Stedman: Right and Wrong on Islamophobia

Chris Stedman of the Harvard Humanists has a column at Religion Dispatches about atheism and Islamophobia that, in my view, gets some things right and some things wrong on the subject. The main problem, I think, is that he doesn’t make a distinction between criticism, even if it might be inaccurate, and hatred or bigotry. For instance, he quotes Dave Silverman and JT Eberhard:

In December of last year, the president of American Atheists posted a status update to his public Facebook profile that read: “Never give up a right without a fight. I will defame Islam if I want to. It doesn’t mean I hate Muslims. It means Islam is a shitty religion that worships a pedophile as morally perfect.” When I expressed my concern about those comments, atheist blogger JT Eberhard wrote the following:

“Islam is a shitty religion (more shitty than most, and try me if you don’t think we can defend that statement) and Muhammad was a pedophile, which has resulted in several Muslims continuing the practice. If Chris doesn’t like the word “shitty”, I wonder what adjective he would suggest. Horrible? Morally repugnant? Should we greet the anti-science, morally fucked up religion of Islam with an, “Oh shucks, that is pretty anti-humanity and doesn’t make much sense now does it?” How softly would be enough to get Stedman to relinquish his iron-clad grip on his pearls? Frankly, to call Islam shitty is like calling the surface of the sun warm.”

Later in the post he claimed to just be “factually criticizing” Islam and Muslims, but even if that were his aim, several of the claims he put forth about Islam and Muslims were not only false, but were framed in a way that is likely to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment. Another example is Ernest Perce V, the Pennsylvania State Director for American Atheists, notorious for a lawsuit resulting from his depiction of “zombie Muhammad” (the judge, who called Perce “a doofus” and ruled against him, was forced to relocate shortly after the ruling due to safety concerns over threats made against him). Perce has also made several statements that have inflamed anti-Muslim attitudes in Pennsylvania—his latest being that he plans to publicly flog a Koran on the Pennsylvania state capitol steps next month in protest of a state resolution to name 2012 the “Year of Religious Diversity.”

I’m certainly not going to defend Perce, who annoys the hell out of me. But while he may be simpleminded and juvenile, the judge in his case was still completely out of line and absolutely wrong about the law in his ruling. In fact, Pennsylvania’s Judicial Conduct Board sent Judge Martin a “letter of caution” reprimanding him for his behavior in the case. That he was forced to relocate is equally reprehensible, but given that his ruling in the case was in favor of allowing violent reprisals in response to offensive speech, one might be excused for noting the irony in the situation.

Now, on to Dave and JT. The problem here, as I said, is that Stedman doesn’t make a distinction between criticism and hatred. Criticizing Islam for containing a great many ideas that are barbaric and horrifying, or pointing out that Muhammad was, in fact, a child molester (he did, after all, marry and have sex with a 9 year old), is not Islamophobia. Inaccurate criticism should be corrected, of course, but it should not be dismissed or called hateful merely because it is harsh or offensive to Muslims.

But here’s where I think he’s right:

But while this silence is deeply troubling, I don’t want to suggest that, like some of those mentioned earlier, the atheist community at large necessarily has an Islamophobia problem—or that legitimate criticisms of Islam (or any other religions) constitutes Islamophobia. The problem, I think, lies in a lack of sensitivity to or awareness of the rampant Islamophobia sweeping our society. A key offender in this respect is bestselling atheist author Sam Harris.

The day after the shooting in Wisconsin, Harris published a lengthy blog post decrying Internet trolls; bizarrely, though, he included yet another defense of his position that Muslims should face extra scrutiny at airports. He and I engaged in a back-and-forth about this issue earlier this year after he wrote a post where he first argued that “we should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.” In my response, I challenged his claims that talk of Islamophobia is “deluded” and that “there is no such thing as Islamophobia.”

Harris is absolutely wrong. Yes, there is Islamophobia in this country. A lot of it. We see it not only in the many violent attacks on mosques around the country but in the delusions of far right fantasists like Robert Spencer, Frank Gaffney and Pam Geller. We see it in the passage of laws that prohibit the non-existent problem of “creeping Sharia” in this country. We see it in the many lawsuits filed to prevent Muslims from exercising their First Amendment rights, most of them by Christian supremacist groups like the Thomas More Law Center and the American Center for Law and Justice. We see it in fraudulent reports that falsely claim that American courts are enforcing Sharia law when, in reality, every case they cite reaches the exact opposite conclusion.

Where we also might see it in the use of overly broad stereotypes about Muslims themselves. As I have said for years, we need to recognize that there is not one Islam but many, as is true of any sizable religion. The Islam of Osama Bin Laden is not the same as the Islam of Muqtedar Khan or of my many progressive Muslim friends (just as the Christianity of Pat Robertson is not the same as the Christianity of Bishop Tutu or Gene Robinson). And when we criticize the many barbaric ideas in Islam we need to recognize that, just as in Christianity, there are more modernist and liberal versions of Islam that read those things out of the religion. Muslims, as individuals, should be judged on their actual beliefs and behavior, not on the label we apply to them.

This is not an either/or — you don’t have to stop criticizing the barbaric practices of many Muslims in order to treat those Muslims who do not believe or behave in that manner as individuals rather than as members of some uniformly evil group. You don’t have to pretend that Islam is one big happy “religion of peace” in order to defend the equal rights of Muslims to practice their religion as long as they don’t violate anyone else’s rights in the process.

We can, and should, be critical both of Islamic barbarism and of Islamophobia. We can speak out strongly against defamation of religion laws in Islamic countries at the same time that we speak out against anti-Sharia laws in this country. We can, and should, condemn both Muslim violence and anti-Muslim violence. We can, and I do, condemn honor killings and murderous fatwas and jihads at the same time that we condemn attempts to violate the religious freedom of Muslims in this country.

I don’t think this is really that difficult. What we need to do is take a stand in favor of freedom and equality for all people, period. That’s why I have slammed the Christian supremacy of the missionary groups that protest at the Dearborn International Arab Festival every year and slammed the city of Dearborn for their dubious legal attempts to silence them. It’s why I have condemned the disgusting use of blasphemy laws around the world and condemned the attempts to prevent the building of mosques in Manhattan and Tennessee.

I doubt that Stedman would disagree with any of that, actually. And I would no doubt join him in condemning ignorant beliefs and behavior among atheists aimed at Muslims, or anyone else for that matter. But I think he makes far too much of the fact that few atheist bloggers wrote about the attack at a mosque in Missouri or the attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. There are lots of aspects of those situations that are worthy of being written about, but there isn’t much that is interesting to say about the attacks themselves. They are horrifying and appalling, of course, but merely repeating that obvious statement one more time doesn’t do a lot of good.

I do like what Stedman and others have done to reach out to the victims, which I think is important. I’m actually a fan of interfaith efforts of that type. After 9/11, I gathered with a large number of people of all faiths and none at a local Islamic center to mourn the victims, to condemn the attackers and to speak out against potential reprisals against Muslims living in our communities that had nothing to do with it. I think that’s an important thing to do and I believe our major atheist and humanist organizations should participate in defending our common humanity. But I think we also need to be very careful not to condemn even harsh criticism in the process.

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