Islamophobia and the Regressive Left: a Discussion

Posted on November 8, 2015

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I rarely get into discussions on social media about atheism or politics. I usually try to avoid them. However, every once in a while something will get posted by a friend or acquaintance that is so fractally wrong and dangerous that I simply cannot refrain from commenting. I have absolutely no tolerance for the attempt to spread dangerous misinformation, such as anti-vax apologetics or paeans espousing the virtues of faith-based thinking. Another canard that I am unable to simply let fester unchallenged is the attempt to slander and demonize people like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins regarding their views on Islam. “Islamophobia!” is the knee-jerk accusation most often pinned on those who speak out in any form and to any degree against the abject human rights violations committed under the banner of Islam, and nobody has likely been accused of Islamophobia more than prominent New Atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. And such an accusation, in its most inarticulate and slanderous form, found its way onto my news feed in the form of this terrible opinion piece published on Al Jazeera by Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

It is hard to get through the entire article due to its unabashed bias and extraordinarily hyperbolic nature. This is no articulate yet impassioned rant, but rather resembles a rambling childish temper tantrum. Let me highlight just a few choice bits so that you may stand beside me in awe at the level of pure insanity contained in this piece. Dabashi claims, for instance:

The self-proclaimed prophets of New Atheism – the loudest Islamophobic ideology of our time, competing with neo-Nazis for attention, would not let go.

Atheists are like Nazis, got it. But how about this next claim:

The manner, however, in which Dawkins and his coreligionists preach and practise their atheism is not much different than the manner in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaches and practises his Islam . . .

Woah, woah, woah. This guy  just compared Richard Dawkins to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In case you weren’t aware of who Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, he is the leader of ISIS. Yes, the author of this article just compared Richard Dawkins to the leader of ISIS. Dawkins, who is only guilty of voicing controversial opinions in speech and text is being compared to the leader of a group that is infamous for beheading innocent people on camera, slowly lowering people in a cage into a pool to drown them, slowly roasting captives over a fire, and leading a campaign of rape wherever he and his death squad go. Dawkins, the author says, is just like this guy. There is plenty more I could go into regarding this article, but this blog post isn’t about this article, but rather the exchange I had in the comment section with several people on social media.

The exchange started out by me pushing back against the charge of islamophobia against Richard Dawkins made in the article in question, and also against the comments he recently made regarding the now infamous “clock” brought to school by the brown-skinned 14-year old boy named Ahmed Mohamed. Teachers mistook this contraption for a bomb, resulting quite absurdly in Ahmed’s arrest. This story is being portrayed–rightfully I believe–as a case of true anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bigotry. Dawkins decided for some reason that he would comment on whether or not Ahmed’s “clock” constituted an actual invention, or whether he just brought in a pre-made clock without the case. Whatever reason Dawkins had for voicing his opinions on this topic, it is clear that his comments aren’t indicative of racism or islamophobia. My comment was an attempt to put out multiple fires set by Dabashi’s article regarding New Atheism generally, and Dawkins’ comments regarding Ahmed’s clock specifically. As you will see, the conversation quickly turns into a lively discussion about islamophobia and violence within Islam.

Below I post the conversation in full. The names have been changed (except for mine) to protect the identity of my friends. At one point a friend requests that we continue the conversation in private, over email. He never followed through with this. As I haven’t had a response to my final comment in several weeks, I think it’s safe to say that the conversation is over, and that’s why I am publishing it now. If new comments are made, I will update this page to reflect the new content.

Ultimately, I am posting this to show how difficult these discussions can be, and stave off the harmful and slanderous rhetoric directed at people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Serious conversations need to happen regarding the role of violence in Islam, and the link between beliefs and actions. However, many people, now commonly referred to as regressive leftists, aim to stifle these types of conversations with accusations of racism and bigotry. These are simply silencing techniques aimed to stop all discussion. People like Dawkins and Harris are taking enough risks as it is criticizing Islam, and therefore I refuse to sit idly by and let people twist their words and misrepresent (either knowingly or unknowingly) their views. This is my attempt to set the record straight.

I hope you enjoy the conversation, and I would love to continue it in the comment section below if you would like to make a comment.


COLIN

While Dawkins is known to have foot-in-mouth-syndrome on Twitter, this article’s critique of New Atheism is waaay off. For one, all of the self-proclaimed New Atheists make it perfectly clear that they are not criticizing Muslims. They are criticizing ideas. Islam is not a race, and criticizing Islam does not make one a racist or “Islamophobe.” There are some people, usually conservatives, who are genuinely Islamophobic in the sense that they actively engage in anti-Muslim bigotry. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are not anti-Muslim bigots. They criticize the tenets of Islam. They criticize ideas, no matter who holds them.

Also, this articles claim that New Atheism is a religion and that Dawkins his a self-proclaimed prophet of New Atheism is just plain wrong. He has never said any such thing. The author of this article seems to have a strange knee-jerk reaction to atheists, and especially anyone claiming to be a New Atheist. He doesn’t appear to actually know the position and claims these groups actually make, but has instead created a rather distorted caricature of New Atheism–a straw man really–that he can easily attack.

And Dawkins didn’t criticize this kid for being a Muslim at all. He had doubts about whether he actually invented the clock instead of just taking the case off an already-made clock. I don’t know the facts well enough to know if this is correct or not, but he never said that the kid wanted to be arrested. He explicitly said that he shouldn’t have been arrested. This article is very confusing to me.

I’d love to hear other perspectives though. I don’t mean to come off combative, but I just see so many of these smear articles trashing New Atheism, and all of them seem to me to be severely misguided, and rather ignorant about what the New Atheism position is and what they claim. Let me know your thoughts!

STEVE

Don’t worry you’re not being combative! I was totally waiting for your reply to this post actually.

You’re right though, they’re not directly attacking Muslims, except when Dawkins says that Islam is a “religion of killers” or suggests that Muslims are not as smart as they were in the middle ages. BUT for the most part you’re totally right, new atheism (largely) criticizes the basal tenets of religions.

I disagree about Dawkins as a prophet though, he doesn’t need to claim it. Dawkins is the most vocal person on the topic, and with 1.25million+ followers on twitter he has most definitely become the de facto prophet of new atheism.

My biggest concern with Dawkins, Harris, etc, is their total lack of social responsibility. They are white men raised in the western world trained in the sciences who are obsessed with the take-down of Islam specifically. Sure, as an evolutionary biologist (or any scientist, really) facing creationist religious dogma is frustrating, but where do we hear the majority of that? In the world they exist in, who are the groups that largely tout that bullshit to the extent of creationism being included in a scary amount of textbooks (or at least a serious talk at the beginning of the class)? It’s the lobby of the christian right! Yes, they do talk about that too, but they choose to put the majority of their efforts thwarting Islam. Just flip through their twitters, at least 90% concerns Islam.

Their decisions to specifically focus on Islam are hard not to be taken as islamophobia. In the political reality of the post-9/11 western world, it’s hard to be Muslim, or even just brown. Brown people, regardless of religion, have been victims of racially fueled hate crimes throughout north America and Europe. That simply doesn’t exist for white Christians.

So, if you’re Dawkins, Harris, and the rest of their cohort, and you’re tweeting all day about Islam, you are reinforcing a damaging stereotype that already exists. Fox news can’t stop scaring Americans about Muslim extremism, and on top of that you have respected scientists with huge followings backing up those same claims. Muslims can’t win, they’re getting hate from both sides. Meanwhile, Christians, who are the biggest harbingers of political damage in the west, are left alone.

It is the responsibility of Dawkins et al to be aware of the large scale social context of their preaching and the disproportionate effect it has on Muslim people.

tl;dr Richard Dawkins is indeed and islamophobic asshole. New Atheism as a whole? Probably.

COLIN

I apologize in advance for the long comment. But, these kinds of discussions usually demand a lot of words.

I appreciate your willingness to discuss this stuff! Again, nothing I write should be read as me being angry in the least. I know that you know that, but I find that voicing ones opinions on this particular subject is often seen as an attack. And strong opinions stated frankly are often seen as combative and impolite. I really enjoy having discussions on volatile subjects like this, as I think they are extremely important. So, here is my response.

I think most of the misunderstanding of New Atheists comes from people reading second-hand what New Atheist thinkers like Dawkins and Harris write instead of looking at their words in their original context. You stated that Dawkins called Islam a “religion of killers”, but the closest thing to this statement I could find was the following Tweet of his on January 7th:

Richard Dawkins:

Of COURSE most Muslims are peaceful. But if someone’s killed for what they drew or said or wrote, you KNOW the religion of the killers.

I may have simply not been able to find the source of the quote you claim belongs to Dawkins, and if you have a different source for the quote you ascribed to him I would appreciate it if you could pass it along, as this would certainly be something I would want to know. If the Tweet I presented is the source, then I think it is abundantly clear that this quote was both altered and taken out of context. Clearly, he is not calling Islam a “religion of killers” here. He actually makes absolutely sure that his words aren’t meant to be generalized to all Muslims, but what he says following that qualification is simply a statement of fact—there is no other religion around that murders people for what they draw, write, or say.

You also stated that Dawkins claimed that “Muslims are not as smart as they were in the middle ages.” This, however, is also not true. Go back and read his Tweets. Dawkins was commenting on the fact that not many Nobel prizes nowadays come out of predominantly Muslim countries. This is a true statement. What is the reason Dawkins gives for this? Not that Muslims today aren’t as smart, but that these predominantly Muslim countries are by and large theocracies that are not conducive to free thought. There are undoubtedly many extremely smart and even genius Muslims on these countries, but when secular free thinkers living in these countries are murdered for criticizing the state or the religion, or even voicing secular attitudes, then this poses a problem to scientific advancement. Dawkins is blaming the religious attitude of silencing dissenting views for impeding scientific advancement. And this is most likely true. He never states that Muslims are “not as smart” as they once were. It’s just that Islam in the past was more accepting of free thought and science than it is today. But again, if you have a more direct quote that I have overlooked, please make me aware of it.

Also, Dawkins is not a prophet of New Atheism, as New Atheism is not a religion. Atheism is simply a response to the claim that “God exists.” New Atheism describes a more recent tendency for atheists to be more vocal about their views of religion, and to not let religion get a free ride when they should not. New Atheism is standing up to religious privilege, and insisting that all claims and beliefs should be grounded in evidence and reason, rather than dogma and emotion. That’s it. Dawkins is the most visible atheist, but that’s because he is very vocal on the subject, and had a bestselling book on the topic. New Atheists don’t see Dawkins as a prophet, and certainly aren’t shy to criticize him. In fact, there has been a very large push-back against Dawkins over the past years given some of his insensitive and downright sexist statements. I certainly don’t defend Dawkins on any of these points. Furthermore, I think you will be hard pressed to find any self-proclaimed atheist that would state that they view Dawkins as their prophet. Sure, he has a lot of fans, but New Atheism isn’t a religion. It doesn’t have dogma or authority figures. It has influential thinkers, but that’s about it.

You also claimed that Harris and Dawkins are obsessed with Islam. But this really isn’t the case. Dawkins’ only book on religion, “The God Delusion”, focuses almost entirely on Christianity, and he is a well-known opponent of Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism—all Christian progeny. Harris as well has devoted a large amount of time criticizing Christianity. In fact, he wrote an entire book—“Letter to a Christian Nation”—criticizing Christianity particularly. He has also debated and written extensively on Judaism. But nowadays whenever he writes something criticizing something other than Islam, people accuse him of doing it solely to make it look as if he doesn’t just criticize Islam. So he can’t win here. Sam Harris is largely an equal-opportunity religion hater.

Harris does focus more on Islam lately, but for very legitimate reasons. It is simply an undeniable fact that, as it stands today, Islam has a hypersensitive violent streak in it that is simply not present in other religions. As Dawkins stated above, no other religion will kill you for what you write, draw, or say about them. No other religion at the moment has proponents beheading/burning/drowning journalists and other innocents on film. No other religion has proponents that kill secular bloggers for criticizing Islam. No other religion prescribes the death penalty (in some regions) for apostasy, or has had proponents throw gay people off of buildings to their death. Given the state of the world today, it is no wonder why many New Atheists criticize Islam. Islam is the religion most in need of a reformation. It is important to criticize other religions like Christianity, but the effects of other religions, as they play out today, pale in comparison to the human rights violations taking place under the banner of Islam. And while most Muslims are not performing these abhorrent acts, those that do are claiming to do it for purely religious reasons.

You also stated:

Their decisions to specifically focus on Islam are hard not to be taken as Islamophobia. In the political reality of the post-9/11 western world, it’s hard to be Muslim, or even just brown. Brown people, regardless of religion, have been victims of racially fueled hate crimes throughout North America and Europe. That simply doesn’t exist for white Christians.

I certainly agree that there is a lot of anti-Muslim, and anti-brown-skinned bigotry in the United States. That is absolutely true. No doubt, it is difficult to be a Muslim in the USA. Islamophobia is a big problem, so long as it is taken to mean anti-Muslim/brown-skinned bigotry. But your argument seems to be that people like Dawkins and Harris shouldn’t criticize Islam, even if their criticisms are spot on, because the real bigots might twist their words and use it to further their own bigoted agenda. While this probably does happen, I don’t think that’s a good argument against voicing well-argued and nuanced positions about the tenets of Islam and the link between specific beliefs and specific actions. Criticizing ideas is important, and if people twist words, then it isn’t the original author of those words that needs to shut up. On the contrary, they should say more, and be even more explicit and clear, if possible. Dawkins and Harris simply are not the Islamophobes you’re looking for. If you go and read the articles they have written on the subject, in context, you’ll find that they go to great lengths and bend over backwards making sure to properly distinguish between the criticism of ideas rather than people. And it really isn’t their fault that people twist their words. Case in point: is Dawkins really at fault for you misquoting him in your last comment when you claimed that he called Islam a “religion of killers” when in fact he said no such thing? Certainly not. Your ire should be focused more on the people twisting words than on those having their words twisted. Nuanced discussion about violence in Islam is extremely important, but it is not an easy discussion to have when any criticism, no matter how nuanced, is deemed “racist,” “bigoted,” or “Islamophobic.” This is purely a silencing technique meant to end discussion on a topic that desperately needs to be discussed.

That’s about all I have to say for the moment. And, of course, disagreements are always welcome. I don’t enter in these discussions to just write my opinions. I do so because I truly value perspective, and would be absolutely delighted to have my views changed as a result.

STEVE

So I can’t actually respond to all these points without writing a full thesis but here’s a few.

Islamophobe or not, Dawkins has absolutely made terribly sexist comments multiple times in the past, we can all agree on that. So why do we still listen to anything he says at all? If any other leader/politician/friend/etc. were identified as sexist or racist, we would have a field day ripping them apart and not really trusting their opinions from then on because on some level their perspective is informed by those biases.

Honestly, we can remove the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ from this whole conversation, because it’s not about religion at all. There are ~50 Muslim majority countries in the world, but the examples Dawkins et al draw from to prove their point about Islam as a religion that promotes violence all come from 3-6 countries max, all centered in the middle east. How about Indonesia or Bangladesh, each of which has larger Muslim populations than all the Middle Eastern countries combined? This conversation is about extremist culture that has arisen largely due to western meddling. There were plenty of secular rulers/governments that existed in Middle Eastern countries, so you can’t even argue that secular views/politics did not have representation in these countries. The involvement of western countries like the US, France, and England through means of creating arbitrary borders, implanting ineffective rulers, the creation of Israel, enforced ‘democratic’ elections, etc. gave a huge boost to the efficacy of political Islam.

All of these political factors are what eventually gave rise to the violence and extremism that Dawkins et al are arguing about now. It’s not about Islam at all; it’s about the political reality of the people living in these countries so deeply affected by Western powers.

COLIN

I appreciate your response, but I definitely have a few responses of my own to some of the things you said.

For instance, you said the following:

Islamophobe or not, Dawkins has absolutely made terribly sexist comments multiple times in the past, we can all agree on that. So why do we still listen to anything he says at all? If any other leader/politician/friend/etc. was identified as sexist or racist, we would have a field day ripping them apart and not really trusting their opinions from then on because on some level their perspective is informed by those biases.

So, this is a textbook ad hominem fallacy. You’re stating that, since Dawkins has made sexist comments, why should we trust his views or what he says in any other context? This isn’t an argument against Dawkins’ views, but is merely an attempt to avoid his arguments by referencing other things about Dawkins that have nothing to do with the topic of discussion. I think it is important to deal with claims as they stand, and an argument doesn’t lose validity or soundness because of some other unrelated views they may hold. Just because he has demonstrated some sexist views doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to heap on other labels like “racist” and “Islamophobe” when they do not apply. And what do you mean “Islamophobe or not . . .”? This discussion started off about whether Dawkins and other New Atheists like Sam Harris are truly Islamophobic. That’s the thesis of the article you posted—the topic of our discussion—and what I am responding to here.

Also, your new claims here represent a drastic change of direction from the initial discussion. What about my claims that you misquoted Dawkins? Do you concede the point? If so, does that change your opinion of Dawkins in light of these new facts? Did you have another source for the quotes you claimed belonged to Dawkins? I am honestly curious, as all that is still on the table.

You said:

Honestly, we can remove the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ from this whole conversation, because it’s not about religion at all. There are ~50 Muslim majority countries in the world, but the examples Dawkins et al draw from to prove their point about Islam as a religion that promotes violence all come from 3-6 countries max, all centered in the middle east. How about Indonesia or Bangladesh, each of which have larger Muslim populations than all the Middle Eastern countries combined?

Honestly, it really is about religion; or, more specifically, the degree to which religious doctrines are believed and their link with actions. Dawkins and Harris are entirely aware that there are many other Muslim countries, and that most Muslims in fact don’t live in the Middle East. They focus on Middle Eastern countries because it is in these locations specifically that Muslims are acting the most fanatical and justifying their actions on purely religious grounds. They don’t criticize Indonesian Muslims, for instance, because they don’t have a habit of beheading people, throwing gay people off buildings, murdering journalists and cartoonists, etc., while claiming religious motivation. It’s no wonder why they focus on Middle Eastern countries—that’s where the religiously motivated human rights violations are taking place that are of huge concern. If Indonesian Muslims start beheading innocent people, then no doubt atheists like Harris and Dawkins would talk about them too.

Islam is practiced differently in different regions, just like other religions. And yes, there are other reasons besides religion that matter regarding why some regions might be more prone to fanaticism. I don’t doubt that U.S. foreign policy has played some role in this, but many of these religious conflicts date back a long time. But let’s suppose we could even state with confidence that violence in the name of Islam were mostly the fault of Western intervention. That still doesn’t preclude us from criticizing the human rights violations that are taking place here and now, in the world today. We can discuss the proximate causes for the religious violence and sectarianism in the Middle East right now, but that doesn’t change the effect. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to atrocities being inflicted on real people here and now. Regardless of the mechanism, behavior such as beheadings, death for blasphemy and apostasy, discrimination against gay people, etc., should be condemned across the board.

You stated:

There were plenty of secular rulers/governments that existed in Middle Eastern countries, so you can’t even argue that secular views/politics did not have representation in these countries.

Yes, there were and are some more-or-less secular governments in the Middle East. There are some predominantly Islamic countries that have a strong secular presence. But I am not concerned with those countries. I am concerned with the countries where voicing secular opinions is enough to get you killed or lashed. I am careful in my criticisms of Islam to refer to real world consequences of current behavior. While history is always important to keep in mind, the real world effects of religious extremism in Middle Eastern countries needs to be condemned and criticized.

You said:

It’s not about Islam at all, it’s about the political reality of the people living in these countries so deeply affected by western powers.

I hear this claim a lot, and I understand that it’s a popular liberal talking point, but I don’t feel that it has much weight to it. The thing is, the Muslims who are acting out violently, when asked about their motive, cite religious motives. You are choosing not to take these people at their words for some reason, and seem to insist deeper reasons apart from religion that must be the reason for their actions. Is it not so far fetched to assume that, sometimes, religious motives really are the proximate cause of behavior? I often see people insist that behavior can be attributed to everything under the sun except religion. So, my question for you is this: what evidence would convince you that it really was religious belief that is the proximate cause of violent extremism? If you wont take them at their word, and ignore the direct religious-text-to-behavior nature of their actions, then what would convince you that religion really were to blame? Anything?

BETTY

In response to both of your things, Colin: It seems like you’re making two different arguments here. 1) New Atheists do not specifically target Islam and 2) Even if they do specifically target Islam, it’s because Islam is particularly bad, as religions go, so Islam deserves it.

(Colin’s note: the following italic text was added by Betty as an edit after I responded to her original post. You can find my response to this edit below.)

First of all, I agree that that tweet is pretty explicitly calling Islam a religion of killers- not *every* Muslim, for sure, but it seems as if Dawkins is confident that the religion supports the habit of killing people for what he deems to be silly reasons. Dawkins may not understand why anyone would kill someone over a cartoon, and nor do I- but our opinions here aren’t important. What’s important is that the cartoon here carries so much historical power- presumably, the centuries-long oppression of Muslim people done by colonizing and combatant white people, pervading every system of power that rules how they live their lives- that people are moved to kill over a cartoon. That does not mean that these people are explicitly violent (though, look how well that fits into existing narratives that POC are more emotional, irrational, and violent! no wonder it’s a convenient political strategy), but, perhaps, that historical events have created a power imbalance such that violence is sought. AND lets not ignore the fact that in the days after the Charlie Hebdo killings (since I’m assuming that’s the major reference here) that Muslim homes, mosques, and restaurants were bombed with regularity ( http://www.thenational.ae/…/in-france-hate-crimes-fuel… ). Lets not forget that a white American atheist man killed his Muslim neighbors (college students) because of a “parking dispute”(http://www.nytimes.com/…/muslim-student-shootings-north… ).

If you’re looking for an out-group in terms of unprecedented violence and tyranny, it’s white people.

Finally, though Atheists that “critique” Islam act as if theirs is a recent and enlightened position, it’s bitterly similar to the rationale their ancestors chose as justification to enslave, mass kill, and colonize the land of brown people. Their ancestors were Christians, of course, so they considered it to be more of a religious mission, but it’s unchanged that a bunch of white men (and women, for sure) are still out to “civilize the savages” (though the language is updated… now we call it “liberating” and “democratizing”). And the fact STILL remains that those ancestor’s “civilizing” actions benefit white people all the time still today: economically, politically, socially, militarily. I’m sure you know that It’s no coincidence that today’s war torn countries are the same as the countries that were “civilized” a few generations ago- and that the US and Great Britain and Australia and other colonizer countries are *not* the war-torn ones.

It seems like a population truly remorseful about their ancestor’s imperialism and genocide of thousands should not, in seeking to rectify that legacy, keep on telling their former victims what to do: i.e. white men like Dawkins and other New Atheists who support him have no place at all in critiquing Islam, unless it is to repeat and amplify the opinions and feelings of current Islam (or Muslim-raised) people. It is not Dawkins’ place to tell us whether or not he personally has any opinions on Ahmed Mohamed’s clock.

COLIN

Hi Betty, you gave me a lot to work with here. I am really happy to have your perspective on this issue. Of course, I disagree with a lot of what you said, and I hope you won’t mind if I share my views and let you know why. I think this could be a very profitable discussion, hopefully for both of us!

One claim commonly launched against people like Sam Harris is that they focus only on Islam. I see so many people asking why the hell they don’t bother critiquing other religions. I am just pointing out the fact that they do target other religions, but that they target Islam a bit more because, as it stands in the world today, there is a lot more to criticize about Islam.

You stated:

Finally, though Atheists that “critique” Islam act as if theirs is a recent and enlightened position, it’s bitterly similar to the rationale their ancestors chose as justification to enslave, mass kill, and colonize the land of brown people.

No, it really isn’t. No New Atheist I know has suggested we invade Islamic countries because they view the tenets of Islam as being abhorrent. Atheists are overwhelmingly liberal and anti-war, myself included. All New Atheists are doing is criticizing practices like beheadings, Sharia Law, death penalty for absurd religious crimes like apostasy, throwing gay people off of buildings, burning/drowning innocent people and other innocents alive, murdering people for drawing cartoons or writing articles about Islam, sentence secular bloggers to 1,000 lashes for voicing his opinions about Islam, etc., in the name of Islam. There is simply no parallel here between criticizing such absolutely horrendous acts and human rights violations such as these and our ancestors that enslaved brown people. These acts are appalling, and yet you claim that Westerners have no right whatsoever to condemn such acts? I simply don’t know how to respond to that. Every lip capable of doing so should condemn these acts. This cultural relativistic point of view you seem to be espousing fully breaks down in these instances, as these acts move well beyond simple cultural differences.

You said:

Their ancestors were Christians, of course, so they considered it to be more of a religious mission, but it’s unchanged that a bunch of white men (and women, for sure) are still out to “civilize the savages” (though the language is updated… now we call it “liberating” and “democratizing”).

You seem to be attributing a position to me that I have never voiced. I am not for invading Islamic countries to democratize them. I have never stated I am pro intervention. I think the best thing to do is try to give secularists in oppressive Islamic countries a voice. If any change is going to occur in these countries, it isn’t going to come from us bombing these countries, it’s going to come from a cultural revolution from within. I think we need to help get the voices of these moderate Muslims heard, and give them moral support and attention. Again, I am completely against any sort of military intervention (with the possible exception of extirpating ISIS), and I don’t think it is our job to “civilize the savages.”

You stated:

And the fact STILL remains that those ancestor’s “civilizing” actions benefit white people all the time still today: economically, politically, socially, militarily.

The people who suffer the most from fundamental Islam are other Muslims, not white Westerners. I am not interested in there being an Islamic reformation for my own benefit at all, but in order to have the secular voices and religious moderates in these predominantly fundamentalist countries be heard and hopefully lead to a cultural change. Nobody would benefit more from an Islamic reformation than other Muslims. They are the group I care most about here, as they are the ones generally being blown up from car bombs and suicide bombers. We are generally safe here in America. I don’t fear Islam personally, I just care about how secularists, moderates, and gay people are treated in countries where voicing such opinions are quite often a death sentence.

You said:

New Atheists who support [Dawkins] have no place at all in critiquing Islam, unless it is to repeat and amplify the opinions and feelings of current Islam (or Muslim-raised) people.

I reject this claim fully. No ideas should ever be removed from the table of criticism. In the marketplace of ideas, ideas should rise or fall due to their merits. If there are bad ideas, they should be criticized. Period. Just because someone’s skin might be white doesn’t mean that they have no place criticizing the horrendous human rights violations going on in many countries in the name if Islam. Death for apostasy? We can’t criticize that? Murdering cartoonists for drawing a picture of the prophet Muhammad? We can’t criticize that? Really?

You said:

It is not Dawkins’ place to tell us whether or not he personally has any opinions on Ahmed Mohamed’s clock.

I don’t understand how you are able to draw these lines regarding what an adult can or cannot comment on. Sure, it might seem pointless to comment on whether or not the clock was “invented” or simply had the case of an intact clock removed. I really don’t care whether or not he really invented the clock. But if Dawkins wants to voice his opinion on whether the clock constituted a real invention or not, that’s for him to decide. If you think the argument is stupid, that’s fine, and I’d actually agree with you. It is a stupid argument to make. It’s petty and stupid. But let’s meet his ideas, as with all ideas, with criticism instead of attempts to silence them and claim that they “have no place” voicing such opinions.

COLIN (response to Betty’s edit)

Sorry for the late reply Betty, but I only now just realized that you edited your comment.

You said:

First of all, I agree that that tweet is pretty explicitly calling Islam a religion of killers- not *every* Muslim, for sure, but it seems as if Dawkins is confident that the religion supports the habit of killing people for what he deems to be silly reasons.

I don’t understand how you can possibly say that. The Tweet absolutely does not call Islam a “religion of killers” as Steve had said it does. Steve used quotation marks, suggesting that he was directly quoting Dawkins. This was incorrect, and is typical of the many people who misinterpret Dawkins and Harris. He said explicitly that most Muslims are not violent. He then stated a true fact: if someone gets killed for what they say, draw, or write, you can predict with high certainty the religion of the people who did the killing. This is simply undeniable. It is a statement of fact, and you are twisting Dawkins words to paint him as something you think he is or want him to be. That is intellectually dishonest.

You said:

Dawkins may not understand why anyone would kill someone over a cartoon, and nor do I- but our opinions here aren’t important. What’s important is that the cartoon here carries so much historical power- presumably, the centuries-long oppression of Muslim people done by colonizing and combatant white people, pervading every system of power that rules how they live their lives- that people are moved to kill over a cartoon.

Our opinions are absolutely important here. Are you saying that the morals of killing people for a cartoon are purely subjective? Are you really refusing to make a stand against violence and murder for drawing cartoons? Killing people for what they say, draw, or write is wrong. It is wrong everywhere, and anytime. I honestly find it shocking that you are penning an apology for these murderers. There is no excuse for killing people for expressing free speech. Period. That view is, frankly, disgusting.

You said:

That does not mean that these people are explicitly violent (though, look how well that fits into existing narratives that POC are more emotional, irrational, and violent! No wonder it’s a convenient political strategy), but, perhaps, that historical events have created a power imbalance such that violence is sought.

I never said that Muslims are violent. And I also have never suggested that I am talking about Arabs or brown people here. All I am saying is that beliefs truly held can lead to actions. And when certain tenets of a faith are clearly written, and believed strongly, it is no surprise that we see the actions that some of these people perform. And they state clearly that they are motivated by their religious beliefs. I am not blaming Islam for any violent action, only the violent actions that are performed that have explicit scriptural justifications. These include: cutting off people’s hands for theft, throwing gay people off buildings, killing apostates, trying to bring about the Caliphate, etc. These are actions that some Muslims perform due to their fervent belief in scripture. Why don’t you take Muslims at their word when they tell you their justifications for their actions?

You said:

Lets not forget that a white American atheist man killed his Muslim neighbors (college students) because of a “parking dispute.”

There is a vast difference between an atheist killing somebody, and a religious fanatic killing somebody because they are motivated by literal readings of sacred texts. Atheism has no doctrine and no holy books. When an atheist kills somebody, they are not doing so “as atheists.” Your analogy is not an analogy. It is an anti-analogy. I would never blame Islam if a Muslim robbed a bank, just as I wouldn’t blame atheism if an atheist robbed a bank. Nor would I blame either group for any crime that has no basis in doctrine or scripture. You are failing to grasp the fact that scripture can inform beliefs, and beliefs inform actions.

BETTY

Hey Colin. Sorry for editing without the appropriate signage.

There are a few important points that I think your arguments across this thread are missing out on. I think addressing these broader-scope issues is more relevant to the conversation than repeating each of my earlier points that you’ve disagreed with.

1) The term “imperialism” and “colonization” do not exclusively imply military intervention. Economic presence can be equally disruptive, as can cultural. For more information on the latter (in Africa, at least), I recommend Decolonizing the Mind by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or the excellent novel Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangaremgba. Though atheists are not at the forefront of some sort of anti- religious crusade (though that would make an excellent skit for a sketch comedy), the cultural weight behind a bunch of influential, educated, privileged Americans telling the world that they’re stupid and/or evil for supporting their religious beliefs can be as damaging as ~100 years ago, when a very similar group of people were telling the world that they’re stupid and/or evil for not supporting the Christian god.

2) There’s an important principle in debates and discussions that many people find uncomfortable or, perhaps, offensive to what they believe they’re entitled to. It took me, like, all 4 years of college to learn this. And this is the principle that an individual’s opinion is not necessarily important, valid, or wanted on topics that they have little knowledge and no lived experience in talking about. For a benign example- if my friend had a damaged septic system, my opinion on home plumbing would not be valuable to them, because I am not a plumber. Even if I checked out and read every library book on plumbing, my opinion would still not be as valuable as someone who actually has experience as a plumber. Now, to apply this to more relevant examples: my opinions on how the Black Live Matter movement run their business don’t matter, because I’m not black. And, though of course(!) I think it’s wrong to kill someone for their sexuality, their cartoons, their small crimes (as many many Muslims agree- and speak/write about!), my opinion on how to stop this from occurring, as someone who has no ties to Islam, is not valuable. And a key point here is that my opinion on the last two issues is especially not-valuable because I benefit (indirectly, of course) from the structures of economic/political/and cultural power that have made the Black Lives Matter movement necessary, and that have caused much of the strife that some majority-Muslim nations are trying to overcome. It would be akin to me trapping someone in my basement for 10 years, then having a change of heart, releasing them, but still popping into their life every couple of months to say “Oh really, you’re dressing like that now? I just don’t like that sweater, stripes don’t look good on me.”

3) It is not possible to criticize an ideology (like Islam) and, in doing so, not criticize the people who support that ideology. Believing otherwise is a hallmark of the sort of hands-washed pseudo-objective privilege with which many educated people believe they can create more ‘pure’ opinions about the world. The whole point here is that criticizing Islam in the way many New Atheists do is essentially tied to making life more difficult for the Muslim people in the US and elsewhere who already face physical danger, cultural rejection, economic and professional disadvantage, personal strife, and so on, because the US on many levels does not *like* Islam. Contributing to the Islam-is-bad agenda isn’t doing anyone any favors- it’s just making your voice loud by touting already popular opinions.

COLIN

Sorry for the late response. I am in Africa doing fieldwork, and WiFi is hard to come by. Also, sorry for the length, but I don’t think these thoughts can be articulated in fewer words.

In response to your first point: I began stating that we should speak out against religiously motivated acts like honor killings, throwing gay people off buildings, stonings, murdering people for depicting the prophet, murdering apostates or those accused of blasphemy, or sentencing outspoken critical Muslims to lashes. These are religiously motivated acts, and most (if not all) have nothing to do with Western imperialism. Is a Muslim throwing acid in a young Muslim girl’s face for the crime of educating herself really a product of Western influence? Is killing someone for leaving the faith really our fault? No. These are religiously motivated acts, that have direct support in scripture, and those performing these acts by and large cite religious motives for these actions. And, these are predominantly acts committed against other Muslims, not Westerners. You responded to my criticisms of these vile and disgusting acts as somehow related to imperialism and colonialism, and me wanting to “civilize the savages.” Do you really not see how absurd that is? These acts are human rights violations, and need to be spoken out against. We need to support the people in these countries that have no power, and stand in solidarity with them in their outspokenness. That is all I am asking for here. These people need our support, and your position has the effect of silencing these outspoken secular Muslims in these countries, and empowers their oppressors.

Your analogy completely breaks down when you say that it resembles people “telling the world that they’re stupid and/or evil for not supporting the Christian God” because in your example these people are Christians, and are deluded by their own unjustifiable dogma. Atheism has no dogma, and simply stresses that we all substantiate our beliefs with reason and evidence. It stresses coming to terms with reality, so that people aren’t being oppressed by the unjustified beliefs of others. This should not be a controversial position in 2016.

And atheists don’t go around telling people they’re stupid. All atheists argue is that belief needs rational justification. This is because beliefs fuel actions, and actions effect people around you. People acting on unjustified beliefs have the effect of limiting the rights of gays, women, secularists, etc. A belief in honor, which is prevalent in much of the Muslim world, has the result that women get stoned to death for not being virgins on their wedding day, for committing adultery, or getting raped. All beliefs need to be subject to scrutiny. Now, simply cultural practices and rituals/ceremonies don’t need justifications so long as they don’t violate any persons autonomy.

You said:

There’s an important principle in debates and discussions that many people find uncomfortable or, perhaps, offensive to what they believe they’re entitled to. It took me, like, all 4 years of college to learn this. And this is the principle that an individual’s opinion is not necessarily important, valid, or wanted on topics that they have little knowledge and no lived experience in talking about.

The only lived experience I am concerned with here is the lived experience of Muslims and other innocents that are being killed for what they believe or don’t believe. There are secularists, feminists, and gays in the Muslim world that are unable to be outspoken on fear of being murdered. I simply can’t understand how you can sit back and say that we are unable to comment on the morality of such things as stoning people for adultery, or death for apostasy. You are giving cover to the Islamists that control the lives of these people who need you to stand in solidarity with them and speak out against the laws that silence and kill them. You are completely sidestepping the point here. I am talking about the real world consequences of beliefs on people that you would otherwise support had they just so happen to reside in the United States. Us Westerners apparently have the right to be upset by things like Gamergate (which I agree we have a right to be, and should be, angry about), but we can’t comment at all about people getting killed for speaking out in the Muslim world against barbaric laws they’re subjected to? This is political correctness gone absolutely mad.

You said:

Now, to apply this to more relevant examples: my opinions on how the Black Lives Matter movement run their business don’t matter, because I’m not black. And, though of course(!) I think it’s wrong to kill someone for their sexuality, their cartoons, their small crimes (as many many Muslims agree- and speak/write about!), my opinion on how to stop this from occurring, as someone who has no ties to Islam, is not valuable.

You are here misrepresenting my views. I agree that I would never tell the BLM movement how to run their organization, or what goals they should aspire to. That is, unless they start beheading people or performing morally abhorrent acts. At some point, I would absolutely have the right to comment on their practices. I have never once stated how we should go about stopping religiously motivated violence in the name of Islam. All I have called for is for us to stand in solidarity with those who are in the Muslim world, the true Muslim reformers, and support them and help give them a voice. They can’t have a loud voice in their own countries, because they get killed for doing so. This problem is going to ultimately have to be solved by Muslims, but we need to help them get heard. We can parrot their voices here in the West without fear of being killed (mostly). That’s why we need to help these brave reformers get heard, because they cannot have a voice in their own countries. You have been arguing that we need to be silent on these issues too. You are essentially silencing all parties except Islamist fundamentalist groups and governments by doing this. This empowers the Islamist regimes that enforce their barbaric practices on their citizens. Please stand in solidarity with these brave reformers instead of their oppressive regimes. They are in desperate need of it.

You said:

It is not possible to criticize an ideology (like Islam) and, in doing so, not criticize the people who support that ideology.

This is just false. This is merely an assertion that is perpetuated by the left, but really breaks down the moment you look at it. I am not merely criticizing Islam as a whole; I am particularly criticizing abhorrent actions performed by Muslims in so far as it is linked to actual doctrine. When the Koran states to spread Islam by the sword and that infidels should be killed, and then you see Muslims do this and cite this passage as their motivation, then we should be able to criticize this belief and doctrine. When Muslims throw gay people off buildings citing passages of the hadith that call for throwing gay people from a height, then we can criticize this belief and the scriptural basis. I never ever say that all Muslims are bad, or that all Muslims are violent. Never have I ever stated that, and it’s because I know that those statements are false. If people are unable to understand the nuance between criticizing ideas and criticizing an entire group of people, then that’s hardly my (or New Atheists’) fault. It’s not a difficult distinction to make in the least.

You said:

The whole point here is that criticizing Islam in the way many New Atheists do is essentially tied to making life more difficult for the Muslim people in the US and elsewhere who already face physical danger, cultural rejection, economic and professional disadvantage, personal strife, and so on, because the US on many levels does not *like* Islam.

The way New Atheists criticize Islam is precisely the way I have been doing it. They go to great lengths to distinguish between criticizing ideas and doctrine instead of people. Many of their critics distort their words purposefully and claim racism and Islamophobia when it really does not apply. The people making it tougher for Muslims in America are these people that are distorting the views of New Atheists. You are suggesting that it be taboo to make nuanced arguments because some people might misunderstand them and it might result in real bigots going after Muslims. Sure, this might occur, but again, the blame is on the people distorting New Atheist views rather than New Atheists themselves. An author is not responsible for how others twist their words. Sam Harris has been a big target of such attacks, and he has responded many times over with clarifying remarks to make sure people are absolutely clear what it is he is criticizing here. Also, I find it odd that you are more concerned with how Muslims in America are treated when their counterparts in the Middle East are getting murdered for expressing views that both you and I (and Muslims in America!) profess daily without fear of death. Yes, people should not be bigoted against Muslims in America, but your solution involves silencing the secular progressive Muslims in the Muslim world that have no voice. Your priorities are completely off kilter here.

Liberalism by and large stresses the autonomy of the individual. That is and has been the long-time goal of liberal sentiment. I would assume that you count yourself as being liberal, or somebody that champions the liberal outlook that the individual has tremendous value. So your responses here seem rather off given the values I assume you hold, and here is why: While you have no problem understanding that the Western world consists of a heterogeneous milieu of individuals with different goals and values that you find important, liberating, and conducive to a healthy society (such as liberalism, secularism, feminism, free speech, social justice and activism, etc.), you appear to view the Muslim world as devoid of such heterogeneity and goals. You seem to assume that atheism, secular values, liberalism, etc. are something the West is simply inflicting on a people and culture that wants nothing of it. This view is wrong, and extremely harmful. There are feminists, secularists, liberals, etc. within the Muslim world that are trying desperately to influence their culture and quell the religiously-motivated oppression they endure daily and are doing so fearing for their lives. However, these voices are literally powerless in many countries because voicing such values is enough to have you killed. Let that sink in a bit. Your call to not criticize heinous acts such as corporal punishment, beheadings, the stoning of women whose only crime was that they were raped, throwing gays off buildings, killing people for leaving the faith, all in the name of Islam (and have scriptural support) is giving power to the dominant, privileged, and oppressive group and ignoring the autonomy of the individual. What possible justification can you have to not stand in solidarity with these progressive Muslims who would be outright killed for voicing the opinions you voice quite regularly without hindrance and to which you attribute so much value?

But don’t take my word for this. Go read the views of real Muslims who have managed to escape, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Marayam Namazie, and Maajid Nawaz. These are Muslim and ex-Muslim progressives trying their best to speak out about the oppressive regimes they lived under, and get people in the West to become aware of the problem. They need us to stand with them, and help give them a voice. My voice here doesn’t matter. As you even stated, we need to “repeat and amplify the opinions and feelings of current Muslims” within the Muslim world, and that’s exactly what I am doing. The effect you have on these people is to silence them and empower the privileged and barbaric regimes they have escaped, and under which so many secularists currently live in fear and silence.

One last short thing. I feel that this discourse gets disorganized rather quickly. I often respond to specific points you make and, rather than concede the point or offer additional arguments, I feel that they are quite often ignored. I think it would be great to address points and argue or concede them appropriately. For instance, the quotes that Steve attributed to Dawkins were clearly fabricated and dishonest, but he never admitted this or addressed it further after I confronted him with it. And you doubled down stating that Dawkins’ actual Tweet said basically the same thing Steve suggested it said, when it clearly did not, and only the most twisted reading could produce the narrative you attributed to it. I just hope we can have a discourse where some progress is made instead of talking past each other. I try my best to respond to direct quotes of yours in context. I think it is organizationally useful, and keeps us on point. I know this isn’t a formal debate, but I still think it’s important to argue or concede points that are brought up instead of sailing past them. This, most importantly, helps me understand your position and where we currently reside in the conversation. I don’t want to get lost or misinterpret anything you say.

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