New Statesman: Criticism of Islam is Not Islamophobia

After seeing article after article claiming Sam Harris and the New Atheists who criticized Islam were guilty of “Islamophobia,” Andrew Zak Williams at New Stateman argues that the atheists have a point. It’s possible that criticism of Islam could be perceived as criticism of Muslims, it’s possible that the statements they make are wrong, but none of that should deter anyone from pointing out that the beliefs of religious people, whatever they are, may be (a) wrong and (b) harmful:

Surely, rational discourse should be permitted to tiptoe cautiously along the hallowed corridors of the house of Islam without the guards frogmarching it out, bellowing allegations of racism and bigotry. Cannot we not agree that the real issue is whether the critiques of Islam proffered by today’s prominent atheists are correct? For instance, does Islam fall short when it comes to women’s rights? Does it trample free speech while enforcing its own precepts, by the sword if necessary? By all means, apologists may disagree with the likes of [Sam] Harris and biologist Jerry Coyne. But what signal is sent by a refusal to permit the issues to be even debated?

to resort to the tag “Islamophobia” is justified only if you adapt a bizarre definition of the word that is satisfied merely if the religion is held up to scrutiny, rather than its people being held up to prejudice.

Finally, some common sense on the matter.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    Oh good grief. We all get that criticism of Islam is not necessarily islamophobia. However, some criticism of Islam is islamophobic, Sam Harris’s included.

    • Sean lissemore

      Exactly. You can definitely criticize any religion, but saying a religious group should be treated differently, or that one is inferior to others is definitely bigoted. That is why I don’t consider myself a new atheist anymore. It has become a bigoted movement.

      • Coel

        “saying a religious group should be treated differently .. is definitely bigoted.”

        If there is objective evidence that, for example, a young, male, inexperienced driver is more likely to have a car accident, is it bigoted to charge a young, male, inexperienced driver more in insurance premiums?

        If there is objective evidence that, for example, a terrorist threat is more likely to come from members of a certain group, is it then bigoted to pay more attention to members of that group at airport security?

        • RobMcCune

          What facial features give away someone’s religion?

          • Coel

            Harris hasn’t suggested profiling solely on facial features, he has suggested that a range of indicators be using in profiling, including indicators of religion.

            Is it morally wrong if it is done on the basis of evidence, and if the only penalty for being profiled is some extra hassle at airport security?

            • RobMcCune

              How do you ‘profile’ a person by religion? How airport security know what a person’s religion is. It’s like asking cops to pull over lutherans.

              • Mackinz

                Well, you can usually tell a Christian by jewelery or clothing featuring a cross or referencing Hey-zeus. I’m 100% certain that Islam has similar clothing identifiers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_and_clothing), and there are also many Islamic names.

                Of course, they can hide their religion by not dressing in such a fashion, so it’s not a fool-proof identification method.

                • Pseudonym

                  Really? You’re actually saying that most Christians wear Christian-specific jewellery or clothing?

                • Mackinz

                  I did not say that. I said you can usually tell a person is a Christian by some jewelery or an outfit he/she might be wearing. There are many Christians that don’t, but there are also a lot that do.

                • Pseudonym

                  I still find it a dubious assertion that “can usually tell a person is a Christian by some jewel[l]ery or an outfit he/she might be wearing”. In my experience. There is no such thing as distinctive Christian clothing ore jewellery, in the sense of something that a critical mass of Christians typically wear.

                • Mackinz

                  Any type of jewellery bearing a Christian symbol, or clothing that features Jesus, God, Mary, etc. in a non-satirical way.

                  There is no critical mass of any religion that wears anything specific. But you can tell the religion of a person wearing a religious article pretty easy.

                • Pseudonym

                  That simply isn’t true. Even if you ignore religiously mandated dress (e.g. the Sikh turban), there are plenty of religions where there is a critical mass of cultural/religious dress, even if it’s a strict minority who adopt it. The hijab is an obvious example.

                  I personally have never seen a Christian wear an item of clothing featuring Jesus, God or Mary outside of a specifically Christian gathering. I live in a Christian-majority country.

                  If someone is wearing a religious item, then it’s clear what religion they are. However, in the case of Christianity, there is no critical mass of people who wear any such item. There is no such thing as Christian religious dress, beyond ecclesiastical garb or members of specific religious orders.

                • Mackinz

                  Okay, so you’ve never seen a Christian wear an item of clothing featuring Jesus, God, or Mary (outside of a gathering) and that somehow eliminates all of the Christians I have seen wearing that kind of outfit?

                  It’s true that there is no “critical mass” of people wearing religious items, but you basically are arguing while agreeing with what I was saying in the first place.

                  “If someone is wearing a religious item, then it’s clear what religion they are.”

                • Pseudonym

                  What I’m saying is very simple: I agree with you that “if someone is wearing a religious item, then it’s clear what religion they are,” but the converse is not true. And it’s especially not true in the case of Christianity.

                  I’m sure you’ve seen Christians wear that kind of outfit, but I suspect that there’s some confirmation and geographic bias going on here. You take particular note every time you see it, even though it’s actually quite unusual. It might be localised to where you live.

                  The only way to overcome the cognitive biases in this case is with hard facts. We could keep records of every single person we see, ask them if they are religious, and note whether or not they are wearing some religious item. That’s the only way to tell if your observations are statistically significant or not.

        • Pseudonym

          Whether or not it’s bigoted to pay more attention to members of some group, it’s almost always ineffective and irrational to do so because of the base rate fallacy.

          It is a fundamental axiom of modern policing that the best time to stop a crime is before someone becomes a criminal. If you have a community where there is a higher risk of people engaging in criminal behaviour, the most effective thing you can do is to work with the community. That it’s also one of the less bigoted things you can do is a bonus.

      • Paul Crider

        I’ve never identified as a New Atheist, but I think the movement has done a lot of good for making it easier for atheists to make their voices heard. This is valuable even if not every atheist’s voice is particularly worth hearing (which is what you would expect).

        • Pseudonym

          If we were talking about theist crazy, instead of atheist crazy, we would be calling it “providing cover for” instead of “giving a voice to”. Just sayin’.

      • Georgina

        So it is ok to demand that muslim women are not permitted to hide their faces, as this would be ‘treating them differently’?
        I agree, not many muslims do.
        To differenciate is life saving, to treat as ineriors is not so good.
        However, expecting to be treated as ‘above the law’, and then screaming islamophobia when your are not is fairly standard behaviour.

  • timberwraith

    Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have all been caught saying highly prejudicial things against Islam and Muslims.

    Not Islamophobia? This is complete and utter bullshit.

    But that’s OK, because this variant of prejudice has become the norm in Europe and the US. I’m sure you can get brownie points with larger society by spewing the same hateful drivel everybody else does. However, to your credit, atheist scaremongers can lend a certain intellectual pompousness to the matter that few others can equal.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

      Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have all been caught saying highly prejudicial things against Islam and Muslims.

      Ok. Are these things they’ve said false?

      • Pseudonym

        I don’t know what timberwraith has in mind, but I will note that a claim can simultaneously be technically correct (“the best kind of correct” as the Futurama bureaucrat famously noted) and completely misleading.

        Selective truth (whether through ignorance or malice) can be just as bigoted as a flat-out lie.

        • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

          I’ll just note that a claim can also be technically correct and not misleading at all.

          • Pseudonym

            Also true. Without knowing what timberwraith has in mind, it’s impossible to call in this case, since Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have all historically engaged in both.

    • Gus Snarp

      This sort of generality is the problem. Make a specific claim. Tell us exactly what is prejudicial and why it’s wrong. Otherwise, you’re not making your case, you are instead lending support to the notion that atheists are being attacked as Islamophobes simply for being critical.

      • Derpington_The_Third

        Sam Harris:

        “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a
        fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to
        indulge,”

        Why it’s wrong:

        Suggests that simply by being Muslim, you are not going to be peaceful, especially within the relative viewpoint of Westernized Culture.

        Dawkins:

        ““At UC London debate between a Muslim and Lawrence Krauss, males and females had to sit separately. Krauss threatened to leave.””

        Why It’s Wrong:

        First off, at that event all seating was voluntary, and then it assumes that if you’re a part of that religion, you’re automatically sexist.

        • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

          Suggests that simply by being Muslim, you are not going to be peaceful

          That’s not how I read it; I read it as saying Islam is not a peaceful religion hijacked by extremists.

          at that event all seating was voluntary

          That doesn’t agree with the signs that directed men and women to different seating areas.

          then it assumes that if you’re a part of that religion, you’re automatically sexist

          It doesn’t suggest that at all.

          • timberwraith

            “The idea that Judaism is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by Zionist militarism’ and Israeli settlers is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Jews to indulge,”

            Let’s run that one up the flag pole and see who salutes…

        • Daniel_JM

          I’m afraid I’m going to have to call BS on your Dawkins claim. Dawkins just said something factual. There was a debate in London between a Muslim and Krauss. There was separate seating. Krauss did threaten to leave. (And the seating was officially marked as separated by men and women, so it wasn’t ‘voluntary.’ )

          How is stating the facts of a particular case Islamophobia? And where does Dawkins say anything remotely like “every Muslim is automatically sexist?” You are just making things up, and helping to prove our case that some people think any criticism of a specific practice done by a Muslim group (even one as blatantly sexist as this) is somehow off limits.

        • Lee White

          “Suggests that simply by being Muslim, you are not going to be peaceful, especially within the relative viewpoint of Westernized Culture.”

          No, it suggests that the religion Islam is not an inherently peaceful one. It suggests that extremism is a result of Islam and not done in spite of it.

          “First off, at that event all seating was voluntary, and then it assumes that if you’re a part of that religion, you’re automatically sexist.”

          No, there is no assumption. The sexism is readily apparent in the action.

      • timberwraith

        There have been numerous articles written lately which go over these issues in fine detail. Here’s some of those articles for you:

        Article 1

        Article 2

        Article 3

        Article 4

  • Gus Snarp

    Criticism of Islam is not Islamophobia. But calling for profiling of Muslims is not just criticism of Islam, it’s Islamophobia. For me there are specific claims. Criticize Islam all day, I’ll join you. It is responsible for ongoing horrors, particularly against women, but against humanity in general. But Sam Harris endorses racial profiling, he has doubled down on it when called out by security experts and by people concerned with civil rights. His arguments on this topic are based in ignorance, fear, and anger.

    • Daniel_JM

      You do know that during that whole debate Sam Harris included himself in the group of people who should be profiled, right? It’s a strange definition of ‘racial’ profiling that includes middle-aged white males.

      Now I don’t agree with Harris that profiling young to middle aged males of any race is the best way to keep us safe, but that is different than implying he only wants to profile non-white Muslims.

      • Gus Snarp

        Did Harris actually say middle aged white males? I don’t remember that. I read his including of himself as someone who looks vaguely potentially Muslim enough.

        Look, Harris either advocates:
        A. Profiling people by whether they appear to maybe be Muslim, which is equivalent to racial profiling, or:
        B. Not profiling at all, which is what you would call it when your group to profile is so ridiculously large that there’s no actual targeting going on, like say, all males over twelve, which appears to be the group you’re describing.

        He has repeatedly said he supports profiling, so I take him at his word that he means anyone who appears to be Muslim.

        • Georgina

          He has stated that almost all terrorist attacks were made by young men between 18 and 35.
          His grievence was with strip-searching an old lady, patting down 5 year old girls (perverts!) and bending over backwards not to make muslims feel ‘singled out’.

          Like the 55 year old guy at a UK airport who was detained for hours because he was searched while the masked and shrouded, unidentifiable figure ahead was just waved through. They then arrested him for ‘islamophobia’.
          Now that is stupid.

        • Daniel_JM

          I assume you are just playing devils advocate, and know that ‘Muslims’ are not a race, but followers of a religion? Muslims do not have one skin color and do come from many different nations and cultural backgrounds, so I don’t know why people keep saying it’s racial profiling he is calling for. It’s would be like if I said someone was a racist because they wanted to profile atheists. That makes no sense, since there isn’t an atheist race. Anyways Harris is certainly not calling for profiling anyone based just on how they look and nothing else.

          Harris clarified his position to say that he fits the profile. I disagree with him about profiling, and do think that some of his writing on Islam is concerning and given to over-generalizations, but people do quote-mine him a lot too, and on this issue there is a big tendency to create a strawman of his position (which again, I do disagree with).

          • RobMcCune

            Harris clarified his position to say that he fits the profile.

            Then profiling becomes meaningless. You yourself pointed out there is no superficial heuristic for identifying a person’s beliefs, hence there can be no profile. Yet Harris advocates profiling, how does that work.

      • RobMcCune

        There’s what Sam Harris says, and then there’s what Sam Harris says in response to criticism. In this case he changed his definition so that it’s super wide including all races, ages and genders, except little old ladies from Okinawa. His attempts to dodge criticism are a bit of a joke.

      • Charles Honeycutt

        It’s very for Harris to say such when there’s almost zero chance of him being profiled.

    • Randay

      “Islamophobia” is a dishonest word invented by certain Islamists who look for anything to be offended about. If it means hate/fear of Islam, then I am Islamophobic. It doesn’t mean much because I hate/fear other religions too, especially apocalyptic ones. So I am religiophobic. Paraphrasing Hitchens, it is a fight between civilization and theocracy/religion.

      Furthermore, we have to distinguish between Muslims, who are by definition deluded believers, and people of Muslim background who are not believers. I know several who are atheists and others who are just indifferent. They are not Muslims, no more than my Xian background makes me a Xian. I don’t care if I offend any Muslims by criticizing even insulting Islam. We criticize Xian individuals like Pat Robertson, so why can’t we also criticize Muslim individuals, which I also do?

      We don’t say “Judeophobia”, but “Anti-Semitism” and not “Christianophobia” but “anti-Christian”. So let’s just drop the useless undefined word “Islamophobia”.

    • http://www.lisagraas.com Lisa Graas

      So, when the Mafia was wreaking havoc, the police should not have focused on the Italian community? Because it was “Italio-phobic?”

  • peon

    It’s quite simple. This is okay:

    “Christianity is stupid.”
    “Islam is stupid.”
    “Hinduism is stupid.”
    ect.

    This is not okay:

    “Christians should be discriminated against.”
    “Muslims should be racially profiled.”
    “Hindus should be deported.”
    ect.

    Not that hard.

    • Daniel_JM

      Please read my above comment to Gus Snarp, Harris doesn’t want to base profiling on race, so I don’t understand why people keep on saying he wants to “racially profile” people, especially considering that he said that he personally fits the profile of people who should be given more security scrutiny.

      I disagree with him, but trying to imply he is a racist even though he included white people like himself on his list of potential profilees is pretty bizarre.

  • Jasper

    For all the mountains of criticism atheism gets from the Christians, for instance, it’s never occurred to me to think of them as having an “atheiophobic” problem. It’s a discussion about ideas and societal issues, and we’re debating them.

    • Paul Crider

      But there *is* an “atheophobia” problem. I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to coin a word over it (especially one so hideously inelegant). One of the themes of Mr Mehta’s blog is that folks have irrational prejudices against atheists. The prejudices go way beyond differences in theological opinion.

  • http://twitter.com/oceanclub Paul Moloney

    I’m an Irish atheist born in London of Irish Catholics; my background means I’m cognisant that there _is_ a distinction between fair criticism of Islam and individual Muslims, and criticism of Islam as a mere cover for racism. Back in London of the 70s, the IRA, who represented a minority of Irish people, regularly bombed Britain as well as Northern Ireland and suspicion fell across all Nationalist (that is, non-Unionist) Irish people, with many being locked up years for crimes they didn’t commit. In that climate, criticism of Catholicism from the likes of Ian Paisley was a mere cover for bigotry, not any kind of analysis of the problems of religion. I mean, some of his criticisms were _right_ about the Catholic Church’s domination of the Republic of Ireland, but ironic in the light that, these days, Northern Ireland is a far more conservative place than ROI (in Northern Ireland, there are government ministers who believe the Earth is 6,000 years ago, and places like Belfast pretty much shut down on a Sunday).

    P.

  • aoscott

    I’m kind of surprised by this being brought up again and again here, without actually addressing the substance behind that whole spat. Seriously, within the first hour of this starting, it was made very clear that no one is saying criticism of Islam is Islamophpbia!

  • r.holmgren

    Throwing around “phobia” whenever someone disagrees with another person’s thoughts or behaviours is an insult to those who struggle with genuine phobias. However throwing out that term, along with “hatred” or “bigot” is a powerful manipulative tool, especially in the toolbox of atheists.

    • Charles Honeycutt

      Coincidentally, complaining about being called bigots while displaying textbook bigot behavior happens to be a prime tool of bigoted theists. It’s almost as if they know they can’t actually argue against the charge. Funny that.

  • Sean Lissemore

    I wonder if Hemant Mehta realizes that he would be targeted under Sam Harris’s “Muslim profiling” regime…

    I’m sure he does, but Mehta knows where his bread is buttered.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Well aware

      • Mackinz

        The fact that you’ve been running this blog for so long, have written books on Atheism, and have been “prayed for” by Ken Ham makes me think that you are not in any danger of being profiled under “Sam Harris’s ‘Muslim profiling’ regime”.

        • Sean Lissemore

          I’m guessing most security officials don’t read this blog… Sorry Hemant.

          Anyhow back to the point at hand. I wonder if Harris thinks – using his own logic – that all priests should be stopped and frisked every time an Amber alert goes out. Probably not.

          • Pseudonym

            I’m guessing most security officials don’t read this blog…

            Considering how much coverage Sam Harris’ brilliant insights get, that’s probably for the best.

      • Sean Lissemore

        So if I get you correctly: You do agree that Harris supports bigoted policies. However, he is not a bigot… How do you square that one?

        • Sean Lissemore

          And he supports apartheid in the West Bank. but it is all a coincidence. Harris is definitely not a bigot… [/sarcasm]

  • timberwraith

    Given the mass shootings during the past year, the ricin laced letters, Columnbine, the Oklahoma City bombings, and a US president who destroyed an entire country (Iraq) over false pretenses, I wonder if people will start categorizing US white males as one of the world’s greatest threats?

    Probably not.

  • http://www.lisagraas.com Lisa Graas

    As a Catholic, I’ve been involved in debates for years with protestant Christians and atheists and have to say it saddens me to see what has become of our country since people started coming up with terms like “Islamophobia.” Whoever made up the word “Islamophobia” has done a great disservice to all of us by inserting ad hominem into the debate. Anyone experienced in debate understands this. “Islamophobia” is a fallacy because it is built-in ad hominem. If you criticize Islam, you’re “Islamophobic.” As it is a fallacy, everyone who loves good, old-fashioned reasoned debate should fight back against this claim. It hurts ALL of us to entrench ad hominem into debate this way.


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