The Feb. 10 killing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, of three Arab-American students, allegedly by atheist Craig Stephen Hicks has led some to compare militant atheism to Islamic militancy. Atheists are not happy with the comparison.
“The deluge of claims of equivalence between this crime and the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and the daily behavior of a group like ISIS [an acronym for another name for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL] has been astonishing to witness,” noted atheist author and writer Sam Harris said on a recent podcast. He denied any link between atheism and Hicks’ actions. Harris insists that the comparison was unwarranted and atheists’ crimes have nothing to do with their beliefs, not least because there exists “no atheist scripture or doctrine.” Hicks said he was a fan of New Atheists such as Harris and Cambridge University professor Richard Dawkins.
Harris’ efforts to distance atheism from violent acts committed by individual atheists exposes his hypocrisy toward Muslims and Islam, which he routinely portrays as being distinctively violent. While individual violent overtures may not be reflective of atheism, Harris’ assertion that no one commits violent acts in the name of atheism is simply inaccurate. For example, in February a court in France sentenced a 69-year-old man to prison for throwing plaster grenades and shooting at a mosque in western France. “I am a republican, an atheist, and what happened at Charlie Hebdo infuriated me,” the attacker told authorities.
China’s crackdown on religion
Another challenge to Harris’ views comes from the officially atheist Communist Party of China (CPC), which regularly invokes atheism to curtail religious rights. The CPC recognizes five religions, including Islam and Taoism. But its rule has been characterized by discriminatory and violent campaigns against people of faith.
On Feb. 1, nine days before the Chapel Hill incident, the CPC barred religious believers in the province of Zhejiang from joining the party. “Party members are banned from joining religions,” Li Yunlong, a professor at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, told the state-run Global Times newspaper. “Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a party member.”
Zhejiang is home to an estimated 1 million Christians and 2,000 churches that now face mass demolitions. Officials are cracking down on religious symbols. “From January to November 2014, more than 400 churches with names have either been forcibly torn down or had their crosses forcibly relocated or demolished,” Bob Fu, the founder of the Christian rights group China Aid, told Radio Free Asia in January.
But none of this is new. In July 1999, China banned the spiritual movement Falun Gong, which the government considers an evil cult, after years of campaigns to eradicate its symbols and practice. In April 1999 Falun Gong protests started to gain traction, attracting more than 10,000 protesters, which prompted the Chinese government turn to legal and physical repression.
“Don’t tell me that our Marxist doctrine of atheism cannot overcome something like Falun Gong,” then-President Jiang Zemin wrote to senior members of his party, demanding action. “If it can’t, it will become a big joke all over the world!"
Wang Zhaoguo, protege of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, has characterized the clash with Falun Gong as a fight between “Marxist atheism and vulgar theism, between historical materialism and outdated idealism and between science and evil thought.”
The CPC’s demonization in defense of its Marxist atheism led to the persecution of the Falun Gong, leading to the internment and torture of its members in labor camps as well as deaths. At times, Falun Gong members were executed simply for their organs.
Still, the persecution of Falun Gong has very little to do with party’s atheist stance. “It does not truly matter whether Falun Gong is a religious sect or a qigong [breathing exercise] group,” Hong Kong University professor Anne Y. Cheung wrote in the Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal in 2004. “In the eyes of the government, so long as Falun Gong is perceived as having subversive potential, it must be uprooted.”
By defending atheism after the actions of an ideological fanatic like Craig Stephen Hicks, even when they treat Islam as the key factor behind the actions of Muslim extremists, atheists expose their biases.
New Atheists could rightly argue that CPC’s atheist rhetoric is a cover for maintaining the party’s grip on power and for buying influence within the ruling elite. Yet their failure to recognize similar external and political influences behind acts of terrorism committed by individual Muslims is hypocritical. For example, Chérif Kouachi and Saïd Kouachi, the brothers who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices, came from the lower classes of French society, had little education and worked menial jobs. They were recruited and radicalized by a congregation member, Farid Benyettou, who, among other things, showed them videos of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The images included photos showing the notorious Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, which was a catalyst for anger among Muslims around the world. “It was everything I saw on the television, the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, all that, that motivated me,” Chérif Kouachi told his lawyer.
By contrast, prominent Muslim leaders and organizations routinely condemn terrorist activities carried out in the name of Islam. Several Muslim organizations expressed outrage over the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. But this did not stop Harris or Dawkins from blaming Islam for the attacks. After the Paris shootings, Dawkins steered clear of any rational analysis and shared a series of defamatory, anti-Islam tweets. Similarly, he was quick to emphasize the faux explanation that the Chapel Hill killings concerned a parking dispute.
Harris has blamed the Quran for the horror of the ISIL. “Belief in martyrdom, a hatred of infidels and a commitment to violent jihad are not fringe phenomena in the Muslim world,” Harris wrote in September. “These preoccupations are supported by the Koran and numerous hadith.”
An account from a former ISIL captive contradicts this claim. French journalist Didier François, who spent more than 10 months in ISIL’s hands, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last month that he never saw an ISIL fighter read a Quran or talk about religion. The group was rather obsessed with more secular matters and apparently never forced any of its hostages to convert to Islam.
“We didn’t even have the Quran. They didn’t want even to give us a Quran,” François said. “There was never really discussion about texts or — it was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion.”
In generalizing about and singling out Muslims, Harris and other New Atheists make ISIL’s work easier. “When Westerners start talking about Islam as a uniquely or inherently violent faith that is fundamentally different from other religions,” wrote Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, “They stumble into the trap laid for them by the fundamentalists, who tell their followers that Muslims are uniquely hated and uniquely persecuted by the West.”
Neither Muslims nor atheists have a monopoly on violence. People of all backgrounds and faiths engage in violent activities. As such, it is unfair to categorize attacks by Muslims as a reflection of Islam while actions of adherents of other faiths get the lone-wolf label. By defending atheism after the actions of an ideological fanatic such as Hicks, even when they treat Islam as the key factor behind the actions of Muslim extremists, atheists such as Dawkins and Harris expose their biases.
Harris now claims to fear for his life — an unfortunate predicament he certainly doesn’t deserve. Yet he must realize that his often one-dimensional conclusions about Islam have caused many Muslims anxiety over fears of humiliation, hate campaigns and outright violence against them.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article spelled the name of Wang Zhaoguo wrong. We regret the error.