As most readers of my blog know, I am an atheist. All atheists differ, of course, and one of the ways I differ from almost all of my fellow atheists is that I have a very different view of Islam and Muslims.
I haven’t always been this way. 25 years ago, as an undergraduate, I had unconsciously allowed myself to be heavily influenced by media coverage of the Middle East. I’m embarrassed to admit now that, then, I concluded, simply and uncritically, that this entire region is chock-full of crazy people. I openly speculated that there must be some mind-affecting drug in the water there, to cause such madness as I saw on the TV news.
As I now know, TV networks are very selective about what they show. Burning American flags make the news, to the exclusion of coverage of the millions of sane, kind people in the Muslim world, for they are not viewed as newsworthy.
I will always be grateful to my Muslim friends for helping me make this transformation. They key was getting to know them, one at a time — not as Muslims, per se, but simply as people. After getting to know them, and calling them friends, falling into the type of thinking which is dominated by stereotypes quickly became impossible, for the stereotypes did not match the behavior of any of my friends. I was given a choice between believing TV, or the evidence gathered with my own eyes and ears, and that’s always an easy choice.
It is a shame, but it is true: bigotries are only lost one at a time. I am delighted to be free of my former Islamophobia.
I now have dozens of Muslim friends, all over the world. If it bothers them that I am not a believer, they politely keep that to themselves. They’re always willing to answer my questions about Islamic practices and beliefs, but never use such questions as an opportunity to try to convert me.
The contrast with Christianity, in my experience, is vivid. Of course, I do not experience Islam as one might in, say, Iran. I also do not experience Christianity as everyone else in the world, for I live in the American South, the part of the USA with the highest rates of religiosity, and a form of Christianity in ascendance which is often intolerant of others, in the extreme. Here, I have had many (but not all, of course) Christians react to my atheism quite negatively. I have to remind myself, often, that Christianity here is unusual when viewed through a world-wide lens. For example, consider evolution. Around much of the Christian world, believers have, long ago, “grown up” on the subject of evolution. Pope John Paul II himself said that he viewed it as valid. This in not the case here in the South, where Christianity often goes hand-in-hand with Creationism, a pseodoscience to which I have a quite negative reaction, due to my strong and life-long fascination with, and respect for, real science.
There is also my personal history in play here. I have suffered horrible abuse (I’ll spare you the details) at the hands of Christians, often with the abuse having specifically religious elements. By contrast, no Muslim has ever even tried to harm me, in any way.
Most Americans, of course, think “terrorist” when they hear the word Muslim. The cure for this is simple: make friends with Muslims, and discuss this with them. You’ll learn that most Muslims detest organizations such as Al-Qaeda, and are quick to disavow them. The fact is, the Christian world has its share of such people as well; they’re the types of Christian who shoot doctors and bomb women’s health clinics. Extremists can be found everywhere, and the only reason extremists are of a particular type is almost always the same: a simple accident of birth.
Pick one hundred Christians at random, and its almost certain that you won’t find one fitting this description. Repeat this with one hundred random Muslims, and the odds against you finding a terrorist in your sample are also almost-certain.
Sometimes, people learn that I have a generally favorable view of mainstream Islam, and wonder why I don’t convert. That’s simple: I am unconvinced that any deity or deities exist, due simply to a lack of evidence, and one cannot be a Muslim without honestly believing that a single deity exists. However, I don’t need to be a Muslim to treat Muslims as actual people, and to fight the scourge of Islamophobia wherever I find it.
Unfortunately, there’s a LOT of Islamophobia out there — and it is, sadly, very strong in the loosely-knit community of atheists. I get asked, for example, to participate in “Everyone Draw Muhummad Day” on Facebook, every year. I always refuse. Is this censorship? No, it’s simply my choosing not to offend my friends for no good reason at all.
Throughout the years I have encountered many people who rabidly hate Islam, and they are usually either Christians or atheists. I try to reason with them. It usually doesn’t work, but sometimes it does, so I generally try it anyway. Hate doesn’t help anyone, and the more of it we can rid ourselves of, the better off all of us will be.
[Later edit: part II of this post may be found right here — https://robertlovespi.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/my-unusual-view-of-islam-part-ii/]