Many of those arguing and campaigning for liberalism and secularism have noticed that they frequently experience push back from the left, only when they criticise one particular flavour of religiosity. In all other circumstances, the liberal left is an ally of secularists. For example, if the Pope was throwing gay people off the roof of St Peter’s, this is the sector of opinion that would be among the most vociferous of those attacking the Roman Catholic Church.
However, uniquely when the tenets of Islam recommend violent or illiberal behaviour, sections of the left will reliably side with the theocrats. I believe this is because Muslim people are typically in a minority in the West and some people instinctively (often for laudable reasons) seek to defend Muslim minorities from criticism of Islamic ideas. The difficulty with this thought process though, is that it betrays women and minorities across the Muslim world (such as gay Muslims, secular Muslims and apostates) who seek support from the West in trying to win reforms.
Many commentators have come to refer to such positions as “Regressive Left” and as I have recently realised, these views are as prevalent here in Ireland as anywhere else. A story that served to highlight this was a complaint made by a Christian family who are refugees from the ongoing war in Syria. Irish schools allow for the study of the Arabic language as an examination subject but the syllabus makes study of the Koran a compulsory component of the course. This is akin to a course on English as a foreign language, making the Book of Mormon a compulsory part of the syllabus.
A colleague of mine at Atheist Ireland published a short opinion piece on the story. Of course, he did not object to an Arabic language course being offered in Irish schools. He didn’t even object to questions on the Koran being part of the syllabus. He simply empathised with the refugees fleeing Islamist violence, who thought that study of the Koran should not be a compulsory part of the course. The response to his piece, from other liberal atheist secularists, was quite shocking to me.
So, here is the full quote from my colleague’s article, which was perceived as being both “racist” and “bigoted”.
I was very surprised this week to learn that you can take Arabic as a subject in Irish secondary schools. Even with less than two hundred students on the up take it’s still a more popular subject than Cartoonery is across the Muslim world. However, not all of the students are happy as part of the subject involves a study of the Koran. In an article I’ve included below … one Syrian Christian refugee in Ireland resents the fact that his daughter is having to study portions of a book that was the inspiration for those who drove them out of their country. I can see where he is coming from. If I had just fled from Islamic extremists in fear of my life and found refuge in the west I’d be more than mildly annoyed if my daughter came home from school chanting ‘allahu akbar’.
The context here is that forcing a student to study a subject that is not consistent with their philosophical convictions, is a breach of their Human Rights. When the Human Rights of refugee children are discussed in the same paragraph as Muslim attitudes to religious cartoons, where can the sympathies of the Regressive Left be located? Not it seems with the refugee children who would like their Human Rights to be respected. Rather it appears that these Human Rights abuses must be minimised so that the Koran is protected from criticism.
Ignoring the rather unsympathetic tone of these tweets, the assumption here is that any Christian family from Syria must already know about the Koran and the tenets of the Islamic faith. I’ve no idea whether or not that is true (and I wouldn’t make any assumptions either way) but it is entirely irrelevant. If the family does not wish their children to study the Koran they shouldn’t be forced to do so by the Irish State. That is their Human Right. Arguing that their children must have been already familiar with the Koran, is a distraction that serves only to diminish abuses of the Human Rights of refugees, in order to protect the Koran from criticism.
Other furious reactions to the opinion piece objected to references to the takbir, which is the name of the most widely known Islamic prayer, “Allahu Akbar”. This reference was described as “crass stereotyping” as it was alleged to have linked children chanting the takbir to “Jihadists”.
But who is creating the crass stereotype here? Chanting the takbir is something that hundreds of millions of peace-loving liberal Muslims engage in five times per day, as part of the Islamic obligatory prayer. It is not at all a stretch to imagine that a child forced to study the Koran may become aware of Islamic obligatory prayers.
It is true that Jihadists chant the takbir. However, it is surely unnecessary to explain to reasonable people, that this does not imply that everyone who chants the takbir must be a bloodthirsty Jihadist. It is those who see references to the takbir and immediately associate this with Jihadism, who are guilty of the most odious and crass stereotyping, by immediately ascribing violence to all of the world’s pious Muslims.
It wasn’t just references to the takbir that drew the ire of Regressive Left voices though. The reference in my colleague’s opinion piece to Muslim attitudes towards religious cartoons, was also described as “bigotry”. The basis for this allegation was that any generalising about the “Muslim world” must necessarily be bigotry, by definition.
The inanity of such a view is breathtaking. For example, it is not misogynist to say that “in general, women are shorter than men”. This can be an accurate statement, even when it is acknowledged that some women are taller than most men. It is not bigoted to say that “in general, Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead”. This can be an accurate statement, even when it is acknowledged that some people do not believe this, while still describing themselves as Christians.
For the same reasons, a statement that implies “in general, the Muslim world is opposed to religious cartoons” is not bigoted. Of course, some devout Muslims are sanguine about religious cartoons but this does not mean that the generalisation is false, never mind bigoted. In fact, there is ample evidence to show that in general, the “Muslim world” is not only opposed to religious cartoons but goes a significant step further and also supports prohibitions against such cartoons within the civil law.
Pew has carried out significant research in this area. Based on such work, reputable companies like Pew are happy to make broad statements throughout their reports about Muslims in general, such as this one:
Muslims around the world also share similar views about the immorality of some behaviours.
After all, it is the business of polling companies to draw generalised conclusions from their samples, such that they frequently make broad statements about entire populations. This does not make everyone at Pew a “bigot”. In fact, the diagram above shows that the Pew polling sample “represents the views of 1.15B Muslims”. Even if all of the remaining Muslims in the world who are not represented within this Pew poll, all happened to oppose Sharia being enforced as civil law, there would still be a substantial majority in favour of such a position.
In fact, the stupidity of efforts to disguise opposition to religious cartoons within the “Muslim world”, is evident when you look in detail at the group of Muslims who are not represented within this Pew poll. For example, it includes the most conservative Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia, where even carrying out such polls is prohibited. Are we really to believe that drawing cartoons of Mohammad in the public squares of Riyadh is to be recommended?
Other gymnastic efforts to suggest that the generalisation is not valid, included the differing views on this topic of Sunni Muslims as compared to Shia Muslims. However, no matter how polls are interpreted and no matter what contorted assumptions are made about the unrepresented Muslims who haven’t been polled by Pew, the figures explicitly demonstrate the validity of the generalisation. Those arguing this point find themselves simply disputing the efficacy of arithmetic, or else resorting to mind-reading as the only possible way to justify their accusations.
When it is not possible to identify “bigotry” or “racism” using any objective interpretation of what someone has actually said, it is much easier to just imagine that malign motives can be detected in their minds. That is, when someone states an objective fact about the “Muslim world”, instead of simply accepting reality, many on the Regressive Left prefer to pretend that they can remotely read the minds of people they don’t know. Criticism of Islam cannot be taken at face value and must instead be attributed to an imagined apathy about “harming Muslims”, which can somehow be telepathically sensed within the mind of the critic.
Issues of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience are actively being debated today in Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, where theocrats are seeking to row back on secularism. Other more conservative Muslim-majority countries (like Bangladesh and elsewhere) have more nascent secular movements that aspire to a respect for Human Rights within their societies. When secular Muslims in these regions seek support for Enlightenment values from like-minded allies in the West, what should they hear in response? Should they hear liberal voices that champion their Human Rights campaigns as important and worthwhile, or a Regressive Left that condemns criticism of Islam as “harming Muslims”? Should they hear liberals supporting freedom of expression as a vital principle in a healthy society, or a Regressive Left offering endless apologetics for theocratic suppression of free speech? In taking the side of the theocrats, the Regressive Left betray reformers in the “Muslim world”, who are often literally risking their lives for freedoms that are taken for granted in the West.
A significant majority of Muslims oppose religious cartoons. It is not “racism” or “bigotry” to notice this and it does not “harm Muslims” to simply point this out. Those seeking secular reforms within Muslim societies deserve enthusiastic support for their efforts towards Human Rights and free expression, rather than contrived denialism about the scale of their challenge.
The problem of course with throwing terms like “racist” and “bigot” around like confetti, is that there are actual bigots and racists in the world. When the Regressive Left decide to misdirect these terms towards secular liberals (who may be seeking to defend the Human Rights of refugees) they dilute the power that such words should have when they are really needed.
National Committee, Atheist Ireland
Secretary, Atheist Alliance International