Why US non-believers must reject Islamophobic 'New Atheism'
In a rhetorical sense, an individual who is said to have a “tin ear” is an individual who is unable to appreciate the elements of nuance and sub-text in language. In a cultural sense, it means being completely tone deaf to political and social realities.
Say hello to the non-profit organisation American Atheists.
Next month, the largest annual gathering for America’s non-believers, the American Atheists Annual Convention, takes place in Memphis, Tennessee.
There are more than 2,000 atheist groups in America today, but American Atheists, which boasts more than 2,500 members, is by far the largest.
I like American Atheists. I like what they do. They’re a highly effective political action group that proactively protects the civil liberties of atheists, and is a staunch defender of the wall separating church and state. I have also met and admire the organisation’s president, Dave Silverman, whom I can attest is a tireless campaigner for America’s non-believers.
Here’s the problem.
American Atheists, like atheism in general, has been completely hijacked by anti-theists (new atheists). The media presents celebrity atheists Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Sam Harris and co as reflective of atheism. They’re not atheists. They’re anti-theists. Atheism is wholly and solely non-belief. The aforementioned don’t advocate non-belief; they vigorously endorse anti-belief. New Atheists describe religion “as one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus.” Harris said if given the choice, he would rid the world of religion before he rid the world of rape. Ladies?
The new atheists are particularly fixated on Islam. In fact, Nathan Lean, author of Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, contends that if 19 Muslims hadn’t have flown planes into the World Trade Centre, it’s likely New Atheism (version 21st century) wouldn’t have become a thing. “Rational atheism is being used as a cover for Islamophobia and US militarism,” says Glenn Greenwald.
The families of the three slain Muslim American students in Chapel Hill assert it was this anti-religious, specifically anti-Muslim animus, that drove new atheist Craig Stephen Hicks to execute their loved ones with a single bullet to the back of their heads.
A number of liberal commentators and journalists, including myself, have long warned that today’s crop of new atheists not only “flirt with Islamophobia” but also promote dangerous anti-religious ideas. “After all, if you truly believe that religion is ‘one of the world’s great evils’ - as bad as smallpox - and worse than rape; if you believe religion is a form of child abuse; that it is ‘violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children’ - if you honestly believed this about religion, then what lengths would you not go through to rid society of it?” asks prominent religious scholar and commentator Reza Aslan.
So what does this have to do with American Atheists and a “tin ear”?
American Atheists have chosen venomous anti-Muslim activist and disgraced former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali as the keynote speaker for this year’s convention.
In the wake of Chapel Hill, and with now increased media scrutiny focused on the new atheist movement, coupled with exponentially escalating violence carried out against Muslim Americans, American Atheists’ decision to appoint Hirsi Ali as their headliner is an extraordinary display of tone deafness.
There have been no less than eight anti-Muslim threats and acts of violence since the Chapel Hill shootings, notes Imraan Siddiqi. Before 9/11, there were only 40 to 50 anti-Muslim hate crimes per year. In the year 2001, there were nearly 500 hate crimes against Muslims, and since then there has been anywhere from 100 to 150 anti-Muslim hate crimes per year.
While no one is blaming new atheism’s anti-Islam rhetoric solely for the rise in anti-Muslim violence, American Atheists are helping no one by elevating Hirsi Ali - who called for a “military war” against Islam and expressed sympathy for Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who slaughtered 78 Norwegian college students as a means of punishing liberals for their multicultural sensibilities. Breivik’s murderous case of anti-Muslim bigotry was fuelled, at least in part, by Hirsi Ali’s anti-Muslim views. In his manifesto, Breivik not only lumps gushing praise on Hirsi Ali but also stated she deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for her willingness to confront Muslim immigration.
Certainly Hirsi Ali has an amazing story to tell. Genitally mutilated in Somalia at the age of five, she found refuge in The Netherlands, worked tirelessly at a refugee centre and fought for women’s rights, before being elected as a representative to the Dutch parliament. But it’s also well known that her story contains half-truths and outright lies.
Dutch TV produced an investigative piece into Hirsi Ali’s autobiographical claims. Gus van Dongen, a renowned Dutch TV journalist, travelled to Somalia and Kenya to interview members of Ali's family. “There was no agenda," van Dongen told The Guardian. “She is a politician who had made much of her background, telling one story. We set out to check those facts. That is all.”
The investigation revealed she had not come to The Netherlands via war-torn Somalia, as she claimed, but rather via Kenya, “where she had lived peacefully for 10 years”. Hirsi Ali admitted she had lied for the purpose of helping her immigration application, but then added she was also fleeing a forced marriage. “Not so,” said van Dongen. “Her brother and husband allege the marriage was not made under compulsion.”
Certainly Hirsi Ali has experienced religion at its most vulgar extreme. I am somewhat sympathetic to the truthful aspects of her case. I mean what fair-minded person wouldn’t be? But, and here’s the but, she is also the victim of the same cycle of revenge that is at the heart of most of the still unsolvable problems in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia - and she has embellished her biography to make her anti-Muslim, anti-immigration case.
Hirsi Ali wants revenge against those who committed injustices against her. Not only punishment for her oppressors, but collective punishment of all Muslims, at least that’s what I can tell from her own words. “Violence is inherent in Islam - it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder … the battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realise that it’s not just with extremist elements within Islam, but the ideology of Islam itself,” Ali has said. In a 2007 interview with Reason magazine, Hirsi Ali declared that the West isn’t at war with Islamic extremists, but “we are at war with Islam itself.” The interviewer asked her if she meant a military war. “Military, diplomatically, and politically,” she replied.
It’s not difficult to understand where her hate comes from. It comes from the same place that motivates and radicalises terrorists of all stripes: an urge for revenge based on humiliation, oppression and victimisation. If for one minute you’re thinking I’m implying Hirsi Ali is a terrorist, you’re missing the point. Hirsi Ali’s victimisation at the hands of religious fundamentalists is no different to the victimisation of those who are terrorised by goons empowered by oppressive regimes. And like all those who are unable to find forgiveness, Hirsi Ali demands the collective punishment and humiliation of all who are representative of her perpetrators.
“Hirsi is not very different from the radical extremists she ought to be really targeting. She gives them credibility by claiming their version of Islam is the only correct one and others, like me, are ‘bad Muslims’,” writes Muslim rights activist Kashif N Chaudhry. “Like the Taliban, Hirsi is rigid in her views and is judgmental. Like them, she speaks to curtail the civil liberties of fellow citizens and inspires intolerance and violence. We must not encourage such behaviour with honorary degrees. Her bigotry must be condemned in all forms.”
Hirsi Ali has not only been feted and lauded by celebrity new atheists, their podcasts, magazines and books, but also by pro-Zionist, Islamophobic hate mongers Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller and the neo-conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.
No new atheist living in America is unfamiliar with her story. But it’s not the retelling of her story they seek. They want to rehear again how “Islam is one of the world’s great evils”, “the mother lode of bad ideas”, the greatest threat to Western civilisation and so on. New atheism doesn’t exist without Islam. A convention that promises non-believers a discussion of a god they don’t believe in doesn’t sell many tickets. But an external enemy, a foreign threat certainly does. It’s the oldest gimmick in town.
The external enemy has generated riches, won elections, sold books and waged wars since time immemorial for those who capitalise in fear of the “Other”. General admission tickets for next month’s American Atheists convention start at a cool $329.
“How the new atheists’ anti-Muslim hate advances their belief that God does not exist is not exactly clear. In this climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment, it’s a convenient digression, though. They’ve shifted their base and instead of simply trying to convince people that God is a myth, they’ve embraced the monster narrative of the day. That’s not rational or enlightening or 'free thinking' or even intelligent. That’s opportunism. If atheism writ large was a tough sell to skeptics, the ‘New Atheism’, Muslim-bashing atheism, must be like selling Bibles to believers,” writes Lean.
What else does your $329 get you - I mean other than possibly a renewed declaration of war against Islam? Like the schedule of any major new atheist convention, no one is recognisable, at least to the general public, outside of the headline act. The line-up does not include Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, esteemed leaders of academic fields, historians, geo-political experts, counter-terrorism specialists or qualified theologians - but rather it’s a mediocre rung of modestly educated, suburbanite bloggers, podcasters and anyone else with an impressive number of Twitter followers. Not forgetting those who wish or already have declared war on Islam.
American Atheists is a commendable organisation. They should continue to protect the civil liberties of atheists, especially as atheists continue to be the most disliked minority in America, alongside Muslims. American Atheists should seek opportunities to work together with other discriminated-against minorities, like Muslim Americans, and stay clear of those who peddle hate and revenge. The road to broader public acceptance does not travel through the persecution of another minority.
I hope they can hear this.
- CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America, God Hates You. Hate Him Back, Koran Curious, and is the host of Foreign Object. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Muslims praying in an American mosque (AFP)