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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage