Al Jazeera on New Atheism’s hypocrisy toward Islam

Al Jazeera on New Atheism’s hypocrisy toward Islam March 12, 2015

Usaid Siddiqui at Al Jazeera America published a fantastic editorial on the tendency of New Atheists to be selective with holding certain ideologies responsible for violence:

The Feb. 10 killing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, of three Arab-American students, allegedly by atheist Craig Stephen Hicks has led some to compare militant atheism to Islamic militancy. Atheists are not happy with thecomparison.

“The deluge of claims of equivalence between this crime and the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and the daily behavior of a group like ISIS [an acronym for another name for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL] has been astonishing to witness,” noted atheist author and writer Sam Harris said on a recent podcast. He denied any link between atheism and Hicks’ actions. Harris insists that the comparison was unwarranted and atheists’ crimes have nothing to do with their beliefs, not least because there exists “no atheist scripture or doctrine.” Hicks said he was a fan of New Atheists such as Harris and Cambridge University professor Richard Dawkins.

Harris’ efforts to distance atheism from violent acts committed by individual atheists exposes his hypocrisy toward Muslims and Islam, which he routinely portrays as being distinctively violent. While individual violent overtures may not be reflective of atheism, Harris’ assertion that no one commits violent acts in the name of atheism is simply inaccurate. For example, in February a court in France sentenced a 69-year-old man to prison for throwing plaster grenades and shooting at a mosque in western France. “I am a republican, an atheist, and what happened at Charlie Hebdo infuriated me,” the attacker told authorities.

Siddiqui further makes this point by looking at the crackdown on religion in China:

In July 1999, China banned the spiritual movement Falun Gong, which the government considers an evil cult, after years of campaigns to eradicate its symbols and practice. In April 1999 Falun Gong protests started to gain traction, attracting more than 10,000 protesters, which prompted the Chinese government turn to legal and physical repression.

“Don’t tell me that our Marxist doctrine of atheism cannot overcome something like Falun Gong,” then-President Jiang Zemin wrote to senior members of his party, demanding action. “If it can’t, it will become a big joke all over the world!”

Wang Zhaghou, protege of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, has characterized the clash with Falun Gong as a fight between “Marxist atheism and vulgar theism, between historical materialism and outdated idealism and between science and evil thought.”

The CPC’s demonization in defense of its Marxist atheism led to the persecution of the Falun Gong, leading to the internment and torture of its members in labor camps as well as deaths. At times, Falun Gong members were executed simply for their organs.

Siddiqui, however, disagrees that this has much materially to do with atheism, per se. I agree. The issue, then, is why New Atheism doesn’t take the same critical eye to the claims of ISIS as they do to the claims of atheists committing violence with explicit reference to their atheism:

Still, the persecution of Falun Gong has very little to do with party’s atheist stance. “It does not truly matter whether Falun Gong is a religious sect or a qigong [breathing exercise] group,” Hong Kong University professor Anne Y. Cheung wrote in the Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal in 2004. “In the eyes of the government, so long as Falun Gong is perceived as having subversive potential, it must be uprooted.”

New Atheists could rightly argue that CPC’s atheist rhetoric is a cover for maintaining the party’s grip on power and for buying influence within the ruling elite. Yet their failure to recognize similar external and political influences behind acts of terrorism committed by individual Muslims is hypocritical. For example, Chérif Kouachi and Saïd Kouachi, the brothers who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices, came from the lower classes of French society, had little education and worked menial jobs. They were recruited and radicalized by a congregation member, Farid Benyettou, who, among other things, showed them videos of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The images included photos showing the notorious Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, which was a catalyst for anger among Muslims around the world. “It was everything I saw on the television, the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, all that, that motivated me,” Chérif Kouachi told his lawyer.

Even more, there’s often a reluctance among many New Atheists to look more deeply than a shallow surface understanding of motivations for violence. Siddiqui goes on:

Harris has blamed the Quran for the horror of the ISIL. “Belief in martyrdom, a hatred of infidels and a commitment to violent jihad are not fringe phenomena in the Muslim world,” Harris wrote in September. “These preoccupations are supported by the Koran and numerous hadith.”

An account from a former ISIL captive contradicts this claim. French journalist Didier François, who spent more than 10 months in ISIL’s hands, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last month that he never saw an ISIL fighter read a Quran or talk about religion. The group was rather obsessed with more secular matters and apparently never forced any of its hostages to convert to Islam.

“We didn’t even have the Quran. They didn’t want even to give us a Quran,” François said. “There was never really discussion about texts or — it was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion.”

I’m reminded of the horrific murder of Lee Rigby, a 25 year old soldier by two British Muslims. They explicitly referenced, to justify their violence, the violence that Britain had carried out in Muslim countries:

The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one. It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone.

Yet in the aftermath of the attacks, Sam Harris was actually pretty glib about any political or secular motivation for this violence. It seems any mention of Allah suddenly is all we need to know to understand someone’s motivations:

(a jab at the field research of Scott Atran, an anthropologist)


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