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.
Getty
Show Hide image

How Martin Lewis’s battle with Facebook could shake online advertising to its core

The consumer advocate is furious that his face is being used to sell scams. 

Facebook simply cannot catch a break – not that many people will feel at that sorry for it. This month the company is in the middle of dealing with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while also trying to make its service compliant with strict new EU data protection rules.

And now it’s having to deal with a lawsuit that could, in theory at least, threaten its entire business model. The challenge comes from consumer advocate and financial talking head Martin Lewis – no stranger to publicity – who is suing over the issue of his image in Facebook adverts linked to financial scams.

Adverts for these scams are one of the major sources of fake news across the internet, and Lewis is far from the only person to see his likeness used in them. The adverts are for an extremely high-risk and under-regulated form of trading known as “binary options”, which have seen numerous reports of people losing their life savings.

The extremely high-risk product, though, is often advertised as virtually (or entirely) risk-free, thanks to some formula devised by an expert – often accompanied by a convincing fake write-up by a trusted news network, such as the BBC or CNN. One such site even created a video faking an endorsement from the physicist Stephen Hawking to sell its services.

Lewis, then, has picked a good villain: he has every right to be angry that his image is being used to sell such scams, and a good case to make that it could be damaging to his reputation. He argues that despite the volume of adverts uploaded to Facebook, given their reputation for facial recognition and other technologies, they should easily be able to stop these adverts appearing at all.

This is where Lewis’s argument becomes somewhat simplistic: no level of facial recognition would let Facebook automatically fix the problem of placing adverts. Yes, Lewis may not lend his image to sell any financial product, but what if he was the keynote speaker at a conference? Or if a news outlet did an interview with him and wanted to promote it to help it attract views (a practice some outlets actually do)?

In the case of other public figures it gets trickier still: an environmental group may wish to use a picture of an oil company CEO as part of a Facebook advert, or campaign groups may wish to use pictures of politicians. Preventing all of this would effectively create a huge new right over use of likeness, to the detriment of free speech and free debate.

And yet Facebook’s current response – that it removes any misleading adverts if they are reported to it by users – feels lacklustre to the point of inadequacy. This becomes especially true given the strange plot twist following the publication of stories about Lewis’s legal challenge. In a tweet thanking outlets for the coverage, Lewis alleged that similar adverts were now appearing next to the articles in question, including on Sky News and the Guardian, asking them to “rectify this immediately”.

This highlights a huge issue for any site mainly or partially reliant on advertising – including this one – where many if not most of the adverts you see are determined by algorithm with no prior control or sight by any staff (editorial or commercial) before they’re seen by the public.

Sites can try to rule out adverts for certain types of product or services, or based on certain keywords, but such rules are patchy. The result is often that on numerous high quality journalism sites, the adverts can push dubious products, if not outright scams. At their most harmless, these are very low quality, ad-stuffed, celebrity listicles (‘18 celebrities you never realised were gay’). But then there are questionable sites offering help with PPI refunds – which can be got for far lower fees through official channels – and binary option scams.

Editors can and do try to get such adverts removed when their users alert them, but this needs to be done on an ad-by-ad basis and can be time-consuming. Oddly, thanks to the ad networks upon which they rely, news outlets find themselves facing the same problem as their oft-time rival Facebook

As a result, the high-quality media which is currently railing against, and trying to fight back against, fake news often finds itself at least partially funded by that self-same fake news.

If successful – and it’s likely to be a very long shot – Martin Lewis’s lawsuit could find that it radically breaks and reshapes the way not just Facebook advertising, but all online advertising. That would be a huge, perhaps existential, risk to many sites which rely on it. But given the threats posed by the current business model of the internet, many could be forgiven for feeling the risk might be one worth taking.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk