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.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.