If a murderous madman clicks “like” on a Facebook page, how much influence does said Facebook page hold over this murderous madman? Stephen LeDrew, a visiting professor of sociology at Memorial University, makes the logical leap from a Facebook like to a heavy psychic influence look like child’s play in a recent post on the University of Southern California’s Religious Dispatches website.
LeDrew seems to let his distaste of New Atheism’s figureheads lead to a game of logical hopscotch fit to train a child for the long jump. LeDrew’s essay starts in on author and neuroscientist Sam Harris, using Harris’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher as his pin. The piece immediately moves from a glib telling of Harris’s history to a comparison and association with Alexandre Bissonnette, the gunman who killed six and injured 19 in a Quebec City mosque shooting. This connection was made recklessly: Bissonnette “likes” evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins, President Donald Trump, and French National Front President Marine Le Pen, therefore all had some level of influence on his dreadful crime.
On Bissonnette’s Facebook likes, LeDrew writes:
“The immediate reaction was to point to the toxic effect nationalists like Trump and Le Pen are having on our political culture, now materialized to tragic effect in what appears to be an ethnically motivated act of violence. But these defenders of a white Christian vision of nationhood have found curious allies in celebrity atheists like Dawkins and Harris, who echo their paranoid views of Muslims to their ostensibly liberal supporters.”
Ignoring Harris’s lack of appearance on Bissonnette’s Facebook like list, the tie between Harris and Dawkins’s criticisms of Islam, a Facebook like, and the in-bulk nationalism of Trump and Le Pen seems a jerry-built construction of an argument. Are we to read a killer’s Facebook likes as a fortune teller reads leaves at the bottom of a teacup? Are we to assume Facebook status updates from comedy show Mr. Bean or fast-food restaurant Pizza Hut – two other pages Bissonnette liked – had something to do with the Bissonnette’s anti-Muslim bigotry? I fail to see where the line would be between ideology and Facebook activity.
Does criticism of religion beget bigotry? To this point, LeDrew says: “Whether intended or not, they have granted a veneer of intellectual legitimacy to ethnic nationalism and xenophobia. Harris has explicitly said that, in Europe, it is fascists who have the correct vision of how to deal with Muslims.”
LeDrew hyperlinks Harris’s “explicitly said” statement to a quote mined by Al Jazeera in which Harris was quoted to say: “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” This, on its face, is a repellant statement. However, one gets quite a different impression and an entirely different message when seeing Harris’s full quote in its original context: “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists. To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.”
The crux of LeDrew’s argument is this: Harris, Dawkins, and other atheists – “New” or otherwise – who criticize Islam or conflate the religion with terrorism in any way that feels bigoted, even to the least careful listener, is actively harming the atheist canon. He writes: “Atheists must consider whether the views of Muslims promoted by their most prominent representatives are helping or hurting the cause of secularism, given that anti-Muslim hysteria was so effectively harnessed by the Christian dominionists who have seized control of the American government through an uneasy alliance with a secular billionaire sociopath.”
While it’s true that anti-Islamic bigotry has been a mainstay of the far right’s assent to power across the world, any thinking person unaffected by the Balkinization of our current political climate should be able to see that there is a problem well worth discussing no matter which side extremists are jumping toward. Arguments make for strange bed fellows, especially to those of different opinion. It is often less about the argument than the logic and reasoning one uses to get to their argument. While Harris and Dawkins have spent hundreds of pages spelling out their arguments and criticisms, politicians like Trump and Le Pen’s contempt of Islam could be summed up in a page or less.
In making his anti-New Atheist argument, LeDrew seems to forget that Muslims are the people most affected by terrorism across the world. The U.S. Department of State reported that in 2015 there were 11,774 terrorist attacks killing more than 28,300 people and injuring 35,300. These attacks took place across 92 countries, but more than 74% of deaths took place in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, and Pakistan, all Muslim-majority countries.
While LeDrew’s concerns for the six Muslims slaughtered by Bissonnette is admirable, his callousness lies in forgetting that the Middle East – not the U.S. – is where the burn of extremism is most felt. Instead, his argument tracks along a different set of concerns:
“Just as Pew Research Center reports that, in a little over 2 years, we’ve [atheists] moved from ‘cool’ to ‘neutral’ on its scale of Americans’ feelings, atheists are faced with a stark moral and strategic imperative: they must confront the darkness within their midst and recognize that demonizing a group that constitutes over a billion individuals is a path to chaos. Trump and Bissonnette are both agents and effects of this chaos. No one would claim that Bissonnette was motivated to murder specifically by Dawkins’ words, but the persistence with which he and other New Atheists have uttered these words has contributed to the dismal present condition.”
While LeDrew worries about whether the words of Dawkins have perhaps had an effect on a darkening mood across the world, one terrible shooting, and the “cool” points of atheism, he conveniently leaves out the atrocities suffered in the Muslim world – a conversation often had by Harris and Dawkins.
To that point: More than 60,000 people were killed or injured in terrorists events in 2015. Let’s compare these numbers to American gun violence, a chief concern of America’s left (rightfully so): 33,736 people were killed by firearms in the U.S. in 2014, 63.5% of which came via suicide and 32.6% via homicide (statistics from the Centers for Disease Control). Removing suicide, that’s roughly 11,000 U.S. citizens killed at someone else’s hands by firearms, a third of the number of people killed by terrorism across the world.
If we, as liberals, are concerned about the atrocities of gun violence in our own country, don’t we need to be concerned about the impact of terrorism on humanity? If not for terrorism’s potential to spread to the western world, the for the cruelty it inflicts on Muslim-majority countries and the chance that maybe, just maybe, our conversation could carry on to a young boy in Iraq or a young woman in Syria. How can we sanely debate the flimsy tie between Facebook likes and ideology when tens of thousands of people are in harm’s way each day?
As Sarah Haider – co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America and Pakistan native who left Islam in her teens after critical reads of the Quron – said at the 2015 American Humanist Association’s Conference, it’s clear that arguments like LeDrew’s do not have an allegiance to the truth, but instead to hiding inconvenient truths seen as too harmful to ever be acknowledged.
Haider continues: “I assume the fear is that we do not want to give support to actual bigoted people. Anyone who watches Fox knows how they use fear-mongering tactics to promote xenophobia. But the liberation of a billion and a half Muslims in the world, Muslims who are suffering under the yoke of an ever-present theological authority, should be at the forefront of our minds.”
Instead of worrying about an honest criticism appearing bigoted, we should be seeking the truth. It’s our only chance in arguments against actual bigots, mental gymnasts like LeDrew, and extremists on the Islamic far right who would rather see a dead child than to think that child may ever voice disapproval of their domination.