Monday, 29 December 2014

So What Do You Base Your Opinions On?

Christmas is often a time to meet distant relatives and exchange views. Such was the case for me this Christmas when I had a occasion to speak to a rather smug and ignorant relative about Islam. So ignorant was he and so full of certainty that it was difficult to know where to begin. It was as if he had soaked up every cosy media homily about the real nature of Islam and regurgitated them without question.

What can we do when confronted by people of this type?

A recent post at New English Review gave me an idea. The post describes an interview between retired Hebrew University Professor of Islamic and East Asian History, Raphi Israel, and radio personality Tali Lipkin-Shahak. During the interview the familiar gap between the knowledgeable and the ignorant emerges; the difference between knowledge and ignorance with which all those who have studied Islam now carry like an historic responsibility. The original article was written by Dror Eydar in Israel Hayom.

"On Monday, radio personality Tali Lipkin-Shahak interviewed Professor Israeli. It wasn't the interview that was notable, but the style in which it was conducted -- a style shared particularly by many Israeli journalists and Western journalists in general. "You were ahead of your time," she said to him. Israeli replied that he had been investigating the Muslim "diaspora" in Western countries for over a decade, and that in that time the Muslim population has grown to alarming proportions.
"But why do you attribute violent intentions to the immigration process?" the interviewer asked him. "Joseph also immigrated to Egypt," she remarked, evoking the Book of Genesis.
True, the professor answered, remarking that he had written five books on the subject, "but Joseph's family had not proclaimed that it planned to conquer Egypt or to convert Egypt to become Israelite."
"The Muslims explicitly say that they did not come to Europe in order to become European, but to Islamise Europe." They have vowed that a Muslim flag will wave over 10 Downing Street in England and over Versailles Palace in France within 25 years, he explained.
Lipkin-Shahak then said that "one can always [always!] talk about those people in terms of a negligible, extremist minority, including the terrorist attackers." Even ISIS, she said, "has no more than several thousand members."
Israeli insisted that these atrocities are nothing new. In the past, Muslims who immigrated to Australia, Scandinavia and Germany, as well as other places, have perpetrated very serious attacks.
The overly concerned interviewers rushed to protect the ears of her tender listeners, saying "I have to be the one to tone things down, or at least present the opposing view," she said. "What you are saying, it is very serious. You are vilifying an entire population; you are contributing to the process of hatred and counter-hatred, which only causes harm and intensifies the violence."
Israeli was not surprised. "That is exactly what they told me in Australia, until they became the victims of a catastrophe…This is my job. Anyone who wants to listen can listen. Anyone who doesn't, they can wait for the next catastrophe."
Lipkin-Shahak stuck to her guns: "We listened, but we voiced a sceptical opinion. We disagree."
"What are you basing your opinion on?" Israeli wondered in desperation. "I am basing my opinion on thirty years of research, studying Islam, and you are basing yours on a trend, on the fact that it is not nice to say these things. We are talking on two completely different planes."
To which Eydar observed:
Indeed, two completely different worlds. Facts versus beliefs. Reality versus fantasy. Make love not war; imagine there's no countries and no religion too. A very special kind of liberal fundamentalism. The moment the truth comes knocking, they retreat into their politically correct shells and refuse to recognise the facts. There is no such thing as Muslim terrorism. The terrorists come from outer space. Islam is a religion of peace and we mustn't link it to all these terrible acts perpetrated in its name. Sadly, the people who think this way -- the politically correct -- have the microphone. The researcher with the facts is only a momentary guest."

Israeli's question is crucial: What are you basing your opinion on? This is the question we should ask our interlocutors. Next time you get into one of these discussions, allow your the person to offer all his ill-informed, assumption-laden opinions. Rather than trying to counter them, draw him out in order to make a retreat impossible.

Then, pose the question: What are you basing your opinion on? Perhaps he will feel the gulf of ignorance opening up beneath him and will find the motivation to actually learn something about Islam and its core teachings and the actions of its prophet. Perhaps the opportunity will arise to point out how little evidence there is for the opinions he holds and that he has never bothered to seek it out but merely assumed it was there.

A supplementary question might be: have you read any of the foundational texts of Islam?

This experience could just provoke a learning opportunity where any attempt to counter the opinions of which he is already so certain will fail.


  1. If you go to your Dashboard and go to Layout, you will see you can "add a gadget." You should add a Search Box into your sidebar. I just came here to share something you wrote with a friend, but couldn't just search for it. I had to go through your archives one at a time.

  2. Thanks Zackery, that's a good idea.

  3. Everyone has comfortable fictions; it is just that different people have them about different things. That's why we need other people, even if they are not as smart as we are ;-). If we go into a discussion with the assumption that only the other person suffers from rose-coloured glasses syndrome we will come across as quite arrogant. Perhaps a better approach is more on the lines of a testimonial where we go through how we overcame a comfortable fiction of our own (perhaps about Islam, or something else) by studying the subject.