New Atheists and Islam, Take Two: A Rebuttal

Simply ‘calling it like you see it’ doesn’t cut anymore. We now know that conscious and unconscious intuitions are socially constructed by our surroundings, with cultural, religious, social biases all included.

Hence, confirmation bias is at work when new information is gathered and quickly aligns with one’s world schema. For example, a white person may come across an African American man who is paying child support and on welfare. Many whites in America may nod their heads to this, conforming what they already think they ‘know’. However, they fail to look to the majority of African American men who do not fall into this stereotype.

It’s similar situation with Michael Shermer and the new atheists. Soon after my article on the new atheists’ scathing criticism of Islam appeared on Dissident Voice, Mr. Shermer went to Twitter to counter it:

No Peter Crowley, we focus on Islam now because that is the primary source of political violence as I document in The Moral Arc … If that changes so too will our focus. It’s not an inherent bias against Islam.

To be fair to Mr. Shermer, he is of significant intelligence and his new book Heavens on Earth was a largely enjoyable read. However, there was the obligatory snarkiness towards the concept of afterlife in Islam – a tone that is absent in his writing on Judaism and Christianity within the book. For example, he writes (p. 61):

If you were single in this world you get hooked up with beautiful companions in the next, by some accounts, no fewer than seventy-two virgins, naturally. (Just in case, according to one hadith, extra sexual potency is an added bonus for those who need it, presumably a form of celestial Viagra.)

Really? Insulting Islam with a commercial product for male impotency? Seems to be a low blow that may come from a Marine Le Pen supporter.

Scholars of Islam have long disputed the hypersexualized interpretation of paradise in Islam. Albeit, to be fair, some Islamic terrorists, who rarely have much knowledge of Islamic theology, believe that virgins are awarded to them in Paradise if they die as martyrs. Yet, as scholar of religion Lesley Hazleton noted the concept of Paradise in Islam in the Koran connotes a bountiful land of plenty that would be awarded to desert peoples (the first Muslims) in afterlife. It is bereft of the hypersexuality in Westerners and Islamic terrorists’ erroneous interpretations.

Indeed, the Hadith of the Seventy-Two Houris (‘houris’, mistranslated as ‘virgins’) has been used as an inspiration during historical conflicts with non-Muslims, such as during the Crusades, but has been long deemed to be invalid according to Sunni Hadith scholars (p. 240-241). In other words, this hadith did not derive from Muhammad’s actions or words to others. Instead, it is flagrantly abused by Islamic extremists and Islamophobes alike.

In support for his anti-Islam bias, Mr. Shermer also cites a chart from the Global Terrorism Database. It shows that since the early 1990s, terrorist attacks related to Islam have spiked, including a dramatic increase after 2012, around the time when the Islamic State came into existence. Tellingly, according to this University of Maryland database, terrorist attacks related to Islam were almost non-existent prior to the 1990s.

If we think back, what significant geopolitical events occurred in the world after 1990, that may have led to an increase in ‘Islamic-related terrorist’ attacks? Can’t think of any?

Oh yeah…the stationing of American troops in the holiest land for Muslims, Saudi Arabia, which Bin Laden cited as one of the reasons for the 9/11 attacks. This was followed by the invasion of two Muslim countries, which included the complete dismantling of the Iraqi state by U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority. Soon thereafter, American, Saudi, UAE and Qatari governments supported Islamic radicals fighting against Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict, where the Islamic State burgeoned. Even Al Qaeda paled in comparison to ISIS’s brutality and anti-Shiism terrorism, highlighting the spike in terror attacks post-2012.

Anyone who extracts Islam from these geopolitical battles and group identity-based sectarian conflicts, and claims that religion is the main instigator, is either an uninformed simpleton following popular belief and/or has a clear, ‘inherent’ (as Shermer puts it) bias against Islam. Not only is the world so vastly complex that it’s impossible to simplistically pick apart single causes as the driver to convoluted social phenomenon. But, in the case with terrorist attacks related to Islam, geopolitics, intrastate conflict, anti-imperialism, group identity and state vacuums stand out starkly as their principal determinants.

Looking more closely into the Global Terrorism Database that Mr. Shermer cites, not only does it not highlight U.S. political violence directed towards its opponents, nor Saudi and Israeli state terrorism towards Yemenis and Palestinians, respectively (as we would expect). It also shows nothing of Israeli settlers’ terrorist attacks against West Bank Palestinians, which have been occurring regularly for the past several decades.

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has documented these Israeli settler terrorist attacks:

A stark example recurs every year during the olive harvest. After repeated settler attacks, the military forbade Palestinian farmers from entering their own land if it lies near a settlement – instead of protecting the farmers by enforcing the law on the settlers.

But, of course, this database echoes the U.S.’s reflexive support for Israel, which is akin to the new atheist Sam Harris’s Israel attitude. To paraphrase Harris, any Israeli war crimes can be blamed on the ‘character’ of their enemy; and, in engaging in military action, Israel practices a higher caliber of restraint than anywhere else in the world. Simply put, Harris seems to be implying that Muslims are of the special ‘character’ demanding war crimes be committed against them, by a military that shows unorthodox ‘restraint’. And Muslims are of that sort of ‘character’ who follow a religion that is putatively antithetical to peace.

Such an astounding, Orientalist defense of Israel stands in stark contrast to Israel’s desire to take over all of Palestine, so as to mirror a state from the Old Testament. To this end, it has engaged in perpetual ethnic cleansing and innumerable war crimes, including its expunging of 750,000 Palestinians during the 1948 Nakba and its more recent Gaza slaughter that killed 1,462 civilians out of a total of 2,104 Palestinian casualties. If this is ‘restraint’, then one can only wonder what unbridled military operations would look like. Armageddon?

As Michael Shermer and Sam Harris continuously prove: they don’t have too great an understanding of Islam, geopolitics or the complexity of social phenomena. Nor do they seem to comprehend how when a country is attacked, some people may fight back; or that when a state becomes a vacuum from Western intervention, political violence (‘terrorism’) ensues.

The new atheists insist that Islam is the primary culprit.

Yet, on Islam, they’re simply following an Islamophobic trend in the West that calls to mind pre-Holocaust antisemitism in Europe. Just as Jews feared for their livelihoods during the resurging anti-Semitism in interwar Europe, today Muslims fear being attacked by Islamophobic bigots in the West.

Therefore, before espousing and vehemently defending anti-Islam attitudes, new atheists should be more discerning of which of the rabble’s biases they believe in.

Peter Crowley is an independent writer and scholar with a M.S. in Conflict Resolution, Global Studies from Northeastern University. He works as Content Specialist/Production Coordinator for a prominent library science company. For fun, he plays in bluesy rock band around the Boston/NYC area. His writings can be found in Boston Literary Magazine, Mondoweiss, Mint Press News, (several publications in) Wilderness House Literary Review, Dissident Voice, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy Journal, Truthout, Green Fuse Press, Antiwar.com, Rhinocerotic, Peace Studies Journal, Ethnic Studies Review (forthcoming), Libertarian Institute, Inquiries Journal and a periodical publication of the Brookline, MA Historical Society. Read other articles by Peter.