Did you hear the one about the alcoholic, atheist Muslim?

It’s time to start treating Muslims like Christians and Jews.

As an infidel I don’t care for religions. On a good day they’re all equally as stupid and just a colossal waste of human effort, whereas on a bad day they’re all equally as terrifying and a colossal waste of human life.

As a secularist, though, I really do care about putting religion in its proper place and neutralising its formidable capacity to do harm. And as a secularist I also believe all humans have the same legal rights and responsibilities regardless of their faith, if any. These are my motivations for writing this post. I am certainly not making a misty-eyed case that Islam is some benign, or beautiful, or misrepresented belief system.

You might think Islam is far stricter than other religions: that there are clear lines of behaviour – and of belief – which simply cannot be violated or even negotiated if one wishes to be a Muslim.

In fact, you might even think your knowledge of Islam gives you the ability to distinguish the real Muslims from the synthetic ones: perhaps you occasionally but very proudly display your theological and cultural credentials by educating your friends on Islam: Muslims must comply with the five pillars of Islam, they aren’t permitted to eat pork or drink alcohol, the animals they eat must be slaughtered in a certain way, they can’t draw a picture of a certain prophet, they must say something about peace whenever they even mention this prophet’s name, and the womenfolk amongst them must cover their face (or is it just their head, or is it their entire body?). And if you’re going to be really honest with yourself you probably like to think this knowledge gives you a certain superiority over those who lack it, cultureless savages that they clearly are. You revel in this smugness.

What a divine prick you are, bequeathing unto yourself the right to deny a fellow human being a cultural or religious identity which has absolutely nothing to do with you.

It takes one thing and one thing only to be a Muslim: calling yourself a Muslim. And I don’t even mean something as elaborate as reciting the Shahada. I just mean considering yourself a Muslim.

If someone wants to consider themselves a Muslim (in a cultural sense, or a religious one), then they have the right to that identity. And you have no right to deny them it.  Yes, it’s that simple.

If your world is caving in on you now, firstly get over it, secondly start treating Muslims like everyone else, and thirdly start treating Islam like any other religion.

Many people consider themselves Christians in a “cultural” rather than a religious sense. Don’t worry too much about what that means because it doesn’t really mean anything. The important point is that an individual is entitled to that identity. Would you only be prepared to grant someone a Christian identity if they successfully negotiated your questions on church attendance, the Old Testament, and attitudes to homosexuality? You probably wouldn’t and you definitely shouldn’t. Even if someone considered themselves Christian in a religious sense, again, would you interrogate them on their compliance with what you (religious “scholar” that you clearly are) considered to be the fundamental theological tenets of Christianity? Again, you shouldn’t.

I know Christians who never go to church. I know Christians who don’t believe in God. I know Christians who don’t hate homosexuals. I know Christians who never wear a crucifix. I know Christians who don’t believe a virgin can give birth to a boy who is his own father who created the universe in six days.

The same goes for Judaism. I know people who consider themselves atheist Jews. They have every right to call themselves Jewish and they have every right not to believe in Yahweh – or whatever its name is. I know other people who consider themselves Jewish in a more religious sense, but who love a bacon sandwich (with a side of shellfish), who work on a Saturday, who happily flick a light switch on and off all day long on a Saturday, who don’t believe 8-day old baby boys should be subjected to religious “surgery” and who don’t have two sinks or two dishwashers to keep their neurotic tendencies in check – sorry, to keep their food kosher.

Why the different treatment for Islam?

It has nothing to do with religion. There is nothing within Christianity or Judaism – theologically – that allows its members the freedom to pick and choose which part/s of the buffet they eat, or which grants them a membership badge even if they decide to overturn the entire buffet table in a violent fit of rage. There is nothing within the Christian or Jewish holy texts which says:

“Look, forget all the stuff in here. Just ignore it. It’s really not important. And if you’ve been paying attention you’ll probably have noticed it doesn’t make much sense anyway. Tell you what, if you want in, you’re in.”

No, let us be clear why Christianity and Judaism, in the twenty-first century, generally lend themselves to a pick-and-mix treatment: it’s because they have more or less been wrenched through a two-part grinder called “Secularism and the Enlightenment”. That metaphor might be a violent one but what has emerged from the other end of the machine is far more peaceful and humane than what was fed in: religions which can be picked apart, consumed and discarded as an individual human sees fit.

And that is what is required of Islam, urgently.

How will we know when this job is done? Well, when we meet beer-loving, pork-eating, atheist Muslims who pray exactly no times a day and in no particular direction, and we don’t consider that a contradiction, that will be a good start.

Treating Islam as a volatile, unbendable object, and treating Muslims as a homogenous force of nature who (must) all believe and do the same things does not help the Muslims who simply want and are entitled to the same right as everyone else: the right to be treated as an individual human being.

All you do when you treat Islam and Muslims in this despicable fashion is to make allies with their Islamist oppressors and place further pressure on decent Muslims who want to practice their faith as they individually see fit, or who don’t even want to practice a faith at all but still want the right to call themselves Muslims. Or who want to shed their Muslim identity completely.

I have met people who were brought up as Muslims and who have since become godless. Some of them want nothing more of their former identity, for whatever reason. That is their right. Others, though, still toy with the idea of calling themselves Muslims in a cultural sense.

The outcome of that decision in an individual case is largely irrelevant and it is completely irrelevant as far as that individual’s legal rights and responsibilities are concerned.

But this point is far from irrelevant: they have the right to make that decision and there’s nothing you or I or any Muslim “leader” or “scholar” can do to take away that right.


Update: Ali A. Rizvi was kind enough to mention this post in his piece in the Huffington Post here (13 May 2013), and I did a follow up to Rizvi’s piece here (15 May 2013).