Why New Atheists Feel Threatened by Moderate Muslims?

For the last many months, new atheists have been tolling on my social media page, demonizing my reformist Muslim sect as “bad Muslim,” “nominal Muslim” or in some cases “non-Muslim” and elevating ISIS as “true Muslims.” Thanks to the likes of Sam Harris, this bigotry (sadly) has become representative of this extremist atheist group.

Before I dwell further, let me make it clear that most of my atheist friends disassociate themselves with these evangelical anti-theists much the same way most Muslims condemn extremists in the Muslim world. Rest assured that I DO NOT see the new atheists as representative of the wider atheist community, with whom I work closely on fighting for universal freedom of conscience.

Now, my Islamic sect is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Ahmadi Muslims believe in universal freedom of conscience, reject all violence in the name of Jihad, reject apostasy and blasphemy laws, preach universal peace and justice etc. The Ahmadyya Muslim Community is the largest Muslim community united under one leader, his highness the Khalifa of Islam. The community spans 206 countries, has a membership close to 160 million, and leads humanitarian projects everywhere it has its presence.

This sounds like a God-sent (no pun intended) recipe for any sane person who aims to see an end to the religious bigotry prevalent in parts of the Muslim world. The Mullahs’ (radical clergy) emphasis on violent Jihad, their strong belief in apostasy laws and blasphemy laws, the suffering of women and minorities under them etc should worry all sane inhabitants of this planet. In a matter of just over a century, tens of millions of people abandoning these medieval views altogether by joining the reformist Ahmadiyya community should please any individual opposed to extremism. Who, other than the radicals in the Muslim world who espouse a narrow-minded belligerent worldview, would even think of attacking such progressive and reformist Muslims?

Well, the new atheists (and other Islamophobes) would. Lest I be accused of using the term Islamophobia loosely, read my colleague’s piece on Islamophobia here.

Instead of attacking extremism, the new atheists are interested in attacking religion itself. Since we reformists don’t have guns, we are an easier target for their desperate vitriol. They are obsessed with us. Just yesterday, new atheist blogger and head of the Global Secular Humanist Movement, Faisal Saeed, spent hours trolling on my Facebook wall  where I was preaching universal freedom of conscience as promoted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Khalifa. If I had promoted death for apostasy instead, I’d face zero opposition and much limelight.

In the recent past, the Pope was credited world over for having embraced the idea of evolution. Faisal put up a challenge out to the Muslim world, promising 10kg of Hummus for anyone who could name a single Muslim leader (even with 1/10th the adherents as the Pope) who had done the same. I named Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The Ahmadis have always been a progressive sect that sees no contradiction between the word of God and His actions (science). I was almost sure Faisal would try to dispute our numbers to prove we were not 1/10th the number of catholics in the world. Instead, his excuse was that Mirza Masroor Ahmad was not “mainstream Muslim,” but the leader of a “persecuted minority” instead. Note that his original challenge stated any Muslim leader. Apparently, persecuted Muslims are not Muslim enough in the eyes of the new atheists.

This attitude of discrediting the reformists and the moderates, while elevating the extremists is not an isolated bias. It is an obsession they hold on to, that refuses to give way to objectivity and reason.

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Another such persistent new atheist is ex-Shia Muslim UK-based Pakistani who goes by the name Banafsheh Baran on social media. (She has not allowed me to use her real name or exact location for this blog).

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She has made it a habit of trolling on my posts and articles and discrediting my views as “not representative of Islam” because of my sectarian affiliation. She goes as far as condemning the Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslim heretics altogether. Even though she religiously refuses to identify Ahmadis as Muslims, she is kind enough to give us the right to call ourselves Muslim though. A right we do not have in my motherland – Pakistan.

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The Ahmadi Muslims were declared non-Muslim by the Pakistani State in 1974.  A decade later in 1984, the State criminalized all profession of faith by the Ahmadis, prescribing a penalty of three years jail time for such profession. The hatred and phobia of the Ahmadis is so deep-rooted that even some ex-Muslims (like Banafsheh) from Pakistani backgrounds find it hard to shred it off, even after bidding farewell to the Islamic religion.

We all wonder. Why would an atheist consider ISIS true Muslims, but refuse to identify Ahmadis as Muslims despite our claim?

To seek an answer, I recently made a post in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Facebook group to understand if Banafsheh’s (and other new atheists’) insistence on refusing to identify me as I chose was based on any principle or mere prejudice.

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Banafsheh Baran Beheshteh promptly responded. She said she considered Ahmadis non-Muslim because “your religion goes against the basics of Mohammad’s Islam.”

But when asked what these basics were, she had no clue. She could not list them or detail them. When pressed by a few other members, she admitted she had no intention to enlist them at all.  In the absence of any basis, her opinion was viewed by members as mere prejudice. As Christopher Hitchens says:

“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” 

It is no surprise then that these same new atheists who consider me non-Muslim or “bad Muslim” out of prejudice, desperately attack and fight my peaceful narrative on Islam. While we take the bullets from radicals on ground, they open another front to spread vitriolic propaganda against us.

In the past, Ali Amjad Rizvi, a prominent new atheist blogger (also an ex-Shia Muslim with Pakistani roots) has openly declared Ahmadis as “bad Muslims,” while describing ISIS as true Muslims. Such elevation of the extremist narrative as credible interpretation of Islam, and belittling of Ahamdi Muslims and other moderate and reformist Muslim groups as lesser or “bad Muslims” is an existential necessity for new atheism.

The reason these aggressive anti-theists feel threatened by moderates and reformers like us is because we challenge their narrow world view and elitism. As my friend Khwaja Khusro Tariq puts it, “a pluralistic, tolerant worldview from a religious person is anathema to their personal agenda. It terrifies them.”

The New atheists find it easier to attack religion with ISIS as its representatives, but find themselves struggling when the world sees us reformers as as the flag bearers of faith. They share the same interest in flaunting the narrative of ISIS-types as credible and condemning the evidence-based peaceful, reformist narrative that the world so needs in this age. They promise to stop attacking moderate and reformist Muslims as soon as we stop claiming our inspiration for world peace, justice and humanity is the Koran. They insist that we will remain the target of hatred and vile attacks as long as we continue to preach and write a peaceful narrative on Islam. To them, world peace is not the aim. Fighting extremism isn’t either. It is just condemning religion and hating it obsessively – day in and day out.

I invite all extremists – theists and atheists to join hands with us liberal theists and atheists who put their differences aside and work for world peace and freedoms. Alas, both extremists will turn my invitation down.

Physician, Writer and Human Rights Activist; Recipient, Presidential Service Award; Pakistani American; Humanity comes First; Interests: Cardiac Electrophysiology, Human Rights and ‘Halwa Puri’