Thursday, October 17, 2013
The New Atheism and the Problem of Islam
The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason.
The words are those of Nathan Lean, one of the latest to join the ranks of those criticising what they perceive as the extremism of the new atheism. I take the words from another new critic of the new atheism, Jerome Taylor, whose article, “Atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris face Islamophobia backlash.” And Taylor seems to be fully in accord with other critics, ending his article with another quote from Lean, who claims that the new atheism “sprinkles intellectual atheism on top of the standard neocon, right-wing worldview of Muslims.”
One of the problems with the “new criticism” is that their criticism seems to be as incendiary and ill-founded as, according to them, the new atheist critique of Islam. Indeed, none of them seem to be above misrepresenting the objects of their criticism. For instance, in this latest sally forth from their fastnesses in Britain’s premier newspapers and magazines, Jerome Taylor says, without any qualification, that Sam Harris,
Wearing a palpable disdain for Islam on his sleeve he has also written in favour of torture, pre-emptive nuclear strikes and the profiling not just of Muslims but “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be a Muslim.”
While I think that Harris would have been better off had he left his remarks on torture or pre-emptive nuclear strikes unsaid, it is only fair to point out that those who make this kind of blanket statement are seriously misrepresenting what he does say under these headings. Indeed, while the criticism of Islam in fairly general terms seems to me to be justified, given the written evidence of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, there is no excuse for someone like Jerome Taylor to ignore the contexts and the qualifications in terms of which Harris has spoken of torture or pre-emptive nuclear attack. Nor is it obvious that Harris is “using [his] particularly anti-Islamic brand of rational non-belief to justify American foreign policies over the last decade,” as Nathan Lean suggests in his Salon article, “Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia,” which Taylor quotes with approbation.
One of the problems here, I believe, is that the new atheists have devoted themselves largely to the criticism of Christianity, and their remarks on Islam have tended to be prompted mainly by events, rather than by systematic study and critique of Islam itself. They have done so, for the most part, because they do not feel qualified to criticise Islam in depth. Indeed, as Richard Dawkins recently revealed, some of them have not even read the Qur’an. Of course, that would not settle matters, for the Qur’an itself is not given an historical context. As an apparently timeless revelation, understanding of the Qur’an is impossible without the interpretive gloss provided by extra-Qur’anic sources, such as the Sira (or biography of Muhammad) and the Sunnah, which comprises the whole complex of Qur’an, Sira and Hadith (the remembered sayings of the prophet of Islam). And even then, the Islamic doctrine of abrogation, in which earlier revelations are suppressed in favour of new revelations, is nowhere clearly explained. So, reading the Qur’an is not, in itself, sufficient to ground a comprehensive criticism of Islam. Yet Islam itself, since it makes such large and implacable claims, is in serious need of criticism. Indeed, since its eruption onto the Western stage and into the Western consciousness, on 11 September 2001, and the continued threat of violence from Muslims in response to any perceived insult to its prophet, or criticism of the finality of the revelation supposedly vouchsafed to him, such criticism is an immediate and urgent necessity.
However, there are some things that we can know about Islam simply from the way that Muslims have behaved and are behaving. Of course, when I say this, it may seem as though I am secretly including, within that general statement, all Muslims, and if that is what I am doing, then it may seem as though I am, within the meaning that the word has now attracted, an Islamophobe. (I am pleased to say that, as I write the word, Microsoft Windows 8 does not recognise ’Islamophobe’ as a word in English, and it recognises the word ‘Islamophobia’ only because I added it to the dictionary.) But what is an “Islamophobe”? Is it someone who criticises Islam, or to be an Islamophobe must I harangue or make offensive remarks to known (or supposed) Muslims in the street? A homophobe, for example, is known by his views of homosexuality, views which he cannot keep under wraps upon meeting someone who is (or appears to be) homosexual. He is likely to oppose changing laws that restrict or forbid homosexual activity, or to regret that they have been changed, and he will undoubtedly strenuously oppose giving public legal recognition to the relationships of homosexuals, whether by registering civil unions, or providing laws which allow homosexual persons to “marry” (a word which, in this context, a homophobe would claim to be not only misused, but to be, in the words of the Vatican document, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, such as ”would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage”). But how is an Islamophobe to be recognised? Is it enough that one supposes that, given the actions and words of many Muslims, Islam poses an immediate danger to Western societies, and constitutes a threat to democratic polities wherever found?
If that is all that is required, then I am an Islamophobe – a term which would then include many other moderate and reasonable people – and the reasons for being so are simple. For at the heart of Islam lies the life and words (or at least the life and words as Islam has received them) of the apostle of Islam, Muhammad. He is, for Muslims, as Jesus is for Christians, someone who led an ideal life, and thus is a model for what constitutes the good life for Muslims. However, that supposedly good life is characterised by an endorsement of violence which is unique amongst the known founders of world religions. It is of course true that there is ample evidence in the Jewish Tanach for horrendous religious violence, amounting, in some cases, to genocide. Interestingly, though, there is scant historical evidence for the events described – in what Christians have self-intrestedly call the Old Testament – in terms of the consecration to destruction of whole peoples, nor do either Christians or Jews, for the most part, at least, think that such actions are justified by their religious beliefs. However, some of the key elements of Muhammad’s life are acts of horrendous violence, and war itself, according to the Qur’an, is central to the proof of religious fidelity. As David Nirenberg points out in his book Anti-Judaism,
Battle comes “in order that God might test what is in your breasts and prove what is in your hearts” (Q[ur'an] 3:154). By revealing the different behavior of those who strive in the way of God, and those who, like the Jews, fear to fight because they are “greediest of mankind for life” (Q 2: 96), war makes visible the hidden inner doubt harbored by the hypocrite. 
Muhammad himself was a warlord, and engaged in the most brutal acts, such as, according to one tradition, personally beheading all the men of one Jewish tribe, who were brought to him in batches, and then dividing their possessions, including women and children, amongst the faithful, as booty, taking a fifth of the booty for himself, of which portion one was, variously, either wife or daughter of one of the men he beheaded, whom he took to wife, consummating his “marriage” to her on the very day that her menfolk were slaughtered.
This ideal of the zealous warrior is deeply embedded in the piety of Islam, and the number of those prepared to risk their lives in defence of the honour of their prophet and in furtherance of the supremacy of Islam, is not insignificant. Those who point this out are now being called Islamophobic. But Harris’s point that right-wing nut cases and fascists seem to be the only voices of moral clarity about the threat that Islam poses to democracy and freedom is taken as an expression of the very things that he deplores. His whole purpose in saying that right-wing fanatics and fascists are the only ones who perceive the threat that political Islam poses to Western institutions and freedoms, as he says in his “Response to Controversy,”
was to express my concern that the political correctness of the Left has made it taboo to even notice the menace of political Islam, leaving only right-wing fanatics to do the job. Such fanatics are, as I thought I made clear, the wrong people to do this, being nearly as bad as jihadists themselves. I was not praising fascists: I was arguing that liberal confusion and cowardice was empowering them.
But jihadists do not, Harris believes (and I agree), express views inconsistent with the fundamentals of Islam. Indeed, jihadists and other radical Islamists, always justify their crimes against humanity, as Harris says, ”by reference to their most sacred concern: Islam.” And there is no obvious inconsistency involved in their doing so, for Islam has, from the very beginning, sanctified religious violence. If pointing this out is Islamophobic, then I am Islamophobic, and so are Harris and many others, including Dawkins; and Hitchens, were he still alive, would have to be counted amongst us.
If the claim that jihadists and radical Islamists are not acting contrary to the fundamental principles of Islam is false, then some explanation is required of the widespread violence that characterises the Muslim world. Most radical Islamists kill other Muslims, though, from the claims of security services in Britain, the United States, Canada, and other democratic nations, many plans of jihadist violence in the West have been foiled. This does not mean that Muslims are never a persecuted minority, as the oppression of Burma’s Muslim population testifies, but the widespread violence of Muslims, and the continued threats of violence by Muslims against any who dare to insult their prophet, is often supported by Muslim scholars, whose fatwas (learned opinions of Muslim scholars), beginning with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, often license the killing of those who insult the prophet or criticise Islam. That does not mean that all Muslims scholars support such declarations, for Islam is not an institution with a centralised authority, like the Roman Catholic Church. In Islam authority is dispersed, but there seems to be no reason to hold that fatwas endorsing the murder of individuals – a practice whose origin can be found in Muhammad’s own practice – can be held to be inconsistent with Islam’s founding principles.
Such beliefs matter, and the criticism of such beliefs is an imperative. It has to be made clear that some things taken for granted in liberal democracies are not negotiable; but it also has to be made clear that the evidence that Islam is compatible with these non-negotiable things is by no means evident, even if we grant that the majority of Muslims resident in those democracies are peace-loving people who simply want to get on with their lives. Glenn Greenwald (another new critic of the new atheism), in a Guardian op-ed, asks “whether rational atheism is being used as a cover for Islamophobia and US militarism.”
Yet it is hard to argue Harris’s point that the beliefs of Islam are unique in demanding many forms of religious violence and oppression. Sometimes, as Harris himself acknowledges, he has “made the job of distorting [his] views easier than it needed to be,” and even that “a careful reader was kind enough to take the author’s feet out of [his] mouth” on a number of issues. But at the heart of Harris’s critique of Islam is his belief that it is not an accident that so many Muslims believe that jihad and martyrdom are the highest callings in human life, while many Tibetans believe that compassion and self-transcendence are.
In other words, as Harris says, “beliefs matter,” and the beliefs of Islam are not only compatible with violence, but may rightly be seen as encouraging violence on behalf of religion. Harris may be wrong, as Hitchens apparently believed, about the moral clarity of right-wing fanatics and fascists, but his central point, bluntly stated, is that the beliefs of Islam directly warrant violent acts of murder and oppression, and that this fact is an impediment to the emergence of a global civil society.
He also points out that his criticism of Islam includes the fact that Muslims do far more harm to Muslims than to others. I quote Harris on this subject in detail:
Finally, as I regularly emphasize when discussing Islam, no one is suffering under its doctrine more than Muslims themselves: Muslim jihadists primarily kill other Muslims. And the laws against apostasy, blasphemy, idolatry, and other forms of peaceful expression diminish the freedoms of Muslims far more than those of non-Muslims living in the West. Liberals like Greenwald, who are so eager to swing the flail of Islamophobia, display a sickening insensitivity to the plight of women, homosexuals, and freethinkers throughout the Muslim world. At this moment, millions of women and girls have been abandoned to illiteracy, compulsory marriage, and lives of slavery and abuse under the guise of “multiculturalism” and “religious sensitivity.” And the most liberal Muslim minds are forced into hiding. The best way to address this problem is by no means obvious. But lying about its cause, and defaming those who speak honestly in defense of a global civil society, seems a very unlikely path to a solution.
The problem is, of course, that the criticism of religion, and especially, today, the criticism of Islam, is likely to appear uncharitable and sometimes even xenophobic. But that criticism is what the new atheism is committed to. Not only Islam, but all religions, fall under its censure. That Islam attracts particularly emphatic dismissal is scarcely surprising, considering the role that Muslim violence plays in the world today. It is not simply, as Greenwald asserts, that “some Muslims commit atrocities in the name of their religion (like some people of every religion do),” for (1) terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslims are not uncommon today, and (2) the sacred texts and traditions of Islam apparently sanction such acts.
This is not to deny what Greenwald calls the Western “splurge of violence” in parts of the Muslim world, though it is hard to justify Greenwald’s claim that
… the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign.
Indeed, most of those who have prosecuted the so-called “war on terror” have been very careful to make it clear that the war is not a war on Islam. In his speech immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks, President Bush did not mention Islam once. In his speech to Congress declaring war on terror, he speaks of Al Qaeda as ”a fringe form of Muslim extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics everywhere.” Sam Harris was, however, as Greenwald is happy to point out, not so careful, and, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, which sparked Harris’s book The End of Faith, did consider Islam to be the enemy. But for Harris, as his Letter to a Christian Nation makes patently clear, Christianity too is an enemy and in need of severe censure. The only religion for which Harris evinces any sympathy is Vajrayana Buddhism.
In view of Osama bin Laden’s justification for Al Qaeda’s actions on 9/11, and Islam’s stated beliefs, it is hard to fault this logic, but the official American response has been quite different. As Daniel Pipes has pointed out, American officials are reluctant to identify Islamist violence, committed by Islamist Americans in the United States, as Islamist. As he says in the linked article:
Politicians and others avoid mention of Islam, Islamism, Muslims, Islamists, mujahideen, or jihadists. Instead, they blame evildoers, militants, radical extremists, terrorists, and al-Qaeda.
This does not look like “sustained demonization.” This is not to say that other Americans, and others in the West, have not responding by vilifying Muslims. Nor is it to say that the war in Iraq was justified, nor that the human rights of many Muslims have not been violated. Greenwald himself at one point gave the President “the benefit of the doubt” over the war with Iraq, changing his mind, and concluding
… reluctantly, that the administration had veered far off course from defending the country against the threats of Muslim extremism.
In his criticism of Harris, Greenwald appears to have concluded that Muslim extremism is not a threat, and that Muslims, like the votaries of other religions, sometimes commit atrocities. This is surely a misrepresentation of the facts, and Greenwald must know it.
Islam is peculiar in being founded, at least in terms of its own self-understanding, in warfare, just as it was spread by means of imperial conquest. The expression of Islam’s imperialist ideology is a familiar feature of contemporary Islam. According to one writer on the website Islam Watch (which claims to be run “a group of Muslim apostates, who have left Islam out of our own conviction when we discovered that Islam is not a religion at all”):
Islam’s ultimate goal is to conquer the whole world for its God – Allah, by destroy [sic] all other religions and murder all non-Muslims who refuse to convert to Islam.
It seems hard to deny that this is the stated aim of Islam, though its effective power to bring this conquest about may reasonably be held to be in considerable doubt. However, we should not fool ourselves. There are clear signs in Muslim doctrine and history to support the claim that world domination is “Islam’s ultimate goal.” Islam made two major incursions into continental Europe, occupying Spain and the Balkans in the process, but getting no farther, so Islam’s clear intent to subordinate the peoples of the earth to the rule of its god should not be in question; and such ideologies, whatever their power, are dangerous, and should be recognised as such. Sustained criticism is absolutely necessary. However, since the destruction of Islam itself may be as quixotic as Islam’s ultimate goal, in addition to the criticism of Islam, critical understanding of the history of Islam and of the formation of its sacred texts, as well as the development of a more liberal understanding of its beliefs, should be strongly encouraged. Tom Holland’s critical history of Islam’s beginnings is an important place to start. Also necessary is for Muslim scholars and theologians to recognise the importance of a sustained philological and historical critique of the formation of the Qur’an, and other traditions, including the biography of Muhammad (the Sira), for his existence as the sole prophetic voice of early Islam must be severely questioned. These studies will not be easy for the collective of Muslim scholars to undertake, but nothing less is necessary if Islam is not to be a continuing threat to the future of the quickly emerging global civilisation.