“To speak specifically of our problem with the Muslim world, we are meandering into a genuine clash of civilizations”, and we’re deluding ourselves with euphemisms. We’re talking about Islam being a religion of peace that’s been hijacked by extremists. If ever there were a religion that’s not a religion of peace, it is Islam.” (Sam Harris)
One could argue that Sam Harris and his ilk represent the worst impulses of atheism, and that his comments about Islam—and religion in general—are consistent with the zealotry of a rather fundamentalist form of secularism ascribing to “the universalization of the ideology of scientism and the establishment of its cultural authority.” However, one could also argue that New Atheism’s position on Islam exceeds largely its already cartoonish caricaturization of religion, and mirrors instead politics usually ascribed to the far-right. The most popular luminaries of this movement, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, have cemented the concept of Islamic exceptionalism within New Atheism by reiterating the idea that—although religions are in essence all bad—Islam is exceptionally bad and represent a special kind of threat.
At first, it might seem that New Atheism is a direct descendant of the Enlightenment scientism that nurtured the works of Bacon and Descartes. A tradition dedicated to rational scrutiny and empirical inquiry, that adopts a critical discourse where religious text, traditions, and symbolism are concerned. In reality, this current iteration of atheism finds itself a lot more aligned with the politics and ideological leanings of “proto-fascist demagogues of the European far-right.” They both ascribe to a rather reductive binary view of the world, where a barbaric, and reactionary Muslim world is endangering a “civilized, cosmopolitan, and progressive West.” In more ways than one, their argument about the supposed dangers of Islam borrows a great deal from Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilization theory. This portrayal of Islam as a civilizational threat to the West has not only led to a renaissance of Liberal imperialism, but has also fostered the emergence of an industry based on the demonization of Islam. It is in this peculiar intersection between academia and the world of politics that New Atheism gained traction. To understand the current prominence of the Islamophobic narrative championed by the proponents of New Atheism, one must first revisit the great political shifts of the 20th century.
The great shift: from proxy wars to civilization conflicts
For many scholars (Goldgeier and McFaul 1992; Mearsheimer 1990) the end of the Cold War meant a great shift in international politics, leading possibly to profound changes in interstate and intrastate conflict mechanisms, as well as in global power relations. The theorization of the post-Cold War world was undertaken primarily by scholars of international relations who sought to explain the effects of this shift in system polarity and its influence in interstate/intrastate conflicts and international politics. The concept of civilization, and its supposed influence in world politics, gained popularity as a way of explaining the complex and puzzling political patterns of the emerging post-Cold War world. Scholars such as Huntington theorized that the very nature and magnitude of wars would undergo profound changes and new dynamics of conflict will emerge in the transition from a bipolar world to a multipolar and multicivilizational world (Huntington 1996).
According to this perspective, “in the post-Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political or economic, they are cultural” (Huntington, 1996; 21). Although nation states remain the main actors in world politics, their behavior is not longer simply motivated by the pursuit of wealth and power, but also by “cultural preferences, commonalities, and differences” (Huntington, 1996:21). People and states alike define themselves in terms of religion, language, history, values, customs and institutions. “They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations” (Huntington, 1996:21). Thus, interstate and intrastate conflicts are fuelled more often than ever by differences among civilizations, leading to a clash of civilizational entities rather than a clash between opposing bipolar ideological lines. If wars were defined as “proxy wars” in the context of the Cold War, they should be defined as civilizational wars in the post-Cold War context.
Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory:
According to Huntington, during the Cold War era countries were often aligned to one side or the other of the great ideological divide. Their leaders made such choices “in terms of their perceptions of their security interests, their calculations of the balance of power, and their ideological preferences” (Huntington, 1996:125). However, he stipulates that in the post-Cold War world, “cultural identity is the central factor shaping a country’s associations and antagonisms” (Huntington, 1996:125). While countries could previously choose to align themselves with either superpowers or on the contrary remain non-aligned, in the present context they cannot lack an identity and must choose one. “The question, (which side are you on?) has been replaced by the much more fundamental one, (who are you?)” (Huntington, 1996:125).
What Huntington calls the cultural reconfiguration of global politics is the result of peoples and countries with similar cultures coming together and forming distinctive groupings. “Alignments defined by ideology and superpower relations are giving way to alignments defined by culture and civilization” (Huntington, 1996:125). Political boundaries are redrawn to correspond to cultural ones (ethnic, religious, and civilizational). “Cultural communities are replacing Cold War blocs, and the fault lines between civilizations are becoming the central lines of conflict in global politics” (Huntington, 1996:125). According to Huntington, since the mid-1990s the question of national identity is often front and center in some of the most violent conflicts in the world. Whether in the Balkans, in the Caucasus, or in the Middle-East, debates around the issue of culture are particularly intense. “In coping with identity crisis, what counts for people are blood and belief, faith and family. People rally to those with similar ancestry, religion, language, values, and institutions and distance themselves from those with different ones” (Huntington, 1996:126). Huntington lists nine civilizations as major civilizational entities in what he refers to as the post-1990 world: Western civilization, Latin American civilization, Islamic civilization, Sinic (Chinese) civilization, Hindu civilization, Orthodox civilization, Buddhist civilization, Japanese civilization. and possibly african civilization. According to Huntington, while Africans lack a sense of Pan-African identity, they are nonetheless on their way to developing a sense of collective African identity.
He posits that indigenization and the resurgence of religion throughout the world are the leading causes of the civilizational dynamics at play since the last quarter of the twentieth century. Asia and Islam represent in Huntington’s view two cases of strong cultural assertiveness toward Western civilization. “The Islamic challenge is manifest in the pervasive cultural, social, and political resurgence of Islam in the Muslim world, and the accompanying rejection of Western values and institutions”. The Asian challenge presents itself through an emphasis on the commonalities between Asian cultures, and their cultural differences from the West. In both cases, Huntington notices an attempt by both civilizational entities to render manifest the superiority of their culture to Western culture. Contrary to other non-Western civilizations, he claims that “Asia and Islam stand alone and at times together, in their increasingly confident assertiveness with respect to the West” (Huntington, 1996:102). While Asian assertiveness finds its essence in economic growth; Muslim assertiveness comes primarily from social mobilization and population growth. Huntington concludes that “each of these challenges is having and will continue to have into the twenty-first century a highly destabilizing impact on global politics” (Huntington, 1996:102).
The war on terror
Huntington’s theory was heavily criticized and rebuked in academia. For many of his critics, Huntington embraces a rather simplistic cleavage of the world along cultural lines, and seeks to explain complex geopolitical events through fallacious cultural binaries (the West vs a multitude of other civilizations) at the expenses of all other factors. In his analysis, identity is not only immutable but also a source of conflict. Yet, there is very little to no historical evidence to support this correlation—between identity and conflict—at the heart of Huntington’s theory. In his scathing criticism Edward Said reiterates this point:
“Huntington is an ideologist, someone who wants to make “civilizations” and “identities” into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross- fertilization and sharing. This far less visible history is ignored in the rush to highlight the ludicrously compressed and constricted warfare that “the clash of civilizations” argues is the reality. When he published his book by the same title in 1996, Huntington tried to give his argument a little more subtlety and many, many more footnotes; all he did, however, was confuse himself and demonstrate what a clumsy writer and inelegant thinker he was.” (Edward Said)
The concept of civilization was elaborated in the eighteenth century as an opposite to the idea of barbarism. In the context of colonialism and European expansionism, it provided a standard by which to judge non-European societies. However, for Huntington “civilization and culture refer to the overall way of life of a people, and a civilization is a culture writ large” (Huntington, 1996:41). Defined as such, it pertains to the values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking adopted by successive generations within a given society. So then, why does he consider some religions civilizations and others not? Why does he identify some states as belonging to civilizational blocks while others are not? Why is he doubting the existence of an African civilization despite existing historical evidence? The many shortcomings of Huntington’s theory, and his rather simplistic explanation of the supposed cultural mechanisms serving as triggers to civilizational conflicts, all but debunked the concept of clash of civilizations posited by Huntington.
However, in the wake of the events of 9/11 the clash of civilization theory gained a new-found popularity. While still heavily criticized in academia, popular media—and political circles alike—borrowed much of their vocabulary from Huntington’s theory in order to not only explain the possible motivations behind the attacks, but also to justify the wars to come. The idea of a clash of values between the West and the Muslim world became pervasive in the narrative surrounding the war on terror at the detriment of all other sociopolitical analysis. The conflict was said to be one of conflicting identities and values fighting for supremacy. Taking a page from Huntington’s theory, every terrorist attack was framed, and explained, as an attempt by Islam to manifest its assertiveness vis a vis the West. It is in this context that the Islamophobia industry emerged, and New Atheism gained a wider audience. Both peddle and rely heavily on a narrative warning Western audiences of the dangers of Islam; more particularly the dangers of a subtle islamization of the Western world through immigration and population growth. The fear of a “Muslim planet” is where right-wing islamophobes and New Atheists overlap in their discourse and politics.
Enter New Atheism:
In his book The Evolution of Atheism, Stephen LeDrew brings a well-deserved sociological perspective to this topic. He posits that with the rise of evolutionary theory, atheism—previously confined to the negation of religious beliefs—embraced the principles of liberalism. Scientific rationality, and the legitimacy of scientific institutions and methodology became unquestionable principles in the atheist ethos.
“As LeDrew points out, with the rise of evolutionary theory, atheism “moved from simple negation of religious beliefs to an affirmation of liberalism, scientific rationality, and the legitimacy of the institutions and methodology of modern science—and thus from religious criticism to a complete ideological system.” Atheism, then, is “a form of belief—rather than a lack of belief—shaped by its socio-historical context” and “inextricably bound up with” a plethora of principles that emerged from the Enlightenment.” (David Hoelscher)
For LeDrew, this modern iteration of Atheism is primarily based on a secular fundamentalist ideology. Fundamentalist strains of religious traditions tend to put the emphasis on the creation of a utopian society through the strict adherence to a set of established beliefs, rites, and behaviours; New atheism in the same fashion focuses on the inception of a modern utopia through “the universalization of the ideology of scientism and the establishment of its cultural authority.” He posits that this brand of Atheism is not so much a critique of religion as it is “a defense of the position of the white middle-class Western male, and of modernity itself,” thought to be “under threat by a swirling concoction of religious ignorance, epistemic relativism, identity politics, and cultural pluralism.” New atheism then, is an ideological entity that is primarily about power.
While in Europe atheists have always been considered “heroic dissenters” battling the overreaching power of religious authority in politics, in the United States—”where the two realms are constitutionally separate“—atheism was always harder to sell. Public and political discourses in the US are flushed with elements of Protestant Christianity since the very beginning of the American Republic. “US politics has frequently been flooded by waves of Christian fervor.” The influence of the Christian right was such in American politics that it succeeded in “shifting political debates from issues of justice and equality ” to moral and cultural questions such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Religion in the American landscape was imbued with a complex duality. It could “bolstered the forces of political sanctimony and persecution, as with Prohibition in the 1920s and anticommunism during the cold war; but it has also encouraged dissenters to speak truth to power—to abolish slavery, to regulate capitalism, to end the Vietnam War.“
Traditionally, Christianity—and to some degree Judaism—was the primary target of Atheists’ ire. As a phenomenon rooted deeply in European history, what was featured prominently in their argument was a critique of Christian institutions. In fact, until 9/11, Islam barely figured in the New Atheists’ critique of religion. However, after the terrorist attacks that dynamic changed tremendously. The changing landscape offered New Atheists a fertile ground for the propagation of their brand of Atheism. Christianity, while not being as influential as it was in previous centuries, remained nonetheless an intricate part of Western civilization. It is part and parcel of its intellectual, and cultural heritage. It still enjoys a certain level of acceptance, and reverence, and in certain countries like the US remains a prominent force in the political scene. Islam on the other hand represents for many Westerners the ultimate “other”, an alien religion viewed as the bearer of foreign values and norms. In the post 9/11 context, this perception of Islam—as the “dangerous other”, a religion and a cultural entity hostile to the Western world—was exacerbated. New Atheists suddenly found a new and growing audience amongst those who already viewed religion negatively—and who found Islam to be the living embodiment (example) of religion’s dangerous nature as a source of conflict, extremism, and backwardness—and those spurn by their bigotry toward Muslims. In the post 9/11 world, It was easier to sell Atheism when using Islam as a target, rather than Christianity.
“It is simply impossible to imagine the commercial and intellectual success of the New Atheist project in a pre-9/11 world without both rising anti-Muslim sentiments across Western societies or neoconservative geopolitics. It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.” (Jackson Lears)
“The power of these New Atheists’ provocations is their ability to reach popular audiences and move their geeky discussions from lecture halls and libraries (Harris has a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D in neuroscience from UCLA) to the sets of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” where hipsters and yuppies alike digest their sardonic sound bites, repeating them to their online networks in 140 characters or less.” (Nathan Lean)
Several months after the horrific attacks, Christopher Hitchens wrote: “On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.” Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris emerged as the luminaries of what is known as New Atheism. These new spokesmen for Atheism didn’t confine themselves to Academia and philosophical debates. They rapidly became the darlings of the media who ordained them supreme experts, and invited them to comment on almost everything: from the war on terror, to Islam, to immigration, to Liberalism. New Atheists jubilantly joined the “growing chorus of Muslim-haters, mixing their abhorrence of religion in general with a specific distaste for Islam (In 2009, Hitchens published a book called “God Is Not Great,” a direct smack at Muslims who commonly recite the Arabic refrain Allah Akbar, meaning “God is great”).“
“Conversations about the practical impossibility of God’s existence and the science-based irrationality of an afterlife slid seamlessly into xenophobia over Muslim immigration or the practice of veiling. 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. “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” writes Harris, whose nonprofit foundation Project Reason ironically aims to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.” (Jackson Lears)
New Atheists today belong to the greater industry peddling the fear of a Muslim planet. The phobia of a subtle islamization of Europe (and the greater Western wold) is no longer solely found in the ramblings of bigots and fascists, but has rather been polished into a conceivable threat by the likes of Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins who use their academic credentials to lend credence to this supposed threat. To abate the accusations of racism levelled against them, New Atheists have invited into their ranks (as allies/members) the likes of Salman Rushdie, and Ayan Hirsi. After all if ex-Muslims are saying the same things about the backwardness of Islam, and the danger it poses to the West, such arguments can hardly be said to be motivated by bigotry. This new industry based on a virulent anti-Muslim narrative is today found in academia, in the media, and the arts. It is an expanding market that rests primarily on the ever growing demonization of Muslims and Islam in the West, and New Atheists are its greatest champions.
“How the New Atheists’ anti-Muslim hate advances their belief that God does not exist is not exactly clear. In this climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment, it’s a convenient digression, though. They’ve shifted their base and instead of simply trying to convince people that God is a myth, they’ve embraced the monster narrative of the day. That’s not rational or enlightening or “free thinking” or even intelligent. That’s opportunism. If atheism writ large was a tough sell to skeptics, the “New Atheism,” Muslim-bashing atheism, must be like selling Bibles to believers. After all, those who are convinced that God exists, and would otherwise dismiss the Dawkins’ and Harris’s of the world as hell-bound kooks, are often some of the biggest Islamophobes. It’s symbiosis — and as a biologist, Dawkins should know a thing or two about that. Proving that a religion — any religion — is evil, though, is just as pointless and impossible an endeavor as trying to prove that God does or doesn’t exist. Neither has been accomplished yet. And neither will.” (Nathan Lean)