ago. How much of that is going on today in Xianity?

        What acts done by Xians in the name of Xianity in the past, say, 100 years, match the violence and cruelty of acts done by Muslims in the modern era, and in the name of Islam?


  6. Bill West says:

    Thanks, Valery, that all needs to be said. I can’t wait for this great statement to show up on Rawstory/Alternet.

    Bill West


  7. Jim Beckstrom says:


    Once again, I am  feeling awesomely whelmed by your superbly written perspectives, beginning with the historical one that starts “After thousands of years of subsistence living under various kinds of dogma and authority, humanity’s circumstances changed radically over the last two hundred years.”  Your punchline, differentiating people from ideologies, is simply a concept the human race must grasp for survival’s sake. Some years ago I formulated the following for myself: Humanity initiated the Fire revolution, then the Agriculture revolution followed by the Industrial revolution, and we’re currently in the infancy stages of the Psychological revolution – the product of the never-in-the-previous-many-thousands-of-years phenomenon of leisure time, made possible by the increase in productivity of the Industrial Age.  How’s this for irony: I remember seeing Robert Blake on the Tonight Show, in his heyday as Baretta in the late 70s, telling Johnny Carson and audiences about his experiences with his “analyst”. Given what humanity has already survived, I have a hunch/hope you have predicted the next stage. Pax tecum, Jim Beckstrom | Valerie Tarico posted: “Secular and reformist Muslims plead that we learn to tell the difference between analyzing ideas and attacking people.When Islam is at question, members of the American Left and Right race into opposite corners. After the Orlando nightclub massacre, to ” | |


  8. mrtapeguy says:

    Valerie, I am glad to see such an even-handed piece from you, recognizing the role of both the right and left in exacerbating the problem. This is commonly discussed by many people including Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, Irshad Manji and Raheel Raza, to name a few…but when I mentioned it on a previous post I was called an Islamophobe. Until those who claim this has nothing to do with Islam and the others who condemn all Muslims can evolve to a more nuanced view, we’re working against the reformers who risk their lives to bring change.


  9. gwpj says:

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read recently on this subject, Valerie, and i thank you for writing and posting it. This subject is a hot button for me. Sad to say, I see very few leaders taking it seriously.


  10. Lowell Bushey says:

    Hi, Valerie,

    I must admit that I’ve tended to “play it down” when Muslims are responsible for terrorist acts’ lest I contribute to already existing prejudices. Perhaps it’s better to acknowledge same, while pointing out some obvious facts.

    Wikipedia defines terrorism as “the use or threatened use of violence (terror) in order to achieve a political, religious, or ideological aim.” By this definition, the approximately 7000 attacks on abortion clinics, the roughly 3500 lynchings of Blacks that have occurred over the years, and the hundreds of instances of Islamophobic violence that have occurred (according to the FBI, 12.6 per MONTH) would qualify as terrorist acts.

    It’s also important to point out that there are around 7 million Muslims living in the US.

    Also, I like your description of Trump as “He Whose Toupee Cannot Hide His Missing Frontal Lobe.” I’d like your permission to use that, with proper attribution of course.


  11. S.A. Prince says:

    I don’t know how to get in touch with you via e-mail, but I read your piece on pro-abortion. I think that was simply incredible. Thank you for having the courage to write exactly how you feel. More writers should do that. I subscribed to your blog. I hope to hear from and read more of your work soon.


  12. Jennifer Cottrell says:

    Thank you for this. I am one to criticize the ideas of Islam( I’m nobody, it’s just on my social media), but it results in my comment sections being filled with vile anti muslim rhetoric, usually from conservatives who think I agree with them- their hate is absolutely offensive! It’s very hard to make this distinction on social media. It’s mostly for this reason I have been avoiding the topic. Here, in Minnesota, we have an excellent, progressive Muslim representative, Keith Ellison, I respect him immensely. He is subject to every kind of anti Muslim sentiment on a continual basis. It is very difficult to navigate the bad ideas/ good people, line.


  13. Lowell Bushey says:

    Hi, Valerie,

    I left out something, but it probably belongs in another post anyway. :)

    You said, “On both sides, feelings win arguments when logic and evidence fail.”

    I couldn’t help but think of Hillary Clinton when I read this. Because she’s a “policy wonk”, she comes across to some as cold and diffident; this doesn’t help when others have tried to portray her as dishonest. Trump, on the other hand, has got a lot of mileage appealing to the intellectually lazy with simple[minded] solutions to complicated problems.

    The Khans’ speech at the DNC sent a clear message refuting Trump’s claims about Muslims; unfortunately, it took a grieving Gold Star Family to drive home the point, as well as to reveal Trump’s true nature.


  14. Jim Claunch says:

    Valorie, as always excellent sharp-minded warm-hearted article. Have you yet read Bruxy Cavey’s The End of Religion? He is in his words a “Christ-follower” who says Jesus came to stomp religion flat dead. You and all the dear people you mention in your article would feel happy and welcomed where he is a spiritual leader. Check it out.


  15. Pingback: Valerie Tarico is a Fundie’s worst nightmare: an intelligent, Female Ex-Fundie who refuses to just STFU: | kb3ojg

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