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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  1. CaitieCat says

    Overall, “new atheists” think of religion the same way. It is considered sacred and untouchable

    Citation needed (not you, Crom, the OP).

    I mean really – show me the atheists that are saying any religion is sacred and untouchable? I know there are some skeptics who take this approach, but it doesn’t fit with any atheists I know.

    All we’re saying is, let’s try and look at all of them as objectively as we can, to step outside the biases induced by living in cultures where we’re given “Islam-is-evil” and “Jeebus Loves You” messages all the freaking time. That placed in context, the actions of Muslim extremists are not notably more unhinged than those of Christian abortion-clinic bombers, or American pastors involved in trying to pass death penalty laws against homosexuality in Nigeria.

    That there is a higher incidence currently might have something to do with the Carter Doctrine, that nothing will be allowed to threaten the US’ access to Middle-East oil, leading to huge military bases, leading to to-the-bitter-end support for Israel and a blind eye to their building nukes and treatment of Palestinians, while threatening (and carrying out) military strikes on anyone else who tries to join the nuke club. Leading to invasion and occupation of major nations, leading to hundreds of thousands of dead, to drones blowing up wedding parties…

    It’s not particularly a mystery why Muslims might have extremists who are currently more pissed at the US than anyone else. We’ve been treating them like unpersons for over a hundred years now. Watch the (really awful) remake of Red Dawn: listen to the irony of the American patriot saying that the invaders are in for a hundred years of hurt because they invaded our homes.

    Seriously. We’ve been stealing their lunch money and giving them swirlies for a century. Are we so surprised that when they get big enough to fight back, they actually start doing so?

    THAT is why I fight against the exaggerations which seem to fly thick and fast whenever Muslims are mentioned. Because the only reason we don’t recognize how thoroughly awful Christianity is being in the world is at least partly because some huge percentage of the people we meet, of our families and friends, are Christians. We have a natural blind spot on this, but the difference between our Christian extremists and their extremists is that no one’s been occupying our Christians, blowing them up, shooting them with helicopters and laughing, and that our Christians aren’t able to get into real power yet. If they do, the US will become Iran.

    And all the pistols and AR-15 in the world won’t change that, if they get there, any more than the ubiquitous Iraqi and Afghan AKs helped them.

  2. says

    @1: I also stumbled over that, and I think it may be bad wording on Rizvi’s part. I interpret it as saying: New Atheists see religion the same way the activist movements of previous generations viewed their respective adversaries — to be opposed, despite how deeply entrenched they were in the culture of the time. But ICBW.

  3. says

    I didn’t read that section closely, probably because I thought I had Rizvi’s intent clearly in mind.

    I concur with Eamon Knight. It appears that Rizvi is tying in what new atheists think/say to the people fighting for women’s rights, for racial equality, and for LGBT equality in the previous paragraph.

  4. lirael_abhorsen says

    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.

    Am I the only one who wants to barf at this? The most prominent “new atheists” live in places like the US, Canada, and the UK. To be sure, atheists face bigotry and discrimination in those countries (some of which is spelled out at the end of that Slate link) – it was that bigotry that got me interested in politics in the first place, as a small child, and my feelings about that provided the foundation for my future activist life. But come on now. Suffragettes were tortured in jails and prisons, in the US and UK. Black people were routinely lynched in the US. Indigenous people in the US and Canada were sent to horrific residential schools. At Stonewall, one of the things that started the revolt was that the police were sexually assaulting queer women as they raided. While it does happen from time to time (and I am aware that plenty of atheist activists get lots of threats), it’s not exactly widespread for people in the US, the UK, or Canada to be tortured, murdered, sexually assaulted, imprisoned, or beaten, because they questioned religion.

  5. Jacob Schmidt says


    I mean really – show me the atheists that are saying any religion is sacred and untouchable? I know there are some skeptics who take this approach, but it doesn’t fit with any atheists I know.

    I think you missed the point. Rizvi is saying that atheists view it as sacred and untouchable with respect to the culture at large, not that atheists view it sacred themselves.. Similar to how white supremacy was simply assumed to be moral, religion is assumed to be moral, and speaking out against it can have similar effects to speaking out against white supremacy 100 years ago.

  6. Xaivius (Formerly Robpowell, Acolyte of His Majesty Lord Niel DeGrasse Tyson I) says

    The last 3 posts on the blog have been an interesting sight. I think two large points that need to be made explicit are thus:

    1) we are not defending islam. We are defending people who are targets of racism. The cleric issuing death-threat fatwas against anyone seen as out-of-line (or the pompous asshole in Saudi trying to encourage sexual assault against women to protect their chastity) are fucking horrible people that are exploiting religion to drive a hate campaign.

    2) Another issue is one that I’ve seen brought up by a certain commenter: The fact that we compare the horrible dogma of Jihadist, extreme islam to the self-same policies in Dominionist, tabernacle style christianity (or ultra-orthodox judiasm, for that matter) is essentially the “Religion and Racism 101” that we have to go through every time. If we don’t clarify, we leave an opening for someone to scream “Islamophobe” and try to discredit the whole bit. But when we do clarify, it gets used as a “clean your own house” redirect. Catch 22.

    The brief summary of my point is that we abhor inhumanity and dehumanization, things that the old religions as well as general jingoism and racism do extremely well.

  7. jesse says

    Part of the problem — speaking as a member of a group whose religion is explicitly racialized — is just that.

    I often end up saying I am half-Jewish. But does anyone say they are half-Christian? ‘Course not. Judaism is racialized, and Jews got to be honorary white people (see Crom’s other post). But I still run into places where that isn’t so.

    Islam has become increasingly racialized in the US. The fact that people were shocked that the Tsarnaevs were white-skinned is case in point. And when I defend Muslims from attack here it is the same reasoning I use that makes me defend other victims of racism, and in the same terms.

    And CaitCat at #1 repeats something that we should all keep in mind: while religion is often the rubric under which resistance movements to US hegemony operate, we’re in some ways directly responsible for that, since the US was the force that worked really, really, really hard to discredit and marginalize every single secular movement in the Arab world, because most of those movements were leftist types.

    I may not be deep in knowledge of Islam, but I know a political bind when I see one. Kill/imprison all the secularists who are reasonably sane, leave only the Saddam Husseins and religious extremists. For any kind of political resistance who the hell is left to organize?

    Saying that the actions of the religiously-motivated government of Iran are terrible and that it’s also terrible to profile Muslims based on nothing but religious prejudice are not mutually exclusive statements. I do not understand why this is so hard or people to get. And FFS, it isn’t hard to criticize any religious institution or religion itself and not be racist about it. I criticize the Catholic Church and y’know, a big chunk of their membership is nonwhite. (Lots of Filipinos, Africans and Latinos). We can do that without being racist about it. I’ve seen it done. It’s possible. Yet when Islam enters the conversation all of a sudden that ability disappears like Superman’s flight in the presence of kryptonite.

  8. jesse says

    I should add, one interesting parallel is the movement for Civil Rights among black people in the US. Why was it largely based in churches? Because any other organization was attacked and destroyed. The one place that was safe was the churches — and even they weren’t always that.

    Not that the churches would have played no role — they are too big a chunk of the culture for that to be the case. But you can’t say that if you limit the educational opportunities to the seminary-type institutions and systematically exclude black people from, you know, most of the other professions that involve facing the public, that it’s an accident that the leaders come from that church-oriented space. It wasn’t like black people were in the Harvard Poli Sci program, you know?

  9. Adam says

    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.

    I think this distills the essence of the debate for me and why I think both sides tend to talk past each other. Like many of these debates the whole discussion seems characterized by the poles of the argument.

    If I were to illustrate these poles using the current “figureheads” of the debate.

    The “Greenwalds” of the world believe that Islam-justifed violence is a solely a product of politics and a history of oppression, invasion and colonization by Western powers. They do not see the religious beliefs as much of a factor, or at least not an important one. If religion plays a role it is in no way related to Islam itself and that Christians in the same situation would behave the same way.

    Therefore, to the “Greenwalds” if a person attempts to argue that the beliefs do matter and/or that there is a special concern with Islam-justified violence, they must hold racist/colonialist biases.

    The “Harrises” of the world see religion as the prime factor. For good people to do bad things it require religion and beliefs about the world do lead to actions. To the “Harrises” the fact that Christians in the Middle-Easy (who also suffer from drone attacks) are not blowing things up, or that lifelong citizens of Western nations (including white converts to Islam) plot acts of terrorism or advocate misogynistic/homophobic violence.

    The “Harrises” see the “Greenwalds” insistence on the purely political as a form of undue sensitivity given to criticisms of religion and the insistence that all religions be treated equally as a ‘politically correct’ false equivalency and claims of ‘Islamophobia’ as deliberate obfuscation.

    Now I need to ask, am I wrong in thinking that most people’s views on the topic are that Islam-justified acts of violence and oppression are due both to the religion and the politics (i.e. at a point on the spectrum between the above), and a host of other factors?

    By most people I may possibly include the actual Sam Harris and Glen Greenwald, not the caricatures I described above for illustration. The difference could be a matter of personal and practical emphasis.

    As an example, my thoughts on the Woolwich murderer, is that he chose his victim (an off-duty soldier) due to political reasons, but that his choice public decapitation because of his extremem religious beliefs.

  10. says

    @10: This, yes.

    When someone says they did X for the glory of God — whether feeding the poor or slaughtering the infidel — then I think we should take that statement at face value. And it *may* be that there are elements in the foundational material that predisposes some traditions to certain sorts of behaviour (I hear conflicting claims about whether the Quran lends itself more naturally to violence and theocracy than does the Christian Bible). But even so, you still have to take into account the interaction of the evolving tradition with other elements of culture and geopolitics over the centuries. Christendom used to be pretty damn nasty, but it got somewhat tamed by the Enlightenment (which some current wannabe theocrats ironically claim was all due to the Bible in the first place!). Islam (ie. as the collective experience of large groups of people scattered mostly across North Africa and Asia) had a different history, which includes recently being on the sharp end of Western colonialism.

    Religion seems to be a natural (or at least, common) nexus for resistance, whether it’s anti-Western sentiment couched in Islamic terms (which seems to be about Us-vs.-Them with theology invoked to provide the supportive Good-vs.-Evil rationale), or the role of black American churches in the civil rights movement.

  11. Aasiyah says

    @ Adam, if ª christian man walks into ª mall with ª machine gun killing every person in sight while screaming “in the name of the father the son and the holy ghost” before turning the gun on himself shud we assume that the bible teaches violence without having to read and understand the bible. Or maybe conclude the mindless maniac knew his exact plans and was hoping to end up in heaven for calling gods name after having realised the hell awaits him ? Islam does not preach violent act, even tho ranting gods name , this is what god states in our quraan :”Allah revealed: ‘Allah forbids you not with regards to those who fought not against you because of religion, and drove you not out from your homes, that you should show them kindness and deal justly with them.’…….(60.8)
    Allah’s apostle says , Allah divided Mercy into one-hundred parts and He kept its ninety-nine parts with Him and sent down its one part on the earth, and because of that, its one single part, His creations are Merciful to each other, so that even the mare lifts up its hoofs away from its baby animal, lest it should trample on it”
    The Prophet said, “He who is not merciful to others, will not be treated mercifully.

    The Prophet said, “On every Muslim there is enjoined (a compulsory) Sadaqa (alms).” They (the people) said, “If one has nothing?’ He said, “He should work with his hands so that he may benefit himself and give in charity.” They said, “If he cannot work or does not work?” He said, “Then he should help the oppressed unhappy person (by word or action or both).” They said, “If he does not do it?” He said, “Then he should enjoin what is good (or said what is reasonable).’ They said, “If he does not do that”’ He said, “Then he should refrain from doing evil, for that will be considered for Him as a Sadaqa (charity)..

    The above is quoted from our hadeeth, below is from our quraan

    According to the Quran:

    Committing suicide is prohibited in Islam because God clearly and directly tells us in the Quran not to take our own lives with our own hands. The following verse is from the Quran’s Chapter 2 called “Al-Baqarah” or “The Cow” verse number 195:

    “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

    “Give generously for the cause of God and do not with your own hands cast yourselves into destruction. Be charitable; God loves the charitable.” (Quran: Ch 2, verse 195)

    Killing innocent human being is prohibited in Islam. The following verse is from the Quran’s Chapter 5 called “Al-Ma’idah” or “The Table” verse number 32:

    “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

    “That was why We laid it down for the Israelites that whoever killed a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be deemed as having killed all mankind; and that whoever saved a human life shall be deemed as having saved all mankind.” (Quran: Chapter 5 verse 32)

    The Prophet (SAWS) said, “Whoever swears by a religion other than Islam (i.e. if he swears by saying that he is a non-Muslim in case he is telling a lie), then he is as he says if his oath is false and whoever commits suicide with something, will be punished with the same thing in the (Hell) fire, and cursing a believer is like murdering him, and whoever accuses a believer of disbelief, then it is as if he had killed him.”
    The Prophet (SAWS) looked at a man fighting against the pagans and he was one of the most competent persons fighting on behalf of the Muslims. The Prophet (SAWS) said, “Let him who wants to look at a man from the dwellers of the (Hell) Fire, look at this (man).” Another man followed him and kept on following him till he (the fighter) was injured and, seeking to die quickly, he placed the blade tip of his sword between his breasts and leaned over it till it passed through his shoulders (i.e., committed suicide).” The Prophet (SAWS) added, “A person may do deeds that seem to the people as the deeds of the people of Paradise while in fact, he is from the dwellers of the (Hell) Fire: and similarly a person may do deeds that seem to the people as the deeds of the people of the (Hell) Fire while in fact, he is from the dwellers of Paradise. Verily, the (results of) deeds done, depend upon the last actions.”

    Jihad (religious war), you will see that any blood shed and war that is not approved by the leader of your country is not considered Jihad. As a matter of fact as muslims if our country does something that we don’t support, we would have to take it with them directly or we would have to honor that. But whatever we do we can not go against another country without the permission of the President of your own country or the Commander in Chief of our own country. And if you are trying to justify your act in the name of our religion, then we as muslims are wrong. The Quran and the Hadiths do not support such acts.Prophet Muhammad (SAWS)’s way was never to go behind your country’s leader – his way was always to follow your leader.

    In Conclusion

    Suicide bombings is not allowed in Islam, and that according to Islam the only destiny for a person, who commits suicide is Hell forever. How sad that these people are thinking they are doing something noble, but they are only choosing Hell for themselves in the hereafter, and of course in this world too.
    As muslims we believe our direct solutions are found in the Quran.  

    In Islam we as muslims have three books :

    1. The Quraan

    2.Hadith  literally  means  ‘new’,  it  also  means  speech  and 
    conversation.  Allah  Subhana  Wa  T’ala  says:  ‘Who  can  be  more 
    truthful  than  Allah  in  speech’  (Surah  Nisa:  87)   However  technically  it 
    means:  ‘Whatever  is  related  to  the  Prophet  (peace  and  blessings  be 
    upon  Him)   from  among  his  sayings,  his  actions,  his  approval  and  his 
    attributes’.  So  Hadith  is  a  report  of  what  the  beloved  Messenger 
    said, did, approved or disapproved of or a description of his qualities. 

    3 . Sunnah  is  another  related  term  but  it  has  a  slightly  different 
    meaning.  Sunnah  literally  means  ‘the  pattern  of  life’.  The  Quran 
    often  talks  about  Sunnat‐ul‐Allah,  ‘the  way  of  Allah.  In  technical 
    terms  Sunnah  means  ‘the  application  of  Shariah  in  the  time  of  the 
    Prophet and four rightly‐guided Caliphs’. 

    If u would like to believe that sugar coated all that °̩ have °̩ had said then °̩ hope this wud convince u further u cud google it if u like but please there are false islamic sites out there.

    As muslims Islam forbids changing or altering of any wording of our quraan..

    °̩ do apoligize if °̩ may have offended anyone at netime , I’m not here to argue or fight but to learn and see the diffrent opinions which every person is entitled to and where °̩ cn help to rectify the misunderstanding of Islam or answer questions °̩ wud do it in ª humble manner.
    °̩ may have not been able to change ur view on Islam but °̩ hoped to have given u sum insight to our teachings.
    So my closing statement to u is “islam is perfect unfortunatley muslims aren’t”

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