Blasphemy Is Not Racism
May 22, 2016
Preface: I’m an atheist who firmly believes that religion is false and mostly harmful. I escaped from a Christian fundamentalist childhood, and that was my “oppression”. I spent many subsequent years researching, criticizing, and attacking Christianity, including the Bible, the Jesus story, and various doctrines. Does this mean I’m bigoted against Christians? Of course not. I was one myself. Many of my family members and a few friends are Christians, and I love them. Criticizing ideas is not bigotry.
The following article calls out Islamic terrorism as primarily a product of Islamic religious doctrine. It’s over a year old, but I’ve been too afraid to publish it. My past public comments on this topic have resulted in accusations of bigotry and racism – from my feminist and progressive “allies.” However, recent encouragement to publish this has come from friends, former Muslims I’ve met, and from reading articles by other atheists, and reformist and ex-Muslims. Just today, Armin Navibi, an ex-Muslim and founder of Atheist Republic, gave me further encouragement, and I thank him.
This piece was originally written for my former monthly column at Rabble.ca in Jan 2015, a “progressive” political news site. They rejected it – the only submission from me they ever rejected. (They did eventually publish a different article that mostly avoided mentioning Islamic terrorism.) This draft represents a revised version that tried to answer their objections, which they still rejected. The final paragraph was just added today.
In the aftermath of the January 7, 2015 Paris massacre of staff at the magazine Charlie Hebdo, many people on the left slammed the publication for its "racist cartoons," while few explained how they arrived at that conclusion. The French magazine's humour was frequently coarse and not necessarily funny. But that's not a crime, it's just part of free speech.
I absorbed a great deal of media commentary on the tragedy, and it became clear that the intent and context of many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were lost on people unfamiliar with French politics. The cartoons usually have multiple layers and meanings, combining two or three different issues at once. For example, the magazine frequently skewers the racism and xenophobia of France's right-wing party, the National Front, often taking the satire to absurd lengths such as equating the party with Boko Haram.
In fact, Charlie Hedbo is a left-wing, atheist magazine that often satirizes religion through the lens of French politics. It frequently targets Christianity and Judaism too, not just Islam. Its satire of Islam focuses mostly on Mohammed, Islamic clerics, practices such as the Islamic oppression of women, and Islamic terrorists – not Muslims in general.
It seems the critics of Charlie Hebdo were confusing satire of religion with racism. But Islam is not a race – it's a religion. Muslims are not a race either. They are part of a religious community and belong to every nationality and ethnic group imaginable, including white westerners. If Muslims are associated with Arabs, that’s a western bias (and probably a racist one).The majority of Muslims actually live in South and Southeast Asia, while only 20 per cent live in the Middle East and North Africa. Silencing critiques of Islam with accusations of racism is itself racist, because it holds Muslims to a lower standard than the rest of us – it defines them by their religion as if they can’t help themselves, and it assumes that all Muslims are the same. It fails to acknowledge their diversity and humanity, and it abandons oppressed and persecuted groups within the Muslim world, such as liberals, atheists, gays, and women.
On a feminist listserv, I once critiqued the Muslim burka (full body cover) and niqab (face cover) as symbols of religious oppression of women and their sexuality. To my astonishment, I was roundly attacked as “racist.” But I have always supported the right of all women to wear whatever they want for whatever reason. Regardless of the various reasons individual women wear these garments today, their origin is patriarchal and their justification comes from Islamic doctrine. The burka and niqab were designed to hide women so that men wouldn’t be tempted by their sexuality – especially non-Muslim men or foreign invaders. The intended effect of these garments is not only to invisibilize women, but also to put the onus on women for controlling both their own and men’s sexual behavior, and to send the message that women are valued primarily for their modesty – which means that Islam is defining women by their sexuality from a male perspective. These are factual observations that have nothing to do with judging individual Muslim women for their choices, which are usually not about kowtowing to men.
I see a clear divide between blasphemy and bigotry. Blasphemy is a type of dissent or criticism against a god or religious doctrine, practice, or leader. Bigotry (or hate speech) disparages people based on an immutable or shared-group characteristic – colour, race, origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, family or marital status, and religion. Yet, it seems that many people don't understand the difference, so they equate criticism of Islam with bigotry against Muslims and call it “Islamophobia”. That’s alarming, because it’s quickly starting to resemble the right-wing definition of anti-Semitism – any criticism of Israeli government policies.
Of course, anti-religious satire occurs in a political and cultural context. But the reality today is that Islam has a strong radical minority that is engaged in a belligerent campaign that explicitly uses religious doctrine to justify violence. For example, despite all the western commentary about how the various sins of the French government and society were to blame for the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the only reason that the terrorists themselves gave for killing the cartoonists, as well as Al Qaeda which claimed responsibility, was to “avenge the Prophet.” If the killers were angry at the French government for oppressing Muslims for example, they could have targeted people in the government or even just the innocent public. But they didn’t – they specifically targeted cartoonists who made fun of their religion.
We’re in a clash of ideologies. The liberal western tradition of freedom of speech (however tarnished) is anathema to fundamentalist Islam. To make matters worse, dissent is impossible within an Islamic state, since religion and politics are inextricably wed, and blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death. Which means the main victims of radical Islam, by far, are other Muslims. A 2013 Pew Forum poll found that most Muslims don’t support terrorism, but that substantial minorities in some countries DO support it, while significant numbers – majorities in many countries – believe in the imposition of Sharia law and the death penalty for apostasy.
Christians and Jews have certainly been guilty of terrible atrocities in the name of their faith too. But in the case of Judaism, the worst of it occurred over 2000 years ago (or at least was bragged about in an extensive catalogue – read the Old Testament book of Joshua if you can stomach it), while the Enlightenment put an end to most Christian violence like the Crusades and the Inquisition. Yes, modern Israel is guilty of violence against Palestinians on the basis of religious entitlement, some “pro-life” Christians have been bombing abortion clinics and assassinating doctors for several decades now, and you can find recent examples of Buddhist and Hindu terrorism too. But it’s Islamic fundamentalism that is in global ascendancy right now.
The Institute on Economics and Peace found that: “Religion as a driving ideology for terrorism has dramatically increased since 2000.” And almost all of it is perpetrated by Islamic terrorists. In 2013, over 60% of terrorist incidents occurred in just five Muslim countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. Those same countries experienced 82% of global deaths due to terrorism, and four Islamist groups were responsible for 66% of those deaths in 2013: Al Qaeda and its affiliates, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Islamic State, and the Taliban. Another 21% of global terrorism deaths were caused by an assortment of other mostly Islamic groups. Further, out of nine organizations responsible for the most suicide attacks from 2000 to 2013, eight are Islamic (the ninth was Tamil Tigers) and the worst incidents all took place from 2008 onwards.
Religiously-motivated terrorism is only a subset of all terrorism, and one could argue that the United States and other western powers are guilty of political, state-sponsored terrorism. But there's a difference in intent, with western countries generally trying to avoid harming civilians, while Islamic terrorists make a point of it. Terrorism experts consider the phenomenon of “global terrorism” to be a recent one associated primarily with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, whose main goal is existential and religious – to impose Islam on the world through armed conflict. Those adhering to radical Islam take literally the scriptural references that glorify military jihad (as opposed to spiritual jihad). As a result, they commit extreme, attention-grabbing violence to avenge real or perceived wrongs. However, their objective is not primarily to retaliate against political wrongs, but to exploit those in order to establish a global Islamic Caliphate.
Factors such as the foreign policy and military imperialism of the U.S. and other western countries, and the social exclusion and discrimination experienced by immigrant Muslims in many countries, are no doubt contributing factors to terrorism. But those on the Left tend not to look past that.
Because even when Islamic terrorists cite political factors for their deadly deeds, they almost always cite the defense of their religion too, or the Prophet Mohammed, or their vision of a global Islam.
Most oppressed people do not “martyr” themselves in suicide attacks unless they’ve been promised 72 virgins in heaven. And it’s hard to mobilize terrorist armies without a potent ideology to attract and hold them. After all, there are many non-violent ways to address political grievances that the vast majority of citizens in the modern world now opt for. But that’s often not the case for religious extremists. Radical Muslims in particular draw inspiration for violence from belief in literal readings of the Koran and hadith doctrines, as well as religious/political indoctrination by radical Islamists or at Al Qaeda camps such as in Pakistan.
Further, terrorists motivated by religion choose to carry out particularly brutal types of retaliation that arise directly from their fervent religious beliefs. This makes religious terrorists much more dangerous than other types of terrorists, according to terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman:
“[R]eligious terrorist violence inevitably assumes a transcendent purpose and therefore becomes a sacramental or divine duty… Religion, moreover, functions as a legitimizing force, sanctioning if not encouraging wide scale violence against an almost open-ended category of opponents. Thus religious terrorist violence becomes…a morally justified, divinely instigated expedient toward the attainment of the terrorists’ ultimate ends. This is a direct reflection of the fact that terrorists motivated by a religious imperative do not seek to appeal to any constituency but themselves and the changes they seek…are only to benefit themselves. The religious terrorist moreover sees himself as an outsider from the society that he both abhors and rejects and this sense of alienation enables him to contemplate - and undertake - far more destructive and bloodier types of terrorist operations than his secular counterpart.”
Journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote this 2013 piece claiming that Islamic terrorism is motivated by political concerns and not Islam. I spent several hours researching his claims and found that of the seven examples he cites, religious reasons were the primary stated motivation in the first case, and were equal or key underlying motivations in the other six. (I’m happy to share my research with anyone interested.)
Sam Harris is a philosopher and atheist who has extensively criticized religion, primarily Christianity and Islam, and the bad behaviours that dogmatic belief can lead to. Harris has a response to “…liberal apologists who have been saying that their behavior [of the Islamic State] has nothing to do with Islam. Rather, we’re told that burning people alive in cages, crucifying children, and butchering journalists and aid workers is an ordinary human response to political and economic instability. Even representatives of our own State Department assert this. I can’t imagine how comically out of touch with reality we appear from the side of the jihadis.”
Harris has also said: “Religions differ, and their specific differences matter. And the truth is that Islam has doctrines regarding jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, etc., that pose a special problem to the civilized world at this moment in history. We deny this at our peril.” Unfortunately, Harris has been widely misinterpreted and unjustly attacked as “racist” (including by Greenwald) for his criticism of Islamic doctrines and their violent consequences (which, again, are mostly inflicted on “errant” Muslims). He has voiced his frustration thusly:
In any conversation on this topic, one must continually deploy a firewall of caveats and concessions to irrelevancy: Of course, U.S. foreign policy has problems. Yes, we really must get off oil. No, I did not support the war in Iraq. Sure, I've read Chomsky. No doubt, the Bible contains equally terrible passages. Yes, I heard about that abortion clinic bombing in 1984. No, I'm sorry to say that Hitler and Stalin were not motivated by atheism. The Tamil Tigers? Of course, I've heard of them. Now can we honestly talk about the link between belief and behavior?
This is a deeply complex issue with no easy answers. For example, blasphemy and dissent against religion can sometimes be mixed with bigotry against its adherents, and may be hard to pull apart. Some religious believers take slights against their faith very personally, so perhaps one could argue that a devout person's religious faith is a reflection of their personal identity, and that criticisms of their beliefs cross the line into personal attacks. But that can't be our legal yardstick. The bad reaction of some religious believers to critiques of what they hold sacred is actually a reflection of their own doubts and insecurities.
We are not obligated to treat Islam with kid gloves to avoid offending Muslims, or out of fear of being labelled “Islamophobic” (which is a false term, akin to being called “anti-Semitic” for criticizing the Israeli government). If we stay silent out of fear of instigating more terrorism, then we’re allowing fundamentalist religion to destroy our progressive values of free speech and critical inquiry.
To be clear, we must respect the right of religious believers to believe whatever they want, but we are under no obligation to respect their actual beliefs, especially when they inspire violent acts among a subset of believers. It should be remembered that Christianity and Islam in particular are proselytizing and conquering religions. When some of its adherents try to convert others or impose their religion on whole populations, they have placed their views in a public forum and we have every right – a crucial obligation even – to examine and critique what they believe.
Western liberals should respond to religious terrorism by strongly defending our modern secular societies and the democratic and Enlightenment values they are based on. For example, our immediate response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings should have been an act of defiant solidarity – the mass reprinting of the cartoons by media around the world. Instead, we mostly impugned the cartoons, the victims, and our own governments.
One of our key freedoms is the ability to use the tools of reason and science – as well as satire – to question traditional institutions and ideologies, including religion. It’s essential to preserving human rights and freedoms, which many fundamentalists and right-wing people ceaselessly try to destroy. The critique of any religion and its fruits is not “racist” or “Islamophobic.”
We must defend the right to blasphemy, not criminalize it, or silence ourselves out of fear or misplaced political correctness. Because doing so means excusing terrorism, and ignoring injustice in Muslim countries. It means abandoning women and oppressed minorities who live there, most of whom can’t speak out for fear of their lives. I’ve personally heard brave people like Armin Navibi, Ali A. Rizvi, Maryam Namazie, and Taslima Nasrin – former Muslims who used to live in such countries – ask westerners to please stand up for Muslims and rebut the “regressive leftists.” That’s a term coined by liberal Muslim Maajid Nawaz for people on the left who refuse to call out Islam even though it’s a primary motive for terrorism and oppression, mostly against people in Muslim countries. So I’m speaking up now. Because it’s not my comfortable life at stake, it’s theirs.