The mirror’s image, it tells me it’s home time… Why is Islam targeted for special criticism by pop-#atheism?

SecularPartyFollowing the revelation that the Secular Party is a racist ‘Ban the Burqa’ party in disguise, I cast my mind to the peculiar social phenomenon regarding pop-atheist critiques of Islam.  It runs something like this:

  1. Pop-atheist identifies an unpleasant aspect of Islam which has a direct comparison in non-Islamic society.
  2. Pop-atheist damns Islam for having the unpleasant aspect.
  3. Pop-atheist ignores non-Islamic counterpart.

Continue reading “The mirror’s image, it tells me it’s home time… Why is Islam targeted for special criticism by pop-#atheism?”

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Back in the back of a Cadillac… Why do New Atheists hate Islam so much? #atheism

Dawkins: Debates Make us Look Bad
Dawkins: Debates Make us Look Bad (Photo credit: Templestream)

Following my post about Dawkins’ strange take on what constitutes racism, a friend asked me why Islam was a major target of New Atheists.  The answer is strangely complicated but, fortunately, overlaps with one of my projects to map out a history of New Atheism.

Before jumping to the complicated answer, we have to show why we should reject the simple answer: Islam is a major religion; New Atheists criticise all religions; so therefore New Atheists criticise Islam.

Of the four largest world religions, Islam and Christianity are the two which are routinely attacked by New Atheists.  The next two largest religions, Buddhism and Hinduism are rarely mentioned.  This isn’t an equal opportunity hosing down of religions.  There’s something else that is making Islam and Christianity the major targets.

Christianity is easiest to explain: historically, it is the religion which has attracted the opposition from atheists.  Indeed, it’s difficult to understand the centuries-long history of atheism without reference to Christianity.  (SPOILERS: By the end of this blog post, we’ll see that New Atheism isn’t actually engaged in this history.)

But Islam doesn’t have a similar history.  From the example of Christianity (the reasons are socio-political and historical), we should expect the reason for New Atheism’s response to Islam.

To uncover that reason, we need a solid understanding of what New Atheism is and how it works.  We can then see what features of Islam cause it to be of particular interest to New Atheists.

Continue reading “Back in the back of a Cadillac… Why do New Atheists hate Islam so much? #atheism”

When you’re high, you never want to come down… On @RichardDawkins and Race #atheism #racism

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists ...
Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Working in an office one day, a conversation was taking place down the corridor.  A sharp difference of opinion was under discussion in which various people were advancing various viewpoints.  One of the participants left the conversation and walked up the corridor towards my desk.  Overhearing a bit more of the discussion behind him, he turned around and shouted clearly: ‘Yeah, but he’s such a poof!’

I was rather shocked at the outburst.  Prior to it, the conversation had been heated but on point.  This random homophobia came entirely out of left field and was entirely out of place.  How did the conversation get to this point?  How did this person think it was appropriate to make that comment?  What the hell is wrong with this person that they’d think this was an appropriate thing to say?

It would be a while before I was this thrown by out of place prejudice again (yay, privilege).  Fortunately, Richard Dawkins was on call to provide such an experience over Twitter.  This time, it was his weird and entirely unprovoked declaration that hatred towards Muslims isn’t racist.

Continue reading “When you’re high, you never want to come down… On @RichardDawkins and Race #atheism #racism”

Tables, chairs, and oaken chests would have suited Jesus best… In rational defence of irrational violence

We’re now at the stage in the public debate where politicians are condemning the exercise of ‘free speech’ by Muslim protesters which condemned the exercise of ‘free speech’ by some shady figure who made a video insulting Islam.  It’s enough to make you dizzy.   No doubt we shall soon see Bernard Keane write an ever so urbane article condemning the politicians who condemned the protesters who condemned the shady figure who made the video.  That’s what our public debate is like: send in more trains.

We can — and should — try to grapple with the complexities of the discussion because it reveals a lot about our intuitions regarding freedom of speech and violence.  Public discussions tend to adopt a ‘Boo – Hooray!’ model.  Tax?  Boo!  Hospitals?  Hooray!  Supertrawlers?  Boo/Hooray!

Freedom of speech?  Hooray!  Violence?  Boo!

The problem with the model is that it stops us from questioning the assumptions behind our responses.  When we don’t question those assumptions, it’s difficult to have any sort of meaningful conversation: unless people share the same assumptions, you might as well be talking a different language.

I was in a discussion about the riots which suffered this exact problem.  I am not a fan of the ‘freedom of speech’ (I think it’s an inglorious shield for ratbags).  Once a nation has reached a certain level of development, I think the ‘freedom of speech’ right should be seriously curtailed in favour of inclusiveness.  This is because my intuitions about violence do not stop at mere physical violence, which is what most people get worked up about, but extend through to social kinds of violence: hate speech, insult, and ridicule (when they reach a particular threshold).  If we’re going to be serious about being a society founded on consent, then we have to start thinking about whether people consent to us marginalising and humiliating them.

Of course, if you’re a cowboy of the electronic frontier, that’s going to sound unintelligible: violence is a physical act, nobody should care about hurt feelings, sticks and stones cause broken bones.  Harden up!  Here’s a cup of concrete.  To me, this is the same kind of reasoning which fuels the ‘Mental illness isn’t really real like a physical illness’ prejudice.  When somebody harks on about the freedom of speech and how important it is, I can see nothing but adolescent whining.  Just as they can’t understand my intuitions, I struggle to understand their assertions.

So let’s start right back at the start.  There is a major ground rule to discussing these sorts of questions: charity.  We should assume that people are, on the whole, intelligent, reasonable, and don’t do things for ludicrous reasons.  People don’t go a rampages because of videos, cartoons, or other frivolities.  The focus on these aspects of the story makes it easy to trivialise the viewpoints of people with whom we disagree.

This charity gives us a derived position: if we’re being charitable and consider people capable of being intelligent, reasonable, and serious, we have to hold them to the highest possible moral standards.  We can’t trivialise people’s positions with special pleading.

Already these two points shift us away from talking about the video (which is a sideshow distraction in the conversation, although I’ll discuss part of it in the bottom section) and force us to discuss why they would riot and whether their violent reaction is justifiable.

Why they would riot is a massive topic, mired in questions about whether countries outside of the Anglosphere really have the same social power as the rest of the world.    To me, this riot and reaction seems like the expression of an exhausted and frustrated people cynically egged on by a few influential shit-stirrers.

But is there anything inherently wrong about violent reactions?

Let’s use a film example.  In A Time to Kill, Samuel L Jackson’s daughter is raped and killed by two white guys.  He believes that the justice system is racist and that he would be denied access to a just outcome.  Being unable to avail himself of legal remedies, he decides to kill the guys who killed his daughter.

The film was criticised for encouraging the audience to empathise with vigilantism.  While we can understand that SLJ’s actions might have been unlawful or illegal, it becomes less clear cut that his actions were immoral, unless you were taking an absolutist stand against violence.

Let’s try a real world example.  Feeling that they were denied access to legal remedies, asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island rioted and set fire to the place.  Writing in ABC’s The Drum, Greg Barnes wrote:

It is bad enough that such people have their liberty curtailed by being locked up for long periods, but it is even more egregious that they can be set upon with rubber bullets, water canons or tear gas.

The message from Barnes and others was that it wasn’t wrong of the asylum seekers to riot and destroy property: it was the fault of the system.  The riot was justifiable.

The two examples frame the conversation not in terms of ‘Is violence absolutely wrong?’ but in terms of ‘Is violence a justified response to a particular situation?’  Sure, the absolutist is always going to say no, but their reasons will need to keep shifting in order to keep up.  In the first answer, they would need to argue that SLJ just needed to endure the injustice of having his daughter raped and murdered.  If the legal system couldn’t help him, then he was out of options.  In the second answer, they would need to argue that the asylum seekers should have found other avenues to complain about their situation, regardless of their possibility of success.

But another, moderate point is coming across: violence is okay if other remedies are not available.  If we’re okay with that idea, we can apply it to the Muslim rioters case.

We’ve already said that this wasn’t about the video.  We are assuming that people have good reasons to engage in unnaturally extreme acts.  So the riot is less about the video and more about the perception that Anglophone society is openly hostile to Islam.  What expression of frustration and anger is available to a large number of people with limited ability to engage in a reasonable discussion about their concerns?

I don’t see any other avenues for the expression of their rage.  Why should they have to ignore their anger when they feel targeted by the most powerful nations on Earth?  If I were in a position where my cultural values were marginalised and ridiculed (which, because I’m white and right wing, will never, ever happen), I would get pissed off and join a demonstration protesting against it.

We could have started from a different perspective and looked at the reasons why people are so ferociously anti-protest, but I find that avenue a bit limited.  I run straight into the problem of defining violence in a way which everybody agrees.  If we take the hardline, anti-violence streak, we would condemn the video which started it and argue that authorities should prosecute whoever is behind it.  Weirdly enough, that’s the message from the protesters as well…

If I adopt the definitions of my interlocutors (restricting it to physical violence alone… including against property?), then I end up in a world of special pleading.  Why don’t we see violent responses as valid ones?  Because violence is bad.  Why is violence bad?  Because it is.  Why is it worse than marginalising a group of people to the extent that they don’t feel they can participate equally and fully in society?  Because violence is bad.

The motives behind invalidating violence as a response seems to be because it makes us uncomfortable in our prosaic little worlds where we don’t actually care about all that much.  Nobody gets mad.   When life hands us lemons, we don’t get our engineers to find a way to make an exploding lemon.  So when a group of people passionately consider something important to them, I am in a safe position to attack that thing.  There is literally nothing that that group could do to me which would make me as upset, embarrassed, frustrated, and victimised as I could make them.  The only response they’ve got is one which threatens me physically comparably to how I threatened them socially.

From my perspective, that’s what the ‘pacifist’ response — the criticism of protesting, the damnation of rioting — has been all about.  It’s reinforcing the privileged view that, if anybody else in the world wants to compete with us, they have to do it on our terms and in our way.  If they don’t respond in a way which makes us feel safe and non-threatened, their response is illegitimate and should be ridiculed.

Maybe I’m incorrect when I say there’s no way for them to compete.  There might be one way they could compete: nothing upsets a group of white people more than the spectre of violent dark-skinned people.  The sheer hypocrisy of people telling the Muslim world to ‘get over’ the video who then got bent all out of shape at a few ridiculous signs at the rally was breathtaking.  I’ve seen people wear shirts with things far more offensive than ‘Behead all those who insult the prophet’.  The responses to those signs ranged from outrage to disgust: the very same reactions that people had to watching the video.

Australian Muslims have nothing for which to apologise after Sydney’s demonstration.  There are always a few nuts in the crowd who are always eager for a scuffle with police.  It’s hardly the fault of the majority of the protesters.

Muslims worldwide have very little for which to apologise in general after the video saga.  It’s likely that the murders were opportunistic rather than related to the expression of anger and frustration expressed by most at the riot.

Understanding violence as language is more important than just blanket condemnation.  If we want to live in a world with less violence, we should put more effort into making people feel included and capable of expressing themselves on equal ground.  For that to work, we have to curtail freedom of speech where it is socially violent.

The Super Additional Extra Section About The Video

Discussing human rights is a difficult past-time.  I’m sceptical about the human rights enterprise, so it’s easy for me to jeer from the sidelines.  For all my jeering, I do appreciate how difficult it is to do.  Human rights law is a curious beast almost entirely divorced from questions about the ontology of law.  If anything, it’s extremely positivistic: human rights only exist insofar as they are enshrined in some particular piece of legislation or legal framework.

People have discussed whether there is a mechanism within human rights frameworks to have the video in question censored.  The discussion comes to abrupt end given the United States’ partial ratification of human rights instruments: they specifically stated that any instrument they ratified would be subject to compliance with domestic law about freedom of speech (first amendment rights).

Very few people have discussed whether the video would have been protected under Australian laws.

I’m sure regular readers of my blog are sick of me talking about section 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act.  I love the Act.  I would have its babies.

18C says:

 (1)  It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

 (a)  the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b)  the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.

There aren’t too many cases involving this section of the Racial Discrimination Act.  It’s one of the unfortunate aspects of the Act: people don’t feel they can appeal to it without seeming like a killjoy minority.  It’s one thing to have the right to complain; it’s another to feel confident enough to use the complaint mechanisms.

Under my reading, the video (a trailer still counts as a video) would be a breach of 18C(1).  It was reasonably likely to insult a group of people (given the content and the way it was overdubbed, it is evident to a reasonable person —  of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal — that the video was designed to insult Muslims).

18C(b) is trickier.  Race is not biologically determined but socially constructed.  This was noted in the Eatock v Bolt decision regarding the difficulty of defining ‘Aboriginal’.  If you had a particularly ambitious lawyer, you could try to argue that being a particular kind of Muslim was an essential part of your ethnic identity.  For example, the HREOC website gives an interesting example of racial discrimination:

For example, it may be indirect racial discrimination if a company says that employees must not wear hats or other headwear at work, as this is likely to have an unfair effect on people from some racial/ethnic backgrounds. [Source]

I can only think of religious reasons to wear particular headwear…

The counterargument would be that the RDA is explicitly a piece of legislation to pass the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (section 7).  When ICERD was passed, it was a major point that religion was not included.  As such, it is arguable that RDA would not cover religious discrimination.

Imagine that a court finds that it does satisfy 18C(b), we then look to 18D to see if the video is exempt from 18C.

 Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:

(a)  in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or

(b)  in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or

(c)  in making or publishing:

(i)  a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or

(ii)  a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.

The maker of the video would have to demonstrate that the trailer was made reasonably and in good faith.  Given the clouds of deception around the thing, I doubt they’d be able to pull it off.  If they did manage to pull it off, it would fall under 18Ca as an artistic work.  It’s difficult to imagine that they’d be able to argue that it was a good faith and reasonable artistic work when it is so obviously an attempt to upset and insult a group’s religious beliefs.

I’ve heard a rumour from Ground Control… Live export shouldn’t be hijacked by Islamophobes

Australia is wading through a difficult debate about animal cruelty and the export of live animals.  Over on ThinkAtheist, WoljaIlpapa has stated that:

Now some of that cruelty is due to the attitudes of the abbatoir workers but the big hidden problem here is that the reason the animals are transported live to Indonesia, the middle east etc is to cater for the demands of Halal. [Source: ‘Cruelty that is Halal and Kosher slaughter methods‘, ThinkAtheist]

Utter nonsense.

Regulation of abattoirs within Australia is a matter for the states, but each state has regulations preventing animal cruelty which abide by national guidelines issued by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.  There are no exceptions for religious requirements.  Halal abattoirs in Australia — and we should all be enormously proud of this — have animal welfare standards identical to everybody else.

In other words, this isn’t an Us vs Islam issue, as the ThinkAtheist piece is trying to assert.  This is an issue regarding animal welfare in Southeast Asia.  To suggest otherwise is to pander to prejudice and Islamophobia.

ThinkAtheist should retract the post and issue an apology for spreading such hateful, bigoted rubbish.

My eagle’s busy doing other things… Why New Atheism hates Islam and dissent.

This week, we have been treated to something almost entirely absent in the broader atheist discussion: dissent. When Jeff Sparrow wrote that progressive atheists were disconcertingly quiet in response to the nasty streak of neo-con Islamophobia amongst New Atheists, the comment section went wild.

Despite stating, in no uncertain terms, that “[i]n Australia, the most prominent local atheists […] are, to various degrees, associated with progressive politics”, atheist readers could see nothing but an unmitigated attack on them and their beliefs. Dr David Horton wondered “how [Sparrow’s] tarring-all atheists-with-a-one-quote-from-Hitchens-broad-brush stands up to meeting actual, you know, atheists“. President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, Mr David Nicholls, thought the piece was “a marvellous display of quote mining, misrepresentation and downright misunderstanding about Atheism, all in one go“.

Reading through the responses, I became both saddened and frustrated. Atheists won’t get riled up about racism in their midsts, but they’ll go ape over criticism.

As both a conservative and an atheist, I have no doubt that Sparrow is correct. Having to confront on nearly a daily basis the xenophobia and racism of political leaders who are supposed to represent my political persuasion, it is nauseating to see the same traits among the most vocal advocates of my religious beliefs. For all the New Atheist rhetoric about how religion is for sheep, it is much easier to find Catholics speaking out against homophobia within the Church than it is to find atheists speaking out against the Islamophobia preached by prominent UK and US New Atheists.

There is no dissent within New Atheism. There is no room for it. If you don’t toe the party line, you’re either marginalised or you’re suspected of being a covert theist.  I’ve often wondered to what extent this is due to market forces: would the Atheist Convention in Melbourne have been as successful if there had been dissenting voices?  Would people pay to have their views challenged?

Sparrow’s article drew attention to the disease within New Atheism but – as correctly noted by some of the commentators – didn’t analyse why New Atheism seems to slide so easily into xenophobia and racism. In fairness to him, Sparrow wasn’t trying to analyse the resultant xenophobia of atheology; had he turned his mind to it, I have no doubt he wouldn’t have found it a taxing task.

First, there’s the lack of diversity within New Atheist culture. The profile of the most internationally outspoken atheists is not insignificant: they’re old; they’re white; and (overwhelmingly) they’re male. Dr Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, argues “that New Atheism’s dominance by elite white males from the scientific community does not serve the broader interests of non-theist people of color. In order to make atheism and secular humanism relevant to people of color, our communities’ specific needs in a racist, sexist, heterosexist global context must be assessed.” It is hardly surprising that in a monoculture, intolerance festers.

Second, there is the stillborn debate between secularists and pluralists within modern atheist dialogues. Earlier this month on New Matilda, Adam Brereton argued in favour of secularism. After arguing that religion has no place in our schools or public debate, Brereton asserts that “secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church.” Although he doesn’t use the phrase, it seems that Brereton is an advocate of freedom from religion.

Contrariwise, atheists could argue in favour of freedom of religion: where public discussion is flavoured by all kinds of religious (and non-religious) viewpoints. Religious education in schools, for example, would be less about forcing children to accept particular religious beliefs and more about teaching them how to elucidate and discuss their religious beliefs. This viewpoint is called ‘pluralism’.

Secularism is currently the unofficial orthodox position of the New Atheist congregation, and it’s not clear why. Why should we prefer secularism (where religion is suppressed or rendered invisible) to pluralism (where there’s a multitude of voices in the public debate)?

Third, there are the unexamined cultural assumptions of New Atheism. New Atheism is less <i>secular</i> than it is <i>disbelieving Christianity</i>.  Although they’ve crossed out the word ‘God’ and question the historical accuracy of Jesus, they’ve imported all the existing cultural values and dubbed it ‘universal’.  Nowhere is this seen most than in how the secularist panacea of “Keep religion where it belongs” is applied in different ways to different groups.  To Christians, this means ‘in Church’.  To Muslims, this invariably means ‘Back in your home country (unless you were born here)’.

Finally, there’s the “Otherness” factor. Atheists are finally in the position where they understand (fundamentalist) Christianity.  The internet has cracked the nut wide open.  Where the atheists of the glorious past were engaging in the problems of mainstream, orthodox Christianity, New Atheism is chiefly concerned with the nutbag, backwater Christianity which ‘predicts’ the apocalypse and thinks that Noah rode around on a triceratops. New Atheists are, by and large, stone ignorant about Islam, considering it to be a pseudo-Mediaeval attack on their ‘universal’ values.  Until we have equal representation of atheists from Islamic backgrounds, this won’t change.

Give me a reason we’re in control… Multiculturalism is bad because they do things the same way I do

While I’m not terribly keen on providing links to his hate material, Pat Condell has had a crack at explaining what he thinks is wrong with multiculturalism: Muslims.

It’s no secret that Condell hates Islam.  He is incapable of seeing Islam as anything but a monolithic structure of barbarism.  Mind!  He doesn’t put it in those terms.  Instead, he white knights women’s lib (every Muslim is misogynistic), democracy (every Muslim is a tyrant), and — in this latest foaming fury — animal rights (because Halal is code for cruelty to animals).

Back to that last point in a second.  First, I think it’s important to note how passionate many outspoken atheists become when Islam is discussed.  When Christianity is discussed, most of these atheists will make condescendingly dismissive comments.  Dawkins, for example, dismissed Aquinas’ arguments in a quick paragraph as not intellectually credible (or, rather, dismissed his bizarro version of Aquinas’ arguments).

When Islam is discussed, the discussion is framed in terms of response to a threat.  Most of the articles and books written by atheists about Islam have always characterised Islam as something foreign to fear.  Christianity is something to defeat; Islam is something to exclude.  This trend was demonstrated uncritically throughout that rag The Australian Book of Atheism (which I should definitely get back to reviewing).  The essays asserted that Christianity did what it could to retain power and that Islam was attacking secular society by stealth.  So long as atheists continue to milk intuitive notions of ‘secular’ without distinguishing them from ‘non-believing Christianity’, this framework will continue.

Back to cruelty of animals.  Says Condell:

Halal is a guarantee that the animal you’re eating died slowly, in pain and in terror.

There are a few easy ways to not eat halal meat: try more pork.  If you’re that worried about Muslim meat appearing on your dinner plate, eat pork wrapped in bacon.  Hell, it could even be an advertising slogan for the pork industry.  ‘Pork: Guaranteed not to be kosher or halal.’

Less flippantly, people like Condell only care about the cruelty towards animals if other cultures (particularly Islam) are doing it.  Most Anglophones get their meat from factory farms.  Says PETA:

On today’s factory farms, animals are crammed by the thousands into filthy, windowless sheds and confined to wire cages, gestation crates, barren dirt lots, and other cruel confinement systems. These animals will never raise their families, root around in the soil, build nests, or do anything that is natural and important to them. Most won’t even feel the sun on their backs or breathe fresh air until the day they are loaded onto trucks bound for slaughter. The green pastures and idyllic barnyard scenes of years past are now distant memories.

The factory farming industry strives to maximize output while minimizing costs—always at the animals’ expense. The giant corporations that run most factory farms have found that they can make more money by cramming animals into tiny spaces, even though many of the animals get sick and some die. [Source: PETA ‘Factory Farming: Cruelty to Animals’]

In the universe next door where Pat Condell is ranting about the insidious spread of multinational corporations, I’m sure he’s saying:

Supermarket-purchased meat is a guarantee that the animal you’re eating died slowly, in pain and in terror.

It is — quite frankly — ludicrous that Condell should pick up the mantle of animal rights in order to attack Islam.  There are legitimate questions about whether there are more humane ways to procure halal meat — they’re the same legitimate questions as those which ask if there are more humane questions to procure non-halal meat.

Similarly, there are legitimate questions about Islam which we in a multicultural society should ask (a classic one, for example, is ‘Why is there a growing trend for Muslim community leaders to describe Islam in opposition to mainstream society?’  The answer concerns both the individual Muslim communities and the societies in which they are trying to integrate).  But Condell is not asking those legitimate questions when he pretends to champion the rights of the minorities he wantonly and casually disregards every other minute of the day.