Are we “getting” Islam?

May 2nd, 2013 | Posted by:

A little more than two years ago, I invited Sean Faircloth to speak to members of the Yale and New Haven nonreligious communities. At the time, he was the executive director for the Secular Coalition of America, and he struck me as one of the most compelling and persuasive political advocates for issues such as Church-State separation and countering the religious right.[ref]I should note that my opinion hasn’t changed.[/ref] He’s since published a book, Attack of the Theocrats!, and joined the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science as the Director for Strategy and Policy.

Faircloth published a lengthy essay this morning, asking “Are liberals finally going to get it this time about Islam?” The idea being the (at this point somewhat familiar) refrain that liberals ought to condemn Islam; that beliefs are not deserving of respect or protection, but rather believers; that open criticism is necessary for liberalism; and so on. Faircloth pleads, “My fellow liberals: please stop ignoring reality.”

It’s worth noting that I largely agree with Faircloth here, but the small bit where we disagree matters a lot and largely colors our respective attitudes towards Islam. There’s a subtle shift in Faircloth’s language throughout the piece, and I think this is rather emblematic of this difference. Faircloth says:

If liberals can – with great vitriol – condemn the Christian Right (as they do constantly), then liberals can treat Islam like any other ideology — because Islam is just another ideology – like the Tea Party, like the Christian Right. Islam must be subject to the same rough and tumble of ideas as is any other ideology.

And this I think is the main problem. Faircloth doesn’t discuss liberal condemnation of “conservatism” or “Christianity,” as if they were unified and broad ideologies. He references specific and narrow branches—the far right Christian radicals like the Westboro Baptist Church, or the extreme mix of misguided libertarianism and Christian theology that is the Tea Party. Faircloth is right that liberals often, and ought to, condemn these ideologies. But notice how quickly his language broadens, and how easily specific language lapses into generic language. Faricloth references Islam, not as a diverse mix of ideologies that’s often as varied as its billion-and-a-half adherents, but as one, monolithic, unified thing. 

We can very easily and conveniently talk about how the Tea Party’s policies might be anti-women, but Faircloth goes too far by suggesting that, therefore, Islam, writ large, full stop, should be the proper target of our criticism, too. As if Islam, writ large, full stop, is a violent ideology that is anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-liberalism. Or that Islam, writ large, full stop, has been the cause of terrorist activities.

I’ve written before that one of the most blatant and troublesome aspects of Islamophobia[ref]Taken here in I guess the narrower sense—not as racism or general anti-muslim bigotry, but irrational prejudice against Islam and its adherents. I’m obviously not suggesting that all criticism of Islam is islamophobic or racist.[/ref] is that we generalize about Islam in a way we don’t with any other ideology or religion. It seems that any muslim can stand in for a radical (as we’ve seen with the FEMEN protests and Everybody Draw Muhammed Day); any behavior of a radical generalizes to the ideology of the moderates in a way that doesn’t hold in reverse (no one looks at peaceful or charitably acts by Muslims and goes on to say that they’re the result of Islam, even if they fit the same criterion Faircloth wants to apply in terms of “expressed religious motivations” following a “religious path that has become familiar”); and any behavior by radicals has to be swiftly and loudly denounced (whether or not you’re listening) by the moderates, or they’re somehow implicated in the action.

So I largely agree with Faircloth—we ought to, and very loudly, protest human rights violations by Islamic extremists. In fact, I don’t know many liberals who would disagree.[ref]I’m not interested in whether any liberal disagrees. I am sure that they exist. What I’m not convinced about is that they exist in large enough numbers to be seriously representative of what could meaningfully be called a liberal position.[/ref] But a failure to go and criticize Islam, writ large, full stop, is not moral cowardice on the part of liberals. It is not PC gone mad. And that’s I think where Faircloth gets it wrong.

It’s telling that there are only two groups of people who blame 9/11 on Islam—far right Christians and a certain brand of atheist. Few political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, liberals, or anyone else studying religion, really,[ref]I literally know of none. I say “few” to simply have some buffer, but I don’t want to understate how really rare a position this is among any serious scholar who has looked at religion and politics.[/ref] says “Islam caused 9/11.” Yet Faircloth and many other atheists present it as established fact. So why the disparity between modern scholarly thought and the anti-theist position?

It could very well be that a conspiracy-like story is true—liberals know Islam is responsible for these atrocities but don’t have the brass to say it, and the liberal academe, poisoned by postmodern multiculturalism, is too afraid to point out what atheists and Christians see so obviously. Or it could be that liberals, like me, might have a better view on Islam than atheists like Faircloth and the religious right do. It’s us who “get it” — Islam is not a broad, unified ideology; politics and social factors seem to be much more relevant in explaining suicide and terror attacks than Islam; proper criticism should be specific and not whitewash an entire ideology; and so on.

Now someone like Faircloth might sensibly object that Islam as an ideology, writ large, full stop, is to blame for these things. That the commonalities in the ideology shared by all 1.5 billion Muslims on Earth is the problem. Now they might have trouble squaring that with contemporary scholarly thought on the topic, but it’s a fair point they could make. But note that this isn’t a conversation about moral courage anymore, or whether criticism of Islam is islamophobic, or whether liberals need to be consistent. This conversation isn’t about when liberals will finally come around to reality (or why they might be hesitant to), but instead about what reality is. Disagreements are about the nature of Islam—if there can even coherently be one—and what the proper attitude we should take towards that is.

And there, I think, Faircloth falls somewhat short. Faircloth mentions some statistics (and there are some good ones coming out of this recent Pew survey), and references a few cases of terrorism, but I’ve gone on long enough for this post. I’m not convinced and I’ll address them shortly in a follow-up.

I’d just like to note[ref]For like, the fifth time. I really don’t want to understate how great Sean is.[/ref] that I think Faircloth and I agree a lot, and I don’t mean to imply that I think he’s racist, or bigoted, or that his motives are insincere. Faircloth is largely right: liberals should condemn anti-liberal practices and policies, and this includes swaths of radical Islam. But whether Islam is an appropriate target for that condemnation is unclear to me, and I haven’t seen a good case for it yet.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Below is a link to the full original article.

The first thing I tell people about Chris Stedman’s “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious” is that it made me cry, and books don’t make me cry. But there I was — in public no less — teary-eyed and puffy-cheeked as I read someone else’s encounter with conservative evangelical Christianity and subsequent deconversion. It sounded strikingly similar to my own.

Like Chris, I grew up evangelical despite my family’s relaxed attitude about religion. Like Chris, I found friends and community in my church. And, like Chris, I was devastated when I lost them. Chris and I were both driven to God because of our dedication to justice and, when we lost our faith, those convictions remained in us both. After an awkward intellectual adolescence spent hating the religious, we both gravitated toward an atheism that prioritized ending suffering and injustice over feeling cognitively superior to our religious neighbors.

These similarities — though they made me quite emotional — didn’t make me cry. What did was the vignette of a young Christian boy shaking on the floor of his shower contemplating suicide with a knife in hand, while feeling that he’d failed himself, his faith and even suicide when he couldn’t go through with it. This scene captured the darkness, loneliness and desperation that characterized my own religious doubts.

The existing literature on atheism is overwhelmingly rose-tinted: science is wonderful, the world is wonderful and being liberated from religious baggage is wonderful. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. When you have cognitive ties to religious belief but new circumstances challenge them, the experience can be petrifying and altogether consuming.

At a young age, Chris knew two things for certain: He liked boys and he believed in Christ. When these two facts seemed to be at odds with each other, there was turmoil, not liberation. Though Chris’ crisis reflected the struggle that occurs at the intersection of being queer and being Christian, it generalizes well for those who have struggled at all with their faith. For me, the scene evoked memories of the cold sweat contemplating Hell would leave me in as I wondered how I could possibly save all of my non-Christian friends in middle school. It also evoked the terror of reconciling the absolute, universal suffering of humanity with an ostensibly omnipotent God. Feeling like you can’t measure up to the standards your religion demands is not liberating. Doubting your faith is not fun. It is often emotionally and cognitively taxing in the extreme, and “Faitheist” is the first account I’ve read that doesn’t paint over this fact. This is not to say that to doubt is to be without hope. After accepting his doubts and developing his atheism, Chris, like me, found his irreligion to be a source of optimism — a base that encouraged him to live happily and help others to do the same.

Click here to read the full article!


Stephen Goeman is an atheist and Humanist. A senior at Tufts University, he is the former president of the Tufts Freethought Society and now serves as their Community Outreach Representative. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and a member of Students Promoting Equality, Awareness, and Compassion, a peer education program that coordinates student responses to acts of intolerance at Tufts.

Slowly, a clear sequence of events has come together. A fifteen minute trailer for the poorly produced anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims” was released on YouTube on September 8th, under what appeared to be the account of an Israeli real-estate developer, Sam Bacile. By September 13th, no records of an Israeli by the name of Sam Bacile could be found, and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, Coptic Christian and former meth cook, became attached to the film after the cellphone number used by Sam Bacile in an AP interview was traced to Nakoula’s home address. On September 11th, four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in Benghazi, the capital city of Libya. Whether the murders were part of a pre-planned terror attack or a result of opportunism remains unclear.

It’s heartening to know that the protests both peaceful and violent are joined with encouraging demonstrations of solidarity with the murdered ambassador. A few reactions, however, are unfortunately predictable. Some are overtly islamaphobic, while others are more subtly so.

Today, Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists, tweeted the following photo of a printed paper in his hands which starts “Dear Peaceful Muslims” and is captioned with “Just a thought #IslamIsBarbaric.”

This isn’t the first time Dave Silverman has lacked nuance and tact when handling Islam. Last year, he referred to Islam as a “shitty religion which worships a pedophile as morally perfect,” even though opinion is split on whether Muhammad was entirely morally perfect, and Islam explicitly forbids worshiping him. In fact, that is the very worry that grounds the unpopular proscriptions against visually depicting the prophet.

But putting aside past comments—as well as how overbearing it is to inform believers what their religion really entails—Silverman’s tweet highlights a subtle kind of prejudice frequently faced by Muslims and Muslim-Americans.

Chris, I think, made an important comparison: earlier this year, Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist brought up a double standard in how the media treats atheists and Christians. Atheists are commonly referred to as “self-identified,” “self-proclaimed,” “avid,” and so on, but Christians almost never so. He writes:

“Vjack adds that this is an example of Christian privilege at work. It’s to the point that most people probably don’t even notice it; clearly, reporters don’t seem to care. But one way to fix it is by raising awareness that it occurs so that you can call it out when you see it.”

But an even more insidious issue regularly affects Muslims and Muslim-Americans, an already maligned and alienated group. The popular stereotype of the Muslim as terrorist or terrorist-sympathizer surfaces often, and Silverman is subtly reinforcing it by addressing “peaceful Muslims.” My co-blogger, Chelsea Link, made this point in response to Silverman: “Asking ‘peaceful Muslims’ to oppose terrorism is like asking ‘friendly black people’ to oppose gang violence. Just a thought @mratheistpants.”

There are a few general rules of conversation that we follow, one being something like “don’t be redundant.” That’s because we don’t like being told things we already know. If you reference a “smart astrophysicist,” that’s weird because we’d assume astrophysicists are already considered smart, so why tack on the unnecessary adjective? Saying “devout Muslim” isn’t weird, though, because we know that believers fall on a spectrum of piety, and it’s not necessarily clear where any given person falls on that line.

But what’s the subtext, then, of saying “Dear Peaceful Muslims?” The innuendo is obviously that the “peaceful” doesn’t go without saying; at least a sizable portion of Muslims are violent, it seems to say, so you need to address the peaceful ones specifically. But after an abortion clinic is bombed, we wouldn’t think to respond by addressing “peaceful Christians,” just like we wouldn’t talk to the “peaceful environmentalists” when discussing eco-terrorism. It’s implied that Muslims have a spectrum of “violent” that needs to be considered—environmentalists and Christians don’t. Compound that subtext with the existing stereotype, and you get some ugly reinforcement Sarah Palin has even dabbled in.

But just to be sure that I wasn’t reading too much into it, Silverman went ahead and said it outright: when Chris tweeted that “the vast majority of Muslims oppose terror,” Silverman responded by saying “I’m skeptical.” In case anyone was wondering: this Pew Poll from last year has 81 percent of American Muslims saying suicide bombings are never justified. And here’s the Christian Science Monitor on a survey from the Program on International Attitudes from the University of Maryland:

[O]nly 46 percent of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24 percent believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

Contrast those numbers with 2006 polling results from the world’s most-populous Muslim countries – Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Terror Free Tomorrow, the organization I lead, found that 74 percent of respondents in Indonesia agreed that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure was 86 percent; in Bangladesh, 81 percent.

These tweets by Silverman aren’t going unnoticed; Chris has documented on his twitter how negatively Muslims and atheists living in Muslim-majority countries are reacting to Silverman’s comments.

David Silverman is treating this like a freedom of speech issue. This isn’t about the First Amendment or whether we can criticize Islam; in fact I think these issues are important. But criticism should be tempered, accurate, and fair. We should discuss how certain verses of the Quran are interpreted and contextualized, how certain parts of hadith can be incorporated into Western culture, and how certain comments by Imams or spiritual leaders might be problematic.

Silverman has a fair point that this discussion requires the voices of liberal muslims, but specificity is our friend on issues as broad and complex as religion. No one is well-served by blanket statements like “Islam is barbaric” or a “shitty religion,” as if a religion held and practiced by more than a billion people can be defined writ large by the actions of a small percentage. There is a serious conversation to be had here, that needs to be had here, and it’s not one for crude hashtags and twitpics that push away atheists and Muslims alike.


Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.