In 2005, I witnessed a Jemaah Islamiyah suicide bomb attack on a popular tourist beach in Bali, Indonesia. It was this maniacal moment of madness that propelled me into becoming an amateur theologian. The imagery of murdered innocents, blown into pieces, by Islamic fanatics, put me on an anti-religious quest. It was this event that transformed me from an old fashioned, vanilla atheist (non-believer) into a New Atheist (anti-believer).
I devoured the monotheistic texts, and scholarly critiques of scripture, for the purpose of trying to get into the minds of those who could summon enough conviction to fly a plane into a building, detonate a bomb in an abortion clinic, or detonate themselves among families dining on an idyllic beach.
In 2009, I published my debut book God Hates You. Hate Him Back, which summarises each chapter of the Bible - with the intent of demonstrating the vengeful, capricious nature of the Hebrew God, as portrayed in the Old Testament. In 2010, Jesus Lied. He Was Only Human, examined the irreconcilable discrepancies and historical flaws of the New Testament. Both books are hard-hitting critiques of the Christian and Jewish faiths. Both received mostly glowing reviews, and both enjoyed the number one Amazon ranking, at some stage or another, for the category of atheism.
There was now only one elephant left in the room: Islam.
To make a long story short - Koran Curious: a Guide for Infidels and Believers (2011) was panned by New Atheists. “Werleman has lost his mojo,” “Koran Curious is cowardly apologetic,” and “Politically correct bologna” rank among the more complimentary reviews.
I had intended to be as scathing of the Koran as I had been with the Bible, but during the research phase of the project, it became glaringly obvious that New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and Islamophobes in general, like mass murderer Anders Breivik, were equally culpable of taking Koranic verses out of context as were terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and fundamentalists like the Taliban and the Saudi mullahs. I also discovered there were even more sinister forces at play – that groups like the Israel Lobby, neo-conservative think tanks, Big Oil, and US defence contractors proactively whip up public fear of Muslims to serve their respective agendas.
The more I researched, the more it became glaringly obvious that terrorism and fundamentalism are rooted less in religion and more in despair and political impotency. Later I would come to reject New Atheism for old fashioned, vanilla atheism.
Over the years, my many critiques of US foreign policy and my insistence (in symphony with every peer reviewed study of terrorism, including the Pentagon’s research) that terrorism is rooted more in “politics, revenge, humiliation, and resistance to occupation” than it is in Islam, has prompted accusations of “Muslim apologetics,” and “terrorist sympathy”.
I am often asked, “Why is it you don’t criticise Islam?” And until now I have never really answered that - so here goes nothing.
Firstly, I have and do criticise Islam when and where it’s practised in extreme interpretations: blasphemy laws, bigotry, honour killings, anti-intellectualism, apostasy and misogyny. It’s important to note there is no shortage of New Atheist, neo-conservative, and nationalistic writers and bloggers to criticise a form of religion we all hate – fundamentalism.
What good can come about by me piling on?
How does declaring Muslims to be “utterly deranged by their religious tribalism” help end religious extremism? How does piling on Islam help the Palestinians as they’re seized upon by the brutal and oppressive apartheid state of Israel, or the majority of secular Egyptians as they’re brutalised by Egypt’s military state?
If you believe referring to Muslims as “savages” and “suicide bombers in waiting” to be an effective strategy for a religious extremist-free world, you’re as “deranged” as the fundamentalists you mock. If you believe we are locked in a battle to cleanse the world of evil, well, that’s precisely what Islamic and Christian fundamentalists believe, too.
Far too many New Atheists naively believe education and scientific advancement is the antidote for religious extremism. This belief does not reconcile with human history, nor does it square the fact that religious extremism is practised in many highly developed nations, and that many scientists are religious. “Those who teach that religion is evil and that science and reason will save us are as deluded as those who believe in angels and demons,” notes Chris Hedges.
What is the New Atheist strategy for ending Islamic fundamentalism? Is it name calling or belittling? Is it the exultation of Western secular values – the same value system that gave us two world wars, the Holocaust, gulags, colonialism, two atomic bombs, the Cold War, resource-motivated wars, imperial projects, paid slavery, the free market fascism of globalisation and global warming?
Is it to urge mass protests in the Muslim world? Palestinian-American journalist Rula Jebreal reminds us: “There are precious few countries in the Arab world where citizens are currently free to hold a mass rally about anything. And the reason for that, of course, is that if citizens were at liberty to express themselves, they’d likely focus on mass unemployment, corruption and the authoritarianism of their rulers before they turn to the problem of ISIS.”
Almost all of these autocratic regimes in the Middle East and Central Asia, with the exception of Iran and a handful of former Soviet satellite states, are armed and funded by the United States. Collectively, the Gulf States procure more than $5bn of US weapons every year, and many rank among the top recipients of US aid. In exchange for cheap oil and access to commercial shipping lanes, we arm these regimes, build their prisons, drone their dissidents, and occupy their lands with permanent military bases.
In turn, these regimes (unofficial US protectorates) - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan - continue to impose oppressive conditions upon their people, so that the rulers may retain a lion's share of their nation’s wealth. This injustice is carried out with America’s blessing. The Arab world knows this. Osama Bin Laden knew this. “One of the most important reasons that led our enemies to control our land is the theft of oil,” he said in a 2004 audiotape. US support of the oppressive Mubarak regime ignited the Arab Spring. It’s from this US-sanctioned oppression and dislocation that fundamentalism thrives.
“What is at fault in the Arab world is not Islam but scummy little dictatorships like the one run in Saudi Arabia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. It’s the political system that keeps most people under, crushed under their heel. Egypt is a deeply repressive state, which we give $3bn a year to. Let’s not forget every time Israel sends those F-16 jets and Apache helicopters to strike refugee camps in Gaza, the fragments of those bombs have Dayton, Ohio, and other US cities on them,” Hedges said during a televised debate.
All fundamentalism is rooted in despair. The antidote for social, economic, cultural and economic despair is not ridicule, scorn or even military conquest. The antidote for religious or secular fundamentalism is economic liberalism and social justice. Provide people with a liveable wage, healthcare, affordable housing, education, justice, social security, and equality - secular (fascism/communism) and religious forms of fundamentalism fall by the way. “History has shown time and again that when the liberal class ceases to function, as happened in Tsarist Russia, Weimar Germany and the former Yugoslavia, it opens a Pandora’s box of evils that infest the remnants of a civil society,” writes Hedges in Death Of the Liberal Class.
It’s no coincidence that the least religious and the happiest nations are those where the liberal class thrives i.e. Scandinavia, Western Europe, Australia and Canada. In these countries the size of the state is bigger, taxes on the rich and corporations are higher, and government spending is greater. It’s also no coincidence that nine of the 10 most religious states in America rank among the top 10 poorest states in America.
During times of economic despair, Americans tend to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment…as a way to explain their frustrations,” said then Senator and 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama. In other words, we respond to economic crises no different than those we dismiss as “backward” and “barbaric”.
Equally, the most barbaric interpretations of Islam are practised in those Muslim countries where despair is felt hardest. Fundamentalism and terrorism are “not the product of radical politics, but a symptom of political impotence,” writes NYU professor Arun Kundnani. Islamic extremism is more prevalent in failed states (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and autocratic regimes (Saudi Arabia and Yemen) than it is in secular democracies (Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia).
We can no longer ignore the role self-serving or misguided foreign policy of America and its allies have played in creating the conditions for despair and dislocation to thrive. Israel is the oppressor in Gaza and the West Bank; the US, both directly (by occupation) and indirectly (quasi-protectorates) is the oppressor in many parts of the Middle East; and the destabilising force in Central Asia (Afghanistan-Pakistan).
New Atheists, neo-conservatives and Christian fundamentalists do not question or investigate the “brutality and injustice of imperial aggression,” or the “triggers for violence and terrorism”. Instead they blame the victims. “To be a man of the modern west,” William Pfaff, a foreign policy journalist for the International Herald Tribune, wrote, “is to belong to a culture of incomparable originality and power; it is also to be implicated in incomparable crimes.”
During a 1967 speech, Reverend Martin Luther King was asked how he believed America could achieve social change at home via non-violent actions, given America solved its problems with violent action abroad. “Their question hit home, and I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
“My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence,” writes Noam Chomsky. “It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.”
Indeed, we can “do something about it” – if we dare. Instead of creating an atmosphere that dehumanises and generates fear of Muslims - we should fight against the conditions that alienate, dislocate and oppress Muslim populations. Instead of echoing the terrorists in mindlessly pointing to, and taking out of context, verses from the Koran, we should be highly critical of Western governments that stand idly by as popular, secular revolts, such as the Arab Spring, take hold in countries that are ruled by US benefactors.
Instead of passing along fictitious memes created by the fictitious “clash of civilisations” narrative, we should call for sanctions against the apartheid state of Israel. Instead of demonising the faith of 1.5bn mostly peaceful Muslims, we should protest the self-defeating war on terror – there was no ISIS in Iraq until the US toppled the secular Baathist regime; there were almost no terrorist attacks in Pakistan until the US and the Pakistani military droned, bombed and occupied the tribal border region of Afghanistan-Pakistan.
From Gaza to Iraq, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Muslims are the subjects of brutal regimes. In the US, Britain, Israel and elsewhere, Muslims face alienation, discrimination and harassment. For Muslim Americans, the US is already a quasi-apartheid state. Adding to an already toxic atmosphere will create more fear and suspicion of Muslims, which, in turn, will make life even worst for Muslims here and falsely justify the oppression of Muslims living under regimes we patron.
Bad ideas should never be immune to criticism, however, and bad actions should be met with even more resistance. But this is about our ideals, not theirs. If we get our ideals right, we can defeat Islamic fundamentalism. Our ideals must include space for diplomatic action against the Israeli government’s blatant human rights violations; push back against the war on terror; a genuine effort to promote democratic uprisings; a move towards alternative energies; and an ending to our support of brutal regimes. Ridicule and the demonisation of Islam and Muslims will only undermine that effort.
This is why I don’t criticise Islam.