By Ross Brummet
October 10, 2014
One common element of cults is the unthinking celebration of anything said under their name, as well as the complete and total condemnation of anyone who dares to question their ideas. As such, this article will no doubt be summarily dismissed as being wishy washy apologetics. lt might even get me excommunicated from the Church of the IPU.
Nevertheless I'm obliged to speak out against the minority of right-wing atheists, and their continuing campaign of defamation and demonization of Islam. As always, some of us try and point out that they are not providing a secular critique of the harmful aspects within dangerous Islamic sects, nor are they even providing a critique of the founding texts of Islam. Instead they are simply parroting the ethnocentric racism of a society that has coincidentally been at war with Muslim countries for decades.
Their response to this is invariably: "There is no such thing as Islamophobia." And despite the endless evidence that contradicts this claim, such as a Christian with a militarist name attacking Muslims for having militarist names, they proceed unfettered by the reason and facts they pretend to celebrate.
The argument behind this derangement goes as follows: You can't be be bigoted against an idea, nor a set of ideas. The reason for this is that ideas aren't people, that we can hate whatever idea we want. Often times, to drive home the point, atheists will note that it would be ridiculous to call someone bigoted against Stalinism or Nazism.
The problem is that this is nonsense. Humans do not come to any singular idea as a blank slate, on the contrary we all come to any particular idea with preconceived notions. Insofar as those preconceived notions involve disproportionately negative and fallacious presumptions, then you are bigoted against an idea. Obviously when it is a full blown belief system, as opposed to a singular idea, the chances of bigotry expand greatly.
For instance, if you are to suggest that you are a socialist in the United States, people presume that you think government should control the economy, but that has essentially nothing to do with socialism. Such people, influenced by our state capitalist media and culture, are unsurprisingly bigoted against socialism. Alternatively, you wouldn't be bigoted against socialism, if you attacked socialism because you simply had a problem with greater economic equality -- something consistent within all variations of socialism. Now your argument might be good or bad there, but at least you're arguing against a universal quality that the belief system holds.
When it is a full blown religion, such as Islam or Christianity, the problem becomes greater still. The reason is that, unlike what atheists and many religious adherents would have you believe, Christianity and Islam aren't belief systems. On the contrary, they are philosophical traditions of thought that encompass a variety of radically different belief systems. There is no connection, for instance, between the Christianity of the late Martin Luther King Jr. and the Christianity of the late Jerry Falwell. Nor is there any particular connection between the Red Shi'ism of Ali Shariati and the Salafist Jihadism of Osama Bin Laden. The reason is that while religions like Christianity and Islam might be based on a specific text, the actual belief system is based on the historical, cultural, and political understanding of the text. Thus if we are going to offer any meaningful criticism of religion, we would have to offer greater specificity than "a critique of Buddhism", or "a critique of Christianity", or "a critique of Islam" because then you will inevitably be making false generalizations. Just like with the socialist example, any meaningful critique would have to specify what kind of socialism they are talking about -- state socialism, libertarian socialism, social democracy, etc. Criticism without specificity is nonsense and often dangerous.
Atheists often respond to this by suggesting that while there are different Muslims and Christians, it's basically the fundamentalists who take their religion seriously and the liberal people who don't take their religion very seriously. In fact, Sam Harris repeated this on last Friday's episode of Bill Maher: "There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don't take the faith seriously, who don't want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS."
Here Sam Harris is offering specificity. Basically you like to chop off heads, or at least oppress women, or you don't take your religion seriously. This, however, is also nonsense. Everyone cherry-picks their beliefs based on various cultural bigotries and/or reason. Whether you are religious or non-religious, whether you are a left-wing Muslim or a far-right Muslim. No one is absolutely faithful to a text, because texts are often inherently contradictory, allowing for a multitude of meanings. As Reza Aslan noted in the New York Times: "The same Jesus Christ who told his disciples to 'turn the other cheek' (Matthew 5:39) also told them that he had 'not come to bring peace but the sword" (Matthew 10:34), and that 'he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one' (Luke 22:36). The same Quran that warns believers 'if you kill one person it is as though you have killed all of humanity' (5:32) also commands them to 'slay the idolaters wherever you find them."
For instance, Atheists might claim that various groups that ban female education are the true Muslims, even though Muhammad encouraged female education ("How splendid were the women of the Ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."); despite the fact that one of the oldest universities in the world was founded by a Muslim woman. Similarly atheists might suggest that because of some Hadiths, Muslims that take their religion seriously would practice Female Genital Mutilation. Except that there are various problems with this.
1) Some Muslims do not follow these Hadiths. The majority of Shias, for instance.
2) Three of four Hadiths don't specify gender, so could just as easily be talking about male circumcision.
3) The reliability of the Hadith that does mention women, in which Muhammad tells them not to cut harshly, has been questioned by various Islamic scholars for over a thousand years. The 11th century Imam, Ahmad Bayhaqi for instance, criticized the Hadith as being based on "a broken chain of transmission."
4) The Quran doesn't say anything specifically on the topic, but does tells people "not deface the (fair) nature created by Allah." As a result, some Muslims use this as an argument against circumcision.
That is the religious textual support for FGM. It's marginal and questionable, and could be read as either condemning or praising or remaining ambivalent to FGM, depending on how one interprets it, depending on how one cherry-picks the data. Nevertheless if you dare to present these facts to right-wing atheists, they will throw a hissy fit, and call you a liar. This is something Reza Aslan experienced after he had the temerity to fact-check one of Atheist's great leaders, Bill Maher.
First we have Hermant Mehta, of the Friendly Atheist, who posted a guest post by Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider. This article suggests that the agenda-driven Reza Aslan is misleading America, and that everything he said is either "wrong" or "technically-correct-but-actually-wrong." Now with that second category, you might be slightly thrown. Wouldn't fact-based atheists care about what is technically correct? I certainly think so, but apparently there are philosophical differences within Atheism as well.
So what did Reza say that was factually wrong? Well, he suggested that some Muslim countries have equality for women, which Sayd and Haider suggest is false. Before going into details about the problems faced by women in these various countries, he does preface it with the quote "a few of them have enshrined laws that have done much to bring about some progress in equality between the sexes." Now wait minute, so you are saying that there are laws in place to help in the equality of women but that there are still problems preventing complete equality? How exactly does that separate these Muslim countries from someplace like America or anywhere else? Does anyone think Aslan was talking about anything other than legal aspects?
The next thing that infuriates this group is that Reza Aslan dares to mention that some Muslim countries are ahead of the United States in electing female leaders. They argue that while it is technically true that Muslim countries have had female heads of state, it doesn't count for two reasons...
1) In Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh the female heads of state came from powerful families!
2) That women elected in majority Muslim countries like Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and Kosovo don't count because these are officially secular countries. So while yes, Muslims have voted for a female heads of state in these countries, it doesn't count because the government itself is secular.
Well obviously this severely undermines Reza's point that these Muslim majority countries are ahead of the United States in this area. After all the United States is obviously not a technically secular country. Nor does its political system have anything to do with powerful families, which we can see as we look forward to Jeb vs Hillary in 2016. Of course you also have the minor fact that United States lags behind Bangladesh, Pakistan, and a plethora of other non-secular Muslim (Tunisia, Afghanistan, etc.) countries in simple female representation. But, you know, shut up.
Next we come to the "absolutely ridiculous" claim of Reza Aslan, that FGM would be more correctly called a Central Africa problem than a Muslim problem. How is the claim ridiculous? Perhaps they question that it is a central African problem, claiming that it is in fact only a Muslim problem, and to settle the matter provide a multitude of evidence that Christians and Christian countries in Central Africa practice it because they are threatened by Muslims. Well no, in fact the blog doesn't mention the Christians (or Jewish People or Non-Religious or Animists) that practice it in Central Africa at all. It completely ignores this fact. And since it doesn't dispute that half of Reza's claim, it must agree with it, and the really ridiculous part must be in the second half. To prove the absurdity of Reza's claim in this area, it references two Hadiths, the one that has been disputed for a thousand years, and one of the ones that isn't clear about gender. It then mentions how certain schools of Sunni Islam support the practice, and: "Unsurprisingly, in the Muslim-majority countries dominated by the schools which mandate the practice, there is evidence of widespread female circumcision." Here they are talking about the Shafi'i and Hanbali School. While there isn't evidence that there is widespread FGM in countries dominated by the Hanbali School as they say, they are correct that FGM is practiced in countries dominated by the Shafi'i school.
So the damning evidence against the idea that this is a Central African problem and not a Muslim problem? That the Central African point is correct, but that it's also a problem within the minority Shafi'i school of Sunni Islam.
How the fact that a minority school of a sect of Islam promotes FGM proves that FGM is a Muslim problem, and not simply a Shafi'i problem, is not explained. However, we are left to presume, I suppose, that if a sect of your religion does something bad, then the entire religion can be criticized for it. I suppose then, that atheists everywhere condemn Christianity for it's tacit support of Paedophilia and historical support for Fascism. Oh wait, they don't condemn all of Christianity for those things, just Catholicism for those things. Interesting how they make distinctions for Christianity and not for Islam. But that isn't bigotry, that's just negatively generalizing about a group you are unfamiliar with.
Next up, we have a letter from Jordan Smith at Atheist Analysis. Smith doesn't suggest that Reza is an ignorant fool or a crazy person, but is in fact a liar. And here the fundamentalism and cultish mentality really sets in. It's the belief that your truth is so self-evident that people can't even mistakenly disagree with you, they can only dishonestly disagree with you .
So what is Jordan's evidence that Reza is lying? Well for one, he takes issue with the claim that Eritrea is a Christian country, because it's split 50% to 48% Christian and Muslim -- according to a 2011 estimate. Jordan doesn't mention that newer data has the country as 62.9% Christian. Nor does he mention, that Eritrea has been a majority Christian country since the 4th century and that even if it was split evenly between Christians and Muslims today, the majority of Christians would still be practicing FGM because it's practiced by nearly 90% of the population there.
Jordan Smith also points out how FGM is practiced in a higher percentage of Muslim countries than African countries. Except, Reza Aslan specified Central Africa, not Africa as a whole. So you know Reza Aslan is intentionally lying, even though Jordan Smith couldn't even find any instance of him saying something that was factually false. And by the way, it would take more than simply showing that Reza Aslan said something that was false; to prove that he is a liar, as it should be fairly clear that sincerely honest people say factually false things all the time. For instance, I presume Jordan Smith is an honest person and yet in that article Jordan Smith said something in the first paragraph that was comically unarguably false, as he suggested that Aslan claims that: "Islam is peaceful" and "ISIS is not Islamic." Except Reza Aslan said, "Islam doesn't promote violence or peace, it's just a religion." Mind you, there is obviously nothing bigoted about Jordan Smith presuming that Reza Aslan matches the fictitious caricature of a Muslim that exists in his head. After all, Reza Aslan is a Muslim, and since some Muslims say Islam is a religion of peace, Aslan must believe it as well. That's just fact-based logic, not bigotry.
The final member to attack Aslan for comments about Bill Maher, is non-other than Sam Harris, blessed be his name. Sam Harris follows Smith's tactic of arguing that Reza Aslan is not merely ignorant but dishonest, indeed Harris even describes him as "sinister." The proof that Sam Harris provides? Well he actually doesn't provide any, though he does for some reason compare Reza to Genghis Kahn. Though I suppose ad hominems are striking fact-based logical blows. Worse however is the language used.
"On the topic of Islam, however, Aslan has begun to seem more sinister. He cannot possibly believe what he says, because nearly everything he says is a lie or a half-truth calibrated to mislead a liberal audience. If he claims something isn't in the Koran, it probably is. I don't know what his agenda is, beyond riding a jet stream of white guilt from interview to interview, but he is manipulating liberal biases for the purpose of shutting down conversation on important topics. Given what he surely knows about the contents of the Koran and the Hadith, the state of public opinion in the Muslim world, the suffering of women and other disempowered groups, and the real-world effects of deeply held religious beliefs, I find his deception on these issues unconscionable."
Read that again: "I don't know what his agenda is." He essentially is suggesting that Reza Aslan is intentionally deceiving liberal audiences as part of a calibrated sinister plot. Though what that plot could be, he leaves up to his audience to decide. Now, Harris has since said on twitter, that he wasn't suggesting that Reza Aslan is a jihadist mole. Let's take his word for that, and let's be generous and presume he didn't think anyone would interpret his words that way either. That means, that Sam Harris -- in the best possible scenario -- is so unaware of anti-Muslim hysteria in the U.S. that he doesn't see how anything bad could come of calling a popular Muslim figure a sinister person who is actively misleading the public for unknown motives.
In other words, he is either completely ignorant of the world in which he lives, or is alternatively completely indifferent to the violence his careless words could engender. And sadly, this ignorance and/or indifference is one of the great hallmarks of the modern right-wing atheist movement. A movement that is more likely to celebrate the bloodlust of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christopher Hitchens, than great historical materialists like Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky.
Ross Brummet is a student and writer in Los Angeles. He recently wrote a short dystopian film called And Upside Down In Air Were Towers -- currently in post-production. Considering himself a utilitarian with libertarian socialist sympathies