Adopted by the Board of Directors
September 15, 2014 | Washington, DC
Updated from 2007’s “A Sensible Approach to Islam”
Islam and the Politics of Violence
Over a long period culminating in recent years, Muslim fundamentalists dedicated to establishing Islamic theocracies have ascended to power and solidified their authority in several countries. They have also established enclaves in many other nations, and some of them have formed terrorist organizations. Though belonging to various Muslim sects, these theocrats share a willingness to implement Islamist Sharia laws with punishments that disregard basic human rights, particularly women’s rights, and some conduct assassinations and brutal reprisals in the name of “true” Islam.
Though adherents of this type are gaining in numbers and power, they do not represent all Muslims. Stereotyping Muslims as violent or making generalizations about Islam undermines the efforts of millions of Muslims and others who are struggling to challenge the rise of extremism. Fair and even incisive criticism of belief must be tempered by outreach to those reforming from within.
Since September 11, 2001, prejudice and discrimination have been on the rise in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere against people who are even perceived to be Muslims. Such individuals are suffering from increased security screenings, hostile media attention, and oppressive new laws, as well as localized acts of violence and widespread disrespect. Moreover, disinformation campaigns and negative imagery have led to popular confusion wherein the world faith of Islam, with its 1.3 billion followers, is viewed as a doctrinaire monolith. Setting aside categorical prejudice against Islam is a pre-requisite to ensuring criticism and reform efforts do not harm the innocent.
The American Humanist Association is opposed to both the activities of Islamic extremists and to the “crusade” mentality rising in Western circles that condemns all Muslims indiscriminately. This statement aims at defining a rational and informed humanist position.
Humanists should assess Islam using the same standards applied to all belief systems. This means, in practice, that humanists support the concept of a democratic secular state, with complete separation of religion and government. Consistent with this, humanists oppose theocracy in all of its forms and support:
- The freedom to think and believe or not believe, and to profess or critique, resisting efforts to impose one’s religious beliefs on others through coercive and punitive measures
- The choice to observe or not to observe religious practices, to the degree that such practices do not harm others or interfere with their rights
- The choice of governance that, though it may not be Western-style democracy, does not permit the state to engage in religious indoctrination or similar tyrannies of the majority
- Modern human rights, not tolerating violations of those basic rights whether or not they are bolstered by religious law or custom.
Islam and the Separation of Church and State
Humanists believe in the complete separation of religion and government, and oppose theocracy. As a practical matter, humanists recognize that many countries have a state religion in principle but tolerate secularism in practice. We accept their right to define themselves as they wish, while supporting their more secular elements. Within our own country, we work more directly to strengthen secular attitudes and practices.
Certain recent Islamic movements aim to create new countries governed by Shari’a law. Basing the law of the land on literal interpretation of ancient texts not only stands in stark opposition to the whole concept of separation of church and state, it also violates basic human rights. Humanist tolerance for a nation’s preference for a given religion does not extend to using such a preference to shield mass violations of such primary freedoms. Governing modern societies by literal application of Shari’a law is a backward reversion and should be recognized as such.
A Balanced Humanist Policy
There is a great deal of violence in the world today, a disturbing portion of which is perpetrated in the name of Islam. Humanists recognize that globally, Islam is vast and heterogeneous, and problems that exist in one area may not exist in others. For this reason, one-size-fits-all responses to issues that outsiders perceive within Muslim-majority and Islamist countries are not only unworkable but are likely to be detrimental to humanistic solutions.
While small numbers of Islamists may reside in the United States, and while there is a continuing threat of terrorist attack from Islamic terrorist groups, extremist Islam as a political force does not exist in this country. Though many other countries have seen the influence of Islam in law, such concerns in the US arise more directly from Christian pressure in politics and law than any real threat from Islamists. Problems are mostly limited to instances when Islamic practices, such as those relating to dress or prayer, conflict with preexisting law and custom. These are often resolved without state involvement in a spirit of mutual understanding. When that fails and the courts intervene, their decisions should reflect both practical requirements and a respect for religious freedom. In general, humanists do not support either extending religious accommodation in ways that would create an unequal playing field between the religious and nonreligious or rigidly enforcing legal provisions that unnecessarily encumber individual religious liberty.
Some countries, notably in Western Europe, have been less successful than the United States in integrating Muslim immigrants into mainstream society. Humanists respect the desire of the majorities in these countries to preserve human rights; they also support the efforts of humanist groups to resolve emerging problems in a humane and practical manner. But some approaches have been strikingly racist and ethnocentric in nature. While freedom of speech must not be compromised, humanists oppose nativism, jingoism, and open hostility toward Muslim citizens and immigrants within any nation.
Humanists strive for a world where violence and fear are not the drivers of ideals and actions. In every case and in all its forms, extremism must be condemned. But neither should fear and ignorance be permitted to sanction prejudice and discrimination. There will always be those who aim to insult or ridicule others, employing inflammatory rhetoric to fuel ideological wars. While humanists should always uphold freedom of speech, they also aim to utilize that freedom conscientiously, taking steps to avoid marginalizing any community, religious or otherwise. Humanists recognize that challenging Islamists, Christian fundamentalists, and all others who hold to religious or ideological extremes is not a process with an easy or short-term solution, but it is the way toward progress.
Humanists see no contradiction, on the one hand, between their longstanding adherence to principles that run contrary to religious beliefs and, on the other, their strong distaste for efforts to propagate a crusade mentality against Islam or any other religion. Religious liberty means freedom for all: freedom to peacefully affirm and practice a faith, freedom from religious coercion, and freedom to peacefully leave or reject a faith. Such religious liberty is and always has been a central tenet of humanism and is herewith reaffirmed.
Click to read A Humanist Approach to Islam Addendum (PDF), posted May 19, 2015.