UPDATE: I just learned that, by complete coincidence, Sam Harris has just published his own response “On Islamophobia and other libels.”
Readers have called my attention to two reports, one from Business Insider and the other from Arabnews.com, about Saturday’s demonstration in Bangladesh in which thousands of Muslims called for the execution of local atheist bloggers. Arab.news:
DHAKA: Hundreds of thousands of Jamaat-e-Islami supporters rallied in Dhaka yesterday after staging a “long march” to the Bangladeshi capital to demand the execution of atheist bloggers for allegedly defaming Islam.
It was the latest protest to rack Bangladesh, deepening tensions between secularists and the largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders are under trial for crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence.
The radical group converged on Dhaka’s main commercial hub to protest against what they said were blasphemous writings by atheist bloggers, shouting “God is great — hang the atheist bloggers.”
They defied a pro-government national strike by secular protesters — who staged a smaller rival protest in Dhaka yesterday — aimed at foiling the radical’s group march.
“Around 200,000 people attended the rally,” Dhaka’s deputy police commissioner Sheikh Nazmul Alam said, while protest organizers put the number at over half a million.
Authorities said, meanwhile, two activists of the ruling secular Awami League had died in the last 24 hours in clashes with Jamaat-e-Islami demonstrators, bringing to 96 the number killed in violence linked to the war crimes trials.
Protest organizers called yesterday’s rally the “long march.” Many began traveling by foot on Friday from remote villages to Dhaka’s Motijheel area that became a sea of white skull caps and robes.
“I’ve come here to fight for Islam. We won’t allow any bloggers to blaspheme our religion and our beloved Prophet Muhammad,” said Shahidul Islam, an imam at a mosque outside Dhaka who walked 20 km
. . . There has been vociferous debate between staunch atheists and fundamentalists in Bangladesh’s social media for years, but it took a deadly turn in February when an anti-Islam blogger was murdered.
Earlier in the week, four online writers were arrested on charges of hurting Islamic religious sentiments in a country where 90 percent of people are Muslims.
Even given odious defenders of Christianity like Bill Donohue, it’s unimaginable that such rallies could be held by adherents to many other religions. Can you imagine Catholics, for example, rallying by the hundreds of thousands to call for the death of anti-Catholic bloggers? Or murdering them? (Yes, I know that an abortion doctor or gay man is occasionally killed by religious bigots in the U.S., but calls for murder on this scale characterize just one faith.)
Note, too, that you can’t blame those calls for murder on political disaffection with the U.S. or other “colonialist” nations. The violence was threatened and carried out against Bangladeshi secularists, and explicitly in the name of Islam. Try to fit that into a colonialist narrative!
That brings me to the continuing accusations of Islamophobia against the New Atheists. An invidious accusation of such Islamophobia appeared the other day in a piece called “Islamophobia and (some?) New Atheists” written by Neil Godfrey on a blog called Vridar. I’m lumped as an Islamophobe with Harris and Dawkins (an honor, though an undeserved one) and, in fact, am singled out for special opprobrium. First the bouquet and then the brickbats:
Jerry Coyne, who has written probably one of the best books for generalists arguing the case for evolution, and whose blog I check from time to time for updates in the sciences, also from time to time posts disturbingly ignorant articles about Islam or Palestinians. Richard Dawkins, whom I respect and love as much as anyone does for his publications explaining evolution, was not very long ago interviewed by a Muslim on Al Jazeera and unashamedly threw off all his scientific training by relying entirely on anecdotal and media portrayals of Muslims. I have previously criticized Sam Harris for doing worse. Chris Hitchens, as much as I admire his works on Kissinger and Mother Teresa and his all-round wit, was guilty, too.
Over the last few days Jerry Coyne has been posting his disapproval of anyone suggesting his views on Islam (shared by the other names above) are Islamophobic. See Nasty atheist-bashing in Salon, Playing the Islamophobic Card and New Attacks on New Atheists (and one defense). He accuses such critics of quoting the likes of Harris out of context, of not defining what they mean by Islamophobia, of fallaciously accusing them of guilt by association with neo-fascists, and worst of all, of failing to address any of their actual criticisms of the Muslim religion.
After reading the several articles and related links to which Coyne and Harris have been responding (Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists; Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia) I believe that Coyne’s rebuttals do not stand. Coyne, Harris and Dawkins, for all their intellectual magnificence in other fields, are fanning social attitudes that facilitate bigotry and popular support for war.
I’m not going to try to defend my own posts here, except to say that critics like Godfrey can take a number, get in line, and, well, you know the rest. . .
It’s immensely dispiriting to read pieces like this and many of the ensuing comments. I still can’t quite understand why it’s sort of okay for atheists to level strong criticisms at other religions (Sam, after all, wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, and I spent an entire week on this site documenting the immorality of the Catholic Church [e.g., here and here]), so long as that religion is not Islam. We’re not accused of Catholicphobia or Baptistphobia, but only Islamophobia. I think this reflects a double standard, for such accusations hold Muslims to lower standards than, say, Catholics, especially in view of the palpable fact that Muslims, inflamed by religious ardor, in general behave much worse adherents to other faiths. And they’re far more willing to impose their religious views on those of other faiths—or secularists.
I’ll reprise the accusations against New Atheism associated with “Islamophobia”:
1. It’s racism. No it’s not, it’s criticism of a religion whose tenets are antidemocratic, anti-gay, and anti-woman, anti-freethought, and whose adherents want to impose their religiously-based morality on the rest of us. Granted, there are those bigots who dislike Muslims because many of them are “brown people,” or want to deny them immigration or prohibit them from building mosques or worshiping in the U.S., but New Atheists are not among these. And, of course, Islam is not a race (i.e., a genetically differentiated population) but a religion whose adherents come from genetically diverse ethnic groups. In that way it’s like Judaism.
2. Islamic violence is motivated not by religion but by politics, particularly hatred of Western oppression. I don’t know how people can level such a criticism. Yes, politics is sometimes mixed into the motivations, but read Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower to see how large a role the desire to impose Muslim values on others played in the rise of Islamic extremism. And really, look around you. Are those rioters in Bangladesh, who would willingly kill atheist bloggers, motivated by the political oppression they get from those bloggers? Read what they wrote about the bloggers insulting Mohamed and Islam. Are the extremists lying?
Don’t forget, too, that most Muslim violence is aimed not at Westerners, but at other Muslims. The Sunni versus Shi’a schism, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, is a religious schism, and would not have happened without Islam. Are the fatwas leveled at Islamic dissidents, or ex-Muslims like Salman Rushdie, motivated by colonialism? What about the deaths of Theo van Gogh for making an anti-Islamic film, or the threats against Ayaaan Hirsi Ali, another ex-Muslim? Colonial oppression? Death threats for naming a teddy bear Mohamed, or against those who publish caricatures of Mohamed? All politics, naturally. And then there’s all the religiously-based violence against Muslim women, motivated, of course, by those oppressive women!
3. New Atheists single out Islam for special criticism. Wrong—see #1.
4. Islam is no worse than any other religion. People who make this claim immediately label themselves as either biased or ignorant. Really, can you say that Episcopalians are responsible for the same kind of violence and oppression as is Islam? Or Buddhists, Hindus, Lutherans, and so on? Granted, Catholicism has been a force for evil in this world, what with child-raping, oppression of women, facilitating the spread of AIDS, and so on, but even Catholicism is nowhere near as bad as Islam as a source of violence and hatred. Granted, when Catholics ruled Europe, they did a lot of bad stuff, including the Inquisition, persecution of heretics, and so on. But that’s just the point—in theocracies there are few curbs on religious excesses. Catholics no longer rule the world, though they effectively ruled Ireland (with deleterious effects) quite recently. There are few Christian theocracies nowadays, but many Muslim ones. And I defy you to read the Qur’an and argue that it isn’t a book written to inspire hatred and divisiveness. I’ve read it. There’s nothing in Buddhism, or even the Bible, that can equal it.
5. There are many moderate Muslims who deplore the violence of extremists. I’m sure this is true, but the problem is twofold: those moderates don’t often demonstrate (where are the hundreds of thousands protesting the fatwas against Rushdie, or the calls for death of secular bloggers?). Further, if they tried to organize, they would face the opprobrium of more violent Muslims.
Yes, some of you may point me to enlightened Muslim clerics or citizens who publicly decry fatwas, honor killings, and so on, but compared to the thousands who rise up when the Prophet is insulted, that’s a drop in the bucket. The silence of moderate Muslims simply empowers the violent ones. And remember, if you’re a Muslim apostate, you’re under a death sentence. Catholics are free to leave the Church if they reject its tenets; Muslims, not so much. You can tell a disaffected Catholic, “Why don’t you just walk?”, but that doesn’t work so well with Muslims.
I do recognize and applaud the bravery of Muslim and ex-Muslim dissidents like Malala Yousafzi and Maryam Namazie. Their bravery comes at a high price—their safety. But recognize, too, that the threats to their safety have nothing at all to do with vestiges of imperialism and everything to do with Islamic perpetuation of outdated and ludicrous brands of morality.
6. The U.S. and other Western nations brought the violence on themselves (see #2). Some of this is true, as surely the violence of some Muslims against Americans reflects dislike of American boots on “Muslim soil.” But even here religion often plays a role, and, at any rate, countries like Denmark are not oppressive colonialist states. Muslim extremists threaten to shoot or blow up anyone who disses their prophet, regardless of whether those people are “colonialists”. Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are not oppressors of Muslims. They are apostates.
Godfrey’s article notes the deplorable massacre at Sabra and Shatila in 1982: the killing of hundreds to several thousand Palestinian and Lebanese civilians by Lebanese Christians, probably with the complicity of the Israeli military.
Christians don’t do the same things some Muslims do for the simple reason that Christians for most part live in countries that happily rule the world. Muslims experienced their 9/11 in 1982 at the hands of Christians and Israelis — who from their position of power did not have to resort deviously to suicide missions to accomplish their wills. An American foreign secretary can publicly concede that causing the deaths of half a million Iraqi children is worth a foreign policy goal. Mainstream Western media does not serve its constituents well by informing them of what Middle Eastern peoples generally have experienced at the hands of Western interests.
The Sabra and Shatila massacre was odious, and a war crime. But how does that justify the attacks on the World Center, or those who aren’t Israeli soldiers or Lebanese Christians?
7. New Atheists who criticize Islam know nothing about either Islam or religion. I deny this charge. Yes, Dawkins says he hasn’t read the Qur’an, but I think his reply here is apposite: how many of us who decry Nazism have read Mein Kampf? By their fruits shall ye know them, and the fruits of the Qur’an are poisonous. Further, I have read the Qur’an, and so has Sam Harris and so did Christopher Hitchens. I’ve spent a long time reading about religion and paying attention to it in the news. I’ve talked to a fair number of religious people, and debated several of them. I’ve read tons of theology. I’ll match my knowledge of religion, including Islam, against most other Americans. Many of us do know what religion is about, and what Islam is about. After all, many atheists were formerly religious, and left their faith because it harmed them.
Take a number and get in line. . .