There was a time when atheists were seen as equal-opportunity offenders of practitioners of virtually every faith on the basis of their advocacy of a scientific and rational outlook that made no concessions in matters of religious faith.
Polemical atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who were dubbed the ‘The Unholy Trinity’, have openly criticised religion in their books – such as The God Delusion (Dawkins), God is not Great (Hitchens) and The End of Faith (Harris). But in an earlier time, much of their atheist exertions were focused on the excesses of Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Judaism.
In his book Letters to a Christian Nation, for instance, Harris states that his aim was to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” Religion, he argues, may have served some useful purpose for humanity in the past, but it was increasingly becoming the greatest impediment to building a global civilization.
But the terrorist attacks of September 2001, inspired by a jihadi-minded suicide squad assembled by Osama bin Laden, brought a new planet – Islam - into the atheists’ ken. Since arguably the most audacious terrorist attack in modern times was inspired by Islam, to which Western civilization had not devoted much critical attention, the attention – of media commentators and among the authors who explored the goings-on at the intersection of faith, society and politics – turned to something an obsession with Islam and jihad.
“The men who committed the atrocities of September 11,” wrote Harris, “were certainly not ‘cowards,’ as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith—perfect faith, as it turns out—and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.”
More generally, Harris wrote that Islam, “more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”
And while there were “other ideologies with which to expunge the last vapors of reasonableness from a society's discourse,” Islam, he added, “is undoubtedly one of the best we've got.”
Outpourings like these, and other such commentaries and, more recently, Twitter rants by Dawkins (such as this one – where he called Islam the “greatest force for evil today” – and this one – where he established an equivalence between the Koran and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf) have led commentators to wonder if the “New Atheists” - as they are called – are “flirting with Islamophobia.”
Writing in Salon, Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, reasons that the New Atheists found their calling with the September 2001 attacks. “The occasion was, for them, a vindication,— proof that modernity, progress and reason were the winners in the post–Cold War era and that religion was simply man’s play toy, used to excuse the wicked and assuage fears of a fiery, heavenless afterlife as the punishment for such profane deeds.”
And emboldened by the newfound religious fervor in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the New Atheists “joined a growing chorus of Muslim-haters, mixing their abhorrence of religion in general with a specific distaste for Islam,” writes Lean.
As he sees it, conversations about the practical impossibility of God’s existence and the science-based irrationality of an afterlife “slid seamlessly into xenophobia over Muslim immigration or the practice of veiling.” The New Atheists, he writes, became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason.”
These New Atheists, reasons Lean, have used the “climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment” to shift their narrative – from trying to convince people that God is a myth – to embracing Islamophobia, the “monster narrative of the day.” That, he says, is not rational or even intelligent: it’s opportunism. “Proving that a religion – any religion – is evil… is just as pointless and impossible an endeavour as trying to prove that God does or doesn’t exist.”
A similar critique of the atheists’ excessive preoccupation with painting Islam as evil is offered up by Murtaza Hussain, a Toronto-based scholar of Mideast Politics. Writing in the Al Jazeera website, Hussain likens leading figures in the New Atheist movement – like Harris – to those from an earlier era who justified racism on pseudo-scientific grounds.
“Citing ‘Muslims’ as a solid monolith of violent evil - whilst neglecting to include the countless Muslims who have lost their lives peacefully protesting the occupation and ongoing ethnic cleansing of their homeland - Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of ‘Negroes’,” writes Hussain.
Hussain concedes that Islam as an “intellectual movement” is not above scrutiny; and attempts to shut down legitimate debate using the charge of Islamophobia should, he says, be rejected. “However,” he adds, what is being pursued today by individuals such as Harris and others under the guise of disinterested observation is something far more insidious.”
Where once science was trotted out to justify slavery, today it is being used to push forward the belief that Muslims as a people lack basic humanity and to justify the “wars of aggression, torture and extra-judicial killings”, he adds.
“And just as it is incumbent upon Muslims to marginalise their own violent extremists, mainstream atheists must work to disavow those such as Harris who would tarnish their movement by associating it with a virulently racist, violent and exploitative worldview,” Hussain writes.
Hussain’s column has an epilogue. After Guardian’s columnist Glenn Greenwald tweeted out a link to Hussain’s column, Harris e-mailed him (here) to object to his retweeting “defamatory garbage” and to claim that there was in fact “nothing defamatory” about his criticism of Islam and that he criticised “white, western converts in precisely the same terms.”
The truth, says Harris, is that the “liberal (multicultural) position on Islam is racist. If a predominantly white community behaved this way--the Left would effortlessly perceive the depth of the problem. Imagine Mormons regularly practicing honor killing or burning embassies over cartoons...”
Greenwald responded to Harris to say that he was probably “embarrassed that people are now paying attention to some of the darker and uglier sentiments that have been creeping into this form of atheism advocacy.” In his estimation, he added, “a bizarre and wholly irrational fixation on Islam, as opposed to the evils done by other religions, has been masquerading in the dark under the banner of rational atheism for way too long.”