The Atheist’s Dilemma

The Atheist’s Dilemma

Atheists versus imams? Can’t we have more choices?


How likely is it that the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims will wake up one morning and abandon their ancestral faith? Even if you are a ferocious Sam Harris-style atheist who thinks religion is completely stupid–the province of shysters and fools–you have to admit it would be quite astonishing if that view persuaded the devout anytime soon: This Koran, which I thought was dictated to the Prophet by an angel, is totally ridiculous and poorly written to boot! Muhammad, that child molester, most definitely did not fly to heaven and back on a winged horse! What an idiot I was to give these notions a moment’s credibility! There’s no question in my mind that horror at militant Islam and fear of Muslim immigration lie behind at least some of the current vogue for atheism–you don’t make the bestseller list by excoriating the evils of Lutheranism or Buddhism. The problem is that the more scorn one feels for religious belief, the less able one is to appreciate “reformed” or “moderate” variants of the faith. After all, pro-gay Episcopalians and liberation theology Catholics still believe in Christ, the afterlife, sin; reformed Jews still find wisdom in the Old Testament. Strictly speaking, an atheist should have no truck with any of it. But if all you can offer people is reasons to quit their religion–which also often means their community, their family, their support system and their identity–you’re not going to have many takers. For every brilliant angry teenager you strengthen in doubt, there’s a mosque- or churchful of people who’ll choose the old-time religion if the only other choice is nothing.

I’m presuming that this is what Ian Buruma was getting at when he called Somali-Dutch activist and polemicist Ayaan Hirsi Ali an “Enlightenment fundamentalist”: once a devout Muslim, now an atheist and feminist firebrand, Hirsi Ali brooks no compromise with religion, religious-based customs or the notion of a community organized around religious identity. “Enlightenment fundamentalist” is a rather unfair term, actually: isn’t the whole point of the Enlightenment to rely on reason and empiricism, not, like fundamentalists, the revealed truth of a sacred text? As I said in my last column, I admire Hirsi Ali, despite her conservative associations (she’s a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute) and lone-wolf style. Not every feminist has to be a social worker or a grassroots organizer. I’ll bet plenty of women, Muslim and not, have been given courage by her books and example. Just to speak out is a feminist act. Still, it’s probably the case that once you’ve described yourself as a nonbeliever, believers aren’t going to take your view of their faith too seriously: you’ve written yourself out of the story. This would be true even if you had an encyclopedic grasp of your religion, which Hirsi Ali does not.

Because he wants to see Muslim immigrants well integrated in a Europe that currently marginalizes them, Buruma is interested in world-famous philosopher Tariq Ramadan, who says he wants to create a modern Islam, an Islam for Muslims in the West, an Islam that would provide an alternative to the jihadist fire-breathers attractive to the disaffected young. For his profile of Ramadan in The New York Times Magazine, Buruma was attacked at tremendous length and with staggering ferocity in The New Republic by Paul Berman, who thinks Ramadan is a dangerous apologist if not a covert jihadist. Certainly (as Buruma would agree) Ramadan is no friend of women’s rights. One of the more troubling charges against him is that he has called for a moratorium on stoning of unchaste women–not a ban. Ramadan justified his wording by arguing that Muslims wouldn’t accept a total ban. But somehow one expects a bit more leadership from the man who wants to guide millions of European Muslims–who don’t, after all, practice stoning. Buruma himself famously described Ramadan as a cultural conservative, the Muslim equivalent of Jerry Falwell on social issues. Beside the important question of whether Falwellian values are a good thing, there’s also the question of whether they make for the peaceful civic relations Buruma wants. In the United States, religion-backed social conservatism has been associated with endless strife–around public schools, family law, women’s rights, church-state relations–much of it trumped up out of nothing (war on Christmas, anyone?) to feed the sense of grievance that keeps the donations flowing and the pews packed.

Berman and Buruma took shots at each other in a recent New York Review of Books, but in a way it’s pointless for non-Muslims to weigh in on Islam. Why should Muslims care, any more than a Jew cares what a Hindu thinks about Moses? It’s their religion, and they’ll figure out what they want to make of it. Religious texts bear almost any interpretation–Jesus scorned material wealth, but millions of Christians think their faith will make them rich. Likewise, Muslims can find whatever they want in the Koran and the hadith. But to the extent that non-Muslims have a role in choosing who has access to the media, who is taken to represent the group (whether or not they actually do), why can’t there be more choices? If Hirsi Ali is too alienated from her former community to speak for it, Tariq Ramadan strikes me as the latest edition of the elder who claims to represent the community but actually represents the interests of fathers, husbands and brothers. Ramadan has been much in the news because he was banned from entering the United States to take up a position at Notre Dame. This was wrong, of course. If he was good enough for the Catholics of South Bend, Indiana, why should the government get a veto? Still, why do discussions about Islam in the modern world revolve around him? Frankly, I’d rather hear from Marjane Satrapi, whose Persepolis, a brilliant graphic memoir of growing up under the Ayatollah Khomeini, has just been made into a dark, tragicomic and equally brilliant animated film. And from Pakistani-born Mohsin Hamid, author of the hilarious novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Maybe art can go where atheism cannot.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy