The ambassador answered us that [their right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.
The above passage is not a reference to a declaration by al Qaeda or some Iranian fatwa. They are the words of Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. ambassador to France, reporting to Secretary of State John Jay a conversation he'd had with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, Tripoli's envoy to London, in 1786 -- more than two and a quarter centuries ago.
That is before al Qaeda and the Taliban, before the creation of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, before Khomeini, before Saudi Arabia, before drones, before most Americans even knew what jihad or Islam was, and, most importantly, well before the United States had engaged in a single military incursion overseas or even had an established foreign policy.
At the time, thousands of American and European trade ships entering the Mediterranean had been targeted by pirates from the Muslim Barbary states (modern-day North Africa). More than a million Westerners had been kidnapped, imprisoned and enslaved. Tripoli was the nexus for these operations. Jefferson's attempts to negotiate resulted in deadlock, and he was told simply that the kidnapping and enslavement of the infidels would continue, tersely articulated by Adja in the exchange paraphrased above.
Adja's position wasn't a random one-off. This conflict continued for years, seminally resulting in the Treaty of Tripoli, signed into law by President John Adams in 1797. Article 11 of the document, a direct product of the United States' first-ever overseas conflict, contained these famous words, cementing America's fundamental commitment to secularism:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext, arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
Yes, the establishment of secularism in America back in the 18th century was largely related to a conflict with Islamist jihadism.
So where did Abdul Rahman Adja's bin Laden-esque words come from?
They couldn't have been a response to American imperialism (the start of the conflict precedes the presidency of George Washington), U.S. foreign policy, globalization, AIPAC or Islamophobia. Yet his words are virtually identical to those spouted ad nauseum by jihadists today who justify their bellicosity as a reaction to these U.S.-centric factors, which were nonexistent in Adja's time.
How do we make sense of this? Well, the common denominator here just happens to be the elephant in the room.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and the foiled al Qaeda-backed plot in Toronto, the "anything but jihad" brigade is out in full force again. If the perpetrators of such attacks say they were influenced by politics, nationalism, money, video games or hip-hop, we take their answers at face value. But when they repeatedly and consistently cite their religious beliefs as their central motivation, we back off, stroke our chins and suspect that there has to be something deeper at play, a "root cause."
The taboo against criticizing religion is still so astonishingly pervasive that centuries of hard lessons haven't yet opened our eyes to what has been apparent all along: It is often religion itself, not the "distortion," "hijacking," "misrepresentation" or "politicization" of religion, that is the root cause.
The recent attack on "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens by Nathan Lean and Murtaza Hussain have been endorsed by renowned liberal writers like Glenn Greenwald, who has also recently joined a chorus of denialists convinced that jihad and religious fervor had nothing to do with the Tsarnaev brothers' motive, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. (HuffPost Live recently had a great segment holding Murtaza Hussain accountable for his claims.)
In a way, these attacks on Dawkins et al. are a good thing. Typically, resorting to ad hominem attacks and/or labeling the opposing side "bigoted" is a last resort, when the opponent is unable to generate a substantive counterargument.
This phenomenon can be wholly represented by loaded terms like "Islamophobia." As an atheist Muslim (I'm not a believer, but I love Eid, the feasts of Ramadan and my Muslim family and friends), I could be jailed or executed in my country of birth, the country I grew up in and a host of other Muslim countries around the world for writing this very piece. Obviously, this is an unsettling, scary feeling for me. You may describe that fear as a very literal form of "Islamophobia." But is that the same thing as anti-Muslim bigotry? No.
Semantics matter here. As much as I have differences with the contents of Islam's canonical texts, I know that most Muslims are good, peaceful people who have barely read the Quran and seldom follow it except for the occasional cherry-picking and hearsay, much like the adherents of any other religion. Most of the 1 billion Muslims in the world (with the largest populations in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) don't even understand Arabic.
I also understand that extremism in any ideology isn't a distortion of that ideology. It is an informed, steadfast adherence to its fundamentals, hence the term "fundamentalism." When you think of a left-wing extremist, do you think of a greedy capitalist? Would you imagine a right-wing extremist to be dedicated to government-funded social welfare programs? The "extremists" and strict followers of the Jain faith, which values the life of every being, including insects, don't kill more than their average co-religionists. Instead, they avoid eating foods stored overnight so as not to kill even the microorganisms that may have collected in the meantime. In a true religion of peace, the "extremists" would be nonviolent pacifists to an extreme (and perhaps annoying) degree, not the opposite.
Too often in the aftermath of these tragedies, whether they occur in Boston or Karachi, I notice people rushing to defend the faith from judgment instead of acknowledging the victims. If a link is considered or even discovered, everyone from the Western media to Hollywood deems that person "Islamophobic" for linking Islam to terrorism.
But the number-one reason that terrorism is linked with Islam is not the media or "Islamophobes." It is that jihadi terrorists link themselves with Islam. Timothy McVeigh (also a terrorist by any definition of the word) didn't yell "Jesus is great!" before carrying out the Oklahoma City bombing. His brand of terrorism wasn't linked to Christianity, because it wasn't carried out in the name of it. (In contrast, the bombing of abortion clinics is terrorism universally acknowledged as being linked with Christian religious extremism.)
This is not to say that anti-Muslim bigotry doesn't exist. As a Pakistani-born man raised in Libya and Saudi Arabia, I'll be the first to acknowledge that it does. Yes, racists and bigots do pop up, not just attacking peaceful Muslims but pushing Hindus into subways or murdering Sikhs because they wear turbans or have beards like some Muslims. Ignorance can have immensely tragic consequences.
However, denialism does not adequately counter it. As Asra Nomani has bravely and effectively argued in her article praising the attitude of the Tsarnaevs' uncle, the onus is on the Muslim community, not just here but the world over, to start dealing honestly with the parts of their religion that undeniably promote armed jihad.
This does not lose an individual any Muslim cred. Jews frequently profess their faith without justifying or defending passages in the Old Testament calling for the stoning to death of homosexuals, non-virginal brides or blasphemers. In fact, most of them condemn these ideas. Religious Catholics still identify with their faith in large numbers without agreeing with the pope on birth control, abortion or premarital sex. Like them, almost all Muslims cherry-pick the contents of their faith as well. Why not be honest about the parts you don't like? If you're being discriminated against, why not protect your people first instead of jumping to protect your beliefs, books or religion every time someone driven by them commits mass murder?
This is a key difference for "new atheists." To us, the fight against religious ideology isn't a struggle against human rights but a struggle for them. Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. Books and beliefs don't and aren't.
Instead of judging these religions by the actions of a few, we judge them more objectively: by the contents of their sacred texts (revered by fundamentalists and moderates alike). To us, a simple reading of the Abrahamic holy books reveals endorsements of virtually all the oppressive and discriminatory systems that civil and human rights movements have tried to dismantle over time: patriarchy, misogyny, slavery, tribalism, xenophobia, totalitarianism and homophobia, all rolled into one.
Our critical words aren't an attack on people. They are a challenge to what we consider bad ideas that drive bad behavior. Saying "smoking is bad" does not translate to "all smokers are bad people."
It is also important to understand why criticism, satire or mockery of any ideology isn't bigoted or racist. Criticizing capitalism does not make you an anti-capitalist "bigot." Criticizing religious ideology is no different. No one is born pre-circumcised or pre-baptized with a hijab or a yarmulke sewn to their heads. It is clear now, as it always has been, that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, educational status, financial status, citizenship status, marital status and family background have little to do with Islamist terrorism. Before the Russian Tsarnaevs from North Caucasus, we've had Richard Reid, the Hispanic Jose Padilla, the Nigerian underwear bomber, California's Adam Gadahn and others. The only common denominator among them is Islamic belief and religious fervor, which is not a race or ethnicity.
For the longest time, Arabs and Muslims have rightly complained that labeling them anti-Semitic for legitimate criticism of Israeli policy was the Israeli government's ploy to shield itself from accountability. Today, Muslims (along with liberal apologist allies like Greenwald) are doing the same thing with their generously broad use of the "Islamophobia" label against the likes of Dawkins and Harris, both of whom have spoken against all religions equally, even if they contend (rightly so) that Islam poses a unique threat at this time because of its greatly increased influence on (and integration into) world politics, as Christianity had for centuries in Europe.
The most revolutionary human rights struggles in history have faced violent opposition, ostracization, alienation, insult and often injury and death for those engaged. The fight for women's rights took much more courage for women in the 1800s than for those born in the 21st century. Civil rights activists who spoke out at a time when lynchings were accepted and commonplace took on a much more dangerous task than those born in the America of Barack Obama. Countless LGBT activists have faced discrimination and cruelty throughout history (and continue to today) for openly advocating what 70 percent of America's youth now believe to be the right thing, no matter what it says in Leviticus 20:13.
Overall, "new atheists" think of religion the same way. It is considered sacred and untouchable now like white supremacy and patriarchy were less than a century ago. The consequences for speaking out against it are often as dire as they were for those who spoke out against white or male authority back then. But the secularist struggle is bearing fruit, here and elsewhere, particularly among America's youth.
To us, the "root causes" of jihadist terrorism are the same today as they were when Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja said those historic words to Thomas Jefferson. We want to be honest about it so that we can actually do something about it.
For the fast-growing secularist/humanist movement, criticism of religion isn't a demonstration of bigotry but a struggle against it. To us, bigotry against bigotry isn't bigotry, and intolerance of intolerance isn't intolerance.
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