Many liberals reacted to the demonisation of Muslims following the Paris attacks by rightly pointing out that we are all individuals with different characteristics.
They say people shouldn’t be blamed for carnage in France because they share the same religion as the attackers.
But many of those people, including sadly many on the left, think there is something uniquely backward about Islam.
This view of an “Enlightened Europe” relies on a highly selective reading of history.
For example the formal commitment to equal rights for women is a recent phenomenon.
The laws and attitudes that supposedly guarantee it are a product of decades of struggle from below.
And one need only watch the film Pride to know that this is even more the case for LGBT liberation.
It wasn’t Christianity or the bourgeois liberal revolutions that swept Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries that brought more rights for oppressed groups.
Supporters of the theory of the “tolerant West” also forget the barbarism that has characterised it.
The First World War, the Holocaust, the nuclear bombing of Japan and prisoner torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are brushed under the carpet.
Some people try to trace a direct link between religion and social and political practice. The revolutionary Karl Marx attacked this idea.
He wrote, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
Marx’s theory explains why people from different classes who share the same religion will often interpret it in radically different ways.
For example, the Saudi Arabian ruling class adheres to a highly conservative version of Islam.
This seeks to preserve its power by insisting it is a product of “God’s will”.
Yet many of those who filled the streets during the Arab Spring were deeply religious.
For them, the Quran teaches that it is right to stand up against oppression.
Islam, like all religions, is not a single entity that can be held responsible for particular attitudes.
It can be seen as a vehicle by those seeking liberation just as much as it is used by some to maintain oppression.