New Atheism should be able to criticise Islam without being accused of Islamophobia

The atheist community is right to pursue rational, civilised debate, and should be able to do so without being tarred as bigots.

For a community that is often portrayed as aggressive and pugitive, New Atheism has recently been on the backfoot, defending itself from claims dreamt up by those who should – and, surely, in many cases do – know better.

This time round, the scientific and intellectual elite of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have found themselves accused of Islamophobia. The whole sorry saga was conveniently summarised in last Friday’s Independent. In short, recent pieces at salon.com and on Al Jazeera’s website have argued, in the words of columnist Murtaza Hussain, that the likes of these prominent atheists are giving a veneer of scientific respectability to today’s Islamophobic bigotry.

Sam Harris is accused of advocating pre-emptive nuclear strikes on Muslims and the profiling of those who merely look like Muslims. Richard Dawkins has come under attack from calling Islam “the greatest force for evil today” and the late Christopher Hitchens has been described as having a bloodlust towards Muslims.

But, sadly, nuance and allegations of bigotry make strange bedfellows. Take Sam Harris. His 2003 book End of Faith catalogues the Qur’an’s long list of orders to murder and exhortations to avenge. He imagines a radical Islamist state acquiring long range nuclear weaponry, thus able to vent its rage against the west. Add in the possibility that it’s headed by an avowedly suicidal regime and nuclear deterrence becomes a worthless currency. Harris anticipates the possibility that in that situation the US may find itself having to press the button first. But it’s a scenario he hardly welcomes.

Surely, rational discourse should be permitted to tiptoe cautiously along the hallowed corridors of the house of Islam without the guards frogmarching it out, bellowing allegations of racism and bigotry. Cannot we not agree that the real issue is whether the critiques of Islam proffered by today’s prominent atheists are correct? For instance, does Islam fall short when it comes to women’s rights? Does it trample free speech while enforcing its own precepts, by the sword if necessary? By all means, apologists may disagree with the likes of Harris and biologist Jerry Coyne. But what signal is sent by a refusal to permit the issues to be even debated?

One can dream up allegations about any religion that are so obscene that no beliver should be expected to respond. But take the suggestion that Islam has some way to go before it promotes gay rights beyond the level of a misnomer. Or that its holy book, taken literally, demands an embrace of violence and reprisals that wouldn’t be tolerated by any humanist ethos.

These allegations, on their face, are wholly consistent with observation. What’s more, its tenets and precepts have real consequences and repercussions for all of us. What is it that leads apologists and liberal writers to nevertheless consider that Islam shouldn’t have to answer these charges, and that those who bring them are merely dressing their bigotry in a cloak of intellectualism? Biologist Jerry Coyne puts it this way:

“Critics of the New Atheists are free to take issue with their tone, but to dismiss them without addressing the substance of their arguments constitutes an implicit admission that they just might have a point.” You can see his point. Plenty of Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Anglicans surely feel aggrieved when their god is put under the microscope and found to be the product of unintelligent design. They challenge both what is said and, increasingly these days, the way it’s said. But they hardly consider that their faith is immune from suitable criticism. For Islam to claim special treatment is to imply that it’s unable to withstand such analysis.

We are used to seeing Muslim spokespersons choosing the aftermath of a terrorist attack carried out in the Prophet’s name to practise mealy-mouthed equivocation at the price of heartfelt sympathy. Then again, many moderate Muslims are at the front of the queue deploring much that is done in the name of their faith.

We are under no compunction to pretend that the terrorist doesn’t exist any more than to deny the abundance of moderate Muslims. But the atheist community will not be bullied by lazy allegations of bigotry leveled against those who point that a religion that harbours such extremes has some explaining to do. Nor, thankfully, is Sam Harris. Within the last few days he has defended himself, explaining that religions that pose the greatest threat deserve to be analysed more carefully than others.

Of course, part of the difficulty here is a definitional one. Islam isn’t a race, so to accuse its detractors of racism should appeal to no-one bar those in need of an cheap jibe. Indeed, today’s New Atheism is no less critical of white Muslim converts than their Middle Eastern brethren.

And to resort to the tag “Islamophobia” is justified only if you adapt a bizarre definition of the word that is satisfied merely if the religion is held up to scrutiny, rather than its people being held up to prejudice.

But perhaps there’s another word for what today’s New Atheists have been saying. Maybe they’re just plain wrong.

Maybe.

But until civilised debate is permitted, perhaps we’ll never know.

 

Author Sam Harris, whose work is central to the Islamophobia allegations.
Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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