Bad things happen in the name of Islam. An article that’s been doing the rounds of Facebook highlights Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s courageous campaign against these bad things. And it focusses particularly, on frustration that ‘western liberals’ (I think that’s me) do not support her in that campaign.  But I wonder if the author (Jeff Robbins) has mistaken critique for criticism? I wonder if he has thought enough about how we, from our different cultural spaces, can fight for justice and sustain multicultural harmony. And most importantly, I wonder if he has considered how we might, through our own work starve fundamentalism and extremism, rather than feeding it?

I won’t speak for other ‘western liberals’, but I support Ms Hirsi Ali in her abhorrence of evil acts, including when those acts are perpetrated by Muslims, or justified in the name of Islam. I believe that we should, indeed, stand against abuse of human rights, and abuse of the human spirit.  It is inspiring and courageous to see someone stand for human dignity in the face of madness, violence and hostility that is too often justified in the name of Islam (or Christianity, or Hinduism, or Capitalism, or Communism, or Nationalism).

Where I might disagree with her (and it’s anything but a ‘comfortable pro-Islamic narrative’) is when she, or more likely some of her supporters, ask me to focus my horror of those abuses on an entire religion, or when they suggest that the solution lies in breaking or silencing that religion.   I think that she, like other atheists (notably Richard Dawkins), walks a dangerous road of defining a religion by its fundamentalists.  The trouble with that is it empowers the fundamentalists, and alienates moderates and reformers.  I’m an atheist in most senses of the word, but I often meet Muslims (and Christians, and Hindus, and Jews) who have beautiful, life-enhancing, egalitarian values. Sometimes these values stem from the ancient religious traditions that they love. Sometimes the values arise from their simple love of humanity, and they have easily moved on from cruel edicts that were made thousands of years ago, in a different world.

Of course, too many people use religion (or race, or nation, or gender) to justify evil acts. (By ‘evil’ I mean any act that knowingly and unnecessarily hurts another or chokes their Spirit.) But others of that same religion (or race, or nation, or gender) reject those evil acts and argue that their religion, in its ancient or modern form does not justify those acts. These adherents of the same religion differ and sometimes clash.    And I’m on the side of the latter group. So what can I do to empower them, rather than alienate them?

Well…here’s the point where I feel Ms Hirsi Ali’s message may need to be delivered with care, if it is not to feed the fundamentalists.  Encouraging non-Muslims to argue that there is something inherently abhorrent in Islam could do great damage.  Because when we do that, we broaden the number of Muslims who start to feel like they are being unfairly attacked or judged. And people who feel unfairly attacked or judged might be that little bit more likely to be drawn to a more antagonistic brand of Islam.  We should stand shoulder to shoulder with those, like Ms Hirsi Ali, who stand against abuse. But—this is important—let’s leave the theological analysis to Muslims.

To repeat: of course, we should all support Ms Hirsi Ali and other Muslims, or Muslim-born, in their campaign for human rights, dignity and justice within the Muslim world. This woman who I am questioning has more courage and commitment than I will ever have. And we should use her as inspiration in fighting for those same human rights, dignity and justice in our own religious and cultural worlds.  In doing that, though, we should fight in a way that fans the flame of connection and reform and human spirit, rather than the destructive flames of alienation and fundamentalism.