False impressions ought to be corrected. One of mine was that if you teach at a university, you have learned how to think, and you’ve accepted that while you have a right to your own opinion, you’re not entitled to your own facts.
I see now that I was wrong. Jamil Khader, a dean of research and professor of English at Bethlehem University in Palestine, has opened my eyes.
In an op-ed piece for Al Jazeera, Khader’s first conclusion-jumping mistake is to assert as fact that the Chapel Hill victims were murdered by an atheist because they were Muslims. (He even calls it, unbelievably enough, “an extra-judicial execution,” implying the behind-the-scenes involvement of some nefarious state player.)
I have spent more time than I wanted, these past four days, reminding people on both sides that we don’t yet know one way or the other. In other words, it’s seriously, disappointingly premature to insist that Craig Stephen Hicks killed out of atheistic fervor and anti-Muslim animus; just as it is distressingly partisan and over-early to aver that his anti-theism had nothing to do with it. When the investigators tell us what they’ve found, we’ll be a lot closer to the truth.
If Khader had left it there, I wouldn’t even be writing this (because I’d only be repeating myself). But look where he takes his argument:
Commentators who focus only on the Islamophobic sentiments of the perpetrator and frame this incident within the racial politics of the US, get it half right.
“New Atheism” as a system of belief may encourage critical inquiry into and scepticism about all religious doctrines and ideologies, but New Atheist politics suspends its critical acumen when it engages with Islam and Palestine. It is not a coincidence that the terrorist who committed this massacre admired Bill Maher and other self-professed new atheists.
Wait, how did Palestine get in there?
These ideologues and propagandists share two main ideological strands common in popular discourses in the US; neo-conservative beliefs and Zionist Christian evangelism. That is; they are united by an irrational hatred for and fear of Islam and Muslims as well as an unwavering support for the Israeli apartheid state and its colonial-settler campaign and genocidal policies in Palestine.
When I think back to Maher’s 2008 documentary Religulous, the thing I remember most is how he went to Israel and beautifully needled religious authorities about the ways in which Orthodox Jews circumvent the Sabbath rules against using phones, elevators, wheelchairs, and other electricity-powered devices. Like so:
Scenes like that don’t exactly paint Maher as a Zionist sympathiser. Moreover, he was raised Catholic and has never identified as a Jew. If he’s a Zionist, he’s the only Zionist I know of who has been (recklessly and falsely, I think) accused of being an anti-semite.
It looks to me as if Khader is more interested in slapping simplistic labels on people than he is in considering going beyond the binary fantasy that people who criticize Islam — as Maher rightly does — must be in cahoots with Jews who want to crush Palestine.
I think of myself as a New Atheist, but nothing I’ve ever written could reasonably lead anyone to believe that I am a fan of Judaism, or that I love the state of Israel so much that I support whatever its most reactionary representatives have in store for the denizens of Gaza.
It would surprise me to learn that other, more prominent New Atheists, such as Harris and Dawkins, are markedly different from me in that regard. If you weren’t already convinced of Khader’s taste for selective perception, try this on for size:
In cases of white-on-Muslim violence, there is a total [media] blackout.
In reality, of course, last week’s killings of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were national news. Google currently returns 4.7 million results for the phrase “Chapel Hill murders,” and I’ll bet that easily half of those links go to American sites, including reports by CNN, NPR, ABC, CBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and so on.
If Khader means that his “total blackout” term applies instead to state violence (such as drone attacks) against targets in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, he’s in for a rude awakening if he ever decides to check the truth of the allegation.
It’s probably true that the Pentagon and the White House would love a media blackout when it comes to independent reporting of the damage America does in the Middle East. But this country doesn’t work that way. The New York Times alone has published in excess of five hundred articles about U.S. drone attacks, plus an impressive sheaf of Wikileaks documents that Washington fought to keep secret.
The newspaper’s digital archive also returns more than 2,600 results for Abu Ghraib (a scandal that, by the way, was broken by the New Yorker and CBS), and 12,200 results for Guantánamo.
That‘s what a media blackout looks like?
For the record, regarding “white-on-Muslim” violence, I’d like to point out that this New Atheist is hardly blind to the role that U.S. foreign policy sometimes plays in motivating terrorist slaughter. I try to do my tiny part to effect change. I’ve never voted for pro-war candidates. On my social-media accounts, I’ve denounced sabre-rattling and drone attacks. Twelve years ago today as I write this, I joined 500,000 other demonstrators on a brutally cold day in Manhattan, all of us (to no avail) protesting the then-impending U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The U.S. government, over the past 50 years or so, has made many boneheaded, condemnable moves: from propping up the Shah of Iran to getting in bed with the detestable Saudi royals to selling Americans on a war against a dictator who had no hidden WMDs. As a member of the reality-based community, I can acknowledge all that without having to pretend that Islam is a religion of peace. I can criticize my country’s foreign failures and still point out that radical Islam, back in the 1940s and 50s, was built in part on a morality-based hatred of the West — decades before America began to destabilize some Muslim countries with shady shenanigans.
Also, being an atheist foe of radical Islam doesn’t preclude me from pushing back against ideas that attack Islam with too broad a brush. You can see this in my scribblings on this site, and in much of the controversial interview I did with Ayaan Hirsi Ali for Reason.
Jamil Khader, in his nuance-free calumny, seems incapable of teasing such things apart. (Come on: dean of research? It’s time he did some.)
No one ought to believe that New Atheists are unimpeachable. But accusations of Islamophobia — and genocidal Zionism, no less — easily crumble under the weight of the available evidence.