Thanks to Glenn Greenwald sharing my piece in one of his recent columns, I’ve received a lot of thoughtful insight, critiques, and opinions from a variety of readers, concerning my analysis of the “Terrorism Debate” that he, Murtaza Hussain, Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan have been engaged in of late. One recurring criticism however has kind of bothered me and I wanted to explicitly address it here.
Setting aside the fact that I expressly covered the issue of free expression, and the significance that lies in being able to openly discuss, debate, challenge, criticize and even ridicule every manner of political, philosophical, ideological, and religious thought, I have been told by a number of commentators that:
Bad ideas should be able to be criticized without reverting to labels of racism or Islamophobia.
I couldn’t agree more. But there are two assumptions to be made here.
1.) These readers obviously did not read the entirety of my piece, and at some point decided to abandon the effort, choosing instead to assume the remainder.
2.) They are also confusing my analysis with the origin of this debate, pertaining to the labeling of Sam Harris and other “New Atheists” as racist Islamophobes who clearly have an axe to grind with Islam.
On this first point I argue in my piece that Greenwald and company don’t often tackle the issue of free expression when it comes to Middle Eastern countries and fundamentalist Islam. Religion, like all man-made constructs, should not be immune to debate, criticism and ridicule. In short, the right to worship and express ideas of a religious tenor- no matter how infantile they are- is sacrosanct. The ideas and the philosophies themselves are not.
For example not long ago Richard Dawkins ridiculed journalist Mehdi Hasan’s belief in the literal possibility of the Prophet ascending to heaven on a winged horse. Hasan essentially stated that, as a Muslim, he believes in the possibility of miracles. Dawkins’ argument was that because Hasan admitted to this belief, his journalistic credibility should suffer. The inevitable spin from this exchange cast Dawkins as a bigot and Islamophobe, because in the view of the offended, Dawkins was stating that practicing Muslims can’t make good journalists. In reality, Dawkins was saying that while people have the right to belief and freedom of expression, they do not have the right to keep their beliefs and expressions from being criticized.
Knowing that Hasan believes literally in certain miracles is good for his readership, because it gives them a window into his psyche. No writer is without bias and discerning their belief system is central to understanding the lens with which they see the world. Some of Hasan’s readers might be more skeptical now, when reading certain pieces of his, not because being a Muslim makes him incapable of being a good journalist, but because they might find his credulity insightful to understanding the perspectives he argues in his other work. Dawkins would invariably express similar reservations if a Christian writer admitted to him that he believed in the literal virgin birth. He wasn’t picking on Islam; he was chastising ridiculous ideas that should be criticized.
When Glenn Greenwald ridiculed President Obama for his speech on counter-terrorism, cautioning the reader to treat the president’s lofty rhetoric cynically, he wasn’t suggesting that we do so because Glenn has an aversion to Democrats and thinks they are incapable of being good presidents. He’s implying that we temper our enthusiasm because rarely has Obama’s rhetoric been matched by action. Translation: “This guy has said a lot of great things in the past, but because he has rarely followed them up with action, he hasn’t earned the right to be taken seriously.”
What’s the difference in these two criticisms? I’d argue there isn’t one. Except that one has to do with religion. True, politics can often lead to inflammatory debates. But religion is unique in the level of respect it innately demands for no reason whatsoever. We are a species that irrationally defends all stripes of preposterous claims and ideas, but when it comes to the subject of faith, we defend most zealously that which we know least about. We don’t know if God exists, yet in spite of this we insist on emotionally responding to those who challenge religious belief because we’ve come to revere and respect religion on the basis of what it is, instead of on the substance and merits of what it does, what it claims, and what it can prove. No one would ever allow someone with the platform of Hasan to get away with a dubious/controversial political statement, without questioning his rationale. Why should a similar comment that is religious in nature be any different? I think Greenwald abstains from taking on this double standard, which is wrong, because he’d never allow a politician- or a journalist covering politics- to get away with political statements he knows to be incredible.
On the second point, people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are indispensable precisely because of the way they deconstruct religious belief and its use of unsubstantiated claims to silence voices and actions of dissent. An ineffable sky deity dictates that women aren’t entitled to an education, that homosexuals aren’t equal to heterosexuals, that we should teach our children in science class that we were “intelligently designed”, that winged horses, virgin births, and resurrections from death are real things, and that eternal rewards are reserved for those who strap bombs to their body and kill innocent people along with themselves. These are bad ideas that should be confronted and rebuked, and doing so should not lead to accusations of racism or Islamophobia.
However when someone like Richard Dawkins admits that he’s never read the Quran, that should also be met with ridicule because he has succeeded in discrediting himself rather unwittingly. Can he still have an opinion of Islam? Absolutely. But should those who listen to him perhaps take him less seriously on the subject now that they know he’s never read the book? I would say yes, for precisely the same reasons that he was arguing against the credibility of Hasan.
On the issue of racism and Islamophobia, I’ll simply state that I chose to abstain from addressing those claims in my piece because quite frankly I find the argument irrelevant. Perhaps my atheism makes me biased, but I’m not convinced that these men are racists simply because they stridently criticize an ideology. Islam is not a race after all. (Although I will concede that in our modern Western parlance, Islam has become synonomous with “brown and black people from the Middle East.”) I certainly don’t agree with the arguments Harris has made regarding profiling, or his claims that we are explicitly at war with Islam, but the purpose of my piece was not to engage that debate, but to analyze the combination of elements that are driving the perpetual “War on Terror”. I find the religious and political elements to be, as I said in my piece, co-conspirators in a larger geopolitical game which is far more relevant than an argument over whether or not certain members of the intelligentsia are racist or not. That verdict is for others to decide.