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’.