Ali A. Rizvi on ‘the politics of Islamophobia’

I am acutely aware, as I look over the post from the past couple of days, that I am breaking one of my own general ‘rules’: I am speaking about a community more than I am listening to its members. Indeed, short of a high school World Religions course and whatever I have gleaned from r/atheism, I have zero knowledge of Islamic faith or the dynamics of Islamic practice. To be sure, I have attempted to avoid over-stating my case, but have preferred rather to cast some doubt on the posturing toward certainty that I see from many (though assuredly not all, and perhaps not even most) anti-theists when it comes to criticisms of Islam.

That being said, there are many people who have a great deal of knowledge about Islam and who make criticisms that are very pointed. While I am indeed a liberal, I am not so blinded by my own liberalism that I would tell ex-Muslim critics of Islam that they are ‘Islamophobic’ or that they simply lack my exalted knowledge on the topic. To that end, I’d like to share with you a criticism that I reflexively disagree with, but think is worth reading and internalizing nonetheless:

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and the foiled al Qaeda-backed plot in Toronto, the “anything but jihad” brigade is out in full force again. If the perpetrators of such attacks say they were influenced by politics, nationalism, money, video games or hip-hop, we take their answers at face value. But when they repeatedly and consistently cite their religious beliefs as their central motivation, we back off, stroke our chins and suspect that there has to be something deeper at play, a “root cause.”

The taboo against criticizing religion is still so astonishingly pervasive that centuries of hard lessons haven’t yet opened our eyes to what has been apparent all along: It is often religion itself, not the “distortion,” “hijacking,” “misrepresentation” or “politicization” of religion, that is the root cause.

The recent attack on “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens by Nathan Lean and Murtaza Hussain have been endorsed by renowned liberal writers like Glenn Greenwald, who has also recently joined a chorus of denialists convinced that jihad and religious fervor had nothing to do with the Tsarnaev brothers’ motive, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. (HuffPost Live recently had a great segment holding Murtaza Hussain accountable for his claims.)

The source of my disagreement with Ali Rizvi is the same as for my disagreement with those who believe that religion is a path to peace: religious belief may be causally related to behaviour, but it is neither necessarily nor sufficiently so. By this I mean that one no more needs to believe in the divinity of Jesus to give to charity than they need to believe in Muhammad to set off a car bomb. The causes of violence are, as far as I know, found in a place that is much deeper than any specific religious instruction. Rizvi points to Timothy McVeigh as an example of a terrorist who is not motivated by religion without sparing so much as a sentence fragment to explain away the myriad of potential overlap between the Boston and Oklahoma bombers.

That being said, Rizvi has far more knowledge to bring to this discussion than I do, so I will happily give him the last words:

The most revolutionary human rights struggles in history have faced violent opposition, ostracization, alienation, insult and often injury and death for those engaged. The fight for women’s rights took much more courage for women in the 1800s than for those born in the 21st century. Civil rights activists who spoke out at a time when lynchings were accepted and commonplace took on a much more dangerous task than those born in the America of Barack Obama. Countless LGBT activists have faced discrimination and cruelty throughout history (and continue to today) for openly advocating what 70 percent of America’s youthnow believe to be the right thing, no matter what it says in Leviticus 20:13.

Overall, “new atheists” think of religion the same way. It is considered sacred and untouchable now like white supremacy and patriarchy were less than a century ago. The consequences for speaking out against it are often as dire as they were for those who spoke out against white or male authority back then. But the secularist struggle is bearing fruit, here and elsewhere, particularly among America’s youth.

To us, the “root causes” of jihadist terrorism are the same today as they were when Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja said those historic words to Thomas Jefferson. We want to be honest about it so that we can actually do something about it.

For the fast-growing secularist/humanist movement, criticism of religion isn’t a demonstration of bigotry but a struggle against it. To us, bigotry against bigotry isn’t bigotry, and intolerance of intolerance isn’t intolerance.

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