Deep Rifts 2.0 is about the division between regressive and progressive sides of the atheist and skeptic communities. Before this rift, one notion popular in atheist communities was that we were the free thinkers who arrived at our beliefs by reason and observation, while our opponents – the theists – believed what they were told like mindless obedient dogmabots. It’s a nice idea for atheists – in a society that despises us, we get to feel superior to the mainstream in some respect. Since the rift though, some of us have used this against our atheist opposites. What sense does that make? Where is this dogma codified? Who is walking in lockstep, refusing to question our dear leaders? This casts a lot of doubt on the original premise as used against theists, which is a loss for all of us.
I’m not going to mirror my atheist opposites’ mistakes and claim they are a monolith, even though their beliefs line up better with the unjust status quo of the USA. I’m just going to keep poking holes in this ridiculous meme. The progressive side of the divide is not a monolith. We have our disagreements, and these are not small ones. Some of us continue to work with or promote people like Richard Dawkins, some have joined in the masses ridiculing his ignorance and his strange grudge against Rebecca Watson. Some of us want to find common cause with theists to promote the secularism that can protect us all, some want to keep eviscerating the foundations of faith at the expense of potential allies. Some of us don’t have a decided stance on one more of these essential issues, and some people who generally come down on the progressive side are professional fence riders. All of this can be found within one blog network – Freethoughtblogs – if you look long enough. On the common cause vs. evisceration issue, you can find dischord even within the A+ forums, and I am personally riding that fence at the moment.
One of these important areas of dispute – and the topic of this post – is the legitimacy of the term “islamophobia.” On one side, there are people like Taslima Nasreen and Maryam Namazie, who have personally experienced the hardship of cultures dominated by political islam and the capitulation of European liberals to islamist demands, and on the other side are people like Ed Brayton who have seen the climate of fear and violence muslims have to live with in the USA. (Articles against the use of the term here and here, in favor here and here.) And I’m certain there are others who are undecided about this issue. I can understand the confusion and difficulty in deciding how to respond to this, but I have a position, and unsurprisingly it is the same as the other white guy I mentioned. But allow me to both qualify and justify that…
I have been told that I should not, as a privileged party, criticize the political stances taken by the oppressed. If that is true and those stances are wrong, it would be best for the oppressed person to be criticized by someone in their own situation. This is, I think, a good ideal, even if it is not always possible in practice. To that end, I want to make clear that Maryam and Taslima are in a far better position to judge the religion whose defenders have directly oppressed them, to judge the situation in their parts of the world (a sad turn of phrase for Taslima, sorry) than I am. They may be right regarding the use of “islamophobia” in Europe by agents of theocracy and their fake progressive political allies, and I will not claim that what follows is applicable outside of my (stolen) part of the world.
But they cannot know the truth of my culture as well as I or Ed Brayton can. Personally, I know islamophobia is real because I am a motherfucking islamophobe. You can’t read my mind to tell me that I am not. I am as islamophobic as I am racist – that is to say, I do not want to be either of those things, but implicit bias is working against that intention.
What do I mean by islamophobia here and how can I tell it is distinct from racism? Islamophobia is a prejudice against muslims based not on race, but on their faith & culture. Certainly most islamophobes are also racist, but not all. I can suss out the truth in my own feelings – my racism is mainly against black folks. Those feelings are not stirred by middle eastern people, but a different and interesting feeling is. I will feel a sense of relief if such a person says they are not a muslim. Why is that?
In my feelings – in my biases – I regard islam as different from and worse than other religions, as a faith that makes its adherents dangerous or threatening. Maryam and others will argue that this is true – islam is, to them, worse than other religions. But if you ask an atheist, a feminist, a queer person from the wrong parts of the USA how they feel about christianity, you will get the exact same response. It would be false to say that anywhere in the USA is quite as bad as the worst areas of the world’s islamist theocracies, but an FLDS compound can be as hot for baby raping as the Ayatollah – to go with a more extreme example. All around us in the USA are profound examples of how fundamentalist christians seek the same goals as islamists and – not content to oppress people in their homeland – influence governments from Africa to Russia to push the same antihuman agenda. Everything islamists are doing now has been done by christians,
And conversely, every position held by moderate or progressive christians is held by some moderate or progressive muslims. I’ve personally spoken with muslims who were in favor of gay and trans rights and unequivocally condemned murder and terrorism. The abrahamic holy books all equally advocate brutal misogyny, genocide, and more. The way they are “interpreted” (selectively ignored) are down to personal taste and culture in the same way. So where is the evidence that islam is uniquely harmful? It comes down to nothing but numbers. There is almost certainly a greater proportion of muslim theocrats and terrorists than christians, but you cannot extricate that from world history without a lot of handwaving. If Rome was sunni and Riyadh lutheran, you have to admit this proportion would be neatly upended. As it stands, you can get your head cut off or your family murdered by fundamentalists of any faith, so what is gained by singling out one religion for special criticism?
I can tell you exactly what is gained by singling out Islam in America. In my home and my culture, muslims really are victims of persecution. If I add to that while decrying the persecution of atheists, I become a colossal hypocrite. Some will say that islamophobia is not real, and that attacks on those perceived as muslim are motivated purely by racism. To that I reiterate my point above – I know that my emotional bias is against muslims and not brown people, because I am unreservedly fond of Middle Eastern and Indian atheists and skeptics. But there’s another obvious counterpoint someone just mentioned to me: Islamophobia is extremely similar to anti-semitism.
Both islamophobia and anti-semitism have a strong racial component. Islamophobes and anti-semites will often – but not always – have a notion of what a muslim or jew looks like, and treat the perceived enemy worse. However in both of these cases, if someone previously perceived as “safe” is revealed to be the “enemy,” they will also receive this scorn – for example, a small nosed blonde person with straight hair being discovered as jewish, or an African American or white person one was assuming to be christian revealing they are a muslim.
Also, islamophobes and anti-semites both have strange and false ieas about what muslims and jews actually believe. There can be a basis in fact for some of these misapprehensions (some terrorists are motivated by the weird virgin promise which actually does appear in islamic texts) but the islamophobe will be quick to exaggerate, distort, or over-apply the idea (“Every single muslim thinks that if they kill an american they’ll get a hunnerd five year olds to rape in heaven! Sez right in that koe-ran, I tell ya whut!”). Due to historical factors jewish people are disproportionately found among the very wealthy, but that quickly turns into, “No jew ever had to die in ‘Nam!” and so on.
Anti-semitism has a more deeply rooted and insidious history than islamophobia in the west, but islamophobia has been there since the Dark Ages, waiting for a properly motivated propaganda tool like Fox News to come into its own. It’s in America now and it is real here. Denying that empowers bad people, the same as ignoring any other axis of oppression.
That’s my take on things, and I could be wrong. Also, the judaeo-christo-islamic god is a big sack of shit, and abdicating your moral agency to its supposed dictates is foolish and evil. Make of that what you will.