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02 October 2014

Why Don't You Atheists Criticize Islam?

This is a question that I hear a lot, actually. And not just from Christians who want to redirect criticism—also from former Muslims who are frustrated by what appears to them to be a softness in the way some white, middle-class atheists (like me) treat Islam. For example, a friend of mine recently wrote on Facebook:

If you apply the principles of critical thinking to Christianity but not to Islam because Muslims are generally not white, you are probably a racist. ‪#‎Atheists‬

This is a complex topic, so I reached out to my friend for clarification. I asked if he had a particular example in mind when chastising his fellow atheists for failing to apply critical thinking when it comes to Islam, because I was having difficulty coming up with such an example. It strikes me that the reason for this might have to do with a fundamental disagreement about our priorities and about our approach. (And, as an aside, I'm not convinced that a failure to identify or levy just criticism as described above would qualify as racism, even if it does occur as described.)

To be fair, I certainly know some atheists who focus their criticism on the religions with the most influence in their area, and others who are more concerned about further marginalizing groups of people in their community who already face a significant amount of discrimination—but neither of those seem to be due to a lack of critical thinking. I myself am perfectly willing to say that I think that the metaphysical beliefs of inherent in Islam are misguided, and that the teachings of Muhammed are often inaccurate and frequently seem to have social repercussions that are downright awful.

But when I make these criticisms (and sometimes I do) I also try to be careful in the way that I phrase them, because I don't want to simply add my voice to what seems to be (even from an outsider's perspective) a cacophony of hatred and xenophobia that many Muslims are already subjected to. To reframe the idea in a different context, tweeting legitimate criticism (which does exist!) of games journalism under the #GamerGate hashtag will probably drown out whatever nuanced point you're making in a torrent of hate. We risk not only making the lives of these people more difficult, but also—and this is important—we give those who would rather ignore our concerns a convenient excuse to dismiss the very real and important criticisms that we level at their religious ideologies.

For me, personally, I'd rather not make anyone's life more difficult (particularly when they belong to a group that already has to deal with a lot of persecution). But I'd also rather give my message the best possible chance of being heard. And for that, I must think carefully about how I present my criticisms.

It turned out that this particular post was sparked by my friend's frustration at the Yale Humanists' involvement in a recent attempt to cancel an address by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. According to Hemant over at Friendly Atheist, "they called for her speech to be limited to her own experiences (meaning she wouldn't be allowed to speak about her perception of Islam in general) and for another speaker with 'academic credentials' to also be invited." Neither request was accepted, and her speech went forward as planned.

Personally, I don't think that I would be particularly interested in hearing Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak. But that's has more to do with her professed admiration for Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Netanyahu, and the fact that she's a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute: it has nothing to do with her criticism of Islam. (And that's not at all to say that her stance on Islam is wrong simply as a result of those associations, or that we shouldn't expose ourselves to views that we disagree with—absolutely we should! But we all get to decide how we spend our time, and frankly I think I'd have a better time if I did something else.) I do not support the Yale Humanists in the stance that they decided to take.

Getting back to the subject of exercising care in the way we address Islam, this friend of mine concedes that while my view is a common one among the "liberal left", he does not agree with it. He recommended that I read this Huffington Post article by Ali A. Rizvi, a writer and physician whom I often find entertaining and informative: A Conversation Between Two Atheists from Muslim Backgrounds. Here, unfortunately, I'm hard pressed to find things that I agree with, outside of the broadest of strokes.

The article claims that liberals believe that "the United States is the worst country on Earth" and that "we are no better if not worse than the Middle East when it comes to women's rights and gay rights". Both of these statements strike me as totally absurd straw men (and they are not the only ones). I can only guess that these ideas are borne out from observing liberals (like me) criticize the treatment of marginalized groups in North America, when those same groups are treated so much worse elsewhere. I'm having trouble seeing a substantive difference between this sentiment and "Dear Muslima", which is completely awful for reasons that should be obvious.

PZ Myers points out a few of the problems with the false dilemma presented here:

That the US is not quite as bloody-minded domestically (we’re pretty bloody-minded when it comes to foreign policy, unfortunately) as, say, Afghanistan does not mean we need to shut up and not worry about cleaning our own house. It does not mean we must live in denial about the diminished career opportunities for women in America because women in Saudi Arabia are being stoned to death for adultery.

We must remain focused on injustice everywhere. We cannot excuse a lesser crime here because a greater crime occurs somewhere else.

Even if you’re focused entirely on the greatest offenses against humanity, there are good practical reasons to address them everywhere. For example: Ireland is a western democracy; I’d rather live there than in the Sudan, or Uganda, or Iran. It’s a very nice place, for the most part, with some ugly history and unfortunate relics of theocracy lurking about, like their blasphemy law and their acknowledgment of a deity in their constitution. Minor problems compared to countries that are actively and oppressively theocratic, right? But some Islamic nations love to point to the blasphemy laws in Ireland as legitimizing their own tyrannical laws.

Further, the Irish people can work to change their laws to a more enlightened state; Irish or Americans or French people can’t do much to change Iranian law, other than by setting a good example, or more unfortunately, throwing threats and bombs at them until they change (and the record shows that those tactics aren’t particularly effective).


How would Muslims feel if we declared that they have to shut up and stop with the pity party until North Korea is cleaned up? Because of course there is only room for one Hell on earth, and all the rest of the planet is a paradise.

I worry that this talk of the problems with some hegemonic "liberal left" serves to distract us from the conversations that we need to have. There are very real problems, social and political, both locally and abroad, that are exacerbated by religion (among other ideologies): I see Islam as a major player, here. So we need to honestly ask ourselves and each other, as fellow human beings, how these problems can be best addressed. We need to be free to criticize the ideas of others honestly, and we need to keep our goals in mind.

I'm not just trying to middle-road this: my views on this subject are complex, and resist the simple caricature presented in Rizvi's article. Some of them were expressed in the episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else that that I hosted last year where we talked about Québec's proposed (now failed) "Charter of Values". If you're interested in what I think, it might be enlightening.

Addendum: As pointed out on Twitter by @Cynicalreality, a more concise and equally accurate response to the titular question here is simply, "we do". Unfortunately, I've never been much good at "concise", and there were a few related issues that I wanted to talk about anyway.

Second Addendum: If you want a nuanced critique of some of the problems these discussions face, I recommend reading this guest-post on Pharyngula by Sadaf Ali of Ex-Muslims of North America: Ben Affleck, You Are Not Helping.

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