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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.