Lessons to be learned from the Boston tragedy

I have just returned from a trip to Boston. These posts have been waiting for a while to publish, and this is as good a time as any.

Over the past month*, I have repeatedly found myself in the odd position of defending Islam and Muslims from fellow atheists. As an atheist, I am certainly strongly antagonistic to Islam, as I am to all religions. It is, therefore, unusual and counter-intuitive for me to step up in its defence. After all, the critics and I share a fundamental belief that the world would be a better place if fewer people adhered to Islam. We share the belief that Islam is false, that it holds up dangerous beliefs in such a way as to preclude criticism, and that it is a major contributor to human suffering worldwide.

My departure from the opinions of anti-Islam critics happens when I perceive those criticisms to be grounded not in factual appraisals of the damage caused by Islam, but in a lazy conflation of ‘Islam’, ‘Islamism’, and general distaste about brown foreign types. These criticisms come quickly in response to any circumstance in which Islam is implicated. Even in cases where Islam is not explicitly mentioned, like in the case of so-called “honour killings” where the murderers are most often operating within cultural norms grounded in extreme patriarchial entitlement, Islam gets the credit by diffusion.

In the case of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged bombers in Boston, the anti-Islam screeds began to pour in well in advance of the suspects even being identified, let alone their motivations being known. When the news broke that the bombers did indeed profess Islam, I could almost hear the sound of a million Islamophobic cocks standing immediately to full attention. Finally, some vindication of the facts they had “known all along” – that a random act of terrorism was in fact religiously-motivated by the worst religion in the world, and there was no need to stop stigmatizing any and all people who are Muslim (or ‘Muslim-looking‘), or to examine our own policies and behaviours – it’s because Muslims. Full stop.

Of course, as more facts of the case began to pour in, the story became progressively stranger. These kinds of details don’t usually perturb those who had made up their minds before any facts were available in the first place, but I found them to be revelatory of a number of disparate threads that weave their way through the conceptual tapestry of this blog. The problem is, of course, that blogs are not the best platform for complex and multifaceted reflection. What I will attempt to do instead is another series of posts in which I address some of the central issues from a variety of perspectives, and address a number of questions:

  • Where is the line drawn between ‘criticism of Islam’ and ‘Islamophobia’
  • How can Islamophobia be racist if Muslims aren’t a single race?
  • Is Islam to blame for the Boston bombings?
  • How does race and racism inform how we think about the Boston bombings?

I hope to conclude by arguing that failure to address these questions in a serious and thoughtful way makes us less able to not only respond intelligently to threats, but makes us less able to prevent them (and possibly even raises our risk for future events).

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*This is where I customarily provide an apology for my extended and unexplained absence. Sorry about that. No good reason for it, just not a lot of writing mojo lately.


  1. CaitieCat says

    Looking forward to your posts on this*, since I find myself in the same spot, defending something I disagree with from what feel like attacks based in bigotry.

    * Whenever that might work for you – I don’t mean that as “YOU MUST WRITE NOW!!”-type pressure. 🙂

  2. mythbri says

    I feel the same way. It’s important to make reasonable and informed criticism of religion – all religions. Particularly the aspects of those religions that cause the most harm.

    But I can offer this criticism based on secular principles and human rights, not on bigotry or xenophobia. And I can’t ally myself with those whose aims are ostensibly the same as mine but approach these aims using tactics or methods that are bigoted and xenophobic.

  3. lirael_abhorsen says

    I hope you had a good time in my city!

    I have repeatedly found myself in the odd position of defending Islam and Muslims from fellow atheists.

    I’ve found myself in this position since I was a teenager post-9/11, and it’s one of the things that has deterred me from greater engagement with other atheists. Until then, having grown up in the South, I had been longing to engage with other atheists. But the willingness to feed societal bigotry disillusioned me, since I had some idea what that bigotry felt like.

  4. Adam says

    I’d like to say how much I’m looking forward to these upcoming posts too.

    Although the holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths all contain atrocious ideas. In the current political climate of 2013 there is good reason to be especially concerned with the role of Islam. Islam needs to be addressed and criticized, but there are those who are motivated from genuine concern for the future security of a global community and for the rights of many that are threatened by the teachings if Islam, and those who are motivated by bigotry and racism.

    It is not trivial to distinguish these, in other or in our selves. Also, these two motives are not mutually exclusive. If Islamophobia is an irrational hatred or fear, how do you spot it when there are rational reasons for concern available for cover (often as talking points). How do you judge these things without trying to guess what is inside a person’s heart? Which is usually a bad idea.

    As well as the Boston bombing, recent events in London make this debate a critical one. There have been anti-Muslim attacks in the wake of the Woolwich attack and several suspects arrested in connection to planned terrorism, including a convert to Islam who is British-born and very white, which revisits the race issue.

  5. lorn says

    Islam is not, IMHO, very racist. There is some racist behavior in north Africa where it is taken as read that Arabs are inherently more Muslim than darker skinned Africans. But racism is pretty much a constant even in societies where it is often claimed it doesn’t exist. Cuban and Brazilian cultures are arguably less racist than most but they still favoring a lighter shade of brown over darker shades.

    What Muslims can be accused of is cultural and language bias. The Koran is only considered authentically ‘God’s word’ if written in Arabic and it is said that you can only fully understand it in the original Arabic. Catholics held the same view a few hundred years ago with the bible having to be written in Latin.

    I have thought that printing the Koran in other languages, and having Muslims engage in debate over subtleties of meaning/language would be a good step toward humanizing Islam.

  6. great1american1satan says

    I need this! I’m glad you’re coming back with it. I’m very conflicted about Islamophobia. It doesn’t help that bad-ass cool people that I agree with in many ways (Maryam, Ophelia) are opposed to the term. I can’t help but feel it’s legit, and I have a good dose of it cluttering my thought. Looking forward to reading this all.

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