Is Islamic Extremism the same as Atheist Extremism?

There is what appears on the surface to be a very strange claim in a Guardian article (24th Nov) written by Brian Whitaker entitled, “British fear of Islamists and Saudi fears about atheists are two sides of the same coin“. There are of course things that Brian writes that I do agree with,and so when I saw this it caught me by surprise. Ah but wait, all is not quite as it appears to be, here is what he actually wrote …

“Extremism in whatever form it takes has no place in our society, especially not in our schools,” the London diocesan board for schools said last week, referring to a Church of England school where sixth-formers had set up an Islamic society without approval from teachers or governors. Making use of the school’s virtual learning centre, the Islamic society had reportedly made a YouTube video and held meetings addressed by radical preachers.

In Saudi Arabia there are similar concerns about “extremist” ideas taking hold in the minds of the young. Newspaper articles agonise about this much as they do in Britain, though in Saudi Arabia the ideology they fear is atheism.

“We must fight the phenomenon of atheism with initiatives that will nip it in the bud before it takes roots in the hearts of our young men and women,” an article in al-Watan newspaper began. It went on to call for a national strategy “to protect our religion”, with participation by all sections of society. “It is easier to treat cancer in its initial stage before it seeps deep into the body cells,” the article added.

The treatment chosen by the Saudi government was to amend its anti-terrorism law to classify “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion” as a terrorist act.

British fears about Islamists and Saudi fears about atheists are two sides of the same coin.

That last line might appear to be a bizarre claim because not believing specific religious claims is in no way similar to the idea that slaughtering innocent people is a really good idea. I do perhaps understand that in a Saudi context, the very idea of not believing might indeed been deemed extreme, but when faced with an extremely irrational religious belief then anything rational is extreme. We should also remember that Saudi Arabia is a place where basic human rights such as Freedom of thought and also freedom of speech are deemed to be extreme concepts, and also that misogyney and homophobia are virtues, so the idea that non-belief is deemed to be equivalent to terrorism should not be such a great shock.

So is Mr Whitaker actually saying that Extreme Islam is on par with Atheism as a bad idea?

No, not at all, what he is actually writing about is how best to respond to ideas we disagree with.

When faced with ideas that are alien to the prevailing culture, we should not suppress them, nor ignore them, but rather discuss them openly in an environment where they can be examined critically and actually I agree with that, that is indeed the best approach. The comparison he tries to draw is to perhaps suggest that Mr Grove’s big idea of instilling “British Values” into kids is very similar to the Saudi idea of instilling Islamic values as a response to ideas that they oppose, that this approach simply does not work, and nor does censoring things we disagree with.

He is fundamentally right about all this, but rather sadly his message has been lost in all the fuss that has been generated by one rather unfortunate article title that has been deliberately cherry-picked (I suspect not by him) to provoke clicks

The phrase “British fears about Islamists and Saudi fears about atheists are two sides of the same coin.” has indeed stirred up the commenters, and so the prevailing feeling is very much summed up by the initial commenter. What Mr Whitaker is actually saying has gone swoosh right over most heads because a hot button has been pressed …



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