A lot of people are simply not paying attention. It is, of course, true that the so-called “new atheists” are opposed to religion, and what makes their opposition in some sense “new” is the frank openness of their opposition. Some opponents call it strident and shrill. Academic criticism of religion is one thing, and the new atheism is something completely different, even though, to a large extent, it is anchored in proponents who are either academics or are at least not strangers to academic discussion and the intellectual rigours of academic debate. Yet lately they are accused of leaving that rigour behind, and, in the words of one of the latest commentators:
The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason.
The words are those of Nathan Lean, one of the latest to join the ranks of those criticising what they perceive as the extremism of the new atheism. I take the words from another new critic of the new atheism, Jerome Taylor, whose article, “Atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris face Islamophobia backlash,” appeared yesterday in the Independent. And Taylor seems to be fully in accord with other critics, ending his article with another quote from Lean, who claims that the new atheism “sprinkles intellectual atheism on top of the standard neocon, right-wing worldview of Muslims.”
One of the problems with the “new criticism” is that their criticism seems to be as incendiary and ill-founded as, according to them, the new atheist critique of Islam. Indeed, none of them seem to be above misrepresenting the objects of their criticism. For instance, in this latest sally forth from their fastnesses in Britain’s premier newspapers and magazines, Jerome Taylor says, without any qualification, that Sam Harris,
Wearing a palpable disdain for Islam on his sleeve he has also written in favour of torture, pre-emptive nuclear strikes and the profiling not just of Muslims but “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be a Muslim.”
While I think that Harris would have been better off had he left his remarks on torture or pre-emptive nuclear strikes unsaid, it is only fair to point out that those who make this kind of blanket statement are seriously misrepresenting what he does say under these headings. Indeed, while the criticism of Islam in fairly general terms seems to me to be justified, given the written evidence of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, there is no excuse for someone like Jerome Taylor to ignore the contexts and the qualifications in terms of which Harris has spoken of torture or pre-emptive nuclear attack. Nor is it obvious that Harris is “using [his] particularly anti-Islamic brand of rational non-belief to justify American foreign policies over the last decade,” as Nathan Lean suggests in his Salon article, “Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia,” which Taylor quotes with approbation.
One of the problems here, I believe, is that the new atheists have devoted themselves largely to the criticism of Christianity, and their remarks on Islam have tended to be prompted mainly by events, rather than by systematic study and critique of Islam itself. They have done so, for the most part, because they do not feel qualified to criticise Islam in depth. Indeed, as Richard Dawkins recently revealed, some of them have not even read the Qur’an. Of course, that would not settle matters, for the Qur’an itself is not given an historical context. As an apparently timeless revelation, understanding of the Qur’an is impossible without the interpretive gloss provided by extra-Qur’anic sources, such as the Sira (or biography of Muhammad) and the Sunnah, which comprises the whole complex of Qur’an, Sira and Hadith (the remembered sayings of the prophet of Islam). And even then, the Islamic doctrine of abrogation, in which earlier revelations are suppressed in favour of new revelations, is nowhere clearly explained. So, reading the Qur’an is not, in itself, sufficient to ground a comprehensive criticism of Islam. Yet Islam itself, since it makes such large and implacable claims, is in serious need of criticism. Indeed, since its eruption onto the Western stage and into the Western consciousness, on 11 September 2001, and the continued threat of violence from Muslims in response to any perceived insult to its prophet, or criticism of the finality of the revelation supposedly vouchsafed to him, such criticism is an immediate and urgent necessity.