‘Talibani Atheism’ & how it fuels Islamophobia

Bigotry of any sort – whether based on race, gender, religion or ethnic background – is like cancer. It must be condemned in its start before it metastasizes and takes root in society. At this point, it is usually too late to cure the disease, which rapidly progresses to its natural, malignant fallout. Islamophobia is one such strand of bigotry.

The term is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as an “intense dislike or fear of Islam; hostility or prejudice towards Muslims”. Multiple studies have shown that Islamophobia is on the rise in the West for the last few decades. This should be a cause of concern for all citizens of the civilized world.

Islam is not a monolithic faith. It has numerous sects and sub-sects that differ based on their understanding of the Quran. They also differ in their analysis and extent of reliance on recorded narrations – collected centuries later – of Prophet Muhammad, with one sect treating all such narrations as authentic, another disregarding them altogether and a whole spectrum in between. Given this diversity, the actions of a particular faction within Islam can only be representative of that group, not the whole religion. It is first and foremost the teachings of the Quran and then the proven example of Prophet Muhammad that define the Islamic faith as a whole.

Of the sects within Islam, I belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. This is one of the largest communities of Muslims worldwide, with tens of millions of members in over 200 countries in the world, all united under His Holiness, the Khalifa of Islam. We not just claim, we also demonstrate that Islam promotes universal justice, freedom of speech and free exchange and criticism of ideas. We promote peace through dialogue and support universal freedom of conscience for people of all faiths – and of no faith. We are at the forefront of humanitarian service throughout the world. We have schools to impart secular education, hospitals to treat the sick, and charity projects to provide food and water etc. across parts of the developing world. In the United States alone, we collected 50,000 bags of blood to commemorate 9/11 victims and recently took our fight against hunger to the US Congress. We condemn violent Jihad, and apostasy and blasphemy laws as un-Islamic and inhumane, and champion the separation of Church and State.

Taliban and Al Qaeda are examples of fringe outliers to the far right of the sectarian spectrum. They are the Christian, Jewish and atheist equivalent of KKK, Brit Hakanaim and the League of Militant Atheists respectively. Claiming that these terrorist groups represent their respective faiths or philosophy is not simplistic, it is outright stupid.

Here is where “Talibani atheists” – a term I coined three years ago – come in.

Like Islam, atheism is no monolithic group of people either. Most of my atheist friends are great people, like most of my theist friends. Kile, the editor-in-chief of Claremont Journal of Religion, is one such example. He is keen on “interfaith” discourse and on building bridges between religious and atheist communities. He disagrees with religion but does not hate it. We even penned an oped together. Most of my atheist friends are like Kile. Then, there are my New Atheist friends that are anti-religion. There is some diversity within this group as well. There are those who believe that religion – and hence scripture – must be subject to critique and countered with rational argument. A proponent of reason, I am fine with this approach and use the same to counter extremist narratives.

And then, there are those like Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris, who obsessively hate, ridicule and condemn religion in their daily routines. They believe that all Islam – including Ahmadiyya Islam – is evil, and deny the existence of any moderate interpretation of Islam altogether. They argue that a good Muslim and a good human are mutually exclusive. If I am a good person, I must not be following Islam. If I follow Islam truly, I must be a bad person. The Taliban, similarly, stigmatize those they despise, based on mere affiliation. Like their counterparts, Talibani atheists are rigid in their worldview and childishly stubborn. Moreover, Talibani atheists rely on the Talibani (ISIS) narrative for their understanding of Islam.

“But we don’t have guns?” they scream. “Thank God,” I say.

Unlike Talibani atheists, vast majority of atheist critics acknowledge the existence of moderate Islam and believe that Scripture can lead people to bad or good, depending on what they read in it. They do not lump me and Al Qaeda under a monolithic bloc called “Islam.” Their fight is not against Islam per se, but against the radical interpretation of Islam that I equally despise and fight. They applaud Ahmadiyya Islam, for instance, for its rational reading of scripture. This is a reasonable position that I applaud, and that highlights the key difference between a Talibani atheist and a liberal one.

The reason Talibani atheists consider moderates “bad Muslims,” or even “non-Muslim” is because considering us good Muslims forces them to acknowledge the existence of moderate interpretations of Islam. They insist that extremists interpret the Quran “literally,” whereas moderate Muslims do not, a lie that falls flat on its face when they are caught relying on the interpretations of the same extremists for their arguments against Islam.

The Taliban attack and kill moderate Muslims like the Ahmadis in Pakistan and elsewhere. While the moderates suffer and fight them on ground, Talibani atheists borrow their narrative, flaunt it, give credibility to their “twisted interpretations” and base it to condemn us as “bad Muslims.” They look for easy targets in the moderates – the same moderates who fight at the fronts of this ideological war.

As a consequence of this prejudiced approach, Talibani atheists are directly responsible for Islamophobia. For indeed if Al Qaeda and ISIS defined the face of Islam and none else did, I would fear it too. Anyone would. Anyone should. At a large scale, such promotion of fear and hate of Islam is known to result in anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes. Because the word “Islam” is deliberately linked to evil, anyone claiming affiliation with Islam is looked upon with suspicion and hate. As such, for their role in demonizing a faith and the resultant demonization of its adherents, Talibani atheists are Islamophobe bigots and must be identified and condemned as such before this cancer takes root.

“You want to censor criticism of Islam!” they yell. “No,” I calmly reiterate. “I appreciate intellectual criticism and use it in my work against religious extremism in parts of the Muslim world.”

We know well what followed when Nazis demonized Judaism in Germany. We know what followed when the Black color was demonized in America. We know what follows when extremist zealots are allowed to promote their prejudices against Ahmadiyya Islam, Shia Islam, atheism etc. in places like Pakistan. We also know how Talibani atheists in the past, when empowered, went door to door hunting down theists in Russia. Let us not wait to witness such a dreadful outcome. Instead of waiting for it to metastasize beyond cure and mourning ex post facto, let us all condemn and call out the bigotry that is inherent in Talibani atheism – the bête noire of atheism – now.