Of Free Speech, Islamophobia and New Atheism
Originally published in the Huffington Post
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an extreme anti-Islam critic, well known for her bigoted views and dishonest generalizations of the Muslim faith. When she was invited to speak at Yale’s Buckley program recently, some student groups — including the Yale Humanist Community — issued a statement criticizing the invitation. In their statement, thegroup of atheists, humanists and agnostics wrote: “Although we acknowledge the value of her story, we do not endorse her blanket statements on all Muslims and Islam… We believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents a sadly common voice in the atheist community that attacks and provokes, rather than contributes to constructive criticism or dialogue.”
While the Yale Humanist Community was using their basic right to free speech to protest a decision they disagreed with, many new atheists descended on the group’s Facebook page with ad hominems of all sorts. Some of the gentler labels used for the group were “horribly shameful,” “enemies of free speech,” “insult to humanism,” “pro censorship” etc.
Why was the free speech of a student group being attacked so vehemently, I wondered. And to answer myself, I carried out a social media experiment to see if the new atheists’ onslaught was based on principle or just prejudice.
I posed a simple question to new atheists on a social media page: “Suppose you were the Dean at Harvard, would you invite a homophobe or a racist to speak on homosexuality or race relations respectively?”
Only a few new atheists said they would actively seek and invite a racist speaker to campus, to win the case for free speech. These folks believed that anyone who voiced opposition to such an invitation would be an “enemy of free speech” and “pro-censorship.” As much as I think this view is deluded, as I explain later, I admit these few new atheists are honest in their condemnation of student groups that protest Islamophobia. Their stance is based on principle, however wrong it may be.
The majority of new atheists who responded to my experiment, including fellow blogger and Pakistani ex-Muslim Ali Amjad Rizvi, responded differently. Ali insisted he would never invite a homophobe, or a racist, to speak at Harvard University. And if someone invited such a speaker, he believed students would have full right to protest the invitation. They would merely be “exercising their basic right to free speech” in doing so.
But then I asked why he — and other new atheists — got so bitter and upset when students that disagreed with Yale’s decision used this same right to free speech? Why were they branded “enemies of free speech” for exactly the same stance? No one answered.
I had gotten my answer. The new atheists’ onslaught against the Yale Humanist Community was not based on any principle, but prejudice. This intellectual dishonesty by many new atheists is a symptom of a much larger obsession — deep-rooted prejudice against religion. Evangelical anti-theism, much like militant theism by extremist clerics in the theist world, detaches one from the important values of objectivity and fairness.
So, where do I stand in all of this?
As a Muslim, I am a proponent of free speech. I believe nothing is above criticism — not even Islam. This is why we speak against blasphemy laws, which have no basis in the Quran whatsoever.
That said, I agree with the Yale Humanist Community — and the new atheists who voted against inviting bigots to Harvard. Whereas such fanatics are free to express their discriminatory views against a community, race, faith group etc., we are under no obligation to actively seek them and make their bigotry mainstream by providing it a reputable forum. This is not doing free speech any favor. It is simple promotion of bigotry. And bigotry in all its forms — without exception — must be countered and discouraged through the use of “free speech.” This includes discrimination against faith groups – e.g. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism — alike. We must not have double standards by condemning one kind of bigotry and praiseworthy another.
In the second part of my experiment, I asked how the new atheists’ perception of Harvard would change if it did actually invite a racist to speak on race relations or a homophobe to speak against homosexuality? The unanimous answer was that Harvard would only be bringing its own stature into disrepute by taking such a step.
But these same people praised Yale as a “beacon of light” and “champion of free speech” for inviting an extreme anti-Islam critic, considered an Islamophobe by many. The hypocrisy was telling.
Silencing those who speak against legitimate cases of Islamophobia, while defending those who speak against racism reeks of bigotry in itself. If the new atheist community seeks to be seen as an objective and honest group of critics, they must base their criticism and their propositions on principle, not prejudice and phobia. For if not, they will continue to be perceived as the Mullahs of the atheist world.
Correction: In an earlier version, the author incorrectly paraphrased a statement by Ali Amjad Rizvi. The post has since been updated.