The Subtle Bigotry Towards "Peaceful Muslims"

Slowly, a clear sequence of events has come together. A fifteen minute trailer for the poorly produced anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims” was released on YouTube on September 8th, under what appeared to be the account of an Israeli real-estate developer, Sam Bacile. By September 13th, no records of an Israeli by the name of Sam Bacile could be found, and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, Coptic Christian and former meth cook, became attached to the film after the cellphone number used by Sam Bacile in an AP interview was traced to Nakoula’s home address. On September 11th, four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in Benghazi, the capital city of Libya. Whether the murders were part of a pre-planned terror attack or a result of opportunism remains unclear.

It’s heartening to know that the protests both peaceful and violent are joined with encouraging demonstrations of solidarity with the murdered ambassador. A few reactions, however, are unfortunately predictable. Some are overtly islamaphobic, while others are more subtly so.

Today, Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists, tweeted the following photo of a printed paper in his hands which starts “Dear Peaceful Muslims” and is captioned with “Just a thought #IslamIsBarbaric.”

This isn’t the first time Dave Silverman has lacked nuance and tact when handling Islam. Last year, he referred to Islam as a “shitty religion which worships a pedophile as morally perfect,” even though opinion is split on whether Muhammad was entirely morally perfect, and Islam explicitly forbids worshiping him. In fact, that is the very worry that grounds the unpopular proscriptions against visually depicting the prophet.

But putting aside past comments—as well as how overbearing it is to inform believers what their religion really entails—Silverman’s tweet highlights a subtle kind of prejudice frequently faced by Muslims and Muslim-Americans.

Chris, I think, made an important comparison: earlier this year, Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist brought up a double standard in how the media treats atheists and Christians. Atheists are commonly referred to as “self-identified,” “self-proclaimed,” “avid,” and so on, but Christians almost never so. He writes:

“Vjack adds that this is an example of Christian privilege at work. It’s to the point that most people probably don’t even notice it; clearly, reporters don’t seem to care. But one way to fix it is by raising awareness that it occurs so that you can call it out when you see it.”

But an even more insidious issue regularly affects Muslims and Muslim-Americans, an already maligned and alienated group. The popular stereotype of the Muslim as terrorist or terrorist-sympathizer surfaces often, and Silverman is subtly reinforcing it by addressing “peaceful Muslims.” My co-blogger, Chelsea Link, made this point in response to Silverman: “Asking ‘peaceful Muslims’ to oppose terrorism is like asking ‘friendly black people’ to oppose gang violence. Just a thought @mratheistpants.”

There are a few general rules of conversation that we follow, one being something like “don’t be redundant.” That’s because we don’t like being told things we already know. If you reference a “smart astrophysicist,” that’s weird because we’d assume astrophysicists are already considered smart, so why tack on the unnecessary adjective? Saying “devout Muslim” isn’t weird, though, because we know that believers fall on a spectrum of piety, and it’s not necessarily clear where any given person falls on that line.

But what’s the subtext, then, of saying “Dear Peaceful Muslims?” The innuendo is obviously that the “peaceful” doesn’t go without saying; at least a sizable portion of Muslims are violent, it seems to say, so you need to address the peaceful ones specifically. But after an abortion clinic is bombed, we wouldn’t think to respond by addressing “peaceful Christians,” just like we wouldn’t talk to the “peaceful environmentalists” when discussing eco-terrorism. It’s implied that Muslims have a spectrum of “violent” that needs to be considered—environmentalists and Christians don’t. Compound that subtext with the existing stereotype, and you get some ugly reinforcement Sarah Palin has even dabbled in.

But just to be sure that I wasn’t reading too much into it, Silverman went ahead and said it outright: when Chris tweeted that “the vast majority of Muslims oppose terror,” Silverman responded by saying “I’m skeptical.” In case anyone was wondering: this Pew Poll from last year has 81 percent of American Muslims saying suicide bombings are never justified. And here’s the Christian Science Monitor on a survey from the Program on International Attitudes from the University of Maryland:

[O]nly 46 percent of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24 percent believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

Contrast those numbers with 2006 polling results from the world’s most-populous Muslim countries – Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Terror Free Tomorrow, the organization I lead, found that 74 percent of respondents in Indonesia agreed that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure was 86 percent; in Bangladesh, 81 percent.

These tweets by Silverman aren’t going unnoticed; Chris has documented on his twitter how negatively Muslims and atheists living in Muslim-majority countries are reacting to Silverman’s comments.

David Silverman is treating this like a freedom of speech issue. This isn’t about the First Amendment or whether we can criticize Islam; in fact I think these issues are important. But criticism should be tempered, accurate, and fair. We should discuss how certain verses of the Quran are interpreted and contextualized, how certain parts of hadith can be incorporated into Western culture, and how certain comments by Imams or spiritual leaders might be problematic.

Silverman has a fair point that this discussion requires the voices of liberal muslims, but specificity is our friend on issues as broad and complex as religion. No one is well-served by blanket statements like “Islam is barbaric” or a “shitty religion,” as if a religion held and practiced by more than a billion people can be defined writ large by the actions of a small percentage. There is a serious conversation to be had here, that needs to be had here, and it’s not one for crude hashtags and twitpics that push away atheists and Muslims alike.


Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter. 

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