Even in the atheist community that prides itself on intellectualism, we often speak for and even instead of Muslims and Ex-Muslims. We have a listening problem. Sadaf Ali, who helped found Ex-Muslims of North America, nails it…
When we launched EXMNA, we saw several major events and issues within Muslim communities and harmful forms of Islamism, globally, get covered by the news and media outlets. Every time something happened, Dawkins, Harris and Maher were the only people that received attention and ended up representing not only atheists but issues regarding Muslims and Islam almost every single time. And if it wasn’t an atheist that spoke up, it was apologists like Rula Jebreal who thinks one can easily be gay in Gaza and Reza Aslan who believes no ill can come from various Islamic ideologies and several other incorrect statements about Islam and Muslims.
Before 3 muslim students were murdered by an avowed anti-theist ostensibly over parking, the most recent and widely publicized exchange of ideas on Islamic extremism was between three white American men: Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck. Maher framed the topic as criticizing Islam as an important liberal ideal of free speech.
Never mind, for the moment that there wasn’t a Muslim or Ex-Muslim on the panel that represented a large following of Muslims opposed to violent extremism. Both Maher and Harris, framed the discussions of Muslims worldwide as led by violent extremists and tacitly supported by the majority of Muslims.
From the transcript speaking of billions of Muslims worldwide:
MAHER: All these billion people don’t hold these pernicious beliefs?
AFFLECK: They don’t.
MAHER: That’s just not true, Ben. That’s just not true. You’re trying to say that these few people, that’s all the problem is, these few bad apples. The idea that someone should be killed if they leave the Islamic
AFFLECK: That’s horrible.
MAHER: But you’re saying the idea that someone should be killed if they leave the Islamic religion is just a few bad apples?
AFFLECK: The people who would actually believe in that you murder someone if they leave Islam is not the majority of Muslims at all…
SAM HARRIS: Just imagine you have some concentric circles. You have at the center, you have jihadists, these are people who wake up wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in paradise, they believe in martyrdom. Outside of them, we have Islamists, these are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom and paradise and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments, they want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles arguably are 20% of the Muslim world.
BEN AFFLECK: What are you basing that research on?
HARRIS: There are a bunch of poll results that we can talk about. To give you one point of contact: 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should have been prosecuted. 78%. So, I’m being conservative when I roll this back to 20%. But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims who can honestly look at ISIS and say that does not represent us, we’re horrified by that but they hold views about human rights, and about women, and about homosexuals that are deeply troubling. So, these are not Islamists, they are not jihadists, but they often keep women and homosexuals immiserated in these cultures and we have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it. And lying about doctrine and this behavior is not going to do that…
In the wake of the Chapel Hill murders, critics like Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of New Republic, are asking if atheists and “New Atheists” under the leadership the Four Horseman have been given a “wake up call” by the incident. Ali points out that Heina Dadabhoy, who also blogs at Freethoughtblogs, had an opportunity to address this criticism:
Heina Dadabhoy, another fellow activist and writer, participated in a HuffPost Live segment, “Is Chapel Hill Shooting An Atheist Wake Up Call?” with Elizabeth Stoker Breunig, a staff writer atThe New Republic. Heina explicitly addressed how people outside of the atheist movement look to white males as authorities on atheism (3:05 into the clip). She even pointed out how Elizabeth had done the same thing in her article “The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists”. Elizabeth only mentions white male figures and disregards all other atheist and secular figures. What about the ex-Muslims that have been working tirelessly to shape the dialogue around Islam and Muslim issues? Where’s our say?
Which is in a nutshell why the atheist and/or even the progressive, liberal community really doesn’t get where Muslims and ex-Muslims are coming from, because they oftentimes don’t ask them.
Not just atheist leaders that media ask about issues related to Islam. The media often doesn’t invite Muslims to the discussion, who advocate for large groups of Muslims interested in peaceful and nonviolent resolutions. There surely wasn’t a Muslim representative on the Maher panel.
It isn’t because there is a dearth of well informed Muslims and Ex-Muslims on this topic as the existence of EXMNA demonstrates. It is possible that the same atheists speak because that is who the media asks, but that doesn’t stop those same people from suggesting a better informed person to the panel or giving them a voice on their platform. For that reason, I urged my husband Aron Ra to include members of the ex-Muslim community when he discussed Islam on his youtube channel.
Most importantly that doubles the responsibility of these same people to get it right. For no God’s sake, ask someone who has a different or better informed opinion, before you speak on a community you are not a member of.
What about how Maher references Ayaan Hirsi Ali then? That is part of the root of the problem as Sadaf Ali says:
When our work and ideas align with theirs, they will co-opt our work and our dialogues and we are rarely given recognition for what we do to foster change. When they want to say something about Muslims and Islam, atheists and secular organizations will only support us and work with us when they don’t want to appear racist. When it comes to conservative and right-wing supporters, they will use ex-Muslims (like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq) to support their hate for Islam, racist and anti-immigrant policies, etc.
Maher will cite Ayaan Hirsi Ali to support his contention that the Muslim ideas that most people support are “pernicious”, and calls on Harris to support his claims. Yet, he doesn’t call on anyone to represent the millions of Muslims, who don’t support extremist violence and terrorism.
Why should that matter to atheists, who reject religious beliefs especially because there are violent beliefs sanctified by the Koran?
It’s really very simple. There are violent beliefs sanctified by the Bible and Torah as well. Even on Maher’s panel there is the mistaken belief that Christianity and Judaism have educated themselves beyond the brutality in their sacred texts.
This is one of many accounts of an ex-Israeli soldier that was ordered to kill 6 unarmed Palestinian checkpoint guards in retaliation for terrorism from an unknown source:
All of a sudden our staff officer comes from some two-minute briefing, says, “Listen, this is the briefing . . . we’re doing . . . it’s a revenge operation. We’re going to eliminate six Palestinian policemen at a checkpoint. It’s in revenge for the six they took from us.” That’s the story I want to get at. It was on 443: if you, you cross toward Area A there are . . . there are, like, four transfer posts, and the Palestinian police oversee them. They sent us, along with the paratrooper patrol company, or the paratrooper auxiliary company and someone else, to just, like, eliminate all the Palestinian police there. Right? And the briefing was maybe two minutes. It was defined as, like, revenge, and at the time when I hesitated, like I asked, “What did they do? Who are they?” They said they’re Palestinian police. I said, “What did they do?” They said, “There’s suspicion that the terrorist who killed the six came through that checkpoint.” There’s suspicion, but they don’t know for sure. It could be one of those posts, but they said, “It doesn’t matter, they took six of ours, we’re going to take six back.”
And Newsflash Christian extremist violence hasn’t been educated out of existence either. Whenever there is a new ISIS execution, my social feed lights up with atheists talking about how backward Muslims are in comparison to Christianity. All of the violence done in the name of Abrahamic religions are rooted in an extremist interpretation of violent scriptures. There is no exception for the religion of your birth or its allies, which makes damning one, as if they have the only extremists over the other, silly.
All of this nuance is often absent from discussions of Islamic extremism. If Maher were to host a panel on child witch burning in Nigeria, no one on the panel would make the case that most Christians endorse it. Non-Mormon Christians can even see obscure nuance between Mormons and the FLDS leaders like Warren Jeffs. I seriously doubt Maher would make a case that all Mormons are child raping polygamists, or tacitly endorse the practice though there is support for it in Mormon scripture and history.
The simple reason why is because he is familiar with Christianity and it sects. He may know Mormons. The Mormons I trained with in the Army were some of the nicest people I have ever known. That is the key here, I can speak from experience and thus knowledge. And again, why inviting Muslims and Ex-Muslims with a diversity of opinions should be obvious. Realistically inviting someone like Harris to the discussion gets ratings and perhaps gravitas, but there is no requirement you can’t invite both.
Although, prominent atheists don’t advocate violence, and it is not known whether Chapel Hill resulted from extreme Islamophobia and/or anti-theism, if prominent atheists need any wake up call it’s to stop putting forth arguments that add to the stereotyping of millions of innocent Muslims, ex-Muslims, and others like Sikhs that people ignorantly mistake for Muslims.
Muslims like Yusor Abu-Salha, her sister Razan Abu-Salha and her husband Deah Baraka. Deah had meant to travel to Jordan to help refugees from ISIS with dental aid. All the effort of their Muslim families and community to raise these young people to be caring, compassionate human beings wasted by a self righteous bully over the most trivial reasons. As atheists, we don’t believe in heaven, so that should make the waste of a human life that much more grievous for the those of us with any vestige of humanity.
That is what atheist leaders can lose sight of when they don’t bother to listen to fellow human beings. No one should need to be reminded to not to trample over the humanity of individuals in the rush to blanket condemn religious extremism. That is what dehumanization by Islamophobic rhetoric does; it makes crimes like Chapel Hill possible.