The Use and Misuse of Critical Thinking

Nayla Majestya

Being a Muslim in the liberal arts, I have lost count of the number of times I have been told to be ‘critical’. There is an underlying assumption that as I am visibly Muslim, I must be simple-minded and in dire need of ‘critical thinking’ to be liberated from my false beliefs. However, over the years I have realised that this advice is not directed at my intellectual capability; rather, it is a way of highlighting that my religious beliefs are unacceptable in a liberal environment.

The curse of ‘critical thinking’ is everywhere, from high school and university seminars to the staffroom. Teachers often stress how important it is for Indonesian students to learn ‘critical thinking’ skills; by virtue of living in the most populous Muslim country, young people are more used to being ‘indoctrinated’, they complain. This emphasis on ‘critical thinking’ in Indonesia is reflective of global trends in education curricula. Yet education professionals frequently complain that despite this rhetoric, it is rarely promoted inside the classrooms. These observations fuel a never-ending obsession with ‘critical thinking’ and how to teach it. 

But the way in which critical thinking is conceived has been challenged; Dennis Hayes, a professor of education in the UK, argues that one cannot teach others to be critical unless they are critical themselves[1]. This must go beyond condemning educational policies one disagrees with or telling students how they should think. It means that teachers need to be capable of engaging in deep conversation and reflecting on their own assumptions. They need to be able to put knowledge first. 

Hayes claims that the root of the problem is the misuse of the term ‘criticism’. The idea that critical thinking is a skill one simply learns is false, and this misconception leads many teachers to believe they are critical thinkers when they are in fact the opposite. Today, critical thinking often manifests as conformism to an ideological yoke; when a feminist, Marxist or post-modernist instructor requires students to adopt a certain perspective, even if they claim that these are valuable critical lenses to understand societies and cultures, it is still a form of uncritical pedagogy. Rather than encouraging students to think freely, teachers are instead demanding students adopt certain perspectives that they have already deemed as ‘critical’ relative to the mainstream. Far from facilitating independent thought, this kind of training almost becomes a tick box exercise.

Hayes calls for the unpacking of the term ‘critical’. When some theories have the prefix ‘critical’ embedded in their pedagogical practice, it often requires the uncritical acceptance of a certain political perspective. It must be recognised that critical disciplines are themselves situated in certain worldviews. A failure to recognise this means such perspectives merely constitute another form of indoctrination. 

Being an ‘Uncritical’ Muslim 

In Indonesian liberal circles, instead of being understood as the legacy of the Socratic spirit, ‘critical thinking’ has been used and misused as a cultural marker. Those who conform to fashionable ideologies like liberal feminism or tokenistic multiculturalism (with an emphasis on diversity of appearances, not ideas) are the critically enlightened and culturally sophisticated. Those who ‘cling’ onto their old world and ideas, religion, family structure, or social norms are cast as the narrow-minded, uncritical folk.

There is often no point in debating the false understanding of ‘critical thinking’ to people who believe that they alone are critical. The more important question is: do Muslims need to be critical? Is there any advantage in playing this cultural game of proving that we can be both Muslim and critical? 

This is especially a sensitive issue for Muslims in the post 9/11 era. Millenials have been raised amid the public sentiment that Muslims are narrow-minded, backward, oppressed (the women at least), violent, or just plain dumb. 

This has given way to knee-jerk reactions from Muslims, in which we attempt to prove ourselves in whatever culture game is demanded of us. If the mark of an intelligent person is to be a feminist, then so be it; we can be feminists. If the mark of a discerning individual is that she is a provocateur and mass mobiliser, then so be it; we can be radical Marxists. If the mark of an analytical mind is to question any and all religious beliefs, then so be it; we too can discard our theocentric foundations and adopt an anthropocentric approach to theology. 

Yet this culture game will never end until we, as Muslims, can accept that this is not about us being fundamentally unintelligent. This conversation is about how Islam, as a guiding religious force in society, is regarded as unacceptable in the 21stcentury. 

Read: The Demoralised Muslim Mind

The Great Secular Delusion 

One of the delusions of the secularisation thesis is that, by modernising the educational system, one can secularise the population. This is most clearly realised in universities; the promotion of science and technology through the cultivation of a scientifically enlightened mind holds fast to the empirical method of knowledge, which cannot be easily reconciled with metaphysical worldviews. And with respect to the social sciences and humanities, modern hermeneutics are promoted to develop the aforementioned ‘critical thinking’ skills. 

With the rise of the War on Terror discourse, the argument for secularisation has intensified. As the English political philosopher John Gray has noted, for the first time in generations, scientists, philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future[2]. This new anti-God squad that have dominated global media platforms and public conversations come from a generation who think of religion as “a throwback to an earlier stage of human development which is bound to dwindle away as knowledge continues to increase”. In the 19th century, as society was rapidly changed by scientific and industrial revolutions, this assumption was not unreasonable. However, today writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens still insist that scientific progress will drive religion to the margins. 

Gray however, argues that “the secular era was in any case partly illusory”. The major political and independence movements of the 20thcentury temporarily replaced religion as vehicles for social bonding and progression; since such movements have collapsed, religion is now undergoing a revival in many parts of the world. The contemporary hostility to religion in the West is a reaction against this reversal. Secularisation is in retreat and the result is the emergence of an evangelical type of atheism or a fundamentalist secularism. 

According to Gray, the problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable, but that it assumes that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. 

In reality, while we have witnessed dramatic advances in scientific knowledge, there has been nothing remarkable in the progress of society. Slavery might have been abolished in the 19th century, but it returned on an expansive scale in Nazism and communism. Torture has been prohibited by international conventions since the Second World War, yet it has been adopted as a policy instrument in the 21st century by the United States, the world’s leading liberal regime, and replicated by communist China in East Turkistan. Genocide has been recognised as a crime against humanity since 1948, yet cannot prevent its recurrence, as evidenced by the cases of Rwanda, Bosnia, and Rakhine. Wealth has increased exponentially, and yet most people in the world live in poverty[3]. People live longer, but also die en masse from preventable diseases. Technology has progressed to the point where we can develop high speed Earth rockets[4], but they will be used first and foremost to deliver weapons worldwide. 

Our collective technical abilities may have increased, but human realities have merely been repackaged. 

Against this backdrop, the anxiety of secular society at the persistent appearance of religion has resulted in a shift in public consciousness, described by Jürgen Habermas[5] as a post-secular society. This is a condition where a secular society struggles to adjust itself to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularised environment. Post-secularism, or post-secular theorising, has emerged as a field of interpreting social life that account for the failure of the secularisation and modernisation predictions. Religion has not disappeared. In fact, in many places, it resurges zealously under the pressure of secularisation.

Post-secularism, caution 

In light of post-secularism, the misuse of ‘critical thinking’ to frame Muslims as ‘uncritical’ can be understood as a kind of cultural anxiety in secular society after one of their great delusions has been shattered.

However, we need to be cautious in hurriedly celebrating post-secularism. As Dr. Zara Khan notes, post-secular theorising, alongside the feminist and human rights discourse that have come to constitute the new authoritative social norms, are all part of the same modernising project.[6] Their underlying liberal values and assumptions about religion, knowledge and human beings are moving towards a universalising impulse of secularisation.

All things considered, it is important to place a safe distance between ourselves, as intelligent and compassionate Muslims, and these universalising impulses. According to Khan, the best strategy to make this distance is to provincialise the liberal discourse — to identify and name it as one historical tradition among countless others. There is nothing inherently universal, neutral, or rational about the liberal discourse, nor is it safe from power politics. 

This does not mean that we cannot acknowledge that post secularists, feminists and human rights advocates are not sincere in their commitment to protect Muslims from injustice or state violence. But as Khan questions, can secular projects accomplish these virtuous tasks without uncritically projecting their foundational assumptions about human beings, knowledge, and religion, as if liberalism was philosophically neutral and universally applicable? 

My concern in writing this piece is not regarding what the proponents of those projects do. Instead, our focus must be on the noticeable tendency of Muslims to react exaggeratedly in the face of liberal generosity. These post-secularists might be sincere in their altruism, but we can be thankful without becoming insecure in our worldview.

Indonesia is currently witnessing the emergence of post-secularist public intellectuals who are celebrated as Muslim allies, amid a growing anti-Islam sentiments in public policies and debates. But being an ally of Muslims does not require someone to be an ally of Islam. What these so-called allies do, by advocating a post-secularist discourse and defending Muslims in public debates, is ultimately show that it is a secular worldview that can save Muslims, whilst undermining Islamic values and norms at the same time. 

There is no need for Muslims to play the culture game and prove ourselves to secular society. Their anxiety need not be translated into our insecurity. To be an intelligent Muslim does not requires us to be ‘critical’ as modern scholarship has defined it. To be compassionate towards people who have been robbed from their human dignity by wars, torture and discrimination does not require us to submit to the secular renditions of religion, knowledge and freedom. We can, and must, coexist without letting ourselves be subjugated by these discourses. 

Nayla Majestya is a lecturer in media studies Jakarta, Indonesia. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, she is also an Arabic student at the International Open University. You can follow her on Twitter @MajesticNayla.

[1]Hayes, D. (2014)  “Let’s stop trying to teach students critical thinking”, The Conversation

[2]Gray J. (2008), “The Atheist Delusion”, The Guardian

[3]Roser M. and E. Ortiz-Ospina (2017), “Global Extreme Poverty”, Our World in Data

[4]Cao A. (2020), Elon Musk’s Earth-to-Earth Rocket Design Will Be Used to Deliver Weapons for DOD”, Observer

[5]Habermas, J. (2008), A post-secular society – what does that mean?

[6]Khan, Z. (2019), “Balancing Feminism, Human Rights, & Faith”, Yaqeen Institute

One thought on “The Use and Misuse of Critical Thinking

  1. You wrote “it is important to place a safe distance between ourselves, as intelligent and compassionate Muslims, and these universalising impulses. According to Khan, the best strategy to make this distance is to provincialise the liberal discourse — to identify and name it as one historical tradition among countless others. There is nothing inherently universal, neutral, or rational about the liberal discourse, nor is it safe from power politics. ”

    Did you notice, it can easily be thrown back at you by claiming your version of ISLAM (I’m sure which is not Mutazila/ibn arabi/ibn tufail/other sufi tarikah/Mufti Abu Layth/Modernist muslims) as just another Islamic discourse – — to identify and name it as one historical tradition among countless others. There is nothing inherently universal, neutral, or rational about YOUR specific version of Islamic discourse, nor is it safe from power politics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s