The Humanist Hour #120: Should Humanists Criticize Islam? The Pros and Cons, with Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider

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In this episode, Bo Bennett speaks with Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider on the issue of criticizing Islam and analyzing some of the recent comments made by people such as Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Reza Aslan, and Ben Affleck. The Real Time segment that sparked this controversy can be found here.

Muhammad Syed is a resident of the Washington, DC metro area. Due to the desire to better understand his faith, he embarked on a long period of research and study culminating in the inevitable conclusion that Islam, like other religions, is nothing more than bronze-age mythology. He decided to be public about his apostasy in 2007 in a desire to engage in open dialogue and break the apostasy taboo, encouraging other like-minded individuals to follow suit. In 2012, following the lead of the groups in London and Toronto, he started organizing an Ex-Muslim Community in the Washington, DC area.

Sarah Haider, a recent transplant to DC, was born in Pakistan and raised in the US. She grew up on a diet of debating and reading which, as a surprise to no-one, led to her atheism. Muhammad and Sarah had a long-standing friendship based on their similar background and she was involved in launching the DC-area Ex-Muslim Community. Her tireless efforts were instrumental in creating Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) and she has been involved in public relations with EXMNA from the start. Sarah has been active in atheist and secular circles. Inspired by FreeThoughtBlogs, she conceived the idea of ExMuslim Blogs.


  • Douglas Bath

    Should Humanists Criticize Islam? What possible reason could be given to justify an answer of no?

  • Andrew Stewart

    Love how at 19:20 he identifies the very thin line between skeptical thinking about Islam and the reality of anti-Muslim Christians trying to utilize their cause so to promote bigotry. I’m extremely cautious because of -those- religious bigots, the white ones, not Muslim extremists. There’s a rather facile argument today in atheist and freethinker communities that tries to say religion is somehow a great equalizer between it’s adherents. But that is frankly insane, the behavior of an Iranian or Palestinian Muslim is radically different than African American Muslims like Malcolm X. Malcolm X became an amazingly important historical figure because he joined what everyone knows is a cult, the Nation of Islam. It was Stalin who said that “The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism.” Malcolm X as a Muslim is someone who made America a better place with his religion. His religion was an element of his re-claimed identity as a black man in America, he said Islam was the true African religion that predated the triangle trade and that the X gave gave emphasis to the issue of his identity having been stolen by white America. If you can’t understand why I see this as a really big deal, you need to read the Autobiography as told to Alex Haley.

    • AsianApostate

      Back in Malcom X’s time there were far less of the Islamic doctrine (Hadith specifically) translated and taught in english in the orthodox manner then there is now. Even Imam’s were not as knowledgable globably in non arab nations (the majority of muslims in the world–about 90%–are not arab speaking) read the quran without comprehension but instead just sounded out the words and recited them. This includes my home country that I am originally from and all other countries with muslim majority populations.

      However that has been changing rapidly in the last 3-4 decades especially with the help of rich gulf countries like Saudi Arabia which has in that time spent an estimated 100 billion exporting it’s more fundamentalist and more orthodoxially accurate books, schools, and teachers.

      The Quran itself is very vague Sunni muslims depend on their schools of though (madhabs) and the Sahih Hadith for most of the details in following the religion including how to pray, when to pray, how to wash yourself, sharia, and virtually everything else. That knowledge is expanding rapidly amongst the Muslim population including my very own family that lives in both the U.S. and our home country.

      Look at how people dressed in a lot of Islamic nations 50-60 years ago verses now.

      • tigglon

        This is historical hogwash. The vast majority of conservative Muslims are just like the vast majority of redneck Christians. They haven’t read their holy book at all. They have no idea what’s in it — they just let their imams and pastors cherry-pick for them.

        It is foolish to imagine the
        “ideology” of these religions is to blame for its adherents’ behavior,
        as opposed to the socio-economic conditions that are the real cause of
        all human action. Otherwise, we’d have to accept that Islam is one of
        the greatest things on earth. After all, you have to attribute *all*
        Muslim behavior to their religion, not just the bad stuff. In that
        case, the billion peaceful and law-abiding Muslims have destroyed your
        argument by about a billion to one.

  • psusac

    Should humanists criticize Islam? Yes, often and loudly. Islam is an ideology. Most of the arguments offered in this podcast are specious. It’s not about who has the right version of Islam or if you are reading the right translation, and it’s also not about whether or not it’s “better” or “worse” than the Bible. An ideology is not found in the sacred text. An ideology is found in the minds of the believers. Believers will always have some kind of interpretation of the sacred text. The way you influence this interpretation is not by arguing “who has the right version” it is influenced by being challenged. Mostly however, you influence a person’s ideological commitments by creating a situation where the ideologue must depend upon people who disagree with him.

    • Donna Ineedabeat Clark


    • Andrew Stewart

      So Malcolm X was a bad man and a fool for being a Muslim? The African experience of slavery included staling their identity and imposing a Christian one on them. Slaves were African Muslims, they were allowed to be captured because Christian Europe considered them heathens. Islam is an issue of race because our culture has INTENTIONALLY and with malice conflated Islam with being an ‘Oriental’. Edward Said rolls in his grave.

      • AsianApostate

        No one is doubting that there were good muslims in the past or now but that doesn’t discount the fact that Islam as an ideology for all it’s good has quite a few bad ideas codified into law.

        Who pray tell helped captured these African Slaves and which society/empire was one of the last to completely abolish slavery? I believe most African slaves were originally capture by other Africans including Muslims. The ottoman empire which was run by a caliphate did under heavy European influence start suppressing slavery but had slaves until 1908 because it was legal under Sharia.

        • J.p. Van Gordon

          Slavery was common in the ancient world and the African Chieftans who sold their captured black slaves to white men with ships that were willing to take them away in return for goods or money weren’t doing anything different than their ancestors had been doing for many centuries… Also, if you watched Disney’s “Song of the South,” one thing it made apparent is that there were white slaves in the old South, as well as black… A fact that, perhaps, was part of what made it banned…

        • Deanjay1961

          Going after the mix of religion and government instead of trying to get rid of the religion itself worked pretty well in the case of Christianity.

      • Mimi

        I think you need to read up on the Arab/Islamic African slave trade. Any person who thinks Islam is better than Christianity to blacks is lying to themselves. Arabs/Muslims had been putting black Africans and white Westerners to slavery for centuries. And slavery only officially stopped by Westerners (starting with Britain). I still need to look into Muslims blacks being the ones shipped to America by Arab and African merchants, it doesn’t make sense. It would make more sense for remote villages or tribes with African traditions and religions were the ones shipped to the slave trade (Africa had its own culture and religions before pillaged by Arabs and Westerners) as many black African merchants and traders were Muslim.
        Nation of Islam is as deluded as Israelite. They make history suit their needs and desires. Many West Africans are not as Muslim compared to their East and Central African counterparts.

      • Michael

        The claim is not that Muslims are bad people but that Islam is a bad ideology. People are not defined just by their religion. I don’t think conservative ideology is (usually) a beneficial one, but that doesn’t mean I think conservatives are bad people.

        Your argument, however, is one about people, not ideology. You don’t say that Christianity is malicious or promotes slavery, but that Christian people are and do. That Europeans, as a people, conflate a religion with a race and hate them, despite the obvious fact that not all do. That is what I would consider bigotry.

        • tigglon

          How is Islam an “ideology” if it historically has been used to justify productive, peaceful activities as well as destructive ones?

          If human behavior were based on “ideology” — a sophomoric idea that should be the first thing in the trash in this debate — then you’ve lost the argument. You’d have to attribute *all*
          Muslim behavior to their religion, not just the bad stuff. In that
          case, the billion peaceful and law-abiding Muslims have destroyed your
          argument by about a billion to one.

      • Bafoofkti

        So Malcolm X was a bad man for being a thug and rapist , and his lame excuse for getting religion didn’t excuse him

      • Patrick Niall O’driscoll

        Utter rubbish , Andrew Stewart .

      • GotScience

        So what? Bad is bad on both sides of the ocean and on both ends of the sociological spectrum. And yes, while not bad, Malcolm X was a fool because of Islam. You have a far too narrow reading of these events. And you fail to remember than conjoining religion and political action is always deleterious even if it is for the noble and necessary goal of claiming an identity.

        • Deanjay1961

          Actually, Malcolm X moderated his position considerably after visiting the Middle East and seeing a society that wasn’t stratified by color.

          • GotScience

            Yes, he did. What’s unfortunate is that a lot of people were (are) attracted to his racial attitude. As to stratification in the middle east, which country?
            Israel: Jew vs Arab
            Arab states: Anything and Islam and, most important, male vs female.

      • GotScience

        The slave trade existed on the “black” continent for hundreds of years by Arab muslims. You also forget that African tribes had slaves, and that they preyed on other tribes to sell prisoners to the slave traders. Humanity is like that! You cannot idealize any branch of it.

    • GotScience

      Ben Affleck, as truly charming as he is, has the conceit of celebrities that he is important, and should weigh in on issues.

    • tigglon

      It amazes me how humanist logic and historical understanding goes out the window with this subject. You’re letting bigotry, lazy thinking and fear of the Other take over.

      Most educated people know that people are motivated by socio-economic conditions, not the “ideology” with which they are associated. Your average bible-belt redneck has *not* read the Bible and has no idea what its (mostly violent) doctrines really are. His behavior is determined by a host of other social and political factors. As with Muslims, Christians don’t even agree on what Christian “ideology” is.

      Christians were indispensable to the abolitionist movement, and cited Christian theology for their actions, and Christians were indispensable to the lynching of black people, and cited Christian theology for their actions.

      Muslims were indispensable for the progress and dissemination of scientific knowledge when European Christians were wallowing in the dark ages — and those Muslims cited Islamic theology for that mission. Muslims have been indispensable for inflicting violence upon civilians for political ends, and they cite Islamic theology for that mission.

      Things aren’t different for Muslims just because they seem foreign and weird to you. It is much easier to essentialize a billion people when they seem foreign and weird, and when you’re looking for a convenient scapegoat and don’t want to think about difficult, diffuse subjects like social and economic conditions.

      If you’re going to go with the easier logic, that behavior is simply traced to religious doctrine and “ideology”, then you can’t be selective in your application. If a Muslim’s behavior is due to Islamic doctrine, then, by your own logic, Islam is one of the greatest things the world has ever produced. You would have to attribute the peaceful and productive lives of a billion people to Islam, which far outweighs the violent behavior of a tiny fraction of that number.

      You can’t simply isolate bad behavior alone as the consequence of a person’s religion. If you go down that road, you have to attribute *all* of the billion Muslims’ behavior to their religion. And in that case, you’ve lost the argument by a billion to 1.

  • DKeane123

    Excellent discussion – very informative.

  • Bafoofkti

    I’d sooner trust what self appointed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi says about Islam than a mild speaking apologist who does nothing about the crimes of Isis. Hamas, Iran and other Islamic Theocratic groups . To live in one of those countries is a hell hole of totalitarian mind control, where posting a mild criticism of Mohammad can get you the death penalty . Islam is a religion hell bent on taking us back to the dark ages and wants to make “1984” a reality for the world

  • Arjen Bootsma

    Of course! Humanists, atheists, scientists, and all other people who put reason over dogma should criticize EVERY religion for what they are: ways for a small group of people to control large groups of people.

  • GotScience

    What a fundamentally superficial question!
    Criticize Islam? Of course, it is a religion. That it is overloaded with fanatical sociopathic cretins these days is a terrible thing, but remember the Inquisition, the Salem witches, the religious and ethnic cleansing that Isabella of Spain directed during La Reconquista, the massacres of Saxons by Charlemagne, the religious wars in France, what the Buddhists in Myanmar are doing to the Islamic population and many other exactions that are not coming to mind in the heat of this moment. ALL revealed religions, Abrahamic religions are evil because they are exclusionary and exceptionalist. And Buddhism!!!!!
    Exceptionalism is itself a quasi religion here in the US. Extreme positions, views, ideologies attract the feeble-minded, the insecure, the fearful, the fanatics, and the exploiters- many of the latter being sociopathic. See the IIIrd Reich mythology: Do we really need this nonsense in the US?

    So yes, let’s cogently but energetically and unapologetically discuss the evil that these “religions” (superstitions really) and concatenations of “group think” wreak upon the world. Childish, kindergarten-line-in-the sand-tis-tis-not nonsense seems to have ruled Humanity since the beginning: Let’s grow up folks.

    • tigglon

      I’m an atheist, and agree that superstition and intolerance should be fought wherever it appears.

      But it’s not really logical to base your thinking on the idea that the “ideology” of these religions is to blame for its adherents’ behavior, as opposed to the socio-economic conditions that are the real cause of all human action. Otherwise, we’d have to accept that Islam is one of the greatest things on earth. After all, you have to attribute *all* Muslim behavior to their religion, not just the bad stuff. In that case, the billion peaceful and law-abiding Muslims have destroyed your argument by about a billion to one.

      • GotScience

        Not at all. To state that the excesses of some are due to their religion, or religion in general, is not to say that whoever follows that religion will be bad.

        • tigglon

          I fail to see in my previous reply any reference to an argument that people are “bad.” I know people like to portray their opposition as making that childish argument, but it’s pretty clear my point was otherwise.

          My argument was against the idea that religious doctrine — which is entirely self-contradictory in every other sentence — motivates people’s actions.

          • GotScience

            I’m going to give this up now, but I am glad that we both agree on being godless.

  • J.p. Van Gordon

    So… since it’s not politically correct to slam the Jewish religion and it adherents anymore, now it’s all the rage to slam Moslems… or “Muslims” or whatever the new, politically correct term is… History is a strange bedfellow…

    • AsianApostate

      The number of jews who seem to actually believe in the letter of the law and the divine seem to be quite a few orders of magnitude less then Muslims. Most jews are cultural jews but moderate muslims to believe in Islam’s claims to divinity.

      • Deanjay1961

        Muslims can cherry-pick with the best of them, and it should be encouraged. I don’t see why we should agree with conservative mullahs that Muslims who aren’t fundamentalists aren’t ‘doing it right’.

      • tigglon

        The number of Muslims living peaceful, law-abiding lives far outnumbers the same of Jewish faith and many other faiths.

  • Ben Munford

    Islam is an excuse for violence in God’s name. The Qur’an is the religious book, the God’s word of Islam.

    The Qur’an states:

    “The punishment of those who wage war against
    God and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the
    land is: execution, or crucifixion, or cutting off of hands and feet from opposite
    sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a
    heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.” (Surah 5:33)

    People like Osama Bin Ladin find justification for violence against the innocent in such passages. Of course Islam should be criticized. It turns violence into God’s word and thus produces psychopaths as a percentage of its adherents.

    • tigglon

      The Quran has has also been cited to promote peace and to advance science. Looks like the culprit is not in the book, which has all sorts of contradictory ideas, but in the people who pick and choose from it, and in the socio-economic conditions that ultimately make them do so.

      Essentialism is the tool of the lazy and bigoted. Avoid it.

      • Ben Munford

        If you embed violence in any part of your religion, you assure that part of what your religion produces will be violence. That’s pragmatism.
        With imperative phrases like “Avoid it”, you sound quite dogmatic and intolerant. Congratulations, you and organized religion are perfect for each other.

        • tigglon

          You really ought to read that Old Testament. Not just many, many calls for violence for the glory of Yaweh, but quite gleeful calls for entirely gratuitous violence as well…

  • Andy Dufresne

    Harmful ideas should be criticized. Is willful ignorance harmful?

    If it is, then every single religion is deserving of criticism for its willful ignorance.

    Unless of course there is a religion that promotes biological change void of a divine influence

    If there isnt such a religion, then its settled.

    Anyone who supports the harm of willful ignorance should be criticized 🙂

  • tigglon

    The central logical error people make in this debate is by conceiving Islam as an “idea,” as implied by referring to it as an “ideology”. Like Christianity, Islam is associated with any *number* of ideas, directives, ethics, etc, which have no single coherent “statement”.

    This is why Christianity has been used as a motive for both abolitionism and lynching. Islam has been used as a motive for scientific advancement during the European dark ages and as for political repression and violence.

    There is no coherence. It is a collection of ideas from which its adherents pick and chose. There is no coherent “ideology.”

    The ideas forwarded by Muslims that should be criticized are precisely the ideas forwarded by Christians and Buddhists that should be criticized.

    It is the definition of ignorant, essentialist bigotry to blame “Islam” as an “ideology.” Nobody who indulges in essentialism can lay any claim to logic or reason.