Richard Dawkins, ‘Islamophobia’ and the atheist movement

This piece does not argue whether ‘Islamophobia’ is a valid term, but how atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have been confused, inconsistent and blundering in their attempts to talk about Muslims. Sam Harris’ writings last month contained a retrospective clanger that very few people picked up on. In a recent article Harris attempted to deconstruct the idea of Islamophobia:

 

“[Islamophobia] is, an ‘irrational’ and ‘disproportionate’ and ‘unjustified’ focus on Muslims. But the only way that Muslims can reasonably be said to exist as a group is in terms of their adherence to the doctrine of Islam. There is no race of Muslims. They are not united by any physical traits or a diaspora. […] The only thing that defines the class of All Muslims – and the only thing that could make this group the possible target of anyone’s “irrational” fear, “disproportionate” focus, or “unjustified” criticism – is their adherence to a set of beliefs and the behaviours that these beliefs inspire. So ‘Islamophobia’ must be – it really can only be—an irrational, disproportionate, and unjustified fear of certain people, regardless of their ethnicity or any other accidental trait, because of what they believe and to the degree to which they believe it.”

 

Sam Harris who wrote in defense of profiling barely a year ago, an article in which he suggested: “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.” In response to an avalanche of criticism, he elaborated further: “To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behaviour in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest.” The author makes a point of showing the irony of this in that Muslims are the most racially diverse religious group in America.

 

Whatever you choose to call this phenomenon, it’s clear that there’s a line between criticism (and/or ridicule) of Islam, and bigotry against Muslims. Yet as the author describes, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have blundered into that line with an alarming degree of recklessness. None of that alters the point that inflammatory, irrational and blundering attacks by privileged white male atheists against Muslims of all stripes achieve little more than book sales.

Islamophobia and Its Discontents

Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.

People who believe that Islamophobia is a fiction are fond of pointing out that Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity. Islam is a set of beliefs and customs. And in a free society, one ought to be able to criticize all kinds of ideas without fear of being labeled hateful toward Muslims. The late Christopher Hitchens declared that “Islamophobia” was a “stupid neologism” because it “aims to promote criticism of Islam to the gallery of special offenses associated with racism.” Sam Harris, the bestselling author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, wrote that “apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as ‘Islamophobia.’” He continued, “There is no such thing as Islamophobia…. It is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”

Do critics actually read the Koran?

Ramadan is upon us – a time of fasting, charity, prayer…and fighting off Islamophobia. Norweigian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik killed 76 innocent people in a demented campaign to destroy Islam. Comedian Bill Maher recently called the Koran a “hate-filled holy book.” Evangelical atheist Sam Harris insists, “on almost every page the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise non-believers .” And Peter King continues his anti-Muslim campaign to become the 21st century Senator McCarthy.

So here’s the $1 million question: Do critics actually read the Koran?

Well, consider our American leaders as an example. On the surface, Thomas Jefferson, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama might seem vastly different in policy. But, these presidents have each read the Koran.

Jefferson, a Founding Father, valued his personal Koran. Bush, a conservative Republican, called the Koran “a very thoughtful gift.” Obama, a Democrat who is not a Muslim, studied the Koran, even as a child. Jefferson, Bush, Obama—why not follow their example?