Dialogue Between ‘Nice’ and ‘Militant’ Atheist – Concerning being nice and Islam

Jeff:     I heard you on that chat-show, last night.

Dick:   Ah, yeah?

Jeff:    Yes, it was really good. Well-done and all … but did you have to be so, I dunno, harsh?

Dick:   What you mean?

Jeff:    I dunno. I’m just wondering, with your eloquence and obvious intelligence, do you really need your points to be felt rather than heard, do you really need to add mockery to your criticism?

Dick:   Well, perhaps mockery is part of my criticism – if that’s the case, then if you welcome my criticism, you also endorse the mockery that goes with it.

Jeff:    Ah, come on. I accept your ‘points’ against what Islam says and does, you know, we can all agree that it treats women like chattel and is poor in justifying self-reflection … but did you have to add that Islam is a ‘death-cult under the shadow of self-righteousness, a bloody-thirsty hypocrite who screams at the advancing wall of civilisation by typing on a keyboard’? Did you have to say Muslims are ‘strapping young lads … with bombs’? Did you have to say they ‘put women in bags, children in paranoia and themselves in agony’?

Dick:   The problem is when you take my thoughts like that out of context, of course it sounds harsh. However, I do justify why I think that. If you agree that Islam treats its women like chattel, then you must agree that they put women in bags. If you agree that the way a lot of Muslims educate children – ‘the West is bad’, ‘Islam is the greatest thing that can occur to anyone, even if we have to ensure that with force’ – then putting them in a state of paranoia is truly the same thing. And I am not the one saying it is a death-cult: their own believers have endorsed death as a viable alternative to life, and are willing to prove that to us again and again.

Jeff:    Yes, but why can you not make those points without mockery and being harsh?

Dick:   As I said, it may appear harsh out of context, but it is no harsher than a lot of things people say about political-views, restaurants, and so on. Why can’t we speak about religion and religious people in this way, too?

Jeff:    Because they are not restaurants, or politicians! They are not trying to … well, maybe they are, I don’t know, but they have not defined themselves as entities which should be open to such criticism. Most of these people are good, kind, decent. There is no need to be so harsh to them.

Dick:   You are making too many divergent points. Firstly, no ‘entity’ chooses to be a target of mockery. It simply occurs that they become as such: there was a time when there was no such thing as celebrities, but with their rise in stature and the awareness of how society rewards people with no talent and grand egos, there was a space in which to criticise such things. Similarly, no restaurant wants to be widely criticised – but if the food is truly horrible, we will do that. Similarly, if the goals of political views somehow negatively affects my life and those who I love, am I expected to roll over nicely because it would hurt somebody’s feelings? Surely, not! Similarly, another ideological group seeks to influence my life – either by destroying it or in other negative ways. Am I expected to roll over because someone might have their feelings hurt? And, you say, these people who I mock are ‘good, kind’, etc. – many killers during the Nazi regime were also good, kind, like Eichmann. But so what? Being good or kind tells me nothing about what beliefs they hold, nor what beliefs they support. If it is stupid, I will say as much. I am not better than them, I am not smarter than them; to say we shouldn’t criticise them is to treat them like children, it’s to say we can mock restaurants but not their religion because we might hurt their feelings. I do not think any adult should be treated like a child, so why should I do that for Muslims?

Jeff:    Hm, I take your points. But I still don’t agree that the average Muslim beliefs Islam is a death-cult or is seeking the destruction of Western civilisation. After all, there is no central-body of Islam or rather there is no one group that speaks for Islam and all Muslims. To say that all Muslims do this is an almost-racism. Indeed, to treat all Muslims as terrorists is basically Islamophobia. You claim that because Islam is a death-cult, according to you, you have a licence to treat anyone who subscribes to it as basically endorsing that death-cult status.

Dick:   I agree it is wrong to treat all Muslims as potential terrorists – anyone is a potential terrorist! We know that thoroughbred American boys and girls can grow up to fly themselves into anything they want, too. Nonetheless, you are conflating Islam, the religion, with Muslims, those who claim to subscribe to it. I also think that term Islamophobia is a useless term, and one that only seeks to paint critics of Islam with the brush of racism, in order to encourage self-censorship. In any case, consider a country like North Korea: it is a horrid place, filled with suffering, death and constant worship. One is not a person in any recognisable way because you have no freedom at all. Yet, we can call it all these names, but are we saying all North Koreans endorse it, welcome it? Surely not, as they themselves tell us. They either leave North Korea or they try, in an ultimately futile attempt, to change it from the inside. Imagine Islam as a country, and our criticisms still stand: it sends combatants out to destroy us, it sends messages of hate, etc. What’s the difference? Well, people who leave Islam either don’t consider themselves religious at all, anymore, or can try integrate themselves in other countries. You can never escape where you were born or where you grew up – that is a physical place. But to escape your metaphysical and moral assumptions gained from Mommy’s knee? Yes, you can. And then you are no longer a part of that ‘country’ of Islam. Anyway, my point is that Muslims themselves are welcome to – and sometimes, rarely, they do – criticise Islam. However, from within, nothing is happening that even matches it. It is concrete. All Muslims are fundamentalist Muslims, according to what we consider fundamentalist Christians: to be Muslim, you must believe the word of god is absolute, binding, perfect, concrete, eternal, as it is written. Some so-called liberal Christians of course do not think so of their Bible – they see it as allegory, not every word is true, etc. But Muslims have to believe this. So I am working from the definition Muslims claim for themselves, from articles and books and what their leaders say.

Jeff:    Still, most Muslims I know would never endorse violence as an answer. They are peaceful, trying to understand the world; just like you and me. To be so dismissive of them, to say ‘oh they’re actually all fundamentalist’ does not remove you from being Islamophobic – it makes it worse! You are sounding like a bigot. You have no right, just because you think Islam is bad, to call all those who endorse it bad, too!

Dick:   I did not say they were all bad or evil or terrible people. Your charge of Islamophobia is leading you astray. Your ‘most Muslims’ are most people’s ‘most Muslims’, in many parts of the world. The point remains: criticising Islam automatically means criticising Muslims. And all Muslims, by definition, have to believe the tents of Islam fundamentally – that is, that the Quran is the word of god, etc. You can’t escape that.

Jeff:     My argument remains: why make your points so emotionally, so unnecessarily lyrically, rather than another way?

Dick:   Well, just from a communication’s perspective, it has a greater impact. For example, you noticed, you remembered. The most important aspect of criticising traditional, axiomatic and long-held beliefs is to raise awareness. If people take notice by the sudden overturning of a taboo, they will hear the cracks it makes in most people’s deeply held beliefs as it collapses.

Jeff:     Is that a sophisticated way of saying ‘because people will notice me’?

Dick:   Not me, the cause itself. There are always better people than oneself who can talk about why women are treated badly and must be released from their positions in Islamic communities, always better people to discuss education of children, etc. If you can start shattering taboos, and you are cornered, you can always point to better sources than yourself who have been saying the same things for some time. I can at least act as a gateway to better thinkers.

Jeff:     So after trying to draw the spotlight, you want to turn it elsewhere.

Dick:   Very well put. Yes.

Jeff:     I don’t buy that. The spotlight will demand you answer for your own charges; it demands you stand up for your harsh criticisms. You can’t just pass it on.

Dick:   Oh no. My point is that I can justify my assertions and seemingly provocative statements. Remember, it is part of the criticism, not separate. You can’t separate it just because they seem harsh on their own. What’s harsh is not my calling Islam a death-cult, but my entire reason why I think it engenders suicides, martyrdom; what’s harsh is not my calling Islam a faith that puts women in chains, but my entire charge that Islam negates a woman’s personhood completely. In fact, if you think those cherry-picked parts are the harshest, then maybe I have failed. Because what’s harsh is not little bits but the entire criticism.

Jeff:     Perhaps then you ‘have’ failed because all I can remember is your harsh tones and mockery.

Dick:   Well, by making you aware of how my criticism works, perhaps next time you will integrate yourself into the whole thing, instead of just focusing on my rather boring but provocative statements.

Jeff:     Then why do I, as someone who is also an atheist, who agrees that most religions have dangerous parts to it – why is it that I remember the harsh parts?

Dick:   Honestly? Because you agree with me.

Jeff:     What!? But since the beginning…

Dick:   No, wait. Listen. The most important thing is this: you agree with me that religion is best left out our public life as much as possible; you agree that it must not influence how we educate our children; you agree it must not teach creationism; and so on. These, my friend, are the most devastating charge against religion! They have become a song that has been sung so long, many have adjusted to it. But that adjustment led to apathy and many religions have taken a chance to teach creationism, to influence its daughters to marry at 7, to kill us and so on. The most devastating aspect of religion has already been dealt with since the Enlightenment showed us why we must get rid of religion from politics, why the principles of secularism stand. You agree all the way up to here. That is why you don’t hear this but you do hear the so-called provocative parts. You don’t hear ‘there is no good reason to believe in god’, but you do hear ‘the god of the bible is a vindictive bastard’. You don’t hear ‘Islam can be dangerous’, but you do hear it being called a ‘death-cult’.

Jeff:     So because I am so used to the arguments, I don’t hear them.

Dick:   Yes. You are so used to them, that suddenly when they are embellished, they appear worse. But what’s worse is not calling someone’s god vindictive, but saying he doesn’t exist. I think you have forgotten that the harshest blows are done. But religions have a tough-skin as do all forms of irrationality. They adjust to pummelling, they no longer notice it. We can keep beating with the stick of reason onto the flesh of the insanity, but after awhile, it will get up and continue to build make-believe castles in the clouds. You agree with the beating – but when we suddenly dust away the clouds, you get upset. No, no, come now.

Jeff:     I still think there’s a problem.

Dick:   Well, let’s finish this wine and continue this later…

To the Muslims insulted by depictions of their Prophet

I greet you as someone who was once involved in your faith. I studied it adamantly for many years of my life, under as many Islamic scholars as my city had to offer. My parents, in an attempt at conveying a sense of morality and meaning, believed that drowning me in faith would force me to swallow some watered down version of religion. Parents continue to force religion on their children – often not in an attempt at maliciousness but in an attempt at cosmic protection, in an attempt of sublimating metaphysical casuistry, some certainty that the child’s ‘soul’ will be safe. Parents’ duties often are about protecting their child. To those terrified of a godless life – which probably rests more in the fear of life being meaningless rather than the soul condemned to hellfire – dunking children’s heads in water, whispering Arabic phrases in their ear, and severing parts of their genitalia could be equivocated to strapping on their seatbelt or holding their hand across the road.

You might think I am mocking your beliefs but I do not doubt a parent’s sincerity in protecting his or her child. It is no fault that our society views the so-called ‘great questions’ – what is my purpose? Who am I? How am I to live? What is good? – as falling strictly within the domain of the religious, when it should be for all and any who care to participate, using rational arguments and an open approach to dialogue. I received engagement with these ideas only after my secular schooling day ended, as the sun passed into dusk, with the haunting melodies of the imams as their long shadows stretched before me in the afternoon sun. I learnt about my life’s meaning in the words of the Prophet; I learnt about right and wrong from what Allah said to the Prophet through the angel Gibreel (Gabriel to the Christians); I was moved to tears by the beauty of the Prophet’s visions and his attempt at making the world a better place.

But I no longer see Islam that way. I see only flaws in answering any moral questions with religion. Many continue to talk about how beautiful Islam is or, more insultingly, that Islam is about peace. From my first days of Islamic scholarship, its history whispers its blood-trail as often as it does its conquest. Muslims will tell you with pride that Islam grew at an unprecedented rate, as great armies fell to the Muslims. But, like a boxer, they quickly switch feet and eloquently reprise the history of Islam’s peaceful blooming. Islam is premised on war, on conquering. The world is bifurcated between the lands of Islam and lands yet to be conquered. And, now, in these places the Muslims would consider yet to be conquered, the inhabitants have begun expressing their opinions about the Prophet, using monochromatic exclamations marks of deliberate offense.

You, my Muslim friends, see this as those of us who ‘worship manmade’ world-views tracing deep borders. You see us, like ballerinas with one foot deep in the sand, encircling you. You see us as we separate ourselves and you, as we give in to the war-mongering of ‘us and them’. You imagine that this border creation is exactly what to expect from us lovers of ‘freedom’ above ‘god’s laws’, idolisers of manmade values over ‘god’s word’, fornicators, masturbators, child molesters, Satanists, feminists, womanisers, prostitutes, homosexuals. I have been called some of these terms by Muslims before – many of them blatantly not true (homosexual, Satanist, child molester, etc.) and some which I am not ashamed though would not call myself (feminist, womaniser, fornicator, etc.).

To think that those cartoonists who depict caricatures of Muhammad, that writers who depict their version of the Prophet’s early life, are doing so to deliberately incite violence is to miss the point. Many of these people – some are my colleagues – are beyond bullying, beyond name-calling. Most of them are against violence of any kind, instead trying for peace in a world that rejects it. Some of us, like myself, have given up fighting for peace or a good world, realising that this will never happen; instead opting for amelioration over utopianism. Why even attempt this letter? For two reasons: firstly, if it can help push one person over the precipice of dogma into reason, then my job would be complete. Secondly, it serves to raise consciousness for this very important matter concerning a free, open world, in which we are able engage with our most important ability: freedom of expression. Freedom of expression, not violence, not bullying, not ‘incitement of religious hatred’ (what a horrific, arrogant notion) – but the ability to express our thoughts and minds without being killed for it.

We fight battles of every kind – individual and societal, subjective and global, familial and governmental. In order to bring light to those areas canvassed by the shadow of oppression, we must and can only use our free expression, our opinion and our passion. This ability has helped not millions but billions of people; since freedom of expression is the cornerstone of science, our longer and healthier lives are a result of it. And how many lives have changed, because enough expressed their dissent at being marginalised as a result of their sex, sexual orientation and ethnicity? And not just biological well-being but philosophical, too: how do we view the world, what are our opinions on the good life? The conversation of humanity is temporal as well as spatial, as we reach back in time to Plato for answers just as we would like to reach across the veils to our Muslim sisters. You are human. The circle you imagine we draw is not to separate you but to include you; as we come to realise the shortness and horror of life, the vivid transience that occurs with a subtle reflection on what it means to be human, we all wonder what can be done to at least make this little life better for all. The circle is an attempt at enclosing all of humanity in a single conversation, using free expression, without threats of violence. In a pluralised, adult world, there will be things we do not want to hear. But that is the cost of being in the adult circle, the adult world.

The conversation of humanity is also a tapestry, filled with vivid colours from multiple minds. You are part of that tapestry. By drawing your Prophet we confirm that you are grown up enough to realise you live with other fallible humans. Sure, we might be wrong. But by virtue of being human, this is the chance we take and why we must be allowed to offend. There is always the chance that what you hold to be sacred will in fact come to be considered absurd. Humanity is known as much for its brilliant ideas as for its very stupid ones, and both have probably been held with equally strong convictions. But by not being able to express our opinions on them – whether right or wrong – we will not discover our faults, our failures and our inconsistencies; we might all burn (especially people like me, who should be hunted and murdered according to your hadith, which also is mainly where the directives to oppose blasphemous depictions come from). But right now we are all struggling. We want you to laugh with us at the absurdity of stupid drawings, we want you to draw our leading thinkers with giant noses and turban-bombs. We want you to tell us about your secretive lives, your thoughts, your beliefs. I am interested as I am interested in this species as a whole. I do not have to like you – I do not like most people – and you do not have to like me. But liking does not preclude tolerance. We tolerate many things. And toleration leads to information as we glean much from the things we encounter every day.

Many Muslims say it is insulting and offensive to draw Muhammad. What point does it serve? As I have said, if we cannot express ourselves – within limits – we have nothing to show for freedom. Freedom is not licence; but your offense and hurt feelings are no reasons to limit the expression. This ability is not restricted to us: it involves your participation too. Freedom is not freedom if it is only the hands of one group; it is not freedom if it is not being defended; it is not freedom if it is not being displayed. People might get hurt, innocents might suffer because some cartoonists wanted to have a laugh. But many would risk their lives for freedom rather than sit as silent robots tuned to the dictates of religious bullying.

A cartoonist should not have to apologise because Muslims are not grown up enough to be insulted. Everyone deserves to be insulted. Muslims are not special, they do not deserve kid-gloves. More insulting to Muslims are those who believe they cannot act as adults and ignore books and cartoons that insult their Prophet, or laugh it off as heathen ignorance. And those who deeply insult you are yourselves, as you abdicate your moral resolve to stupid councils and ignorant imams, whose talk is bloodthirsty and pumped for fighting. Who are these fools who tell you what to eat and take offense with? Decide for yourselves, you are adults and you should be proud of your rational abilities.

Remember, above all else, you are not special. If you mess up, if you believe silly things, if you create theological mazes which justify violence, the oppression of women but also somehow world-peace – if you do these things, don’t expect us to nod and smile and pat your heads. Others might treat you like children, passing you the candy-cane of patronising indulgence, but I will not. Your religion is not special, your beliefs are silly to me, but you are human. I am not perfect, I am not special. Scorn me with words, draw pictures of my giant nose. I have not raised a weapon to you, save my words. I only ask one thing: can you be adult enough to do the same?