The New York Post has been receiving serious and justifiable criticism for their reporting on the Boston Marathon. Citing police sources, the paper reported that 12 people had died in the attacks and that a "Saudi national" had been taken into custody. Of course, the death toll was thankfully a (still horrifying) quarter of that, and the police later disconfirmed that the "Saudi national" was a suspect -- he was a student tackled by a concerned citizen and taken to the hospital. He was fully cooperative, denied all involvement, and isn't a suspect. The New Yorker has released an important and harrowing story of the way this young man, barely out of his teens, was treated.
Just as conspiracy-nut Alex Jones was quick to blame the government and the Westboro Baptist Church was quick to blame the gays, many were quick to accept the New York Post's shoddy reporting and rumor-mongering -- it was easy to believe the perpetrator was a Muslim.
What would have happened, though, if the perpetrator was this 20-year-old Saudi, who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time looking the wrong color and maybe calling out to the name of the wrong-sounding God? What if it was some other Muslim, instead? Why should that even matter?
It seems like the anti-Muslim voices on the far right, like Pamela Geller, and the atheist left, like Sam Harris, act as if moderates, like myself, simply aren't aware that Muslim terrorism exists. They use extraordinary examples as an excuse to rub in our faces how violent and harmful a religion Islam is.
But what about the Gallup poll that shows that 93 percent of Muslims in the world aren't radical, and that the radicals give political, not religious, justifications for their violence? What about the study out of Duke and UNC Chapel Hill showing that only 6 percent of terrorist attacks in the U.S. have been by Muslims? What about the studies by Robert Pape showing that nearly all suicide bombings have the secular goal of resisting Western occupation, rather than any religious aim? What about the secular and nationalist group, the Tamil Tigers, which pioneered the modern suicide attack, accounting for the majority in the latter end of the 20th century?
There have always been and will always be fringes in every group that will kill for their cause, but we rarely extrapolate beyond their group membership to make generalizations based on their religion, ideology or color. When Sam Harris is presented with findings like the above, though, he simply laments that liberal academics look deeper for "economic, political, or personal reasons" to explain violence of Muslim radicals. We do not simply take them at their word that they're blowing themselves up for the glory of Allah, argues Harris.
But why should we accept them at their word, when economics and politics is such a stronger explanation? We don't see Muslims in Minnesotta blowing themselves up because of Islam, so why should we even take seriously the idea that religion is involved when the effect is entirely explained by other factors? Stalin may very well have said "religion is a poison" as he was ordering the massacre of clergymen in Soviet Russia, but I think most of us are happy to chalk this up to economics, politics and nationalism. I see no reason we should treat Islam any differently.
Maybe one of the most pernicious aspects of Islamophobia I've noticed (and you can call it anti-Muslim prejudice if you'd prefer) is that any Muslim can somehow serve as an appropriate stand-in for a radical, and the behavior of any radical somehow applies to all Muslims (or at least to their religion). FEMEN can protest mosques in Paris and San Francisco as a way of denouncing the reprehensible action of Muslims in Tunisia, and atheists can chalk pictures of Muhammad on their campuses as a way of protesting comments by Muslim radicals that lead to the censorship of an episode of South Park. But this makes about as much sense as protesting your local animal shelter because of something the Animal Liberation Front did.
This isn't only a matter of getting an accurate view on religious belief. I'm an atheist, but not a "New Atheist," simply because New Atheism's attitude toward religion strikes me as in stark contrast with most everything sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and political scientists have been telling us about the topic. More than that, though, this topic is important because of how we treat people like the 20-year-old Saudi, a visiting student who looks, to many, more like a killer than a victim.
If we find out tomorrow that the bomber was a right-wing radical protesting tax day, then no one will look at their Republican friends any differently, and no Republicans will feel the need to be careful about how they respond in a tragedy. But if we find out tomorrow that the bomber was a Muslim, then I don't think we can say the same. And that's a problem.