There’s something that just has not managed to permeate the collective skulls of Western discourse, and by extension the atheist community. This something is second nature, an obvious sense, for anyone who takes part in or is schooled by radical progressive social movements. That thing is the nature of how racism works. And honestly, in this post, I don’t have a lot new to add to this conversation if you’re a regular reader of Crommunist’s, or of Crunk Feminists or the many many awesome bloggers who focus on racism out there. My only goal here is to tackle this beast that continually dogs atheists, and that they refuse to engage with in a really childish way: Islamophobia.
The particular strand of Islamophobia I’m going to talk about here is the sort that is directed from the atheist movement by its leading lights; for ten years now, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, and plenty of others have reserved their best vitriol for anything associated with Islam. They attack it and its followers in a way they don’t attack Christianity or Judaism or any other faith; they declare Islam “the greatest force for evil today,” use words like barbaric , warlike, savage, words that generally evoke images of medieval warfare and pagan blood rites, terminology more akin to hordes of orcs than human beings who worship a certain way. And it’s not just Dawkins et al who do this; when pretty much anyone writes about Islam in Western media, it is always accompanied with these dehumanizing terms. The same cannot be said of when they write about creationists.
First of all, I want to make a claim that will already put most people who read this post into a spluttering rage: Islamophobia is a thing that exists. Just as much as any other phobia, i.e. an irrational fear, can exist. Saying that irrational fear of Islam does not exist, as some have done, is to ignore evidence and common sense in the same way that creationists poo-poo evolutionary theory. So, for those of us who accept that there are those who blindly hate and fear Muslims, we can pillory those who deny it, and furthermore engage in noxious attacks on the Muslim world at large, in the same way PZ Myers attacks fundamentalists. In fact, it’s rather poetic that we can do it in his way, since he’s one of the ones who routinely denies Islamophobic attacks.
Frankly, whenever it happens, what springs to mind for me when I read these posts is the old literature about blacks; the great white intellectuals like Meiners and Kant who spoke of them as being human in form but animal in mind and other pseudoscientific tropes. Blacks were cast as barbarians, less-evolved beings from “the dark continent” who were not true human beings because they had not been the beneficiaries of white knowledge and learning. The same is now done in our modern society to Muslims. Since 9/11, we’ve been taught by the government and the media to fear not just Islam as an idea, but anyone who “looks Muslim;” as such, stories of suspicion, discrimination, and violence against American Muslims and those who are not Muslim but look like they might be are legion.
Think back to the manufactured uproar around the Park51 community center that an Islamic group wanted to build near the site of Ground Zero in 2010. Hysterical newscasters and pundits declared that this place was going to become a terrorist training camp, with tiny children working the monkey bars and firing AK-47’s, young minds formed by wicked imams to become the Battery Park Taliban. Sam Harris, ever the neocon, was right there, speaking out against it, raving about how it would be seen as a conquering moment for Islamic terrorists. But it isn’t. It’s a JCC run by people with Middle Eastern-sounding names who happen to think a seventh-century political leader was pretty cool. Divine, even. The controversy was a manufactured one, based on cultural stigma and racism, nothing that was substantive in any way.
Now, I don’t mean to discount the fact that there are Islamic terrorists who do terrible things. Obviously, there are. But they are often cast as being the only terrorists, or the most evil and dangerous, when plenty of white Christians are committing terrorist attacks; Anders Breivik, Wade Michael Page, and Adam Lanza’s atrocities are not couched in the same kind of racial, imperialist language as are Muslim attacks. The epidemic of sexual violence against women and killings of trans* people in the United States isn’t acknowledged by these thinkers, but they practically froth at the mouth over honor killings and veils in the Middle East. Nathan Lean made this point as well in a recent piece for Salon:
Dawkins’ quest to “liberate” Muslim women and smack them with a big ol’ heaping dose of George W. Bush freedom caused him to go berzerk over news that a University College of London debate, hosted by an Islamic group, offered a separate seating option for conservative, practicing Muslims. Without researching the facts, Dawkins assumed that gendered seating was compulsory, not voluntary, and quickly fired off this about the “gender apartheid” of the supposedly suppressed Muslims: “At UC London debate between a Muslim and Lawrence Krauss, males and females had to sit separately. Krauss threatened to leave.” And then this: “Sexual apartheid. Maybe these odious religious thugs will get their come-uppance?”
Of course, the fact that the Barclays Center in New York recently offered gender-separate seating options for Orthodox Jews during a recent concert by Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman didn’t compute in Dawkins’ reasoning. Neither did the case of El Al Airlines, the flag carrier of Israel, when, in August of 2012, a stewardess forced a Florida woman to swap seats to accommodate the religious practice of a haredi Orthodox man. Even if Dawkins were aware of these episodes, he likely wouldn’t have made a fuss about them. They undermine the conclusion he has already reached, that is, that only Muslims are freedom-haters, gender-separating “thugs.”
I don’t know if these people are truly racist or not. They and their fanboys certainly don’t think that they are. But they exhibit a strong pattern of critique that is based on racist and imperialist assumptions of Muslims and their society, not on the substantive fact that this violence of the sort they pin on Islam is systemic and permeates every single group of people on this planet. Honor killings and beatings of wives and daughters is not an exclusively Muslim practice: it happens everywhere. Terrorism is not a Muslim invention; it comes from everywhere. They only critique patriarchy and violence when it involves Muslims, and ignore it elsewhere; their rhetoric smacks of opportunism, not of real concern.
Dawkins, Harris, and all the others who continuously pick out Islam as the world’s one true problem need to think bigger, and need to realize their own innate prejudices. Their critiques are not fair, and they are not rational; they are attacking a certain pattern of behavior and attributing it to one extremely oppressed and marginalized group of people, and seem to have blinders on to the same behavior when it involves white, “civilized” people. That is racist. That is bigoted. That is lazy thinking. We can, and should, critique Islam without bowing to these kind of tropes.