I Don’t Believe Andrew Brown Knows What He’s Talking About

Image from http://www.businessweek.com/

Image from http://www.businessweek.com/

When engaging with honest critics of Islam, the popular weapon of choice for apologists is often misrepresentation. Commonly we’ll read that those voicing concerns about the doctrines of Islam, and their earthly consequences do so only as a symptom of their bigotry towards all Muslims as people. One smear is rarely sufficient in this regard however, so a conflation with racism is seemingly necessary to give it that extra bite. Andrew Brown seems to be ticking all the boxes in his latest Guardian piece: ‘Why I don’t believe people who say they loathe Islam but not Muslims’

Yes, we are now essentially being told: “No, this is what you really think”. This is as lazy as it is dishonest.

As is now standard practice, the article treats us to an image of Sam Harris accompanied by a dubiously misleading quote1. Hey, did you know Sam Harris is critical of Islam and a genocidal fascist?– check.  Seemingly playing quick and loose with the ‘How to disparage non believers Handbook’, Brown name drops Mao and Stalin early on too. To my disappointment, he fails to mention how ‘strident’ Richard Dawkins is anywhere in the article, which is sloppy.

Yet, I suppose it is true that I loathe Islam. Any ideology that claims to be the unalterable word of a perfect creator is fairly obnoxious to me, and I claim the right to say so as often as I please 2.

Then there’s the other claims found within Islamic doctrine. And they’re not good news either. The truly repugnant teachings about women, apostasy, male honour, homosexuality, Jihad and Martyrdom are particularly loathsome in my view. Why can’t we talk about these things and their demonstrable consequences objectively? Sure, we can also have an honest discussion about interpretation too. I dare say I could even manage it without crying: ‘bigot!’ or ‘racist’. But I would submit that when all’s said and done it’s not really the critic’s ‘misreading’ of these scriptures that’s the problem here, is it?

Muslims are people. 1.6 billion3 different people to be precise. None of whose beliefs and opinions about the world can be adequately encapsulated within a singular term such as ‘Muslim’. Muslims are not a monolithic bloc – they don’t all behave in the same manner, believe the same things, to the same extent, in the same way, with the same conviction. Knowing this – loathing Muslims, simply by virtue of them being Muslim makes no sense to me whatsoever. Islam is an ideology, a set of claims and ideas, practiced (or not) in different ways, with different outcomes and intensities.

It’s revealing of our moral confusion on this topic how someone like Sam Harris can agree that most Muslims are peaceful, then go on to talk about specific percentages of specific Muslims, in specific areas of the world, answering specific questions on specific topics, related to specific parts of doctrine – then still be accused of bigotry towards all Muslims4.

Brown seems to be completely unaware that many can and do loathe Islam precisely because of the harm it causes to Muslims (still not all) on a daily basis. My loathing of Islamism only makes sense in light of this fact. Who am I concerned for when I rage against FGM, honour killings, forced marriages, blasphemy laws, forced veiling and death by stoning? Who is it that provides the first line of resistance against these things? That would be Muslims. If you make disapproving noises about these human right violations in any other context then you’re a courageous humanitarian. Do it in the context of Islam and you’re a racist bigot. We need to have this conversation more sensibly.

Next time Andrew Brown hears someone pipe up about the horrors of FGM, blasphemy laws, executed apostates and stoned adulterers, perhaps he would do well to ask whether concern for these strangers’ well-being truly is masking hatred towards them. Comfortable, western liberals provide no service to those suffering under the tyranny of theocracy by denigrating those whom speak up against it.

Yes, there is racism, yes there is anti-muslim bigotry and it should be called out at every opportunity. But there is also legitimate criticism and concern for human rights across the Muslim world, and I’d like to think that being able to discern between these interests isn’t too great a challenge for any honest adult.

The tireless Council Of Ex-Muslims Of Britain know something about the consequences of bad ideas for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I’ll leave you with their lucid and eloquent response5 to this drivel:

As Exmuslims, we critique Islam because there are many aspects of Islam that need to be critiqued. In particular, we seek to oppose Islam’s apostasy codes, which are oppressive and lead to persecution.

We have found it is quite difficult to get some people to listen to our stories because they fear that acknowledging these issues will contribute to a critical view towards Islam.

The idea is that particularly reactionary teachings and aspects of belief that lead to critical judgements of Islam are in and of themselves prejudiced. The resulting logic of this is that Islam should have special privileges, in as much as basic human conscience and ethical critical judgement of people living in a secular culture should not apply, or be expressed, towards Islam.

The fact that criticism exists, is the offence.

Effectively, this is to propose a kind of proxy blasphemy code and apostasy code, wherein the liberal secular space defers to Islamic taboos. Dissenting Muslims and Exmuslims have to conform to these proxy codes too. Everyone else is free to critique their own religion, and other faiths and ideas too. But Islam must be protected.

However, Muslims are free to critique all religions, belief systems and moralities, because evangelising Islam, and proffering critique and judgement is not only a divine prerogative, but the closing down of ethical, critical judgement towards Islam is also a divine right.

As we can see, this is an ethical and moral mess.

This is an aspect of liberal relativism that is morally flawed and unsustainable without damaging basic principles of liberal secularism. It also means that aspects of Islam that need to be criticised, like Islam’s apostasy codes, remain unexamined, and with that authority unquestioned, their capacity to hurt people and cause harm increases.

Another fear is that being critical of aspects of Islam manifests in prejudice towards Muslims, and this is an understandable response given how parts of the far-right do project generalising narratives of communal responsibility on Muslims. As Exmuslims, we understand this, because being from ethnic minorities ourselves (apart from growing numbers of former white converts) we are also prone to be in the targets of bigots who project their hostility onto anyone who ‘looks’ Muslim, whatever that is supposed to be.

The key to dealing with this is for the Left to take ownership of the issues that need to be critiqued, and do so through the prism of liberal secular values, so that they cannot be co-opted by the nationalist right, who have agendas that are not tolerant.

Sadly the instinct of relativism too often prevents this reckoning from occurring. The silencing of Exmuslims voices is the norm, although we are trying to change this.

There are three main layers of silencing of apostates voices. The first layer is the hardcore religious silencing, which includes notions that we deserve to be killed and harmed. Under that is a second layer of some Muslims who may not agree we should be persecuted, but don’t want to have these problematic aspects or religion talked about, because of feelings of embarassment, fear of the consequences, or cognitive dissonance regarding apostasy / blasphemy codes. The third layer underneath this is the relativism of white liberals who are often in concordance with silencing instincts over these issues, including silencing of Exmuslims, for the reasons we outlined earlier. Often, relativist liberals simply pretend we don’t exist.

But silencing never works, and it only increases the problems.

It is important to understand that anti-Muslim bigotry is real. At the same time, the reality of the need for Islam to be critiqued has to be acknowledged by the Left, and by Muslims who live in liberal secular democracies too.

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  1. The quote mined in this particular piece has been enjoying similar treatment by other unscrupulous individuals of late. You can read it in its full context here and decide for yourself whether it means what the article would have you think it means
  2. Yes, I include all Abrahamic faith in this category
  3. The Future of the Global Muslim Population, Pew Research 2011
  4. See how far he gets with this infamous discussion on The Bill Maher Show before accusations of Racism begin to fly
  5. It’s since come to my attention that The Guardian have removed this comment from their comments section without reason


  • Excellent post – I will keep a link to this article the next time I encounter the meme (and it is definitely a meme) that criticism of Islam == hatred of Muslims.

  • Perhaps you should also point out that CEMB’s comment on the article was deleted by the Guardian.

  • If the doctrine of Islam is so insidiously harmful then why bother ‘criticizing’ it at all? Do you give evil some stern words or do you try to eradicate it? If we should be as concerned by Islam as you would have us believe then maybe you should lead the way, stop mincing around with your pedantry and semantics and actually do something about the issue. Instead of wasting your time assigning blame to the plagiarists and apologists why don’t you make a meaningful step towards eliminating these destructive ideologies? If you’re not completely full of hot air and a desire to fan the flames of argument, that is.

    • ‘Lead the way?’. What are your suggestions Annie? I’m all ears. Will you be supplying the pitchforks, or do I bring my own?

      • Ah, so you are just full of hot air. Good to know, you shill. Why would we need violence to eradicate an ideology? Remember it’s the ideology we have a problem with, right, not the people? Have you ever tried converting theists to atheism without using smugness, arrogance, condescension or sending them a fucking meme? What are you going to do when Sharia law takes over the world, say to us, “Hey, remember that whinging, limp-wristed blog I used to maintain? I distinctly remember criticizing Islam in it, once or twice, this is as big a surprise to me as anyone.”

        • So ‘no suggestions’ then. Got it.

          • I suggest you try to convert theists to atheism without using smugness, arrogance, condescension or any other of the typical, undesirable traits of an online atheist. Ever considered giving that a go? Or you prefer this rudderless saber-rattling?

          • When dealing with the hateful anti-atheist comments I seek out on Twitter, I’m comfortable responding with a blend of condescension & smugness. My comments aren’t for them, but for the observer. Sometimes I even get emails to tell me my interactions have helped people leave their faith. Isn’t that incredible?

            Then of course there’s the conversations I have in person. There seems to be a confusion as to what constitutes a person and Twitter – on your part.

            If you’d like to hear more about ‘deconverting’ theists by the way, I dedicated an entire episode of my podcast to it with Peter Boghossian. He has a great book about it, which we talk about in detail. I provide this discussion so people can learn new ideas. I do this in my spare time away from my actual job, because I care about furthering good ideas, for free! You’re welcome. Any further ad-hominem will be ignored

    • The best response to bad ideas – and to quote Harris, Islam right now is the mother-lode of bad ideas – is good ideas. Which GS is providing in abundance.

      Perhaps you’d prefer he bomb a mosque?

  • I completely agree with your blog. The Guardian piece is poorly reasoned. The lazy Sam Harris ‘quote’ could almost have been borrowed from something CJ Werelman copied off of someone else 🙂

    What did give me pause for thought was the use of the emotional nature of the accused bigotry: ‘Hate’, ‘Loathing’, ‘Fear’.

    I have misgivings about Islam. I don’t hate it though. Doesnt hatred imply a loss of rationality? Could that approach the boundry of bigotry?

    I would be cautious about anyone who ernestly declared their hatred of Islam.

    Even so, it seems certain liberal apologists do not care to make a distinction between rational concern and emotional reaction.


  • So your criticism of someone explaining how they are not violently opposed to a certain group people is to take them to task for not trying to violently eradicate that group? Do you read the things you write before you hit post?

    • This was in reply to Annie. Whoops!

      • I made no mention of violence and I find it telling that, considering this is an article dedicated to how we can hate an ideology without hating the people that hold it dear, as soon as I say let’s eradicate it, you all naturally assume that means bombing mosques and grabbing pitchforks– you’re the ones trying to tell me the ideology and the people are separate.

        GSpellcheck, as for you, I was unaware you had recorded a podcast on converting theists to atheism, I apologize and retract all comments, obviously. What more could one ask of someone with 50k twitter followers and a mind capable of seeing the destructiveness of these ideologies to do? Surely, you’re right, and making theists aware of their stupidity online is the most efficient way of preventing sharia law on a global scale.

What do you think? Leave some comments!