Will Atheists Stand in Solidarity With Muslims?

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This election was an ugly demonstration of how many racists and bigots there still are in this country, even in liberal and cosmopolitan areas. And Donald Trump’s victory has tremendously emboldened them, as we saw in an ugly story from New York City this week:

Straphangers stood by and watched as three drunk white men repeatedly screamed “Donald Trump!” and hurled anti-Islam slurs Thursday at a Muslim Baruch College student before trying to rip her hijab off of her head on an East Side subway, the woman told the Daily News.

…They kept screaming Trump’s name at her, and then said, “Oh look, a (expletive) terrorist,” she said.

“Get the hell out of the country!” they yelled during the train ride. “You don’t belong here!”

This isn’t just an anecdote, but one data point in a worrying trend: according to FBI statistics, anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S. peaked in 2015 at levels not seen since 9/11. And there have been even more reports of hate crimes and harassment since the election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While it’s been re-echoed to the point of cliche, this is the appropriate place to quote Martin Niemoller’s famous poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Although time and historical distance have blurred the context, the point is that the victims of Nazi persecution weren’t chosen randomly. They were targeted because they were the groups that were smallest, most disliked, most “other” – the ones whom the German public would feel the least sympathy for. (Other versions of the poem, which list communists, the incurably ill, and Jehovah’s Witnesses among the targets, make this clearer.) Each group, as it fell under the regime’s shadow, gradually pushed the boundaries of what was seen as acceptable and got the general public accustomed to what was happening, so that there’d be less of a protest at the next step.

If something like this ever happened in America, it’s easy to imagine how it would play out. An authoritarian regime would cast immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and other small and unpopular minorities as the enemy, blaming them for all our problems, darkly insinuating that their presence is a threat that has to be dealt with. They’d soften the ground by putting bigots in positions of authority, getting us accustomed to hearing irresponsible and hateful rhetoric. They’d turn a blind eye when lynch mobs run riot in the streets, letting them commit hate crimes without punishment. As the final step, they’d turn the machinery of the state into an instrument of repression – forcing people to register with the state, stripping them of legal rights, questioning their patriotism and their loyalty, clearing the way for mass deportations and internment camps.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Like many atheists, I’ve fiercely criticized Islam in the past, and I’ll undoubtedly have reason to do so again. Nothing I’ve said in this post changes my opinion about the contradictions and bad science in the Qur’an, the repressive and misogynist nature of sharia law, or the way in which Islamic fundamentalism is easily used to justify brutal violence.

But that’s precisely why the atheist community now has to stand in solidarity with American Muslims – because otherwise, if the worst happens, our consent will be assumed.

As often as I’ve criticized Islam, I’ve also insisted that while Muslims shouldn’t have more rights than the rest of us, neither should they have less. It’s possible that the next few years will see that principle tested. That’s why we have to make it clear that we won’t be party to depriving anyone of their civil rights. We won’t remain silent, because while it may begin there, history teaches us, that won’t be where it ends.

I genuinely hope that I’m being alarmist and that none of this turns out to be necessary. I hope that all Trump’s talk about Muslim registries and shutting down immigration and dumping more people into Guantanamo is just that, talk. I hope it will blow away like chaff in the wind, like so many of his other promises. But while we can hope for the best, we have to be prepared for the worst. If a day comes when we’re called upon to show where we stand, I hope the atheist community won’t be found lacking moral courage.

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