Islam or Muslims

By Scott Pryor
I noticed a common theme within the online secular community this week:
  • Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz released the book they co-authored, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.
  • Seth Andrews interviewed three ex-muslims in The Thinking Atheist podcast: Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider of Ex-Muslims of North America along with Armin Navabi, the founder of Atheist Republic.
  • Matt Dillahunty’s co-host on The Atheist Experience was ex-muslim Heina Dadabhoy who writes the Heinous Dealings blog on Freethought Blogs.

One of the things that they all talked about was confusing criticism of Islam with bigotry towards Muslims.  An ideology, whether it’s religious or political or socio-economic, can be (and should be) criticized and even ridiculed.  A class of people with a common race or creed or economic status, should not.  In most cases this is easily done:

  • The Catholic child abuse scandal drew criticism of Catholicism but no one accused reporters of being bigoted towards Catholics.
  • The North Korean dictatorship is criticized for their human rights violations but no one is accusing Amnesty International of being racist towards Koreans.

So why do so many people handle Islam with kid gloves?  When a tragedy like Charlie Hebdo or the Westgate mall in Nairobi or the Boston Marathon bombing occurs, reporters often refer to the attackers as “terrorists” or “extremists” even though their motives were quickly revealed to be based on Islamic dogma.  It’s likely that the reason they don’t say “Islamic terrorist” is because they don’t want to be thought of as Islamaphobic.  Don’t get me wrong, bigotry towards Muslims is real and a serious problem but we should be able to separate that bigotry from genuine criticism of Islam.

Last year when Sam Harris was on Real Time, I thought that he and Bill Maher were very clear with their criticism of Islam and not Muslims but Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof jumped all over them anyway.  Affleck called Harris “gross” and “racist” while Kristof compared it to racism towards African Americans.  I don’t think that either Affleck or Kristof were incapable of understanding the argument that Harris and Maher were making, I think that they were unwilling to risk being perceived as Islamaphobic.
I’m not sure what the answer is but I believe that we need to make a point to treat Islam just like any other ideology.  Keep holding Draw Muhammad contests, call the next terrorist that cries out “Allahu akbar” an Islamic terrorist, criticize a passage from the Qu’ran just like you would criticize a passage from the Bible.  Maybe over time this extra sensitivity towards Islam will fade.