Navigating our way through Islamophobia, toxic conservative media and criticism of religion

One of the questions that I face on a semi-regular basis is why I spend so much time writing about Islamophobia and the Middle East. The question that is asked – sometimes politely but usually obnoxiously – is ‘why do you defend Muslims?’ There is normally an accusatory undertone to the question – an accusation of wrongdoing or wilful blindness on my part. When the questioner discovers that I come from a philosophical tradition of secular humanism and skepticism, the accusation becomes louder and the degree of sneering contempt even greater.

By this stage, I am calculating whether I should take the question seriously, or whether I should make the questioner familiar with a comatose condition. Be that as it may, it is a question that is faced in the current political and economic climate. How does a secular humanist and socialist navigate their way through criticism of religion, while calling out the Islamophobia that underlines much of the commentary on the Middle East in the corporate media?

Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and commentator, has written of the dilemmas faced by contemporary secular humanists when confronted by the bigotry, and consequent hate crimes, against Muslim communities. The incidence of hate crimes and attacks against the Muslim community has increased since the election of current US President Donald Trump – and such crimes have steadily increased in Canada under the nominally liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. White nationalist terrorism is very similar on both sides of the US-Canada border.

It is no secret that former US President Barack Obama – portrayed in the corporate media as a progressive champion for human rights – escalated the programme of drone strike warfare during his terms in office. While he inherited the military practice from George W Bush, Obama increased the bombing campaign – primarily against Muslim-majority nations. This unceasing war from the skies – carried out largely behind the backs of the US and Australian populations – only increases the sense of victimhood among Islamic communities.

The architecture and underlying rationales for the ‘war on terror’ have remained in place until today. Targeting Muslim communities has been elevated to the level of state policy, both in the United States and in Australia. We may question particular attacks or the tactics pursued by the Anglo-American axis, but Canberra largely follows the same logic in its foreign and domestic policies as its larger cousins. The lack of scrutiny surrounding this lethal policy only contributes to a sense of anxiety and alienation among the Islamic community.

We can also see that the Easter 2019 bombings in Sri Lanka, mainly targeting Christian churches and their congregants, was a horrifying terrorist atrocity. We can all see the sustained attacks against the Christian communities in Pakistan – similar to other minorities, they are attacked by religious fanatics and their places of worship desecrated. The ancient Christian communities of Iraq are being driven out by the terrorist actions of Islamic State.

There is no question that Christian communities are subjected to persecution by terrorist groups. As Mehdi Hasan wrote in The Intercept e-magazine, we all need to stand together in the face of barbaric murders, such as the Easter 2019 bombings in Sri Lanka. Are Christian lives less worthy or valuable than Muslim lives? Of course not. Are Muslim people superior to other religious minorities, who require special privileges and consideration? No, they are not.

There is no single ‘holy book’ whose contents must be followed literally. Claims of supernatural intervention in the world, miraculous occurrences and non-material forces must be approached skeptically. Nothing should be believed without evidence and rationality-based reasoning. There is no interest on my part to elevate one set of monotheistic claims and associated theology over another.

We can only begin to imagine what it must be like to be an atheist and humanist in Pakistan or Bangladesh, where the fear of violent death at the hands of fanatics is very palpable and serious. The LGBTQIA community is practically under siege from homophobic attackers in Bangladesh. There is no underestimating the threat of religious fanaticism.

When we turn on the corporate media and listen to the right wing commentariat – typified by the literary mercenaries from Fox or Sky News – we can hear denials of human-induced global warming, tirades against stem cell research, attacks on women’s reproductive rights, shrill denunciations of the LGBTQIA community, racist attacks on ethnic and religious minorities – in other words, the kind of shrieking racism and misogyny that is winding the clock back in our own societies.

When the conservative commentariat warn about the supposed threat of Islam taking over Western societies and imposing a theocratic order, they expose their utter inability – or unwillingness – to face a glaring hypocrisy in their own worldview. The journalistic footsoldiers of the tribal right have missed the theocratic project that is taking over and reshaping our society – from the evangelical Christian right.

The supporters of the evangelical Christian right – the nearest thing that the English-speaking world has to a Taliban-type force – has been waging a political battle since the Reagan-era 1980s to transform American society into a theocratic state based on their interpretations of biblical scriptures. Rejecting science and humanistic values, the American Christian Taliban have been influencing Republican and conservative politicians to change legislation along what they regard as biblically-based concepts.

Current US Vice-President Mike Pence, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are two leading figures in the Trump administration who are supremacists of the religious type, seeking to influence domestic and foreign policies, blending practical politics with the Armageddon and Rapture. Trump commands the loyal support of the evangelical support base, even though his serial philandering and casino-mogul lifestyle are a violation of traditional Christian values.

When calling out the growing influence – and hypocritical posturing – of the evangelical Christian right, this is not a ‘war on Christians’ or a case of singling out Christians for particular persecution. In elevating and defending Trump, the religious right’s hypocrisy has been exposed for all to see. The machinations of the American Taliban have less to do with advocating a particular theology, and more to do with a cynical political project intent on redesigning American society along theocratic precepts.

When the militants from the Islamic State (IS) group carry out a terrorist attack, the wider community and government authorities ask the Islamic communities to condemn terrorism, and also to examine what kind of theological contortions produced something as barbaric as IS. It is time for us in the English-speaking countries to ask what kind of theology motivates the religious right to endorse the white nationalist bigotry of ‘Make America Great Again’.

The San Diego shooting, Christchurch, and the deadly consequences of white nationalism

In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, serious questions were asked as to why the police and intelligence authorities were unable to prevent the operations and criminal actions of the Australian-born gunman. He emerged from a far-right and fascistic milieu. The chief of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Duncan Lewis, was asked this very question – and his response was indicative of the skewed way the problem of terrorism is approached.

Lewis explained that there was no need for a dramatic reset of intelligence gathering, nor a requirement to refocus on collecting information about domestic ultra-rightist terrorism after the Christchurch shootings. This response is rather puzzling, given that fascistic domestic terrorism driven by the ideology of white supremacy has been increasing over the last decade. This type of terrorism does not prompt reexaminations of our political and intelligence-practices in the way that attacks from Muslim perpetrators do.

Police and intelligence agencies continue to insist that the Christchurch gunman was a ‘lone wolf’ who acted on his own. However, even lone wolves emerge from and operate within packs. The fascistic Australian gang, the Lads Society, attempted to recruit the Christchurch killer before he carried out his attacks. This group is only one of several neo-Nazi outfits that operates in Australia. This information discredits government claims that the Christchurch gunman was a ‘lone wolf’.

The Christchurch mosque attacker provided the direct inspiration for the anti-Semitic gunman who killed one person and injured three at the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego. The shooter, John Earnest, had fifty rounds of ammunition when he walked into the synagogue in April this year. More casualties were prevented because Earnest’s gun jammed.

President Trump issued a lukewarm condemnation of the San Diego synagogue shooting – only after he insisted that his description of the anti-Semitic white supremacists who rallied at Charlottesville in 2017 as ‘very fine people’ was accurate. In fact, Trump and his administration has downplayed the threat of anti-Semitism, all the while recycling anti-Semitic tropes.

Trump has not only failed to condemn anti-Semitism, he has recycled the underlying logic of bigoted white supremacist killers in the immediate aftermath of anti-Semitic attacks. The Pittsburgh synagogue attack, while attracting outrage from around the world, received only mild criticism from the Trump administration. The latter’s continued support for the state of Israel has provided a convenient excuse for Trump and his supporters to deflect charges of anti-Semitism.

White supremacist terrorism does not induce nation-wide anxieties and moral panics about the nature of the terror threat and the ideology motivating it. Adam Serwer, writing in The Atlantic magazine makes the following observation in contrasting our responses to Islamic versus white nationalist attacks:

When white extremists kill, politicians do not demand that they be racially profiled. They do not call for bans on white people coming to the United States. They do not insist that white people’s freedom of movement be restricted, their houses of worship be surveilled, their leaders be banned from holding public office, or their neighborhoods be “secured” and occupied by armed agents of the state.

It would be morally outrageous and ethically bankrupt to racially profile white persons, demand their detention in internment camps and deny their human rights because of the criminal actions of white supremacists. It is legitimate to demand that white nationalist killers be prosecuted as terrorists – something that rarely occurs. Trevor Aaronson, writing in The Intercept e-magazine, writes that the US Department of Justice has, since September 11 2001, routinely declined to press terrorism charges against ultra-right terrorists, even when their crimes meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism.

The San Diego shooter, John Earnest, penned a ‘manifesto’ in the days prior to his attack. He combines a noxious mix of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, blaming Jews for allegedly plotting the demise of white civilisation, and expressing his contempt for non-white immigrants. This rationale is nothing new in white supremacist and fascistic circles – the ‘great replacement’ theory purports to expose a Jewish plot to bring non-white immigrants into the United States for the express purpose of ‘replacing whites’.

What is interesting to note is that Earnest regularly attended an evangelical Christian church – the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination, a conservative force that is countering what it perceives to be the liberal drift of the mainstream Presbyterian church. The pastor of the group, Reverend Mika Edmondson, has spoken of his soul-searching quest to understand how one of his congregants espoused a virulent anti-Semitism. Edmondson admitted that Earnest was radicalised into white nationalism in the very midst of his group.

Before concluding with this subject, let us address the predictable and tiresomely shrill response from conservative pundits – what about the attacks against Christian communities? Of course the Easter 2019 Sri Lanka bombings, targeting Christian worshippers in churches, were acts of horrific terrorism. We can all see what is happening to the Christian communities in Pakistan – similar to other minorities, they are attacked by religious fanatics and their places of worship desecrated. The ancient Christian communities of Iraq are being driven out by the terrorist actions of Islamic State.

There is no question that Christian communities are subjected to persecution by terrorist groups. As Mehdi Hasan wrote in The Intercept e-magazine, we all need to stand together in the face of barbaric murders, such as the Easter 2019 bombings in Sri Lanka. Are Christian lives less worthy or valuable than Muslim lives? Of course not. Are Muslims super-fantastic people who require special privileges and consideration? No, they are not.

Our objection here is against the co-thinkers of the conservative far-right such as Australian National Party politician George Christensen – or indeed former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The latter, and his ultra-rightist fellow thinkers, usually play the ‘Christians are persecuted’ card when discussing questions of white nationalism. Please, stop lecturing others about morals and values, because the Australian tribal conservative Right has no moral compass.

If you regard the colonisation of indigenous society in Australia as a ‘good thing’ – as former PM Abbott and George Christensen do – then you are not only woefully ignorant of Australian history, but lack a moral or ethical compass with which to address white nationalism. You have no credibility in lecturing others about morals and ethics if you cannot recognise that white nationalism was built on a criminal enterprise. Let us address the underlying ideology of white nationalist hatred and how it leads to lethal consequences.