01 September 2011

My Problem: Atheism, Liberalism, and Muslim Extremists

I'm a fairly liberal guy. So when I see the rampant islamaphobia on the part of many conservatives, I am disgusted. The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of religion, but for many conservatives there seems to be a quiet addendum - "except for Muslims." Now, I'm not saying that the whole conservative movement wants to ban Islam, only that a vocal minority (e.g. Pamela Gellar) and a vicious echo chamber conspire to turn a common and mild fear of the "other" into hyped-up worries about the imposition of sharia law on Americans and other nonsense. It perpetuates the climate of paranoia that has proven so harmful to America lately.

But on the other hand, I'm also an atheist, who believe that religion in general has tended to do more harm than good in the world. At one time, Christianity was the channel for a wave of misogyny, racism, and class oppression throughout Europe, not to mention thousands of pointless sectarian conflicts. Today, Christians are diverse enough and have managed to begin ignoring the Old Testament to a sufficient degree that it is much less harmful, although I still think convincing people to dedicate their lives to a delusion and have sex without condoms is a fairly sad thing.

As a result of these two positions, I occasionally run into the tricky matter when it comes to modern Islam. I am in the difficult position of believing that everyone should have absolute free expression of their religion, while simultaneously thinking everyone should also probably just knock it off. This isn't ordinarily a problem, because there are many things that I think are silly or wrong even though I also think they should be legal. For example, I think it's creepy for a 70-year-old guy to marry a 20-year-old girl - but it should still be legal. Then there are days like today, when I read through the news and the old familiar pattern leaps out at me.

From the AP:
A Kosovo Albanian man confessed Wednesday to killing two U.S. airmen at the Frankfurt airport, saying in emotional testimony at the opening of his trial that he had been influenced by radical Islamic propaganda online.
From CNN:
The Nigerian Islamic militant group Boko Haram says it bombed U.N. offices in Abuja last week because the world body is a partner "in the oppression of believers," a spokesman for the group said Wednesday.
From the NYT:
At least 10 people were killed Wednesday in Quetta, in southwestern Pakistan, when an explosion struck a crowd in a parking lot near a Shiite mosque, police officials said.
Day after day, Muslim extremists around the world are killing people.

Now, I'm aware that there is some bias here. Many of the power centers of Christianity are in affluent and stable first-world countries, while many of the power centers of Islam are in poor and conflicted second-world and third-world countries; children of war are radicalized. Additionally, the Anglophone community tends to like news that reinforces their worldview, and so media organizations tend to report such items more prominently. To some extent, this governs the frequency of these news reports. I know that the trend I see is not necessarily representative of the full facts.

But I am equally aware that, particularly as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it would be asinine of me to try to pretend that there aren't more Muslim extremists in the world than any other kind of extremist. And they are killing people. So what do I do?

Do I condemn Islam itself for having a tendency to spawn violent extremists? Because while I think that's true, I also think that Christianity has a tendency to spawn violent extremists - the difference is just that Christians as a group are wealthier and empowered at the moment.

It's a problem.

If I join in the chorus, I'm helping in some small way to contribute to a climate of hate that's just making things worse by building ignorant opposition to foreign nations, blindly supporting Israel no matter their actions, and segregating and stigmatizing a harmless American minority whose rights deserve protection.

But on the other hand, extremist Islam deserves to be opposed with as much rhetoric as I can muster, because it is convincing a legion of Muslims around the world to kill and die in the name of an absurd ideology. I can't honestly say that I don't think Islam is a threat - even if I immediately add, "And so is Christianity."

Frequently, I just stay quiet.  I don't want to defend a xenophobic culture of prejudice, and I don't want to defend an institution whose suras demand violence in the same backwards way that Leviticus does.  But my silence is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.  I am starting to feel like I should be defending neither, and attacking both.  Is there a contradiction in that?  It's something to work out.


  1. While I ostensibly understand your position, I see a big problem with your last paragraph, mostly this: "...I don't want to defend an institution whose suras demand violence in the same backwards way that Leviticus does."

    While it does describe in very harsh terms the punishment awaiting infidels in the afterlife, the Qur'an specifically instructs Muslims not to harm non-believers. I know this because I read the Qur'an last winter out of curiousity. I honestly can't remember a single sura that ordered believers to harm anyone, but I do remember explicit instructions to the contrary. Therefore, "Islamic" radicalism is a complete departure from Islamic teachings.

    The Bible, on the other hand, is actually quite a bit more violent and intolerant than the Qur'an. Here's an NPR piece about just that:


    The scholar in this article states that calls to violence in the Qur'an are usually in self-defense, while the Bible has passages that openly encourage genocide, often in words from "God"'s mouth.

    I'm with you--I'm an atheist--but the orthodoxy in Western discourse of Islam as being somehow more violent than Christianity is just plain not backed up by facts.

  2. I will admit that laying the blame wholly on the Qu'ran might be unwarranted, as the Hadith and later interpretations might have more to do with it. But it also is fairly clear that the Qu'ran permits domestic violence - 4:34 is fairly infamous for this, and any contextual arguments seem as strained as any Christian apologist's have ever been. The Qu'ran advocates death for apostates many, many times over, of course, but also 2:191 argues that war is justified for persecution and should continue until religion is for Allah. This is amongst a host of other verses calling for various sorts of defensive wars, but there are so many and the circumstances are so vague for their justification that it's not surprising that they lead to people believing in jihad. And of course the Qu'ran legitimized slavery, class distinctions, and other evils.

    Basically as I see it, the more Muslims ignore the Qu'ran, the better. It was a great series of moral lessons in its context at the time of its release, but not any more. I do agree that the Old Testament is way worse than the Qu'ran, though, on that front.

  3. "And of course the Qu'ran legitimized slavery, class distinctions, and other evils."

    Could you give me some examples?

  4. There are a variety of verses that mention slavery, but a good example is 24:58, proclaiming that slaves should ask permission three times before coming into their master's presence, and 33:50, which speaks of how slaves are spoils of war given by Allah.

    Other evils might be antisemitism, (various, but 4:46 "Allah has cursed them for their unbelief") or sexism (various, but 4:11 dictates how men should inherit twice as much as women).

    I can't find the examples for class distinction, but as I recall there are verses detailing how Muslims need not honor treaties or contracts with disbelievers if they feel persecuted.

  5. My issue is that the central thrust of early Islam is creating a just and equitable society for all...it was really the first great socialist experiment. I urge you to read Karen Armstrong's "Islam: A Short History." I really do feel that Islam is, in total, a progressive force in human history, even though it's become a very dark and repressive thing in the modern world.