New Atheists and Islam

Remember our public intellectuals from times past, who fearlessly challenged the social mores and public zeitgeist of their times?

Henry David Thoreau comes to mind, who famously opposed the Mexican-American War with a night in jail, as does Voltaire’s sharp critique of Enlightenment optimism. Well, now these public minds are far and few between.

Instead, in the past few decades, the ‘intellectuals’ among us have borne witness to the new atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins among them. With strut and stammer, they paint themselves as defiant, brave critics of religion and spirituality. And, indeed, they do critique all religions and new age creeds to varying degrees. However, their most scathing excoriations are reserved for Islam.

For example, Hitchens writes: “Islamic belief is…an extreme position to begin with,” in an article about defying the purported “fear” of offending Muslims.

According to Shermer, Islam is “dangerous,” citing a Global Terrorism database study, which found that “since 9/11, most terrorists are Islamic extremists [in the U.S.].” In this same article, he attributes the ‘danger’ posed by Islam to its supposedly never experiencing an Enlightenment as Jews and Christians have in the West.

Sam Harris, with his often-irrelevant analogies, insists that the problem isn’t religious fundamentalism but Islam itself, which is “not a religion of peace”.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins has claimed that Muslims would be happier without Islam, for then there would be no terrorism, hostility to science, homophobia, etc., etc.

These stalwart atheists claim that they’re simply advocating for a break of political correctness in denouncing Islam. However, riding the rising crest of racist Islamophobia in the West, they’re simply verifying the public’s ill-informed malice towards Muslims. Instead of offering social criticism against Westerners’ misguided beliefs about Muslims and against Islam, they offer their ‘intelligent’ and supposedly ‘moderate’ perspectives that uphold widely-held, specious stereotypes.

The new atheists’ anti-Islam arguments, masked in pseudo-philosophical dressing, are vapid, flimsy and impotent.

In his discussion with Sam Harris, the Young Turks’ Cent Uygur has accurately pointed out that Sam Harris (among other new atheists) all come from a Judeo-Christian background where extreme criticism of Islam, over and above other religions, comes natural to them.

Uygur goes on to highlight that in religious-related terrorism, such as Catholics in Northern Ireland, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and Muslims in Palestine, the question is primary political, and religion is merely a contributing factor. Similarly, Uygur suggests that global violence perpetrated by Muslims is principally geopolitical in nature, with Islam as only another part of the mix.

Concerning terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11, statistics show that white men pose a greater threat than Muslims. If new atheists argue on a global scale, it is true that Islamic terrorism has been the most prevalent form of terrorism since 2001.

Many of these terrorist attacks are against other Muslims, some are directed towards U.S forces in Muslim countries and others towards Sufi and Shia sects, who are considered heretical by the more extreme Sunni fundamentalists. Some motivations can indeed be attributed to radical visions of Islam that harken back to a mythical and idealized time in Muslim history. However, the social context in which most global Islamic terrorism derives are societies in disarray, under military occupation or adversely affected by Western intervention.

And if we were to compare the violent deaths caused by U.S. military adventures, that United States feels free to undertake as unelected world leader, with Islamic terrorism – what would we find?

Since 9/11, the U.S. interventions into Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have directly resulted in 370,000 deaths and indirectly in 870,000 deaths, totaling 1.24 million deaths and 10.1 million displaced persons. Meanwhile, from 2001-2016 (the last year with data), there have been 241,808 terrorism-related deaths resulting throughout the world. A significant number have come from non-Muslim countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and the Ukraine. Estimating that a majority of 60% were caused by Islamic extremists (as ‘majority’ was suggested in this article) would put the total Islamic terrorism deaths at 101,559 from 2001-2016. U.S. state violence eclipses Islamic terrorism deaths at 1.24 million to 101,559.

It’s certainly telling that new atheists do not critique Americans’ religious-like worship of their military that are responsible for the overwhelming majority of unnatural, violent deaths in the post-9/11 era. More importantly, they offer little criticism of U.S. foreign policy that directs the military towards such action.

When states are shattered into anarchic specters of themselves and day-to-day security is lost, there is inevitable ‘blowback’. Islamic extremist blowback has led to roughly 8 percent of the global deaths in comparison with those caused by U.S. intervention and counter-terror policies.

New atheists can demonize Islam all they want, illuminating it as the most ‘dangerous’ of religions. But perhaps they should think twice as to whether they’re acting as intellectual mouthpieces for irrational government policy and public dislike of Muslims or breaking new ground with their ‘politically incorrect’ critiques. Perhaps they should realize there’s a stark difference between political correctness and being racist, anti-Islam advocates. And, too, their ‘courage’ should be called into question: this isn’t the age of Galileo, where atheists’ lives are endangered in the West. On the contrary, they have increased their celebrity status following spouting their anti-Muslim perspectives on CNN or Fox News. Their views are celebrated because they offer false verification of the rabble’s anti-Muslim racism and xenophobia.

And to Mr. Shermer: Islam did have an ‘Enlightenment’ period. It was called the Abbasid caliphate. During this time, ethnic groups in the caliphate were treated equally, Hellenistic philosophy and medical literature were translated into Arabic, and “Muslims made more scientific discoveries during this period than in any of the whole previously recorded history (p. 54-56).

Please step out of the rabble’s world schema and stop trumpeting mainstream backwardness, as though it were a fortitudinous virtue. Step into the bones of Nietzsche, Thoreau and Voltaire, who had the intellect and intrepidity to sharply criticize their own societies.

Why be a mouthpiece for fallacious, myopic beliefs that stigmatize a vast swath of everyday people, when your putative aim is to counter these same sort of notions in your much-vaunted criticism of religion?

As a prolific author from the Boston area, Peter F. Crowley writes in various forms, including short fiction, op-eds, poetry and academic essays. In 2020, his poetry book Those Who Hold Up the Earth was published by Kelsay Books and received impressive reviews by Kirkus Review, the New Age and two local Boston-area newspapers. His writing can be found in Middle East Monitor, Znet, 34th Parallel, Pif Magazine, Galway Review, Digging the Fat, Adelaide’s Short Story and Poetry Award anthologies (finalist in both) and The Opiate. His books That Night and Other Stories (CAAB Publishing) and Empire’s End (Alien Buddha Press) were released during the week of Friday the 13th in October 2023. Read other articles by Peter F..