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“Atheists Ignore Islamophobia at their Peril” by Chris Stedman

30 August 2012 General 4 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

by Chris Stedman (Religion Dispatches)

When I first heard that a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a few weeks ago, I froze. My stomach lurched and my thoughts turned to the friends I’d made in the Sikh community through my work as an atheist and interfaith activist.

In the wake of the horror I reached out to friends directly and logged on to Twitter to express my shock, outrage, disgust, and sadness—as a Millennial, I suppose you could say this is one way I engage in the collective processing of such traumas. Within minutes of my first tweet, I began to get responses from other atheists saying that interfaith work is bad, that I should be more concerned about atheists than Sikhs, and that “religion poisons everything.” The next day, I was called “a traitor” when I tweeted about efforts to raise funds to rebuild a mosque in Joplin, Missouri that was burned to the ground. When I tweeted about reaching out to the Sikh community and expressing solidarity, I was accused of trying to make atheism a religion.

And I wasn’t alone in facing such criticism. When skeptic blogger Kylie Sturgess wrote a post about the Joplin mosque she was called “a terrorist” by a commenter.

Of course, it’s hardly reasonable to be concerned solely on the basis of comments made by Internet “trolls.” Unfortunately, there are worrying indicators that public figures in the atheist movement are perpetuating and enabling a hostile stance toward Muslims—in many cases, above and beyond the criticisms they direct at other religious communities. One of the most widely-known atheists in the world, Bill Maher, for example, is alarmed by the number of babies being named Mohammed in the U.K., and said the following of Muslims and Islam: “What it comes down to is that there is one religion in the world that kills you when you disagree with them. They say, ‘Look, we’re a religion of peace and if you disagree we’ll cut your fucking head off.”

In December of last year, the president of American Atheists posted a status update to his public Facebook profile that read: “Never give up a right without a fight. I will defame Islam if I want to. It doesn’t mean I hate Muslims. It means Islam is a shitty religion that worships a pedophile as morally perfect.” When I expressed my concern about those comments, atheist blogger JT Eberhard wrote the following:

Islam is a shitty religion (more shitty than most, and try me if you don’t think we can defend that statement) and Muhammad was a pedophile, which has resulted in several Muslims continuing the practice. If Chris doesn’t like the word “shitty”, I wonder what adjective he would suggest. Horrible? Morally repugnant? Should we greet the anti-science, morally fucked up religion of Islam with an, “Oh shucks, that is pretty anti-humanity and doesn’t make much sense now does it?” How softly would be enough to get Stedman to relinquish his iron-clad grip on his pearls?  Frankly, to call Islam shitty is like calling the surface of the sun warm.

Later in the post he claimed to just be “factually criticizing” Islam and Muslims, but even if that were his aim, several of the claims he put forth about Islam and Muslims were not only false, but were framed in a way that is likely to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment. Another example is Ernest Perce V, the Pennsylvania State Director for American Atheists, notorious for a lawsuit resulting from his depiction of “zombie Muhammad” (the judge, who called Perce “a doofus” and ruled against him, was forced to relocate shortly after the ruling due to safety concerns over threats made against him). Perce has also made several statements that have inflamed anti-Muslim attitudes in Pennsylvania—his latest being that he plans to publicly flog a Koran on the Pennsylvania state capitol steps next month in protest of a state resolution to name 2012 the “Year of Religious Diversity.”

There is No Such Thing as Islamophobia

While these issues have been the subject of debate in segments of the atheist movement for some time, events this month have got me thinking about a new aspect of this issue: the problem of silence. As the Sikh community reeled from the tragedy in Oak Creek and prominent figures from a plethora of religious communities reached out to express their solidarity and sympathy, I was surprised that I didn’t see more notable atheists speak up. Browsing some of the most trafficked atheist blogs I saw that they posted little or nothing about the shooting—until Pat Robertson blamed atheists for the tragedy, an accusation that a sizable majority of atheist websites then addressed.

RationalWiki, an atheist wiki featuring a newsfeed and articles like “Atheism FAQ for the Newly Deconverted,” contained no mention of the Sikh shooting, but it did list an instance where a Florida door-to-door salesman was shot, and noted the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. PZ Myers, who is among the most visible atheist bloggers in the world, did write about the shooting twice, though one of his posts simply referenced the shooting as a way to condemn America’s “gun culture,” while the other focused on Pat Robertson’s comments. (Most of the more than 35 other dedicated bloggers on Freethought Blogs—a massive atheist blog network he co-founded—didn’t address it at all.)

But while this silence is deeply troubling, I don’t want to suggest that, like some of those mentioned earlier, the atheist community at large necessarily has an Islamophobia problem—or that legitimate criticisms of Islam (or any other religions) constitutes Islamophobia. The problem, I think, lies in a lack of sensitivity to or awareness of the rampant Islamophobia sweeping our society. A key offender in this respect is bestselling atheist author Sam Harris.

The day after the shooting in Wisconsin, Harris published a lengthy blog post decrying Internet trolls; bizarrely, though, he included yet another defense of his position that Muslims should face extra scrutiny at airports. He and I engaged in a back-and-forth about this issue earlier this year after he wrote a post where he first argued that “we should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.” In my response, I challenged his claims that talk of Islamophobia is “deluded” and that “there is no such thing as Islamophobia.” He responded, but largely neglected my concerns about Islamophobia.

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Original post: Atheists Ignore Islamophobia at their Peril

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4 Comments »

  1. atheist ignore islam at their own peril.

    Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57:

    Narrated ‘Ikrima:

    Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.’”

  2. damn, does this guy get paid by the word. if you clink on the read more link he just keeps going on and on. atheist shouldn’t hate anyone of any religion, as long as they don’t mean to impose their dogma on the society as a whole. see that is the problem with islam. it’s lack of seperation of religion and state. as any muslim will tell you, islam is “all encompassing”. it is by definition a form of governance. and that should be rightfuly feared. it may be able to co-exist as a minority, but if it is the majority it means to impose it’s will on all. there is no liberty under sharia. it should be feared. not that that is a phobia, but a rational fear.

  3. I think it will in the end lose the protection of a religion and be expelled as an undesirable form of governance. The world has outgrown theocracy and the muslims will have to catch up.

  4. muslims are always saying good things about atheists

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