Islamophobia and Skepticism


Chris Stedman had a post published in Religion Dispatches yesterday suggesting that atheists aren’t addressing Islamophobia and that it’s going to come back to bite us on the butt. Stedman seems to suggest that his interfaith work has made him more likely to fight Islamophobia than the rest of us.

RationalWiki, an atheist wiki featuring a newsfeed and articles like “Atheism FAQ for the Newly Deconverted,” contained no mention of the Sikh shooting, but it did list an instance where a Florida door-to-door salesman was shot, and noted the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. PZ Myers, who is among the most visible atheist bloggers in the world, did write about the shooting twice, though one of his posts simply referenced the shooting as a way to condemn America’s “gun culture,” while the other focused on Pat Robertson’s comments. (Most of the more than 35 other dedicated bloggers on Freethought Blogs—a massive atheist blog network he co-founded—didn’t address it at all.)

But while this silence is deeply troubling, I don’t want to suggest that, like some of those mentioned earlier, the atheist community at large necessarily has an Islamophobia problem—or that legitimate criticisms of Islam (or any other religions) constitutes Islamophobia. The problem, I think, lies in a lack of sensitivity to or awareness of the rampant Islamophobia sweeping our society. A key offender in this respect is bestselling atheist author Sam Harris.

The day after the shooting in Wisconsin, Harris published a lengthy blog post decrying Internet trolls; bizarrely, though, he included yet another defense of his position that Muslims should face extra scrutiny at airports.

There are a couple of points worth addressing here. The first is that the community at FreethoughtBlogs (if we’re going to stand in for atheist bloggers or atheism in general, which someone else can have a word with Stedman about) is silent about most tragedies. We don’t have the idea that we’re generally speaking for others that would make it feel anything other than pompous if we were to issue a statement as though someone were going to pay attention to it.

Two young Iranian girls in head scarvesOn the other hand, while we don’t claim the kind of authority that makes it likely anyone is looking for our statements on obvious outrage, we do invoke a different sort of authority. We try to solve the problems through evidence and critical thinking. For example, Ed Brayton shared an article discussing what is and isn’t terrorism and how that shapes our understanding of an event we’d wish to prevent in the future. I had just done the same with observations prompted by the Aurora shooting, or people might have seen the same from me.

None of this says we don’t care. None of it says we don’t recognize the problem. It says we don’t have the same priorities for dealing with it. Stedman prioritizes an emotional response from what I can tell based on his article. Many of us in the atheist community prioritize a practical response aimed at decreasing future events.

This would have been obvious if Stedman had used Harris’s opinions on profiling as his base search. Again assuming, as Stedman does, that FtB can be treated as a proxy:

I may have missed some. It wasn’t a refine search. Nonetheless, I think it demonstrates that we’re not ignoring the issue. So do posts about the topic outside the Harris profiling debate.

There are definitely more of those, but that’s a bear of a search, and I’m tired. The point is that there is no ignoring going on.

There is contention, yes. Like many forms of xenophobia, there are plenty of people who trust stereotypes over everything else. There are islamophobes in the atheist community. One of them appears to have commented on Stedman’s article.

This problem, however, is much like any other that requires persuasion. Will some people be reached by engaging in interfaith work? Sure. Familiarity is a great way to stomp on xenophobia.

However, some people won’t find that persuasive. The people they meet will be those infamous exceptions to the rules, or they won’t meet anyone at all because they don’t live in a metropolitan area with a significant Muslim population. There’s a good chance, however, if they’re atheists, that they’ll still run into arguments like Harris’s. They’ll still need to see arguments being made against the nonsense of one of the “Four Horseman”. Thanks to a number of atheists who are treating this as a skeptical issue, they will.

It just doesn’t require interfaith activism.

Photo credit: Cordelia Persen. Some rights reserved.

Comments

  1. Makoto says

    The thing for me is this – whenever a gunman uses weapons to attack innocents, it’s an easy step to say “maybe there are issues with guns”. This seems obvious, and seems hard to dispute to me. Sure, maybe if super-high-capacity magazines weren’t available, the person would use lesser capacity magazines. But it’s still a gun, a weapon of violence designed to kill people. And it’s still something we can talk about without impacting self defense, a “well regulated militia”, or even hunting.

    Other than that, we usually don’t know *why* a person went on their rampage, especially right away. Was it religious? Did they hate an employer, or a specific person? Were they upset at the gov’t, religion, or life in general? We don’t know. But we do know that guns were used, so a first response of “hey, maybe these guns are bad” seems appropriate, while other responses (was it religious based, employment based, etc) need to wait until we learn more, and even then it may not be appropriate, since it’s often just one person going off with those opinions (and guns), not a statement about their religion or those they were opposed to in general.

  2. Brownian says

    I’m just pleased as punch to be able to agree with Chris Stedman on something: the issue of Islamophobia in the atheist community.

    As someone who’s slogged it out on some of those threads on Pharyngula (“How dare you criticize Sam Harris after all he’s done for Atheism?!” and “You’re just being politically correct!” are two of the more devastating arguments we’ve had to counter), I can attest that it doesn’t take much to bring the bigots out of the woodwork.

    But the agreement doesn’t extend far.

    When I first heard that a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a few weeks ago, I froze. My stomach lurched and my thoughts turned to the friends I’d made in the Sikh community through my work as an atheist and interfaith activist.

    I understand that activists live in a different world than the rest of us and that their relationships are much more business than pleasure oriented, but surely one can make friends with Sikhs without having to join an interfaith group? Surely one can make friends who aren’t a convenient plot point?

  3. jamessweet says

    I agree than the gnu community could be more aware of Islamophobia. Even excepting the obvious example of Sam Harris, there are times when the zeal to criticize religion allows us to be played by legitimate Islamophobes. It helps matters not at all that the charge of Islamophobia is too often wielded as a “Shut up, that’s why!”, to protect that particular brand of religion from legitimate criticism. This is a complex problem, and I agree with Chris insofar that I think the gnu community (including FtB) could definitely stand to deal with it more proactively.

    I stop short of agreeing that interfaith initiatives are the right way to tackle the problem.

  4. Brownian says

    I agree than the gnu community could be more aware of Islamophobia. Even excepting the obvious example of Sam Harris, there are times when the zeal to criticize religion allows us to be played by legitimate Islamophobes. It helps matters not at all that the charge of Islamophobia is too often wielded as a “Shut up, that’s why!”, to protect that particular brand of religion from legitimate criticism. This is a complex problem, and I agree with Chris insofar that I think the gnu community (including FtB) could definitely stand to deal with it more proactively.

    The only disagreement I have with this, jamesweet, is whether or not the charge of Islamophobia is used to protect Islam, or to prevent such discussions from being coopted by bigots.

    Frankly, there are a lot of discussions I’m simply not willing to have with bigots.

  5. says

    I was actually thinking about the issue of Islamophobia in the atheist community this very morning, since I think it overlaps with the issues concerning sexism and racism and such that has been a main focus lately. I question whether some atheists actually care about violence and threats of violence from religious groups because they care about the victims of such things, or simply because it is a convenient cudgel with which to attack their opponents. For instance I’m sure there’s some overlap between defenders of Jessica Ahlquist when she was harassed and threatened, and the people who have been directing and/or enabling harassment and threats at women in the atheist/skeptical community for talking about feminism and conference harassment.

    None of that has much to do with Chris Stedman, who seems to see every issue as an opportunity to let everyone know how awesome his brand of accommodationism is.

  6. Rieux says

    It’s also worth noting that Stedman has used phony charges of Islamophobia to bait and bash gnus (such as Hemant Mehta) for utterly unobjectionable exercises in religious criticism and atheist visibility (viz., Everybody Draw Muhammad Day 2010).

    There are unquestionably atheists who step far over the line of fair comment on ideology where Islam is concerned—Pat Condell comes to mind, considerably more flagrantly than Harris—but Stedman has zero credibility as a reasonable judge of when that actually happens. Stedman has made it quite clear that if he had his way, atheist criticism of Islam (if not indeed of religion entire) would be simply silenced.

    (FWIW, I mixed it up at some length on these issues on this post last winter on Hemant’s blog.)

  7. KG says

    I’m glad to see this issue addressed – and so far, without anyone saying Islamophobia doesn’t exist – as Ophelia did on her blog not so long ago. I think Harris’s Islamophobia is pretty blatant – not just the advocacy of racial profiling, but the uncritical support for Israel, speculation about how “we” might have no alternative to a first strike against a nuclear-armed Islamist regime, and opposition to the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero.

    Other than that, we usually don’t know *why* a person went on their rampage, especially right away. – makoto

    In the case of the Sikh temple shootings, it became clear very quickly that the murderer was a neo-Nazi, and specifically identified with “Hammerskins Nation”. We don’t know whether he thought the Sikhs were Muslims or not – quite probably, he didn’t care what religion they were, as the Hammerskins ideology appears to have no religious component.

  8. says

    What? Stedman wants to accuse me of promoting Islamophobia by inaction? I’d appreciate it, then, if he let Sam Harris, who openly despises me, know that by Stedman’s lights he and I are fellow travelers. I cheerfully burned bridges there by calling Harris out on that issue.

  9. stoferb says

    I admit that I’m an Islamophobe. I’ve been investigating Islam lately and what I’ve found is not encouraging. Sure there are the occasional muslim feminist, the occasional muslim human-rights aciivist and the occasional muslim liberal but they are few and far in between.

    Yes, ofcourse most muslims are law-abiding citizens, but an overwheling majority of them wants sharia and many are prepared to kill gays and apostates even if it’s their own children. Btw, they usually consider another form of Islam as apostasy too. And they hate jews even more than they hate each other.

    I dare not think what would happen if Islam took over the world. It would be the end of freedom and prosperity. The “peace” they imagine will happen when everybody has either converted to Islam or been killed, will never happen. New Messiah’s would pop up regularly and gain followers, and whomever had the most money to run the most schools and Mosques would have the most political influence.

    And extremists would continue fighting each other for reasons so stupid that it would be a disgrace to the human race. In the meantime ancient monuments and any hint of civilized history would be erased as if it had never happened. Brainwashing school-kids and turning women into baby factories are their means of perpetuating this horrible religion.

    Thing is that Islam isn’t like christianity. Both are equally obsessed with obedience, but while christians makes up the rules as they go along and can claim Jesus behind any hint of rationality or humanity, muslims have it all written down once and for all. And there’s no room in the Quran for neither rationality nor compassion. Mohammed didn’t express himself nearly as vague as Jesus did.

    If I have to choose between christian theocracy and muslim theocracy I choose christian without hesitation. They will annoy the hell out of me trying to convert me, but atleast they won’t kill me.

  10. Pramod says

    It’s pretty obvious that “new atheism” has a problem with Islamophobia. Besides just Harris, who seems to have taken on the mantle of Chief Atheist Muslim Hater after Hitchens’ demise, here’s what Dawkins has to say about atheists supporting christian missions in Africa:

    Given that Islam is such an unmitigated evil, and looking at the map supplied by this Christian site, should we be supporting Christian missions in Africa? My answer is still no, but I thought it was worth raising the question. Given that atheism hasn’t any chance in Africa for the foreseeable future, could our enemy’s enemy be our friend?

    Islam is an “unmitigated evil”? Really? Haha, talk about being clueless.

    Also it’s obvious to me that the primary reason sikhs have repeatedly been the targets of violence in the US is purely because they “look muslim” (only to ignorant american eyes, but lets not get into that). All this talk about “we don’t know why they were targeted and we don’t want to jump to conclusions blah blah blah” sounds like whitesplain’ to me.

    I don’t want to name names, but I think a few FTBers could do with introspection re. their attitudes wrt islam and their unexamined white privilege.

  11. jflcroft says

    Will some people be reached by engaging in interfaith work? Sure. Familiarity is a great way to stomp on xenophobia.

    However, some people won’t find that persuasive.

    This is a good point. Usually I find interfaith encounters to be humanizing and valuable in reducing the distance between myself and others. On some occasions, though, I find them to be infuriating, in that they reinforce my worst perceptions about the religious tradition involved: a recent visit to a major mosque in NYC was an experience of the latter type. These things can go either way.

    What? Stedman wants to accuse me of promoting Islamophobia by inaction? I’d appreciate it, then, if he let Sam Harris, who openly despises me, know that by Stedman’s lights he and I are fellow travelers. I cheerfully burned bridges there by calling Harris out on that issue.

    I agree it would have been fair to highlight more of your excellent writing against Sam Harris’ position. At the same time, there is no way that the article can possibly be read as “accusing you of Islamaphobia by inaction”. That would be a completely perverse way to read your single mention in the piece.

  12. says

    Though I don’t particularly like the word “Islamophobia”, if we’re using it as shorthand for discrimination against Muslims, then I do think it exists. I don’t agree with all of Stedman’s examples (e.g. I supported Everybody Draw Mohammad Day and think it’s unfair to link it to Burn a Koran Day, as they were motivated by different things and had different goals) and have disagreed with him in the past, but he does make a valid point.

    There is discrimination against Muslims, and when people deny that it exists, they sound just as ridiculous as someone who claims that discrimination against other religions groups or against atheists doesn’t really exist. In addition to discrimination from individual people, there’s also governmental discrimination. Given concern about Islam terrorism, Muslims have become a group in the US against whom civil liberties violations are considered okay; people are okay with it if things they think are unfair when done to them are done selectively only to Muslims (or those who, in Sam Harris’s words, “look Muslim”).

    When Greta did her post about examples of racism in the atheist community, something that I and another commenter called WinderWind brought up was comments about Islam. Yes, of course, Islam is not a race, but there are times when “I’m just criticizing religion” is used as a cover for hatred against people from certain countries or immigrants.

    I think this really is one of those things where it depends on which site you’re going to and who you’re interacting with. There are some sites (e.g. RichardDawkins.net) that I do not visit anymore due, in part, to comments that advocate discrimination against Muslims. There are other sites (e.g. Greta Christina’s blog, Daylight Atheism) where I feel comfortable talking about my experience and disagreement with Islam, and while there are a few commenters who will use this as a reason to hate Muslims, most are interested and concerned about Islam, just as they are about other religion, without wanting to discriminate. There are sites where it’s a mix (e.g. PZ Myers is good about being against discrimination, but the comments sections can become horrible on certain posts).

  13. Brownian says

    If I have to choose between christian theocracy and muslim theocracy I choose christian without hesitation. They will annoy the hell out of me trying to convert me, but atleast they won’t kill me.

    Of course they’ll kill you. Any theology that has, at its core, the idea that non-believers are evil and/doomed anyway has an excellent source of ready victims on which to place the blame for whatever issues disgruntle the populace and threaten power structures. (and autocrats hardly need theological justification, as we’ve readily seen.)

    Comparing Islam today and Christianity today and declaring that they’d retain their characteristics even if switched in their respective power positions with respect to their populaces is incredibly naive.

    Remember, secularism arose in the west against a background of variously Christian theocracies. They did far worse to believers and non-believers alike than “annoy the hell” out of them.

    Say, you don’t follow American politics much, do you?

  14. Brownian says

    I agree it would have been fair to highlight more of your excellent writing against Sam Harris’ position. At the same time, there is no way that the article can possibly be read as “accusing you of Islamaphobia by inaction”. That would be a completely perverse way to read your single mention in the piece.

    James is right, PZ (though I wouldn’t have used the term ‘completely perverse’, since yours is a reasonable, if incorrect interpretation.) Stedman is wrong about the lack of mention of Islamophobia among FtB, but the focus of the article is specifically on Islamophobia rather than, gun culture or bigotry in general. In that way he’s faulting FtB (again, incorrectly), but I don’t see that he’s specifically accusing you of failing to deal with it in any form, or by promoting it through inaction.

    Even in the article, Stedman is careful to note that the atheist community is likely not any more Islamophobic than others (gosh, for a community of self-identified smarty-smarts we’re really not keen to distinguish ourselves from the great unwashed, are we?), but reflective of the increasing amount of Islamophobia in our respective general cultures:

    But while this silence is deeply troubling, I don’t want to suggest that, like some of those mentioned earlier, the atheist community at large necessarily has an Islamophobia problem—or that legitimate criticisms of Islam (or any other religions) constitutes Islamophobia. The problem, I think, lies in a lack of sensitivity to or awareness of the rampant Islamophobia sweeping our society.

  15. says

    @stoferb (#10):

    Thing is that Islam isn’t like christianity. Both are equally obsessed with obedience, but while christians makes up the rules as they go along and can claim Jesus behind any hint of rationality or humanity, muslims have it all written down once and for all. And there’s no room in the Quran for neither rationality nor compassion. Mohammed didn’t express himself nearly as vague as Jesus did.

    Both Christians and Muslims make up the rules as they go along. There are many people in both religions that claim they have it written down once and for all, but both religions have divisions precisely because they can’t agree on what God really wants them to do. People claim that their particular interpretation that they believe is what was written down once and for all, and other people in the same religion claim that their belief is what was written down once and for all.

    There are tremendous similarities between the morality in the Bible and the Qur’an. Both, for example, contain verses saying that people in the wrong religion are going to be punished by God. Both contain discriminatory verses against women and gay people. It’s true that there’s very little room for compassion in the Qur’an, and that is likewise true of the Bible, including the New Testament and including Jesus. (See Greta Christina’s “Eternal Fire: What Jesus Says in the Gospels about Hell” and “The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus”) The Bible seems nicer because it’s familiar and (if you live in a majority Christian country) it’s a book that’s claimed to be basically good, even if it has a few bad points. Like the Qur’an, though, the reverse is true. Morally speaking, it has a few good points.

    If I have to choose between christian theocracy and muslim theocracy I choose christian without hesitation. They will annoy the hell out of me trying to convert me, but atleast they won’t kill me.

    See what Brownian wrote above (#14). The worst that Christians have done in Christian theocracies is much worse than just annoying people to get them to convert. To make a fair comparison, you’d have to compare an actual Christian theocracy with an actual Islamic theocracy — not compare Islamic theocracies with countries with Christian majorities that have too much influence despite freedom of religion in the Constitution (or equivalent document), where organizations like Americans United and the ACLU (or their counterparts) do their best to fight against special treatment for certain religions.

  16. SabsDkPrncs says

    Every time I open my mouth the criticize Islam I get called an Islamophobe, so I just don’t go there any more.

    Sample conversation:
    Visiting Relative: I can’t believe Dubai is so liberal! I’m so surprised there aren’t more women wearing veils!
    Me: It’s only liberal on the outside. 1/3 of the local women have had their clitoris’ removed and many men have more than one wife.
    VR: Everyone knows you hate Muslims, S. You’re such a bigot.
    Me: Thanks Mom.

  17. stoferb says

    Yeah, you are right, I’ve changed my mind. A christian theocracy would be just as bad. I should have known better considering I’ve been mormon and have studied mormon history. Religious freedom is an article of faith in mormonism, yet when they established their own theocracy in Utah and didn’t have to bother with the constitution things quickly went south.

    They had a secret police, the “danites”, that murdered heretics and critics, and silenced dissent. These Danites had been operational already when the mormons lived within the borders of the US. But Brigham Young, the mormon leader, instituted another practice even worse now when the secular authorities had little reach.

    It’s called “blood atonement” and is the idea that some crimes are so bad that the blood of Christ isn’t enough, these people have to spill their own blood. Apostasy was ofcourse one of those crimes, and if you really loved your apostate relative/neighbour you would murder him in a way that blood was spilled on the ground. It resulted in lots of “pius” murder.

    And this can happen in a religion that supposedly let’s everyone worship god according to their own conscience.

  18. tvs says

    The first is that the community at FreethoughtBlogs (if we’re going to stand in for atheist bloggers or atheism in general, which someone else can have a word with Stedman about) is silent about most tragedies.

    Well, isn’t that just like saying “Well, we are only interested in science and we’re silent on racism and sexism because we’re an atheist community…” – so there really might be an issue here that needs to be addressed.

  19. pramod says

    I see that Dawkins and Islam is a hot topic again thanks to this gem from the great man himself. I’d be interested in knowing what you and other A+ folks think about this.

    The last time Dawkins said something dumb you were all over him, so I’m also curious about whether you think this tweet is worthy of a post.

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