New Atheism and the art of civilised dialogue – Part II

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Sabahat Ali Rajput, Missionary, Mexico

New Atheists are supremely skillful at releasing the poison gas of hatred against Islam into the minds of the masses. They ride the wave of Islamophobia like no other and this lays the perfect groundwork for a divided society. According to the Pew Research Centre, what was once simply hate speech against Muslims has escalated in recent years to threats, vandalism and even physical assault, totalling over 300 cases of physical assault on Muslims a year in the United States. This venomous anti-Islamic rhetoric plants time-bombs in the hearts of people which detonate whenever any extremist decides to commit acts of terror.

In the UK as well, anti-Muslim hate crimes also reportedly saw a five-fold increase following the London Bridge attacks (“Anti-Muslim hate crimes increase fivefold since London Bridge attacks”, The Guardian, 7 June 2017. Accessed 16 December 2019. www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/07/anti-muslim-hatecrimes-increase-fivefold-since-londonbridge-attacks).

A few years later, 2017 saw a 26% spike from the previous year, while just last year following the Christchurch shootings, Britain recorded an astonishing 593% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. New Atheists have been planting this emotional land-mine into the hearts of their audiences since 9/11. In their condemnation of this attack, which had nothing to do with the religion of Islam, they do their level best to convince the world that Islam is at the root of all evil.

When it comes to granting Islam the crown of the most dangerous religion of them all, perhaps no one else deserves more applause than Sam Harris, author of End of Faith. A critical analysis of Sam Harris in The Guardian (a UK based paper with a circulation of over 150,000), for instance, reveals the very calculated and deliberate plan of New Atheists to dub Islam as the most lethal ideology in the world.

Glenn Greenwald, a former columnist at The Guardian, writes: “The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening:

‘While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.

“He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice Western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews:

‘It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.’ In his 2005 End of Faith, he claimed that ‘Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.’ This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that ‘we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.’ He has also decreed that ‘this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.’ ‘We’ – the civilized peoples of the West – are at war with ‘millions’ of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between ‘civilized’ people and Muslims:

‘All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.” (“Sam Harris, the New Atheists and anti-Muslim animus”, The Guardian, 3 April 2013. Accessed 16 December 2017. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/ apr/03/sam-harris-muslim-animus)

Sensitivity to religious sentiments vs. freedom of speech While freedom of speech is unquestionably a fundamental human right which must be safeguarded with great care, there are times when it must be interpreted according to the situation. What happens when one fundamental human right infringes upon another basic human right?

Dawkins himself admits to the serious dilemma that is faced when two different freedoms contradict. When asked, “A (religious) community sets up a school … but doesn’t subscribe to your views (on evolution, etc.) Now, is that a freedom of speech thing for them, to be able to teach what they want, or not?” Dawkins replied, “That is very difficult, because there, we’re trespassing on the tussle between the freedom of speech of parents to impose their views on children and the freedom of children to be educated without having erroneous views … imposed upon them.” (BBC Newsnight. “Richard Dawkins on Islam, Jews, science and the burka”)

There are times when the freedom to express aloud one’s thoughts and opinions diametrically opposes the basic requirements of respect – this is often referred to as being “politically incorrect”.

With the upsurge of New Atheism, this overlap, or contradiction, between two fundamental human rights has rekindled an age-old debate; this time about the “hypersensitivity” of religious sentiments versus the right to criticise religious belief openly. Thus, Prof Dawkins writes:

“A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – the nonreligious included – is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.” (Ibid)

He wastes no time in quoting a famous excerpt from an extempore speech delivered by Douglas Adams at the University of Cambridge:

“Religion … has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’

“Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that’s holy?

“Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be” (Ibid)

So far as Islam is concerned, all three of these points are either baseless or misdirected. As usual, New Atheists try to stultify religious beliefs by wrongly equating the venerable with the commercial. There are always reasons for why certain things are considered offensive to religious people, just as there are reasons why certain things are considered offensive to non-religious people – it is whatever they consider politically correct.

Extremists are an infinitesimal minority

The first statement that Douglas Adams, in his speech quoted by Dawkins, attributes to believers, is “Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!”

The average Muslim is very unlikely to forbid a critic of his faith to rationally analyse Islamic teachings or ask critical questions about Islam, and instead of providing a clarifying answer, just declare that he’s not allowed to discuss the subject. Even if he does, he would be acting independently of the teachings of Islam. By the same token, there are admittedly extremist factions who hold this view, but we must not forget that these are the extremist factions; they do not represent Islam or the average Muslim’s beliefs. Insinuating that the average religious person forbids others from critically analysing his beliefs, just “because” it is against the fact and is a self-serving exaggeration.

Secondly, the misleading phrase, “Extremist Islam” is an ideological venom which does not at all represent Islam’s actual teachings. If the purpose is just to malign any religion, or to point to its extremist coterie of fanatics – who must be far astray from the genuine teachings of that religion – then the qualifier “extremist” could potentially apply to any religion with a fanatical fringe which misuses the name of that religion as a cover for its own nefarious agenda. Just because there is a miniscule minority of Muslims (less than 0.001%, according to Gallup’s biggest poll conducted across 35 countries, of over 50,000 Muslims) (http://twocircles.net/2008feb26/politics_not_piety_ dictate_radicals_muslim_world_poll.html) who commit atrocities in the name of Islam, attributing their evils to the faith does not at all mean that Islam does, in fact, teach those things. If a group of people decided to get up and (God forbid) detonate a bomb in the name of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, it would be a grave injustice to ascribe the bombing to the Richard Dawkins Foundation, just because the bombers claim that they did it in the name of this foundation.

Likewise, when barbaric savages claim that the unthinkable evils they commit are Islamic, one cannot blame Islam, unless Islam actually teaches that. In response to the second sweeping claim made by Adams – it is a ridiculous notion on several grounds. Firstly, the statement itself is totally false.

“To have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe…” is not holy. Atheists have an opinion regarding how the universe began and whether it was created as well, or at all, for that matter. Their having a belief regarding the beginning of the universe does not make it holy at any level. It is when one attributes the creation of the heavens and the earth to a supreme being, that it can be called “holy”.

Difference of opinion is a mercy

In Islam, discussing differently held opinions regarding the origin, creation or non-creation of the universe is not forbidden at all. In fact, according to Dr Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate in Physics (1979), an eighth of the entire corpus of the Quran invites its followers to ponder over and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth (“The Future of Science in Islamic Countries”, alislam.org, 15 February 2017. Accessed 16 December 2017. www.alislam.org/library/science/future-of-sciencein-islamic-countries).

In fact, in verses 4 and 5 of chapter 67, the Holy Quran openly invites its readers to look for any flaw or incongruence in the creation of the universe by the Gracious God, then invites them again, and again, and yet again – a total of four times in just two verses. Debate and dialogue have always been central to the Islamic thought-process. Since the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa himself, his Companionsra and those who came after them would discuss amongst themselves and express difference of opinion on a variety of topics.

At times, they were even corrected or bested in discourse and dialectics by eminent women like Hazrat Aishara and later by Hazrat Rabiah Basrirh. (The New World Encyclopaedia. Johannesburg: 20th Century Distributors, 1956. Under Rabia Basri) (Widad As-Sakkakini, First Among Sufis: The Life and Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya, the Woman Saint of Basra, London: Octagon Press, 1982)

What many may not know is that immediately following the famous statement made by the Holy Prophetsa of Islam, that “[my] companions are like the stars…” he deemed the intellectual dialogue and difference of opinion of his companions a mercy for the entire Muslim world. (Al-Mazhkal Ila As-Sunanil-Kubra Ila Baihaqiyy)

The institution of consultation, where the different viewpoints of the companions were taken into consideration before almost every major decision was made, dates to the early days of Islam. Hence, respectful dialogue has always underpinned the intellectual, moral, and secular success of true Islam.

Thirdly, Mr Adams’ statement that “there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other” is a notion to which – in principle – Islam fully agrees. Every person has the right to have an opinion under the freedom of thought and under the freedom of expression, also reserves the right to express himself; his fellow man also reserves the right to have an opinion contrary to that.

Adams further posits that it is simply unfair that someone can depict political leaders in a negative manner, being critical of them without any consequence, but when religious figures are portrayed in a similar manner, it results in an uproar. Dawkins also writes in The God Delusion about this:

“I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defence. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 27 [2006])

John Stuart Mill – the famous social scientist, known as the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century (https://plato.stanford. edu/entries/mill), who laid down the fundamental groundwork of modern constitutions, has drawn a crucial line regarding freedom of speech, arguing that freedom of speech ends where it is causing harm to others:

“… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (www.econlib.org/library/Mill/mlLbty1.html)

The teachings of Islam have always championed freedom of speech and the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa, who was described by his dear wife Aishara as an embodiment of the Holy Quran, always practiced tolerance in the face of adversarial or personally undesirable speech by an opponent. Even as the democratically elected head of state in Medina, he never resorted to violence when facing verbal abuse from his adversaries. His regular response was tolerance and forgiveness; but whenever he responded to reasoned criticisms, he did so with verbal and intellectually reasoned rebuttals.

When, for instance, Kaab ibn Ashraf publicly hurled verbal abuse at the Holy Prophetsa (while the Prophetsa was the leader of the state), the only action he took was to ask Hassan bin Thabitra to compose a poem in response to Kaab bin Ashraf ’s indecent speech. (Al-Bidayah wa’an-Nihayah, Tarikh ibn Kathir. Accessed 16 December 2017. http://qurango.com/history.html, Vol. 5, pp. 326-336)

When freedoms become shackles

In addition to championing freedom of speech, Islam also draws a much-needed dividing-line where freedom of speech may become a source of harm for others. International human rights frameworks also agree with this necessary clause. For example, Article II, Section 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states about free speech:

“… since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, [it] may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others…” (European Convention on Human Rights. Accessed 14 December 2017. www. hrcr.org/docs/Eur_Convention/euroconv3. html)

The UK also strictly prohibits unbridled freedom of speech on the basis that it creates destructive social divides and threatens the peace of the nation. The basic dictates of civility demand that each person in any society ensure that he or she does not utter such speech as might be injurious to his fellow human-beings – let alone spewing irreverent sentiments and opinions which cause entire nations or religious faith-groups to become offended and deeply hurt.

If individuals cannot abide by these basic principles of communal respect, then it is the responsibility of the government to not only guarantee an environment of emotional and social peace, but to do so “for the protection of the reputation and rights of others.”

Islam calls for members of society to observe tolerance and patience when dealing with those who refuse to observe the dictates of good manners and civility. This was precisely the unfaltering practice of the Holy Foundersa of Islam, who faced such severe persecution, torture and grief at the hands of his fellow countrymen, yet upheld an immaculate model of fortitude and patient perseverance in spite of it.

The Islamic solution

This path of tolerance is exhorted by the Holy Quran, which urges people to respond to hostile or disrespectful speech with peaceful conduct and even humility, where it is conducive to promoting peace and avoiding conflict in society. It observes:

وَ عِبَادُ الرَّحۡمٰنِ الَّذِیۡنَ یَمۡشُوۡنَ عَلَی الۡاَرۡضِ ہَوۡنًا وَّ اِذَا خَاطَبَہُمُ الۡجٰہِلُوۡنَ قَالُوۡا سَلٰمًا

“And the servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth in a dignified manner, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!’” (Surah al-Furqan, Ch.25: V.64)

The Holy Quran presents a truly balanced solution to the entire issue. It exhorts its followers to walk in the earth with such a demeanor as should avoid causing harm to people in society. The word haun, according to Aqrab-ul-Mawarid, means “to uphold mutual dignity, and act in a manner conducive to tranquility and peace.”

The Promised Messiahas has also translated the phrase to mean that “When ignorant people use harsh and upsetting language against them, they respond with a peaceful approach characterised by mercy and forbearance, meaning that instead of replying with harshness, they reply in a gentle and soft-spoken manner and instead of responding to foul language with the like, they respond with prayers.” (Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya, Vol. IV, Ruhani Khazain Vol. 1, pp. 448-449 [footnote])

And so, this is the sublime superstructure of peaceful and pure communication that Islam seeks to foster in society. The genius with which Islam has taught both sides of a conflict to conduct themselves is a shining testament to its desire for seeing true and long-lasting peace in society. At its root, Islam seeks to wash away misunderstandings and hate through transparent and respectful dialogue. After all, hatred is the opium of the ignorant – and love is the oxygen of true peace.

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