Article published in Australian Humanist, No. 118, Winter 2015
The atrocity of September 11 led me to become an atheist. A boundary had been crossed, I thought, and religions could no longer be regarded as benign. As the buildings crashed to the ground in New York, this conclusion seemed obvious. Yet a decade and a half later, it seems remarkable how few people have been able to reach the same conclusion.
I remember reading at the time an op-ed article, "Religionís guided missile", by someone called Richard Dawkins. He said that no high-tech weapons were needed to wreak mass destruction, just a religious mind. How true, I thought. Obviously the world will take action now that this barbaric and dangerous threat to civilisation has been exposed. How wrong I was.
Since 2001, not only has nothing been done to defuse the threat, but numerous actions have been taken to make it worse. And it has got immeasurably worse. Islamic violence has caused a succession of countries to disintegrate. Yet the world continues on, seemingly oblivious to the cause of the problem: religion in general, and Islam in particular.
I had imagined that with the rise of Islamism, the need for secularism would become more apparent. I thought a new political voice might be needed to express this need. Instead, what seems to have occurred is rising social disharmony, combined with a steadfast denial that religion has anything to do with it. Not only that, but it has seemingly become offensive even to mention the word "Islam" in relation to Islamic terrorism. Perversely, many of the recent defenders of Islam are atheists, secularists and humanists.
When a gunman, with an Islamic flag, took hostages and made bomb threats in Sydney in December 2014, it caused a worldwide sensation. In pursuit of an ideological cause, in both intention and effect, it was the very dictionary definition of terrorism. Yet there was a popular campaign to deny it was a terrorist attack. There were headlines in The Age saying 'Not a terrorist, just a madman with a gun'.
I issued a statement, blaming religion for the terrorist attack, and saying "Religion is the problem; secularism is the solution." Inexplicably to me, this created a huge furore, with widespread condemnation on Facebook, resignations from the Secular Party, and attacks from friends, all of whom are atheists, humanists and secularists. Atheists behaving as apologists for Islam is a curious phenomenon indeed.
Opponents repeated, with uncanny consistency, that the culprit and murderer, Man Haron Monis, was not a terrorist because (a) he had the wrong flag, (b) he was a lone wolf, (c) he was insane, and anyway (d) secularism means that a religion cannot be criticised. All these arguments are nonsense. Regarding (c), there was no clinical diagnosis, merely an assertion that his fanaticism and attacks on women were evidence of psychosis. In fact, these circumstances all confirm his degree of religious motivation.
I note that since then, The Age has revised its view and now regards the Sydney "siege" as a terrorist attack. But why is it that so many people, including, and in particular, atheists and humanists, so readily adopt and parrot the specious arguments of the Islamic apologists?
Ignorance, well-meaning forbearance, political correctness and cultural relativism are the likely explanations. But these are not justifications. Muslims may be a minority in Australia, but no cultural practices can be immune to judgement according to objective criteria. If we accept relativism and abandon the quest for truth and objective values, we abandon the Enlightenment. We need to accept that Islam is a problem.
Many people appear mystified as to why the Islamic State behaves as it does and why it is attractive to recruits. The reasons are actually plain and straightforward, and in view of the widespread disinformation circulated by Islamic apologists and their allies, it is important that these be understood.
It is often claimed that the Islamic State is not a true reflection of Islamic doctrine. It is "not Islamic", according to President Obama. ISís widespread use of violence and repression is merely an extremist interpretation, an aberration of the true 'religion of peace', it is claimed.
This is nonsense: such claims are either mistaken or disingenuous. The Islamic State is meticulously following the Koran and the deeds of the Prophet. It is attractive to recruits for the very reason that it is authentic to the history and doctrines of Islam. It represents a historic revival of the military campaigns that first established the religion.
Some history is in order: Islam was created in 7th century Arabia by the Prophet Muhammad, and established and spread by the sword. That is why both the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia have a sword on their flags. After his exile from Mecca to Medina, the Prophet launched an insurgency, attacking the Meccan caravans. After a series of battles, he triumphantly conquered Mecca, and thereafter all of Arabia, forcing all to convert to Islam. No other religion was created by force in this way.
Muslims have a disingenuous attitude to this part of their history, and many are ignorant of it. Rather than a self-serving aggressor and warlord, they publicly portray their founder as a paragon of virtue, a selfless individual who was unwillingly forced to do his best to serve Allah. From Islamic historical sources, however, we can see Muhammad in an entirely different light. The earliest biography, by Ibn Ishaq, was written more than a hundred years after Muhammad's death, but is very detailed. It depicts Muhammad as ruthless and violent.
The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics describes Muhammad's depiction as "exceedingly unfavourable". As well as being expedient and unscrupulous, "He organises assassinations and wholesale massacres. His career as tyrant of Medina is that of a robber chief, whose political economy consists in securing and dividing plunder." Is this not a relevant consideration in understanding contemporary events?
Beheading is mandated in the Koran as a punishment for infidels. It is no coincidence that the Islamic State, and others, engage in mass beheadings, because the Prophet himself did exactly that. The unflattering nature of Muhammad's biography tends to add to its credibility. However its authenticity is not as important as the fact that it is what Muslims believe. It is the duty of all Muslims to follow the example of the Prophet.
In what is seen as an historic opportunity, many young Muslims are trying to do just that. Travel, adventure and idealism are prerogatives of the young. But religious fervour is the main motivation. Joining the Islamic State is a fulfillment of an apocalyptic vision. Whatever the apologists say, young Islamists have the means to identify what is authentic in their religion, and the Islamic State fills the bill. Denying this will not solve the problem.
We should not underestimate the nature of the rise in global Islamism. It is a phenomenon which has been largely instigated by the development of Saudi-funded Islamic schools around the world. Islam is an ideology that is anti-democratic, anti-secular and inimical to universal human rights. The Islamists I have debated at universities attest to this. Ex-Muslims attest to this. It is not a reflection on the average Muslim: it is a doctrinal characteristic of the religion. We must accept this reality.
The dire consequences are apparent. The rise in adherence to Islamic ideology is progressively bringing more chaos and mayhem to countries where it has influence. The number of Islamic "failed states" is increasing rapidly. Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are recent additions.
The resulting destruction and population displacement is such an enormous humanitarian problem that I would argue that Islam is now the greatest cause of human suffering in the world today. Famines and natural disasters may occur with a certain frequency, but the calamity of Islam is persistent, pervasive and becoming endemic. There is no relief in sight, only the prospect of worse to come.
The contest between Islamist agitators and authoritarian rulers who try to keep them at bay, is a conflict that has been repeated endlessly in the Islamic world throughout its history. This has led to poor economic and social conditions, especially in the Arab world. This in turn fosters greater Islamism. We cannot blame colonialism, or poverty, or oppression, or the Americans, although they have not helped. The underlying cause is Islam itself and its rejection of secularism.
There is no military solution. The failure to provide Iraq with a secular constitution after the 2003 US-led invasion, led to a virulent Shiite sectarianism that caused Iraqís disintegration. What will aiding the militias to defeat Islamic State ultimately achieve? Without a secular vision, there is only the prospect of deepening and spreading conflict.
This cancerous destruction is not happening in a remote and insignificant part of the world: it is on the edge of Europe, on major trade routes, and the region concerned contains significant oil and gas reserves. The ultimate target of Islamic State or its successors will be Saudi Arabia itself, where Mecca and Medina are located. It may be a matter of time before the contamination spreads there, compounding the calamity. We will continue to deny that religion is a problem at our peril. We are all affected.
Despite all this, many, including many of the atheist friends I encounter, still seek to deny the scale and cause of the problem. Yes, most Muslims are not bad people. They want to believe the "religion of peace" argument that is pushed by their apologists. Hence some atheists say we should side with and encourage these "moderates".
This is a hopeless strategy. "Religion of peace" advocates are doubly deluded: firstly in thinking Islam is true; secondly in (wishfully) thinking it is peaceful. It should not be the job of atheists, rationalists and secularists to encourage people in their delusions. Rather, we should seek to dissuade them.
There is no possibility of "reform" of Islam. The only possibility is to move away from it. There have been centuries of battles over ideology and doctrine in Islam, between the Karjiites, Mutazilites, Asharites, and later Wahabists, Salafists etc. Reformation has been attempted in Islam and the reformers have lost. The reason is that it is impossible in Islam to deny any part of the Koran or reject the deeds of the Prophet.
It is hard to imagine how a religion could be designed to be more virulent. Whereas Christianity may be characterised as a quest for salvation, Islam is characterised by obedience to rules. These rules assert superiority, impose discipline and require constant repetition. Islam aspires to total world domination via coercion, agitation and fertility. It is more like a cult than a religion.
And yet my 'Islamic apologist' atheist friends continue to argue that other religions are just as bad, the Bible contains heaps of violence, all religions have extremists, we mustn't focus on Islam etc. In response I ask them: how bad do things have to become before you will accept there is a problem with Islam? Do you not have any compassion for the victims of Islam, who are mainly Muslims? How can siding with, and promoting, the views of (many admittedly well-meaning) apologists be a solution? Is that not a betrayal of atheism, humanism, rationalism and secularism?
As atheists, we have a grave responsibility. We have the ability to perceive that religions are pathological delusions. Believers do not have this perception. We know that their beliefs are based on ancient myths and lack veracity. Believers do not have this insight.
Knowing what we do, it is insufficient and counterproductive merely to condone and support moderate believers in the vain hope that they will find a solution. They won't. Instead we must assert our point of view. We cannot succumb to relativism, as if all views are equally valid. We cannot accept violations of secularism and of human rights merely because of cultural sensibilities.
Of course, we need to be tactful as well as persuasive. People have a great emotional attachment to their unfounded beliefs. But we cannot shirk this challenge. We need to be critical of Islamists, as well as other religionists, and not defend and support them. We need to end this perversity, where the worse the behaviour of Islamists becomes, the more atheists rise to their defense.
We must, of course, do this in a way that does not target Muslims as people. We need to criticise beliefs. We need to portray religion as the problem, to which secularism is the solution. After hundreds of years of religious wars in Europe, secularism was invented to counter this problem.
As ever, the universal principles of compassion, freedom, justice and honesty should be our guide.
John L. Perkins
President, Secular Party of Australia