A month has now passed since the London Bridge terrorist attack, which quickly replaced the Manchester bombing in the headlines and the public consciousness. As the news headlines roll inexorably onwards, those two recent Jihadist attacks on British soil appear to have been all but forgotten. While we await the next inevitable attack in Europe, now is as good a time as any to consider how best to tackle the issue of Islamic fundamentalism.
Here are five broad suggestions from a humanist perspective:
1) Speak honestly and openly about Islamic ideology and its direct consequences in the world today
This is the obvious one, but is perhaps too much to ask in our current political climate. Politicians are rightly reticent about any pronouncements which could be seen as divisive or prejudiced against Muslims as people, but however well-intentioned, this approach is frequently taken too far, leading to a flat-out denial that there’s any problem at all with Islam as an ideology. The amount of people who think that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam or is a perversion of the faith is simply astounding. There is such a painfully straightforward link between doctrines, belief in those doctrines and resultant actions, but many people either (i) are blind to it for incomprehensible reasons; (ii) know the link exists but deliberately lie about it and claim it does not (more on those types at point 3 below); or (iii) know the link exists but refuse to speak honestly about it for various political reasons (ie, most politicians). It’s not a random coincidence that many Muslim-majority countries currently have some of the worst records on earth in respect of women’s rights, gay rights, rights of minorities, rights of non-believers, and rights of free expression. These curtailments of freedom are the direct result of a straightforward and plausible interpretation of Islamic doctrine. The fact that many of us cannot admit the causal link between beliefs and actions is a major hindrance in the fight against terrorism and radical Islam.
2) Support ex-Muslims, listen to their stories, and take them seriously
This one really shouldn’t need to be stated, but sadly does. It was shocking to see a former Muslim (now atheist) being shouted down by thinly veiled Islamists on the BBC’s ‘The Big Questions’, to rounds of applause from the BBC’s ever-ready audience of morons. But it was also an illuminating exchange, demonstrating the difficulties ex-Muslims face when they apostatise, even in a liberal democracy like the UK. Needless to say, apostates in less liberal Muslim majority countries have a far harder time of it. A staggering thirteen Muslim majority countries impose the death penalty upon those who apostatize. This is a profoundly damning indictment on these countries and their theocratic prescriptions. Such disgraceful intolerance stems directly and entirely from religious ideology. Westerners (and particularly western politicians) have all but abandoned those foreign free thinkers living under theocracy who bravely vocalise their atheism at grave personal risk. When was the last time a virtue-signalling celebrity condemned such barbarism or expressed solidarity with the victims of this brand of religious oppression? As a society, we fall over ourselves to treat the Muslim faith with great reverence and respect, totally disregarding non-believing ex-Muslims and their struggles. Humanists must be vocal and uncompromising in their solidarity with ex-Muslims.
3) Do not allow closet Islamists to get away with their obfuscations and deceptive arguments
There are plenty of these types out there who are passionately involved in Dawah, proselytizing and defending Islam at all costs, and there are plenty of broadcasters happily giving them a platform. Closet Islamists know full well their ideology is the direct impetus toward intolerance and murder, but deliberately lie, misdirect, and obfuscate to prevent this truth being heard. They need to be called out in the loudest terms.
This point also goes for those ‘useful idiots’ who are not Islamists but who, in pretending terrorism and religious intolerance have nothing to do with religion, provide cover for the ideology and only stultify the debate. There are innumerable examples of such people: notables include Reza Aslan (unclear whether unwitting or genuine Islamist), Linda Sarsour (genuine Islamist), Glenn Greenwald (unwitting – would be sentenced to death in Islamic theocracies), the staff of publications such as the Intercept and Salon (mixture of genuine and unwitting), Mehdi Hasan (hard to tell which), most mainstream politicians including Obama, Clinton, Corbyn and May (unwitting – noting some are far worse than others). Also of note are the countless celebrities whose opinions on such subjects should be of no relevance but who hold influence purely by way of twitter followers and fans (eg – Lily Allen, 6 million twitter followers, tweeting things like “Islamists don’t hate women more or less than anyone else. Fear of women is inherent everywhere. #normalisation”).
4) Vocally criticise all religious beliefs
Many humanists are divided on whether this strategy is a help or a hindrance in the battle against religious fundamentalism. The arguments against it are understandable: it is divisive and will only alienate believers; it is a human tendency to double down on beliefs and opinions when confronted with criticism of the same by strangers; ‘strident’ or ‘arrogant’ rhetoric will impede the efforts of religious reformers and alienate moderate believers. Personally, I tend to err on the side of vocal and unapologetically strong criticism of religious faith. This feeling becomes especially potent after hearing the news that religiously inspired idiots have plunged ceramic knives into revellers in London while shouting “this is for Allah”, or that a Jihadist has blown himself up in a crowd of teenage girls at an Ariana Grande gig. After events such as these, it is difficult to remain restrained and nuanced in the fight against faith-based ideas and their consequences. It’s also worth noting that many ex-believers have credited their exculpation from religion to discussions they’ve had with – or arguments they’ve heard from – atheists. When discussing what led to her rejecting Islam, prominent American ex-Muslim Sarah Haider recalls researching her faith in greater detail so as to gather ammunition for her next argument with atheists at college. In doing so, she inadvertently began a rational examination of her own belief-system, ultimately discarding it. I’m convinced her experience is common.
5) Stand up for and defend the principles of the Enlightenment
The freedoms we enjoy in the west are entirely taken for granted. The product of centuries of struggle, steady progress, moral and intellectual advancement is now assumed to be our birth-right; something we’re just naturally entitled to, like an iPhone or a Big Mac. We risk forgetting that the freedoms we enjoy courtesy of the Enlightenment are still in their infancy relative to the great span of human history, and that great swathes of the earth’s population are still yet to enjoy such freedoms. We are rightly critical of dark elements of western history such as imperialism and slavery, but often take this to masochistic extremes, concluding that the west is responsible for all the world’s ills to date. Consequently, we can be capable of the most infuriating “whataboutery” when it comes to discussing modern Islamic theocracy (for a fist-bitingly irritating example, see Louise Mensch on Bill Maher). We need to emphasise the importance of Enlightenment values such as free expression, separation of church and state, and freedom of and from religion at every opportunity. If we as a society continue to complacently take these principles for granted and fail to defend them in the face of their extremely hostile and aggressive enemies, we risk ultimately compromising them. The Danish cartoon episode and the Charlie Hebdo attack serve as apt demonstrations of the very real threat to free expression and our collective cowardice in failing to protect it.
There is no simple answer to the problem of Islamism or Jihadism, no quick-and-easy legislative change or policy implementation. The battle against these pernicious theocratic ideas will be waged for many decades to come. Ultimately, we can only hope that reformers and free thinkers in the Muslim world win out, and the adherents of a literalist, totalitarian version of Islam dramatically wane in number. Either that or everyone in the world becomes a humanist overnight. Fingers crossed.