All increases in human welfare can ultimately be ascribed to ingenuity and innovation. In early societies, after the development of agriculture, religions may have had some positive social function in bringing people together. In general, however, religions seek to prevent or delay the development of knowledge that might threaten belief in the religion’s dogma. Thus religions bear an untold cost in human welfare due to their inhibition of technical progress that would otherwise have occurred sooner. So the overall historical contribution of religion to human welfare has been negative. This is particularly the case with Islam.
The historical legacy
After the Romans adopted Christianity, the Greek schools of learning were closed down. Following that, Rome fell, and the Dark Ages ensued in Europe. The knowledge of the Greeks, however, was maintained and developed by the Arabs. The Arabic numbering system, derived from India and including the number zero, was a momentous achievement. Arguably, it enabled all subsequent advances in science, as well as commerce. Thus for several centuries the Arabs led the world in knowledge.
Despite what is claimed by Islamic advocates, these achievements were in spite of, not because of, Islam. The scientists operated independently from the religion, under the tutelage of Arab rulers who saw a benefit in their research. This was not to last, however.
After the establishment of Islam, there were numerous doctrinal disputes regarding the imposition of religious strictures. In the 8th century, the Mutazilites were a group that argued that the Koran was “created in time” and that Islam should be open to reason. They were soon persecuted, but a degree of openness remained, and trade and industry prospered.
The end came in the 12th century, when philosophers began to question the inerrancy of the Koran. After that, the strict faith of the theologian Al-Ghazali was imposed and enforced. This held that everything was caused by Allah, and that resort to reason and rationality is useless and should be condemned. This turning point has been called the shutting of the gate of ijtihad, or the closing of the Muslim mind. It led to the abandonment of research and investigation. It also led to the centuries-long decline in the Arab world relative to Europe, from which it has never recovered.
The suppression of knowledge in this period is typified by the fact that the printing press was banned in the Arab world for 300 years after it was introduced in Europe. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire led to a brief relative decline in the power of Islam in Arab society, but this was again reversed with the rise of strict enforcement of the theology of Wahabism and Salafism in the 20th century.
More than a decade ago the United Nations Arab Human Development Reports, investigating why the Arab world lagged in a whole range of socio-economic indicators, identified three major deficits: in freedom, women’s empowerment and knowledge. It would not, or could not, however, state the basic cause: Islam. Since then, the situation in the Arab world has become immeasurably worse. Yet still, there is widespread denial that Islam is the fundamental cause of the problem.
The power struggle 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. The recent events in Egypt are a typical example. This instability is the reason for poor economic and social conditions 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.
Islam is an ideology that is anti-democratic, anti-secular and inimical to universal human rights. It is not just critics and ex-Muslims who attest to this: the Islamists themselves proclaim it. This is not a reflection on the desires and beliefs of the average Muslim: it is a doctrinal characteristic of the religion. The essential reason for this is the military foundation of Islam, as explained below. But before we dismiss these contentions as ill-founded speculation, we should consider the enormity of this issue.
The greatest cause of human suffering
The suffering that Islam brings upon Muslims is immense: over 140 million women and girls have been genitally mutilated, as sanctioned in the Hadith. Hundreds of millions more women and girls suffer daily from the wearing of oppressive garments, as mandated in the Koran to “protect” them from Muslim men. The rise in global Islamism in recent decades has made these issues far worse.
The global surge in Islamism has been largely instigated by the development of Saudi-funded madrassas and Islamic schools around the world, including in Australia. As literacy and educational attainment has increased in the Muslim world, so has the degree of Islamic religious indoctrination. A whole generation has arisen under instruction that the tenets of the Koran must be accepted without question. While it often downplayed, these tenets include incitements to violence. The consequences are awful and the Arab world is again bearing the brunt.
The Arab “spring” has now turned to winter, and the inherently conflictual nature of Islam has intensified. Any group perceived as deviating from the laws of Allah is deemed worthy of punishment. As a result of the sectarian war in Syria, more than 200,000 are dead, a third of the housing stock has been destroyed and more than three million refugees produced. The rise in adherence to Islamic ideology is progressively bringing more chaos and mayhem to countries where it has influence. Iraq, Libya and Yemen can be added to the list of “failed states” that already includes Somalia, and in part, Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan and Afghanistan, to name but a few of the obvious cases.
The violence and destruction in these countries is ongoing, with worse in prospect. In the Middle East there are now over 13 million children who are not in school due to religious conflicts. Instead of getting an education, they are being trained in brutality. This portends a grim future, to an extent unprecedented in the modern day.
How should we evaluate the magnitude of this destruction, population displacement, deprivation and carnage? Famines, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes cause human suffering, but in these cases it is transient and can be remedied. With Islam, the calamity of its destruction is daily. It is persistent, pervasive and endemic. There is no relief in sight, no chance to rebuild. This is of an order unlike any natural disaster. Islam is by far the greatest cause of human suffering in the world today.
Islamic State is Islamic, very Islamic
One would think that these circumstances would give rise for concern, particularly amongst those who are able to perceive that the mythical beliefs at the core of Islam have been utterly refuted by contemporary knowledge. Instead, there is widespread denial that religion has anything to do with this daily calamity.
The Islamic State’s widespread use of violence and repression is claimed to be an extremist interpretation, an aberration of the true “religion of peace”. It is “not Islamic” according to President Obama. Such people are mystified as to why the Islamic State is attractive to recruits.
In fact, 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 an historic revival of the military campaigns that first established the religion. Of course this is difficult for the apologists for Islam to admit, but warfare is Islam’s essential founding characteristic. The Prophet Muhammad was a military leader. It is impossible to understand the world today without understanding this.
In 7th century Arabia, Islam was created, 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 Muhammad launched an insurgency, attacking the Meccan caravans. Following 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 proclaim 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 themselves, 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 biographical 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.” 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, even if covertly.
Beheading is mandated in the Koran as a punishment for infidels. There are numerous war proclamations by Muhammad in the Koran. It is no coincidence that the Islamic State engages in mass beheadings, conquest, and the sexual enslavement of captive women and girls, because this is what the Prophet himself did.
It is the duty of all Muslims to follow the Koran and the example of the Prophet. In what is seen as an historic opportunity, many young Muslims are now trying to do just that. Travel, adventure and idealism are prerogatives of the young. But religious fervour is the main motivation for joining the Islamic State. It is the fulfillment of an apocalyptic vision, a place where only the laws of Allah apply. Despite what the apologists say, young Islamists have the means to identify what is at the core of their religion. Their desire to identify with and join the Islamic State should be no surprise.
The secular response
It is natural for people to want to cast uncomfortable truths from their minds. It is natural to want to believe the best in other people. For the religious, it is difficult to accept that cherished beliefs could be false or harmful. It is particularly difficult for well-meaning Muslims to realise or accept that there is evil at the core of their religion. Naturally, Islamic apologists would want to deny, conceal and play down any undesirable characteristics of their religion, particularly when they are engaged in public relations exchanges with non-Muslims.
It is understandable too that when subjected to injustice, Muslims should feel aggrieved. It is also understandable, that, in order to advance their cause, Islamists should seek to label all critics of Islam as “racist” or “Islamophobic”. That is an obvious defensive tactic. It should be no surprise that believers would behave in a way that their religion demands.
What is surprising is the apparent lack of concern about the tragic suffering that Islam causes. Compared with other humanitarian disasters, there is an apparent indifference, a callous disregard. This apparent lack of concern is particularly grievous amongst atheists and rationalists, who should have the capacity to see through the dissembling and obfuscation that religious apologists bring to the issue.
What is even more surprising is the widespread uncritical acceptance, even by atheists, of contentions that apologists for Islam often make. Even more extraordinary, perhaps, is the tendency of many of the liberal-minded, including atheists, not just to side with and support, but to actively advocate on behalf of the apologists for Islam. In the circumstances, the notions of misplaced empathy, political correctness, cultural relativism, all seem inadequate to explain this phenomenon. Readers of this magazine may be aware of a particular instance of this in relation to a representative of the Islamic Council of Victoria.
In 2004, in a celebrated case, the ICV took a Christian group, Catch the Fire Ministries, to court on the grounds that their description of the nature of Islam vilified Muslims. The ICV won, but the appeal was settled out of court. The case involved a fascinating account of the interplay of law and religion. In it, the barrister for the defense, David Perkins (no relation) described the Islamic Council as “in conventional and descriptive terms, a political pressure group. It desires to control, within Victoria … the content of speech about Muslims. Specifically, it wishes to bring about a state of affairs by which some opinions (which, ex hypothesi it disagrees with) about what the Koran says, can be suppressed”.
We must conclude that the ICV has been very successful in this task. One of their advocates, Shereen Hassan, apparently has a reputation as a “progressive” and “feminist” Muslim, even though both terms are a priori at least, entirely inconsistent with the doctrines of Islam. As a professional dissembler and provider of disinformation on Islam, she is perfectly entitled to her views. I can certainly attest, however, as a participant in university debates, that what ICV representatives may say in public relations mode can be very different from what they might say to a Muslim audience.
The anomalous willingness of atheists to act as advocates of Islam is a phenomenon we need to assess. The many arguments, or rather excuses, that Islamic apologists put forward need to be examined more critically. We should not accept that any criticism of Islamic violence and oppression is due to prejudice, racism, bigotry, victimisation, alienation, colonialism, capitalism or irrational fear. Islam’s rejection of secularism, human rights and democracy is a legitimate cause for concern. In response we need to advocate these principles more stridently.
While we may sympathise with those who genuinely suffer injustice, as atheists we should not forget that religions are false and can be dangerous. We should seek to dissuade people from believing in and following them, not encourage them.
We can sympathise with those who advocate reform of Islam. This could be a useful tactical gesture in at least sowing the seeds of doubt in Muslim minds. It is highly unlikely to succeed, however, as it has been attempted many times in the past and failed. Islam requires submission and obedience to the Koran, which cannot be revised. The objective should be a move away from religion towards reason and rationality. Discarding the more egregious aspects of an ideology, while retaining its myths, knowing them to be false, is not a worthwhile exercise to engage in.
Greater security crackdowns on Muslims will be counterproductive and produce more alienation and antagonism. It is treating the symptoms, not the cause. The notion that Islamic extremists can be deradicalised, by the “correct” training in Islam, with the assistance of groups such as the Islamic Council, is the height of absurdity. That government money should be provided for them to do this is the antithesis of secularism. We need to reclaim secularism in Australia. We should not be afraid of advocating reason in response to terrorism: we should be afraid of not doing so.
There is no military solution. Victory over the Islamic State will not resolve or defeat the historic challenge to human well-being that Islam represents. Secularism is the only solution. Had Iraq been provided with a secular constitution after the 2003 US-led invasion, then the virulent Shiite sectarianism that caused Iraq’s disintegration could have been avoided; likewise in Afghanistan. Without a secular vision, there is only the prospect of deepening and spreading conflict.
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 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 many atheists appear to 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, not people. 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. The human cost is enormous. Secularism is sorely needed now. Let us resolve to advocate it.
John L. Perkins is an economist and is president of the Secular Party of Australia.
Note: This article was published in Australian Rationalist, Volume 97, Winter 2015. (curiously, in that publication. the title was changed, to the seemingly rhetorical: “Question: Is Islam to blame for the terrorism and violence in the Middle East?”).