Glimmers of secular hope

There has been a great fracas recently within atheist/secularist circles as ‘Horseman’ Sam Harris has been subjected to repeated critique* as the avatar of a disturbing trend within atheist circles: using “reason” to mask anti-Muslim sentiment in politically pallatable language. I have noted this tendency previously:

I don’t think anyone could confuse me with someone who is pro-Islam. As much as I find all religions repugnant, the face of Islam we see today is one of repressive fanaticism that stifles human progress. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of fanaticism in Christianity as well, to say nothing of Hindu and Buddhist repression happening in India and other parts of Asia. Whether it is due to anti-Muslim bias and the collision of Islam and secularism in Europe, or a reflection of the true excess of Islamic regimes, the news consistently carries stories of Muslim-dominated countries carrying out horrible acts with the excuses of Qur’anic license on their lips. I will not relent or shrink from criticizing this inhuman (or perhaps all-too-human) display of authoritarianism with claimed divine mandate.

That being said, there is a backlash against Muslims that is not based on their beliefs per se, but about our attitude about the danger that Muslims (and Islam) pose to the world. This attitude is not informed by evidence, but fueled by paranoia and misinformation. It qualifies, by every comparative standard that I can think of, as just as worthy of criticism as racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, take your pick.

My concern is that atheists find it far too tempting to single out Islam for particular opprobium because the stories we hear about Islamist-dominated countries are so dramatic. We conclude from the drama that Islam per se is a particularly twisted ideology, above and beyond the ideology of, say, Christianity. My counter-claim to this assertion is that Christianity contains essentially all of the same commandments and prohibitions and exhortations that Islam does, but time and the rise of secular society have rendered it, in the aggregate, less overtly oppressive than the current incarnation of Islam (again, in the aggregate).

This is not an issue of mere semantics or hurt feelings. If Islam is, indeed, a particularly bad philosophy in its very doctrine, then we must propose (as some, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, do) a radical and innovative method of mitigating the harm that involves the destruction of Islam as a religion. The harm is irretrievably baked into the cake, if this particular interpretation of events is to be believed. Personally, I think that this is a mindset borne of panic and colonialist attitudes about “the West” vs. “the Islamic world”. If Islam is just a run-of-the-mill example of what happens when religious authority is given militarily and political strength (as the experts suggest), then the way we approach it is the same way that we approached Christianity – strengthening secular institutions and providing more opportunity for people to develop, personally and economically, outside of a theocratic system.

In support of this latter interpretation, I offer two stories that seem to provide some hope that such a thing is not only possible, but happening:

Bangladeshi Prime Minister rules out blasphemy law

Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina has firmly rejected demands by Islamists for a new anti-blasphemy law to punish those who defame Islam and Prophet Muhammad. In a BBC interview, she said existing laws were sufficient to punish anyone who attempted to insult religion. Her comments came just days after hundreds of thousands of supporters of an umbrella organisation of Islamists held a massive rally in Dhaka.

“This country is a secular democracy. So each and every religion has the right to practice their religion freely and fair. But it is not fair to hurt anybody’s religious feeling. Always we try to protect every religious sentiment.”

To be sure, the idea that “religious sentiment” is something that deserves the protection of law is not exactly an encouraging sign, but the fact that a Muslim Prime Minister is willing to stand up to radical theocratic forces in her own country suggests that there is a strong pro-secular movement at work in Balgandesh.

Egypt court rejects bid to ban Bassem Youssef TV show

A court in Egypt has rejected a lawsuit calling for a ban on the TV programme of popular satirist Bassem Youssef. The court said the Muslim Brotherhood lawyer who filed the suit, which also demanded the channel lose its licence, did not have an interest in the case.

Mr Youssef has been questioned over allegations of insulting President Mohammed Morsi and Islam, raising concerns about freedom of speech. His weekly show went out again on Friday, poking fun at his situation.

Again, this is the court rejecting the lawsuit on a jurisdictional basis rather than saying the case itself has no standing, but there is some encouragement, I think, to be found in the existence of an independent judiciary that makes its decisions based on law rather than religious edicts.

Finally, there is a tactical issue that is worth exploring in the conversation about the atheist response to Islam. There are pro-secular Muslims who are putting themselves at bodily risk by speaking out about the need to fight Islamism in their countries. If we wish, as a community, to advance the cause of secularism where it is perhaps most sorely needed, we need to find a way to discuss Islam without invoking the spectre of Terry Jones. To be sure, there will be people who view all criticism of Islam as Islamophobic, and there is little that can be done to reach across that gulf, but there can be no partnership between the atheist pro-secular community and the non-atheist pro-secular community if we cannot learn to parse the more bigoted, less fact-based criticisms of Islam.

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*I link to the Greenwald piece because the other two I have read are so full of bad arguments and red herrings as to sink the central argument under the weight of the incompetence of the writers. Greenwald’s is thorough and specifically refutes the counter-argument that Harris is simply criticising religion and not Muslims themselves.