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Islam and the New Atheists

I do like James Bloodworth and I think he’s done a great job building up the profile of Left Foot Forward since taking up the reins. But his recent piece for The SpeccieIt’s fine to be a ‘new’ atheist, so long as you don’t object to Islam reads like it was written in haste. As such it is unsophisticated and limited, the article fails to think through the object of his polemic. And it lacks the unpardonable N-word: nuance.

The point he makes is a well-worn one. James argues that the so-called New Atheists of the Dawkins/Hitchens type are getting it in the neck for criticising Islam from some parts of the left. The exhibits wheeled out are Glenn Greenwald and Owen Jones, but you could take your pick from many, many more. Comrades like Glenn and Owen contend that against the background of a generalised antipathy toward Islam which, in turn, is stoked up by powerful vested interests on either side of the Atlantic; the reactionary and the bigoted can use the critiques of Islam by the trendy atheists for their own ends. Hence the latter have culpability for their arguments. After all, the right to free speech comes with the responsibility for it.

Think of it like this. Imagine the new atheism arrived in Britain three or four decades ago. The Provisional IRA’s campaign on the British mainland was in full swing. Irish people living here have to put up with a press backlash, which gives succour to occasional bouts of harassment, victimisation and violent assaults. Now, if the Dawkins analogue or one of his apostles went out of their way to attack Catholicism in the name of secularism and atheism, what are the likely consequences of those arguments? No effect at all? Or, when among the more backward and lumpen elements of the population, Catholicism and ‘being Irish’ is synonymous; will it add to the climate of hostility Irish residents had to face?

Well, we don’t have to play historical thought experiments because this is the case now, albeit Muslims are the scapegoat and hate figures for the Tory press and far right. Take, for example, the recent controversy over Anne Marie Waters’ shortlisting for the Brighton Pavillion seat and her endorsement of Catriona Ogilvy in Croydon Central. Naturally, Waters has every right to claim Islam is “new to Europe” and argue “it is not a peaceful religion”. But in so doing, she absolutely deserves to be called out for it. After all, what kind of leftist sets themselves up as the atheist scourge of Islam when Mosques are getting bombed, fascist thugs are on the streets “protesting” against Muslims, and that for large swathes of the population ‘Muslim’ is just another word for ‘Paki’. That to me is a “leftist” who needs to re-examine their politics.

It’s a question of bridging the gap between criticising Islamism and attacking Islam. Some elements of the left are prepared to soft pedal the former because, despite themselves occasionally, they believe there is a fundamental identity between each. Anti-Islam secularists and atheists are of the same view, but draw diametrically opposed conclusions. I think it’s perfectly reasonable and possible to distinguish between the mainstream and the extreme, have a critical relationship with the latter, and yet defend Muslims from the racist right and their useful idiots in the liberal-left.

James concludes, “should you wish to apply your critical faculties objectively to all religions, be prepared for the shrill accusations of prejudice that will inevitably follow you around – not so much from believers, but from your fellow liberal atheists.” This won’t do. Context, as they say, is everything. James’s plea to abstract rationalism is naive in the extreme and treats this dispute as a question of debating ethics. It’s not, it’s a political problem and as such is tied up in a mess of interests and struggles. And as such, whatever the intentions of the new atheists and their fellow travellers, the way their arguments are pushed and framed have consequences in the real world – consequences that are ultimately inimical to the rationalist values they hold dear.


  1. James Bloodworth says:

    There are a number of problems I have with this critique and there are a number of faulty assumptions I believe it rests upon.

    The main thrust appears to be: don’t criticise Islam, lest you give succour to the domestic white far-right.

    This isn’t a new argument (Islam is simply the latest in a long line of ‘actors’ that should seemingly be sheltered from criticism), but it is nearly always a deleterious one. The reason being that it always amounts to the following, as Orwell puts it:

    “Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively,” which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.”

    It’s quite easy from this to argue, as UAF have done, that criticising even the most extreme Islamists “feeds Islamophobia”. From here it is (as we have seen again and again from numerous leftists and left organisations) only a short step to openly embracing clerics who call for the murder of homosexuals as well as groups like Hamas, who view women as chattel and wish to (let’s be honest) wipe out the Jewish people.

    Once you accept the premise that it’s good politics to lie (or remain silent, which often amounts to the same thing), anything which may ‘aid the enemy’ soon becomes off limits.

    You ask: “what kind of leftist sets themselves up as the atheist scourge of Islam when Mosques are getting bombed, fascist thugs are on the streets “protesting” against Muslims, and that for large swathes of the population ‘Muslim’ is just another word for ‘Paki’.”

    I must say that it would be very nice if some on the left did position themselves as opponents of Islam (not only Islam, of course, but all conservative religion). It would then be much less easy for racists like the EDL (the ones who do bomb mosques) to portray themselves as speaking up for secularism (an absurd proposition, but one believed by many white working class people because the left has singularly failed so abysmally in this respect ).

    It would also be welcomed by the increasingly well organised groups of Ex-Muslims and atheists in the “Muslim community” who, tellingly, aren’t even worthy of mention in the above criticism.

    One of the assumptions in your post seems also appears to be that criticism of Islam by the ‘new atheists’ is comparable to the scapegoating of the Tory press and the far right. I find this criticism strange in that the Tory press and the far right aren’t really bothered about Islam as such, but non-white people. Presumably you are aware of that – so why take groups like the EDL at face value for the sake of argument? If we already know that the EDL are not coming from the same place as liberal secularists when they rant about Muslims, why pretend that it is hard to tell the difference between their pseudo and politically expedient ‘secularism’ and the genuine secularism of liberal atheists? Or is it only hard for dim working class folk (who might be drawn to the EDL) to tell the difference between the two?

    I don’t, as it happens, believe that it should ever be left to the likes of the EDL to point out that Salman Rushdie can publish whatever he likes and that cartoonists should not be murdered for mocking the “Prophet”. Nor do I believe that pointing out that Islam, like all religions, is a manmade delusion, has anything to do with mosques being bombed. Muslims in Britain and abroad are attacked and killed in large part by the white racist right and by other, more fanatical Muslims. Neither of these movements is in any sense the result of liberal critiques of religion. In fact, the opposite holds true: both are mirror images of each other that share a comparable hatred for the open society.

    A consequence of the left’s mollycoddling of not only Islam but, inevitably, of extreme interpretations of it, ultimately has results not dissimilar to the thuggery of the white far-right, for brown skinned fascists are no more tolerable to the vast majority of Muslims than the white skinned sort.

    Fraternally comrade,

  2. James Martin says:

    A useful article given that these issues desperately need a more open, and above all, a more honest debate.

    On the one hand you have some of the extreme nonsense around the term ‘Islamophobia’, which in many ways reminds me of the very wet liberal stuff of the 70s and 80s where if you happened to criticise the politics of anyone who was black you were somehow a racist. Now any criticisms of Islam are treated in much the same way, with the wet liberals these days being replaced by either the disintegrating SWP or obsessives like Bob Pitt’s ‘Islamaphobia Watch’.

    And being honest I really don’t know what the term is meant to mean. For example, I openly and regularly criticise the Catholic church – but I have yet to be accused of Catholicaphobia.

    I suspect that we are still dealing with some of the failures of ‘multiculturalism’ that was deliberately imposed by the establishment (and enthusiatically taken up by the liberal left) as an alternative to working class solidarity and integration. As a result we now have many on the left who while opposing things like academies and free schools in general terms, in practice shy away from directly opposing those that happen to be Muslim.

    And it is at that level where the threats of multiculturalism are greatest. Islam on a world scale is probably one of the most racially diverse religions out there. The problem is when you are dealing with some parts of the UK (particularly the northern towns like the one I live in), then this is not the case, and in many areas Islam is by default 100% asian. What then happens when you have the establishment of Islamic nurseries, and now Islamic free schools and colleges, and combine that with already segregated housing, is both a religious and a racial apartheid.

    The consequences of such religious and racial seperation should be obvious to all, and yet most of the left seem to ignore it. Why is this? Are people really so afraid of being labelled Islamophobic that they will allow real and dangerious ghettos to be created by some often pretty reactionary clerics? Sadly it appears to me that they are.

    This is not to say Dawkins is correct in his own liberal-enlightenment approach, as from his own middle class standpoint he equally fails to understand how genuine secular integration can only be achieved by working class unity and joint struggle. Indeed, on a world scale the ‘Islamic states’ that exist only came about by the defeat of the largely muslim working class within them (Iran being a significant example of what happens when a successful workers revolution suffers a defeat at the hands of clerics).

    So let’s have a proper debate, but I would suggest that the only way to do that is by dropping reactionary terms such as ‘Islamophobia’

  3. Rod says:

    ” the 70s and 80s where if you happened to criticise the politics of anyone who was black you were somehow a racist.”


  4. Andy Newman says:

    “Nor do I believe that pointing out that Islam, like all religions, is a manmade delusion”

    ooh you are big and clever.

  5. So speaks the censorious witch hunter from “Socialist Unity”.

    At least Brighton CLP selected a candidate with some experience of tackling Islamism.

    With the murder of Muhamed Brahmi in Tunisia by the Islamist far right, it is time for the left to wake up and oppose this fascist tendency and stop pretending that people like Quadarwi and others have anything at all to do with progressive politics.

    The Tunisian Union the UGTT has called a general strike over this:

    We should be supporting the secular movements in the Middle East not underming them like Newman, Galloway and the SWP do.

  6. “but all conservative religion”


    You seem to be implying here that there are ‘mainstream’ religions which are not conservative, if so some examples please. The very essence of these religions is their conservatism, its what makes them such attractive vehicles for state power to harness.

    Just look at the UK, where the head of state is also the head of the church. The main enemy really is at home and they do not reside in a mosque

  7. Curtis says:

    Given that anti-Semitic attacks across Europe peaked during operation Cast Lead back in 2009, does the author think the same thing about criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism? In the Swedish city of Malmo things apparently got so bad that a Swedish Minister told the city’s Jewish population to “distance themselves from the foreign policy of Israel.”

    When among the more “backward and lumpen elements of the population” as you put it, being Jewish is synonymous with the state of Israel, should we therefore mute our criticism of Israel because of the risk of fomenting anti-Semitic attacks? No, of course not, and neither do other people on the Chomskyite left like Glenn Greenwald who have made a career out of attacking Israel. Which shows that this line of argument is more about ideology than some pragmatic attempt to prevent the spread of Islamophobia.

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