Let me get something straight before I start. I like Owen Jones, I really do, but there are some major aspects of his latest Independent piece that I strongly — yet respectfully — disagree with.
The title itself is unfortunately loaded. Sure, we can compare Islam to Judaism, but we can compare it also to a range of other religions, for which there is less sensitivity. In fact, considering our range of options, one has to question whether this says more about Judaism — and our difficulties separating the Hebrew people from the Jewish faith — than it does Islam. Yet, that aside, there’s a subtlety here: the proposition is not, “for Islam, read Judaism” it is “for Muslims, read Jews”. This is not as trivial a difference as it would initially seem. The ambiguous overlap of race and religion comes into view.
Imagine our alarm if nearly half the UK population said they believed that ‘there are too many Jews’
The problem with this statement, and the previously raised overlap, is it can be interpreted in two ways. It could be equivalent to:
Imagine our alarm if nearly half the UK population said they believed that ‘there are too many black people’
Alternatively, it could be interpreted as equivalent to:
Imagine our alarm if nearly half of the UK population said they believed that ‘there are too many Christians’
One is shocking; the other is little different to what atheists and rationalists have been saying for years. There are too many Christians. They should be atheists. In the same way, I’ll quite happily say: there are too many Muslims. There are too many Jews. There are too many Sikhs. There are too many Buddhists. There are too many Zoroastrians. There are too many Scientologists. They should all be rationalists.
If that sounds bigoted, consider that it is little different to the view of an evangelical Christian, who believes it is their duty to spread the word of God and convert people to Christianity. Few people would call that inherently bigoted. In the same way, it is not bigoted for rationalists to wish to spread the beautiful thing that is reality.
Back to the point: we have a problem. If I, as an outspoken atheist, criticise the Islamic belief system and its followers, there’s a bunch of people out there who are either going to:
- Take what I said as a criticism of middle-eastern people and label me a racist (false-relativist left), or
- Take what I said as a criticism of middle-eastern people and cheer me on (EDL)
On the other hand, there are times when I do feel compelled to defend Muslims, specifically when they are faced with:
- Unfair criticism and abuse (‘you’re all terrorists’). Simply because this is untrue.
- Hypocritical criticism (see: conservative Christians).
It annoys me how the right hold Muslims up as the spawn of Satan, but while we should defend them against that, it doesn’t mean that the Muslim religion should be elevated above criticism. For example, strands of the — otherwise typically feminist — left, will defend the rights of Muslim men to subjugate women, on the basis of cultural relativism. “It’s their culture, who are we to tell them what to do?” I don’t buy that. The right to practice your culture comes below the right not to be subjugated (and being party to your oppression does not make it okay). On the other hand, you’ve got people like the EDL who will criticise Islam for women’s and gay rights issues, yet don’t exactly support those issues themselves on any other day; they’re just a crutch to beat Muslims with. Plus, let’s be honest, despite their official line about it purely being a faith issue, their ranks are full of straight-up racists who are using the “anti-muslim” thing as a cover for general racism and xenophobia.
The far right has realised it can’t just go around saying bad things about people based on the colour of their skin anymore, so it’s switched to using religion as a proxy. Now, when we on the left dare not speak out against Islam, because people assume that we’re also using that same proxy; that we also hate people who don’t look like us. If we accept this though, we’re accepting the right’s terms once again. So we go on this relativist love affair with Islam while simultaneously throwing all our vitriol against Christians. So let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong about disliking and speaking out against bad ideas, and religions are just organised bad ideas. A belief in God is no more sacred, no more immune from challenge or ridicule, than a belief in a flat earth, or a magic dragon who lives in your garage.
To be a prominent Muslim means suffering a daily diet of bigotry and even outright hatred.
What does being a Muslim mean, though? It’s a choice. It’s a choice to believe take up a set of irrational and harmful beliefs. It’s a choice to join an organised religion that gives innocent children a disgusting book containing just as much rape, genocide, homophobia and subjugation of women as the Christian bible, if not more. Let’s be honest: if we hadn’t heard of the Quran before and someone started handing it out to kids, damn right we’d hate them. The exact same thing goes for the Bible and the Torah.
Before even the first book, genesis, is over, we’ve already covered the character Lot having incestuous sex with his daughters, all approved by God. If an atheist were to come out with anything similar, in a book they tried to get handed out in schools, they’d be given hell from the left. Yet, because it’s “not my views, it’s God’s views” suddenly the need for responsibility is absolved.
Think I’m exaggerating? Consider that the far-right’s main target of choice is no longer Jews or black people: it’s Muslims. The BNP portrays itself as a crusade against the “Islamification” of Britain; in the 2010 election, it launched a “Campaign Against Islam”. Its leader, Nick Griffin, describes Islam as “wicked” and a “cancer”, and has blamed Muslims for problems such as drugs and rape. The English Defence League stages frequent – and often intimidating – street rallies protesting against Muslims.
The thing is, I deplore the far right. I deplore its use of violence, and the underlying race hatred and xenophobia. I deplore their unfair and hypocritical attacks on Muslims. Yet, in amongst all that poorly-shielded race hatred, is one valid point (see: stopped clocks); that the Islamic faith, like any faith, is not a good thing. Faith is not a virtue; scepticism is. I have no hesitation in saying that I am not pleased by the spread of the Islamic faith in this country. This is an objection to the faith itself; not the people who practice it. In a country where we’re finally making some progress in educating people away from Christian superstition, it makes little sense to celebrate Islam. I have no problem with Muslims as people, just as I have no problem with Christians as people. I have no problem with Muslim immigrants coming here and bringing the positive aspects of their own culture to mix with the positive aspects of our own. I just don’t like their faith. I don’t like faith.
I know that all of the above could have quite easily have been written by an EDL member, thinly veiling underlying racism. But I can say the same with a straight face. I have no underlying racism or xenophobia; I deplore it. But I also deplore ignorance, including religion, and I’m not about to stop fighting the scourge of ignorance.
You want to tackle what you see as Islamophobia? Then stop seeing it as such. Force the right to stop hiding behind their proxy. Out them as the racists they are, but don’t accuse us rationalists of racism or anything else as we tear apart the Islamic belief system, along with every other religion. The attacks, the graffiti on mosques, all that — that’s not Islamophobia, it’s just thinly veiled racism. You don’t see sceptics torching mosques and we’re the greatest critics of the faith itself. The problem is a confusion of religion with race, and the use of unacceptable violence and intimidation. Making the problem out to be “Islamophobia” just masks all that.
So I don’t support the EDL or what they’re dong, but I do support challenging and speaking out against faith, rather than pretending it’s a good thing. If Britain had a large community of flat-earthers, we’d all either ridicule them as complete fools, or want to grab them by the collar and make them see reality. Yet, why is this any different with a group of people who believe in gods, angels, demons and magic, for which their is absolutely no evidence or rational justification? At least flat-earthism is relatively harmless. Religion, by contrast, is massively harmful; from biblical genocide to the subjugation of women and homophobia. Of course, when the EDL use this as a rod against Islam, we all know they’re not actually feminists themselves, they’re not going to a gay rights march afterwords. Yet again, I can say this with a straight face myself, because I am a feminist; I shouldn’t be seen as an “Islamist bigot” when I tell them I find the bigoted aspects of their religion disgusting.
I completely agree that the violence and threatening attitudes towards Muslim people are unacceptable, but we need to take a stand against them on the basis of anti-violence and opposing the underlying racism, not on the basis of acknowledging Islam as anything other than another superstitious belief system. Labelling it “Islamophobia” implies that there is something wrong with having a dislike of Islam. But that is simply untrue. Having a dislike of religion is healthy.
Update: The Thinking Atheist has a good article on Islamophobia, too.