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Vijay Prashad

When New Atheism meets Islam

Dawkins: 'All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College'. (Getty)

Date of publication: 17 February, 2015

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Comment: Islam is just a convenient scapegoat for those who refuse to see that it is aggressive and rampant capitalism that is eroding Western societies, not Muslims.

Three young Muslims are killed execution-style in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Their deaths are so grotesque that it forces the US president to condemn them. Thousands of people gathered in the public spaces of Chapel Hill to celebrate the brief lives of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, Yusor Mohammad, 21 and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. Thousands more came to bury them – one of the largest Muslim ceremonies to be shown in the US media.

 

The killer, Craig Hicks, 46, and the police department have suggested that the deaths took place due to a parking

     It is the poor who most often take refuge in religion because it is the soul in soulless conditions.

dispute. Even if these residents of a housing estate had problems over parking, their deaths evoke other kinds of images – to shoot three people in the head is hardly the most commonplace reaction to a civic dispute.

 

Only Craig Hicks, who is now in custody, knows why he killed these three young people – all with bright futures before them. His statements will, naturally, be calibrated to give him the lightest possible sentence in the judicial system. Everything he says will be about his future, not about the moment when he chose one of his thirteen guns to take into their apartment and end their lives.

 

One insight into Hick’s mind-set came from social media where he flaunted his atheism. His world of anti-religion did not come from the old masters, Voltaire and Feuerbach, but from more contemporary authors such as Richard Dawkins (author of the 2006 bestseller, The God Delusion), Sam Harris (author of the 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason) and Christopher Hitchens (author of the 2007 book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). The titles are self-explanatory: in arrogant tones they suggest that people are foolish to believe in God. Religion is, as Hitchens so pompously pronounced pompously, “the inspiration and instinct of fools, madmen and birds”.

 

These writers fashioned themselves as the New Atheists. This is the view that it is not sufficient to quietly tolerate religions, one must forcefully critique them. It is a belligerent atheism that believes that the God Delusion is the most pernicious problem of our times. If we go after those who are deluded by Divinity, then we should be able with reason to discuss our real problems.


Imperialism and the New Atheists
 

One of the striking aspects of New Atheism is that they seem to spend so much of their energy on the religion of Islam. Richard Dawkins, for instance, once wrote, “I think Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today. I’ve said so, often and loudly.” This is perhaps the clearest indicator of their obsession with Islam.

 

These authors seem to take a juvenile joy in making sweeping statements that denigrate Muslims. Dawkins, again: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though”; or Sam Harris: “There are millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney.”

 

These are casual pronouncements intended to elicit a reaction. Once this reaction comes, it can be easily dismissed as the touchiness of the Muslim – so earnest in his or her religion that they can’t take a joke or they can’t deal with reason. Provocations are of this kind – they are not there to stir dialogue, but rather are intended to hurt, to humiliate and then to use the reaction to degradation as further proof of the barbarism of the person provoked.

 

It is no accident that the New Atheist movement developed after 9/11. It is in this period that Christopher Hitchens began to deploy the phrase “Islamo-fascist”. This phrase defined what Hitchens called a “cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind”. The smugness of this statement is not self-evident.

 

Hitchens fully backed the 2003 US war on Iraq, which destroyed the Iraqi state after the US sanctions regime in the 1990s had destroyed Iraqi society. Cataclysm followed cataclysm as Iraq spiraled into terrible violence. The idea that US wars from Central America in the 1980s (with the Death Squads) to Iraq in the 2000s were not also an exaltation of death and destruction is duplicitous. Hitchens, who had long been a critic of imperialist violence, swallowed his tongue. To justify his ride aboard a Hellfire missile, he had to paint the target with the worst of all fantasies.

 

In 2000, Edward Said called this set of ideas, “the devil theory of Islam” – “The search for a post-Soviet foreign devil has come to rest, as it did beginning in the eighth century for European Christendom, on Islam, a religion whose physical proximity and unstilled challenge to the West seem as diabolical and violent now as they did then.”

 

The New Atheism, which claims to be against the God Delusion, becomes, over these last two decades a sub-set of the hatred of Islam, but more specifically a justification for Western intervention in the Arab world.

 

Liberalism and the New Atheism

 

Liberalism has made it own slow march into the arms of the New Atheism. In Holland, for instance, liberals began to suggest that Muslim migrants bring with them anti-liberal social views on homosexuality and abortion, on love and life. People like Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsh Ali formed the basis of this platform against Islam from the point of view of social liberties. “I don’t hate Islam,” said Fortuyn, “I consider it a backward culture.” Entry of Muslims into Holland would destroy its “advanced” culture. Similar views can be heard in the ranks of France’s Front Nationale, in Britain’s UKIP, in Germany’s Pegida as well as in the United States amongst the anti-Sharia people.

 

There is little acknowledgement that what has destroyed the cultural basis of northern Europe and part of the US heartland is not “Islam”, but the predatory nature of advanced capitalism. Credit crises, wage arbitrage and outsourcing should be the vocabulary of dissent. It is these processes that have made jobs harder to find, houses harder to hold onto and lives harder to lead. Public institutions are burdened far more by the failure of governments to tax their wealthier citizens than because of migration of Muslims into the West.

 

Little of this is in the public discussion. It is far easier to put the blame on “Islam”. Easier yet to blame “Islam” from the standpoint not of this religion or that, but from atheism. A true atheism would not pick on one religion. It would suggest that there are far too many real problems on our planet (joblessness and despair, for instance) to hold our attention – too little time to waste on disputes over the afterlife. A genuine, compassionate atheism would understand that it is the poor who most often take refuge in religion because it is a heart in a heartless world, it is the soul in soulless conditions.

 

Debates within the world of Islam are routine. These have been there from the first. Schools of thought flourish. Islam has its problems, as every religious tradition does. Critics within Islam abound. Criticism within Islam is as commonplace as it is essential. To climb onto the Mountain and pronounce judgment upon Islam is hardly going to move an agenda amongst Muslims. It will only feel like salt in the wound. If only liberals paid attention to these debates it would help them walk down from arrogance.

 

Those three young Muslims lived to share their hearts in the world. They volunteered their time and skills for others. One of them was planning to go to aid the Syrian refugees. Their role in making the world better was far more profound than the role of those who from on high denigrate the ordinary lives of ordinary people.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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