The New Atheism’s “Islamophobia” Problem
In case you missed it, the last week has seen the publication of article after article accusing New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and perhaps most of all Sam Harris of expressing Islamophobic ideas. A week ago Nathan Lean of Salon penned, “Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia,” which was followed days later by Murtaza Hussain’s Aljazeera piece, “Scientific racism, militarism and the new atheism.” When Guardian editorialist Glenn Greenwald tweeted a link to Hussain’s article Sam Harris started a heated exchange with him, inevitably leading to Greenwald’s own “Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus.” As one might expect Harris and other prominent atheist activists (some self-identified New Atheists and some not) have taken issue with various aspects of these accusations.
So who’s right? I’ll let you be the judge of that, because what I want to point to isn’t the truth(s) behind these various claims and counterclaims but the nature of the very discourses that contain them, which is warlike. These are the kinds of discourses that take place between combatants who wear brightly colored ID badges at times of their own choosing, but even more often by edict of the enemy. Lean, Hussain and Greenwald are quick to point out (perhaps quite accurately) that at the heart of the New Atheist critique of Islam is an unjust essentialism that veers too easily into Islamophobia and racism. But what of their own expositions, do they not also essentialize? It is clear that part of the work accomplished by these accusations, much like the work accomplished by the writings of those they accuse, is the performance of difference. And where do such performances lead?
In the middle of this furor anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann published a completely unrelated opinion piece in the New York Times, “How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect,” which presciently speaks to that very question:
Perhaps there is hope. Good marriages work because couples learn to repair, rather than escalate, their conflicts. Same-sex marriage and abortion should not be approached by drawing a line in the sand and demonizing everyone on the other side. We need to recognize something of what we share, and to carry on a conversation — and if we can keep the conversation going, we will, however slowly, move forward.
If we can’t, we’re in real trouble.
It would appear that this week’s back and forth between New Atheists and their critics suggests that we’re “in real trouble,” and that we’ll remain so until the discursive combatants are willing to find ways to actually “connect” with one another as something more than mere foes. Of course applying similar insights to the relationship between atheists and Muslims isn’t exactly novel. For instance just months ago, in Religion Dispatches, atheist interfaith activist Chris Stedman expressed the admonition that “Atheists Ignore Islamophobia at their Peril.” But isn’t there a larger collective peril we all move towards when any number of us fail to connect, whether those missed connections are between socially marginalized atheists and Muslims or between multiculturally thinking journalists and anti-religious celebrity atheists?