Elements of this post have been bubbling up in my head for some time now. Well the bubble finally erupted to the surface.
I expect we've all heard by now of the murder of three Muslims, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. First and foremost, let me say that my thoughts are, as any decent person's should be, with the family and friends of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. To lose three loved ones at the same time is tragedy enough. To lose them in such a fashion can only, I suspect, be worse, and to lose them at such a young age, with almost their entire lifetimes ahead of them, worse yet.
The murders were, ostensibly, over a parking space. I say 'ostensibly' because, frankly, I don't believe it. I thoroughly believe that such an argument may have been the tipping point, and may well go down as the official cause, but life, and sadly all too often death, is never that simple.
The murderer, Craig Hicks, is apparently an atheist and a secularist, of the vocal sort; a reader of and, it seems, a participant in at least some forums pertaining to those subjects. I trust we can all join the dots, yes? Given the sort of rhetoric one sees in some places, by some people, on the topic of Islam and Muslims, well I find it extremely hard to discount the idea that there may have been more to this than a mere argument over a parking space.
While remembering that the parking space may, just possibly, have been the only cause, the rest of this article will be written under the assumption that Hicks was in large part motivated by a hatred of Muslims.
It would be tempting, I suppose, to pull a No True Scotsman, but that would be dishonest. Certainly no true secularist would do such a thing. Hicks himself may think of himself as a secularist, but secularism is not a religion and its principles are not open to interpretation. To quote the NSS:
Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.
Anyone who thinks that people of any particular religion are worthy of death, or indeed, of unequal treatment, based on their beliefs, is, quite simply and by definition, not a secularist, any more than a disbeliever in Christ could be a Christian.
It would be impossible, though, to honestly make any No True Atheist claim for Hicks. Just as a Christian or Muslim murderer is a Christian or a Muslim by virtue of their own belief in Christ or the teaching of Mohammed, notwithstanding the protestations of less violence-prone believers, so Hicks either believes in a god or he doesn't. If he doesn't, he's an atheist, again by definition.
And there's all that rhetoric I mentioned, isn't there. There's a name for it, though some people don't like it, and try to claim that it doesn't exist. Islamophobia. The irrational hatred and/or fear of Islam and/or Muslims. Well I hate to burst people's bubbles, but yes it bloody well does exist, and is a worldview held by sadly far too many atheists and self-described secularists. And here comes that rhetoric…
Firstly, there's the 'You must believe it 'cause it's in the Qur'an' bullshit. A bad argument if ever I've seen one, and it comes, I think, from a basic lack of understanding of what topic is being argued.
If you're confronted by a fundamentalist who claims that every word of their holy book is the literal, unchanging truth, then yes; pointing out immoralities in the holy book in question, and saying 'In that case, you must believe this, and are therefore defending immorality,' is a legitimate argument.
But when faced with people who have made no such claim—i.e. the majority of religious people, including Muslims—the argument is not only useless, but dishonest, as it flies in the face of all the evidence that they quite plainly don't follow that immoral practice or even try to defend it. You are arguing against the strawman of what you want the believer to believe, rather than against what they actually do believe.
Then there's the far too common willingness, even eagerness, to conflate 'Islamist' with 'Muslim.' The first is, roughly speaking, a person who desires and/or works to make an Islamic theocracy, either over their own country or the world. The second is a person of the Islamic religion. At the risk of pointing out the bleedin' obvious, while all Islamists are Muslims, not all, by far, Muslims are Islamists. (And on a note of personal frustration: this conflation, deliberate or not, has become so widespread that I find myself going three times round the block in order to avoid the use of the use of the word 'Islamism,' as I can no longer be sure that I won't be perceived as being bigoted even if my usage is correct. Thanks, arseholes, for poisoning that well.)
Then there's what I think of as the 'All Muslims are terrorists' argument, in which the actions and words of the most radical Islamists are taken to represent the views of all Muslims everywhere. On a factual level, plainly bullshit. But it's also hypocritical as hell. No one claims that the Westboro Baptist Church represent Christians everywhere. While anti-Semites of all religious and non-religious stripes surely do exist (and, scarily, seem to be increasing in number and/or visibility), no one with half a brain actually thinks that all Jews are represented by hard-line Haredim. But mention the word 'Muslim' and all of a sudden far too many people are willing to tar all with the brush of extremism.
Atheist thinky-leader and professional arsehole Sam Harris, and far too many others, seem to think that targeting Muslims for profiling at airports and other places where security theatre is rife, is fine and dandy. How do you profile a Muslim in an on-the-spot situation?, you may ask. Well, they all look like Arabs or Indians, right…? 'Scuse me while I point out that (a) this is racist and (b) it's stupid. The racism aspect is, I hope, obvious. The stupidity lies in the fact that it assumes that a Muslim terrorist organisation isn't going to immediately recruit a white, European-looking person, who will stroll right past security while they are busy racially profiling the three families of Hindus who preceded them in the queue. But hey, if it helps demonise Muslims, it's all good, right?
'Islamification,' of western countries, we are told, is a work well in progress. 'They' (the Muslims living in 'our' societies) want us all, we are supposed to believe, to be ruled by Shariah law. Which not only grossly misrepresents the views of most Muslims, but detracts from the very horrible point that the actual victims of the worst aspects of Shariah are themselves Muslims. Not only does the rhetoric employed when talking of Muslims in the west often border on racism, or so closely mirror the rhetoric of racists that it makes little difference, but it harms, by dint of derail, the cause we should be espousing; that of helping victims. If we make it all about what 'they' allegedly want to do to 'us,' Muslim members of our society are ostracised to an out-group and those very real victims—those Muslim members of our society—who are being harmed are thrown under the bus of what looks, all too often, like a bigoted anti-immigration agenda.
[Side-point: you want to know how to produce more Muslim radicals in the West? Keep on ostracising Muslim members of our societies, and demonising them as if they were already radicals of the worst sort. Newton's third law will quickly apply.]
And talking of the most common victims of Muslim immorality—Muslims—it should be obvious to anyone that, contrary to the 'All Muslims believe exactly the same things because it says so in the Qur'an' argument I mentioned earlier, the fact that the victims of Islamist groups like ISIS are virtually all Muslims themselves should, to anyone with a working brain, lead to some pondering as to whether there might just be the occasional disagreement amongst Muslims regarding the interpretation of Islamic lore and scripture.
In the press, Islamophobia is fed by mostly small stories of a 'them and us' nature, some half true and some made up from whole cloth. And even the true stories are often skewed. The Muslim-iness of criminals, for instance, who happen to be Muslims, is highlighted where such would never happen if the criminals were Christian, and while never once is it pointed out that their religious beliefs have little or nothing to do with their criminal activities.
The people who come out with all this can be very hard to argue against. Islamophobia, like a lot of other bigotry, is seldom completely open. It's often couched in dog-whistles, a turn-of-phrase here, a conflation which could be attributed to 'loose speaking' there. Object and they'll strongly deny, by virtue of careful phrasing, that they could possibly mean anything but the most over-simplistically literal meaning of their own words. 'Islam is not a race,' they'll shout, whilst treating it in exactly the same way that racists treat race. 'Send 'em all home,' 'Don't let 'em in,' 'They're out-breeding us!'
And this, whether we like it or not, is the sea that the murderer Hicks has been swimming in. It is where, we should be honest enough to admit, he has formed his views or had them confirmed, applauded and boosted; treated as respectable by far too many people, instead of being loudly and vociferously dismissed. Some of us have tried to clean that sea up—to rid it of the pollution of barely-disguised bigotry—but there can be no denying that Islamophobia is present in too much atheist discourse, as it is present in the discourse of too many Christian communities.
This should be a wake-up call, if one was needed. We are not immune to irrationality, to biased thinking, to bad arguments or bigotry, just by virtue of having decided that there is no god; but if we wish to earn the moral high ground which many already smugly claim for us on the basis of us having made that one easy step, then we should admit that we can, should and need to do better.
Maybe next time you determine that all Muslims are savages because some of them engage in terrorist violence, you should stop and think about how you like being judged by the example of the atheist who murdered Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. I don't think you're going to be able to forget that, because I guarantee you that every anti-atheist from now on will be throwing the terrorist violence of this killer in your face, just as every Muslim has had 9/11 pinned on them.
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