As a particular sociocultural phenomenon, “New Atheism” is usually traced back to the anti-faith backlash many Westerners were prone towards in the wake of 9/11. For Christopher Hitchens, it was 9/11 that crystallized his years of criticism of religion and focused his energies more centrally on opposing religion than he ever had before, turning him in a short span of years into one of the world’s most famous and influential atheists. Sam Harris’s polemical anti-Islamic response to 9/11, The End of Faith is often credited with being the beginning of the last decade’s Renaissance in atheist publishing and it catapulted him to the front of the atheist movement. Apart from pointing only to the most famous faces of the movement, one could go on and on tracing the impact of 9/11, and the specter of radical Islam that it raised, on the resurgence of atheism in the West over the last decade. (I recounted my own personal experience of 9/11 as a recent deconvert from Christianity is in this post.)
We Western anti-theist “New Atheists” are equal opportunity in our criticism of faith-based beliefs. We do not single out Islam simply because it’s foreign but are equally scathing of the religions that are dominant in our native countries and from which many of us apostasized. We are, as a matter of principle, hostile to faith-based believing, insistent that religious believers renounce the wickedness found in their holy books not only in deed but in word, and are keen to make sure religion is properly blamed for its contributions to evils done in its name or as a result of its legacy.
So, in this context, when we are called “Islamophobic” many New Atheists get indignant. Our critiques of religion are not primarily fear-based but a matter of refusing to shield repulsive religious ideas, influence, and violence from the same straightforward and honest criticism we would give to repulsive social or political ideas, influence, and violence. We are not hateful or fearful; we simply do not defer to religious privilege. We are not motivated by xenophobia or racism, Islam is not a race. Islam is a belief and values system and all belief and values systems must be subject to critical scrutiny. It is a sinister attempt to deflect all responsibility from Islam to try to make it off limits to criticism for fear of radioactive charges of racism if anyone criticizes it specifically as in any way whatsoever to blame for the evils perpetuated in its name.
I pretty strongly agree with most of the views just spelled out above.
Nonetheless. Islam does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in specific countries, with long, varied histories which make its actual implementation widely different in each country where it is practiced. Oppressive, racist, Christian European colonialism and post-colonial de facto imperialisms have had, and continue to have, an undeniable impact on a huge portion of what are now predominantly Islamic countries and on the rise of radical Islamism. This means that the modernist West, whose banner we New Atheists want to challenge Islam under, is both historically and presently culpable in any of a myriad of ways for the sociopolitical conditions under which regressions to the worst forms of Islam have happened and continued to happen.
Islam is to blame for its role in oppression. And so is the secular West.
To genuinely fight the evils that people under the thumbs of Islamic religions and cultures experience, we need to be as vigilant in actively reversing the ways that secular Western influence worsens the problem as we are in criticizing Islam’s roles.
And for all our best intentions of being purely abstract and honest thinkers who criticize Islam by exactly the same standards as we would (and do) criticize Christianity or Judaism wherever they’re equally evil to Islam (present, past or future), nonetheless Western atheists need to be scrupulously careful that our perceptions of Islam are not tainted by the xenophobia and racism that we’ve imbibed in our mothers’ milk, growing up in Western cultures that have our entire lives been to one extent or another explicitly and structurally racist and xenophobic.
And we must be on guard against the racist hostility towards, and generalizations that exist about, anyone who is even perceived to be Muslim.
So, one of the burning questions among those of us New Atheists sensitive this complex situation, is how do we simultaneously stand up for the right of the persecuted apostates from Islam around the world to speak out against tyrannous impositions of Islam, and ourselves speak out against the evils that religious Islam are culpable of perpetuating itself, guarantee equality under the law for Muslims being betrayed by multiculturalists who would subject them to inegalitarian Sharia courts in England, and debunk the false beliefs of Islam, all while refusing the attempt to silence us with the word “Islamophobia” misplaced charges of racism and while combatting anti-Muslim bigotry?
That’s a tall order. A very helpful contribution to this discussion is over at the spectacular ex-Muslim blog Between A Veil and a Dark Place, where members of the Ex-Muslims of North America recently discussed what terminology we should promote in place of “Islamophobia”, when discussing irrational hatred, stereotyping, demonization, systemic violence, and crimes against people of Muslim heritage or even just perceived Muslim heritage. The post is “Islamophobia? Muslimophobia? Anti-Muslim Bigotry? A discussion between Ex-Muslims on appropriate neologisms”.
Also, if you missed it last month, recently my good friend Kaveh Mousavi of the blog Margin of Error wrote an indispensably helpful guide to conscientious Western friends of ex-Muslims called 7 Ways Westerners Can Help Ex-Muslims as a guest post on Camels With Hammers.