On Monday, September 14, Ahmed Mohamed, a fourteen-year-old student at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, was arrested after school officials believed his homemade clock was a bomb. Although Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd knew it wasn’t a bomb, Mohamed was arrested anyway on charges of bringing a “hoax bomb” to school. As soon as the story broke nationwide, many people vocally expressed support for Mohamed with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed, including many within the secular community—the Center for Inquiry, Sarah Morehead, and the American Humanist Association to name a few.
However, despite the overwhelming support for Mohamed, some prominent atheists instead chose to attack him. On September 18, Real Time host Bill Maher defended Mohamed’s arrest because “for the last thirty years, it’s been one culture that has been blowing shit up over and over again” [Correction: Bill Maher did say Ahmed Mohamed deserves an apology]. Also, Richard Dawkins suggested on Twitter that perhaps Mohamed “wanted to be arrested” (although, to be fair, Dawkins did condemn the police for arresting him). Indeed, Maher and Dawkins are two examples of prominent atheists whose criticisms of Islam only promote anti-Muslim bigotry.
There is a lot of debate within secular communities about whether or not criticizing Islam is racist. The argument goes that since Islam is not a race (indeed, one does not need to be a certain ethnicity to be a Muslim), criticizing Islam cannot be racist. Certainly there are legitimate criticisms of Islam. According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, 89 percent of Muslims surveyed in Pakistan, 85 percent of Muslims in Afghanistan, and 89 percent of Muslims in the Palestinian territory support stoning as a punishment for adultery. The study also reveals that 86 percent of Muslims in Egypt, 79 percent of Muslims in Afghanistan, and 76 percent of Muslims in Pakistan believe leaving Islam should be punishable by death. These are human rights issues that all humanists should publicly acknowledge.
Although criticizing Islamic doctrine is no more racist than criticizing Christian doctrine, some atheists’ idea of criticizing Islam is to stereotype Muslims. For example, I once saw a meme in an online atheist community of a Sikh playing basketball with the words, “He suddenly got excited when his coach said they were doing suicides.” (A “suicide” in basketball is an exercise where you run the entire court touching down in intervals until you’ve completed the exercise on both sides of the court.) Not only are Sikhism and Islam two separate religions, but insinuating a brown person with a head wrap is a terrorist is just as racist as suggesting an African-American boy with a hoodie is a thug.
The anti-Muslim bigotry in the atheist community isn’t limited to just ridiculous memes. Sam Harris infamously wrote a few years ago that “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.” Although Islam is not tied to one specific ethnicity, Harris’s suggestion that “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim” should be profiled is, in practice, racial profiling.
In a post on FreethoughtBlogs.com titled “When and How Criticizing Islam Takes a Turn for the Racist,” ex-Muslim Heina Dadabhoy writes,
[T]hough Islam might not be a race, people do treat Muslims as if they are part of a single racial category. It is widely assumed that all Muslims are Arabs and that all Arabs are Muslims….The stereotyping of Muslims, then, comes from racism and is a part of racism against Middle-Easterners (and, more broadly, the Other) rather than is equivalent to or is racism. Because Muslims are widely perceived and stereotyped to be a certain race, i.e. not white, criticism that is purported to be of Islam can end up being dressed-up racist statements against Arabs.
This underlying anti-Muslim bigotry in the atheist community frustrates many ex-Muslims, including activist Kiran Opal, who says, “I have seen the stigma and ostracism many people who question or stop following Islam face from their own families and communities. I have also seen how quickly many ex-Muslims get picked up and supported by reactionary Westerners, who are looking for any excuse to justify their hatred of Muslims.” Opal, who has contributed to the blogs Ex-Communications and TheExMuslim.com, has seen many atheists try to pass off anti-Muslim stereotypes as legitimate criticisms of Islam:
They will spread disgusting imagery that is meant to degrade all Muslims or even all Arabs and Asian people. These are the “atheists” who will only speak about things like women’s rights, or LGBT rights, or animal cruelty, or violence when it can be blamed on Muslims, but will never address it in any other context, especially not when it’s “their people” who perpetuate those things. That’s how you know someone is a bigot, not a reasonable critic: when they will target only one group with their “criticism” and it’s never the groups they themselves identify with. That’s the quickest way to identify a bigot.
When it comes to being an ally for any marginalized group, the best thing to do is listen to other people’s stories. Indeed, there are many diverse sources online to further understand complex issues. For example, the Ex-Muslims of North America aim to be a safe place from both Islamic dogma and anti-Muslim bigotry. According to their “About Us” page,
There are those who propagate racist, bigoted and xenophobic ideas against Muslims, against anyone who comes from a Muslim background, and even against people who are not Muslim at all (e.g. Sikhs). These types of people (the bigots) tend to treat all Muslims (or all those perceived to be Muslim) as a monolith, a horde without internal differences or dissent. On the other hand, there are those who react to the bigoted, xenophobic types by trying to justify the violent parts of Islam and the harsh actions of some Muslims. This second type (the apologists) often shields Islam and Muslims from any and all critique and scrutiny, even the kinds of critique and scrutiny they themselves apply to other ideologies like Christianity, Capitalism, Communism, and others.
Human rights violations committed in the name of Islam need to be openly discussed and condemned by everyone, religious and secular. However, in order to provide a safe space for ex-Muslims, humanists must listen to and understand the complexities of their stories. As Opal concludes, “Criticism of Islam or Islamism should be contextualized in terms of other things that are going on as well that are causing the problems as well. This is to ensure that your message, i.e. your critique of particular aspects of Islam, is not used by bigots to promote hatred against all Muslims.”
[Correction: Bill Maher did say Ahmed Mohamed deserves an apology]