Reading Time: 4 minutes


Last week on Bill Maher’s TV show, Maher, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck sparred over Islam and whether it’s prone to violence:

“Freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities, including homosexuals, these are liberal principles that liberals applaud for,” Maher continued, “but then when you say in the Muslim world this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.”

… “How about the more than a billion people, who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things that you’re saying all Muslims do,” Affleck added, passionately.

“That’s just not true, Ben,” Maher said. “You’re saying that the idea that someone should be killed if they leave the Islamic religion is just a few bad apples?”

“The people who actually believe that you should murder someone if you dishonor the Islamic faith is not with the majority of Muslims at all,” Affleck insisted.

This debate has renewed claims that the atheist movement is Islamophobic or otherwise prejudiced. As often happens, I’m not 100% on either side, and I wanted to talk about why and where I stand.

It’s hard to deny that some prominent atheists have made ignorant or offensive remarks about Islam (here’s one example). Many atheists, after all, are privileged Westerners living in a society where prejudice against Muslims is widespread, and it would be a miracle if none of us had imbibed these ideas.

On the other hand, it’s not true, as defenders of Islam like Affleck have claimed, that Islam is a basically peaceful religion hijacked by a small minority of violent extremists. Even if you disregard terrorism and other non-state actors, nearly all of the countries where Islam holds power are repressive, illiberal theocracies.

Some of the U.S.’ close allies in the Muslim world, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, rank among the planet’s most repressive dictatorships. As pointed out by the ex-Muslim activists Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider, even many nominally democratic states, like Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia, have sharia courts and other laws that discriminate against women and non-Muslims. (In Indonesia, for example, you can get jail time for being an atheist, or get beaten for being an unmarried couple together in the same room. In Malaysia, it’s illegal for non-Muslims to use the word “Allah”, even if that’s the correct word for “God” in their own language, and in Bangladesh, vast mobs have marched to demand the execution of atheists.)

But with that said, it’s also false to suggest that Muslims are a monolithic bloc united in hatred of the West. Dissent and disagreement exists among Muslims just as it does in any other community of human beings. In fact, any impartial evaluation would have to conclude that the people who’ve suffered the most from Islamic terrorism and theocratic repression, by far, are other Muslims. Whether it be Afghani girls like Malala Yousafzai and their teachers, assaulted and murdered by the Taliban for the crime of education, or the people of Pakistan’s Swat Valley, or the Iraqis living in the bloody shadow of ISIS, or the Somalis terrorized by the brutal Shabab militia, or the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram… the list goes on and on. These are the normal people Affleck was referring to, the people who just want to live their own lives in peace; but what his critique fails to mention is that their co-religionists are the ones who are often preventing that.

However, the West isn’t guiltless. To the contrary, any fair evaluation would have to conclude that the nations of the West bear a significant share of responsibility for the current situation. That responsibility stretches at least back to the colonial partition of the Middle East, which drew borders with little regard for natural boundaries of ethnicity and culture, resulting in mutually-hostile groups penned up together.

More recently, the West has a shameful track record of propping up brutal thugs and autocrats to achieve some short-term political goal, from Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden. We’ve often been happy to support despotic regimes as long as they kept the oil flowing. And our belligerence has often made a bad situation even worse, as with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which unleashed centrifugal forces of sectarian strife that may yet tear the country apart, or our ongoing drone-war campaign that’s resulted in innumerable civilian deaths.

None of this in any way excuses terrorism or any other violence. But the people who commit these atrocities didn’t come out of nowhere; they’re not sourceless evil with no cause or explanation. The milieu that created them exists partly because of Western policy choices. A clear-headed recognition of this wouldn’t end the problem overnight, but it might help us better choose how to act – or refrain from acting – in the future.

The atheist movement’s critique of Islam is at its strongest and most necessary when it points out the real and serious harm done by Islamic fundamentalism and theocracy. However, we must be cautious not to stray over the line into promoting bigotry, or treating Muslims as homogeneous representatives of an alien and dangerous culture. The best solution is to emphasize the voices of ex-Muslim atheists, who can speak about their cultures with understanding while not sparing them from criticism on subjects for which they deserve to be criticized. (Some writers I like include Maryam Namazie, Hiba Krisht, Taslima Nasrin, Tauriq Moosa and Heina Dadabhoy.)

Muslims, like all people, deserve to be treated as individuals. They deserve the same freedom from prejudice and fear, from mistreatment and unreasonable suspicion, as anyone else. (That’s why, for example, Sam Harris was so badly off target with his indefensible claim that “we should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim”). And, as Affleck said, they deserve the same right to live in peace and safety that we all desire. In the long run, working to bring that about, rather than mindlessly treating all Muslims as the enemy, is a far more effective way to end terrorism and violence.

Image credit: Basil D. Soufi, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Avatar photo

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...