9/11 was the “Atheist Stonewall”?

August 9, 2010

"9/11 was a faith-based initiative"I’ve gotten to the point in my work with other Atheists where I’m not often shocked by the ignorant ways many talk about religion. Still, sometimes I’ll hear something so inflammatory that I’m left floored.

In a recent post on The Friendly Atheist, blogger Hemant Mehta shared a video of the Secular Student Alliance National Conference (where I spoke on a panel) keynote address by Atheist blogger Greta Christina on what Atheists can learn from the LGBT movement. I’ve heard her give this talk before, but it was Hemant’s conversation with her about it that caught my attention:

I had a chance to ask Greta later what she considered to be our “Stonewall” — what event did she feel mobilized atheists in a way never before seen? […]

So, what was Greta’s response to what our version of Stonewall was?


As a queer person, I am mortified by this comparison. The riots at Stonewall, which I was fortunate enough to visit earlier this year, were the first major instance that queer folks, long persecuted in the United States, decided to fight back and defend themselves. Stonewall is hugely symbolic for the queer community; to summon it as a parallel to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – a moment when, per Greta, many Atheists decided to start being vocally opposed to religion – is not just inappropriate, but a gross distortion of what those riots represented.

9/11 was not a moment that catalyzed a community to stand up for equality; co-opting the tragic events of 9/11 to make a case against religion strikes me as simply malicious and manipulative, just as the extremists who co-opted Islam on 9/11 manipulated their tradition.

The comparison of 9/11 to the Stonewall riots offends me personally as a queer person, it offends me intellectually as a rationalist, and it offends me as an advocate for the disenfranchised. It is truly a sad day for our community when we sound more sensational and less thoughtful than Sarah Palin.

mosque protest

Protests at mosques around America are increasing, and they are using the same anti-Muslim rhetoric Atheists do.

This comparison is merely a symptom of a larger problem: our fundamentally flawed approach to religion, and more specifically to Islam. At least once a week I hear Atheists say: “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against the terrorists who claim their tradition? Maybe if they did that, then I’d see a difference between the two.”

First, who are we to dictate what a Muslim should or shouldn’t do? They shouldn’t be expected to help us understand why they are different than extremists who also claim that identity. We wouldn’t want others demanding that we explain how we’re different from violent Atheists like Kim Jong Il, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer (who said “if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”), and others, right? I don’t see many Christians running around apologizing for Fred Phelps. It’s because they don’t have to – most of us just get that there is an ideological chasm between the clan who stands with “God Hates Fags” placards and the majority of mainstream Christians.

Second, Muslims are speaking out against extremists who cite Islam as their inspiration. Need some examples? ThereAre. SoMany. That. I. Can’tLink. To. Them. All (but those eleven are a good start).

The real problem? We’re just not listening.

We need to start seeking out different stories. When we look for the worst in religion, that’s what we’re going to find. Stories of Muslims engaging in peaceful faith-inspired endeavors don’t sell nearly as well as stories of attempted Times Square bombings. Yet even coverage of violent stories is skewed against Muslims: the mainstream media totally ignored when a mosque in Florida was bombed earlier this year – imagine the media frenzy if that had been a Muslim bombing a church. The press also ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber was himself a Muslim.

Perhaps we perceive Islam as inherently violent because our perspective is shaped by the warped way the media reports on it. As a community that boasts critical thinking and reason as our primary concerns, we shouldn’t be so quick to swallow the inaccurate portrayal of Islam narrated by our biased news media.

mosque protestFor too long, Islamophobia has been given a free pass in the United States, and the Atheist community has been a willing accomplice. Atheism is supposed to be a pillar of reason, yet many Atheists talk about Islam in the same problematic way as right-wing conservatives (just one example: “Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive“). We claim to be progressive and enlightened but, in the same breath, espouse an oversimplified and uninformed view of Islam.

The real issue is that so often we confuse “Islam” with “Muslims.” We must not, as we so often do, look at the Koran and say, “I know what Muslims believe!” No, we don’t. Religion doesn’t work like that. If we want to understand what Muslims believe, we must stop assuming and actually talk to Muslims; ask them what they believe and how they live their lives.

In an article published yesterday in the New York Times, one man said of the growing protests at mosques around the country: “they have fear because they don’t know [Muslims].” The same is true of many Atheists. We must know our neighbors before we make qualitative judgments about what they believe. Besides – c’mon, is this really the company with which we want to cast our lot?

Atheists are quick to tout that America was not formed a Christian nation but on the principle of religious freedom. And yet, to quote from the Huffington Post‘s report on Akbar Ahmed’s recent appearance on The Daily Show, “unlike today’s attitudes of intolerance and suspicion, Ahmed observes that the founding fathers maintained a deep respect for Islam.”

We need religious freedom as much as anyone else and should be quick to denounce when that right is threatened. Instead, we lead the charge against it by perpetuating false claims against an entire community of people with rhetoric more inflammatory than what I hear on Fox News. We’ve no right to invoke the queer movement when this kind of tactic runs so counter to what Stonewall stood for – the idea that everyone deserves dignity.

The only “wall” such comparisons construct is yet another division. Let’s stop building walls and start breaking them down, like the rioters at Stonewall did – brick by brick, piece by piece. And we can start by inviting Muslims to help us understand Islam instead of calling them guilty by association.


19 Responses to “9/11 was the “Atheist Stonewall”?”

  1. topher said

    I love this post! So many good points and just plain well done. Keep up the good work!

  2. Nick Stancato said

    Chris, I can’t disagree with you more. 9/11 was indeed a great motivator for many atheists to come out of the closet and publicly denounce atheism, I know this because I know several people who reacted in this way to that event.

    I absolutely cannot believe you listed off the old list of “violent atheists”. You seem to miss the point here… these people were/are not violent BECAUSE of their atheism… they are not motivated ideologically by their atheism. The vast majority of violent Muslims ARE motivated by their religion. They believe they are doing a service to Allah to defend their faith. Unless you can prove me wrong, I dont think Kim Jong Il or other atheists like Stalin were motivated by their love of the FSM to kill and mistreat other human beings.

    “more sensational and less thoughtful than Sarah Palin.”? Really? 9/11 showed the world just how much evil could be committed in the name of a so-called peaceful religion. This was a turning point not just in the atheist movement but also in world history. And the simple fact is yes, there are a few Muslims speaking out against extremists but not very many and not loud enough. There should be clerics on the news daily on Al Jazeera, the BBC, CNN, whatever station denouncing Bin Laden and other like him. But these people are nowhere to be seen. So Islam is in a position to be denounced for such things because the vast majority of believers and even the intellectuals are not trying to save and defend their faith

    • Toby said

      Of course Chris was not claiming that garden-variety atheists should be lumped together with Pol Pot et al. That would be silly. His point was that it sucks when an atheist feels like she has to defend herself against the charge that she is somehow similar to Pol Pot et al. So, what do you think: did that not suck? Similarly most Muslims can easily explain what distinguishes them from Bin Laden–but it sure does suck to feel obliged to do so. Get it?

      But, hey, since you’re already on the track of defensiveness, a warning: you may have to turn it up a few notches. Because although Pol Pot et al. were not motivated by atheism simpliciter, a fair proportion of their atrocities WERE motivated by the desire to reduce the prevalence of religious beliefs. Which is indeed a desire shared by many “new atheists”. I don’t know about you yourself. But if you are in that class, you may now feel obliged to defend yourself even more.

      Also: before all these imams can get onto BBC or CNN to denounce terrorism, they have to be given time to do so. And the western news media (even BBC, which is better than most) remains pretty sadly under-interested in hearing from those sorts of Muslim voices. (Is it really that hard to see this bias in our media? Really?) Al Jazeera is a different matter–if you don’t think real discussions of this stuff (far better than you’ll find on mainstream western media, at any rate) don’t occur there, you’re just not watching. Of course, the average watcher of Al Jazeera is probably far better acquainted with the full range of Muslim opinions to begin with.

  3. I hope Greta finds some time to respond–I’m very curious to hear how she sees all of this.

    I really appreciate the comparison you draw about asking atheists to be responsible for differentiating themselves from infamously violent atheists (though, of course, we do get asked to do just that, which I think it is important to note). It’s really hard for me to let go of the impulse to (say) have every Christian defend their beliefs in the face of Fred Phelps, even though almost all Christians (obviously) think he’s not a very good Christian. Part of this revolves around my understanding of the relationship between the so-called Word of God and folks who believe they have figured out what god’s saying with those words, but your continued push toward understanding each other better through stories about our lives is welcome.

  4. Hitch said

    Oh geez. Of course stonewall is not 9/11. No two historic events are the same, and Greta no doubt never meant it the way you now construe it.

    But no excuse to find the worst possible interpretation to brand atheists as always. Almost all your posts on atheism here does exactly this. Trying to construct a case that puts atheism in a bad light. Take tendentious pictures of stickers, take the worst possible example and then point fingers: look how awful.

    9/11 is like stonewall in the sense that people decided that their identity could no longer be promoted by remaining silent. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less to that comparison.

    Yet comparing smiling stick figure to swastikas without any ambiguity how it was meant is A-OK with Eboo and yourself.

    I had hope when you reconciled with Cambridge that you understood not to pull people and extremize their views. Well you have topped yourself again. Nasty atheist basher and stereotyper you are. You should be ashamed of yourself, seriously.

    Oh and not all atheists are islamophobes, and not all criticism of things that relate to Islam are islamophobia, but I don’t expect that there is space for honest dialogue around here. It’s all just about negatively branding atheists.

    Just like people negatively branded LGBT, but you really really don’t get it. Sad and shameful.

    What you forget is that the founding father had tremedous respect for skeptics and unbelievers and were themselves persecuted for daring to be such, take Thomas Paine.

    Virtually all atheists I know are pro-religious freedom and pro-freedom of expression. But given your nasty demagogery noone would ever know.

    Your condescending finger wagging is sickening to say the least. Disagreement is fine, but misconstruing people, and then attacking them on it is not.

    And. That. Was. Greta’s. Point.

    Nice how you managed to make a talk about people of different attitudes working together to overcome social stigma into a smear campaign.

    Yes that’s right. A long talk and you make a short answer, without context to an audience question into a huge case about islamophobia. That is interfaith? No, that’s unfair and nasty.

  5. Hitch said

    Oh, and nevermind that the SSA had an interfaith panel and other things. But you won’t be caught actually giving a fair discussion of what is going on, right Chris?

  6. A-the-ist said

    As a queer person who used to live down the street from Stonewall and who experienced 9/11 firsthand, I find Greta’s comparison ignorant, childish, and revolting. Stonewall was a moment of liberation; 9/11 was a moment of horror. Through their grotesque interpretation of reality, the terrorists surely saw 9/11 as *their* Stonewall, the watershed event that put their cause on the front page – permanently.

    Why do people continue to blame all Muslims for the psychopathic acts of terrorists? Chris’ exercise in pointing out genocidal atheists shows just how ridiculous it is to say all every Muslim/Islam is evil by association. Yes, yes, terrorists who are Muslim use the Quran to justify their actions; you could probably come up with a compelling argument to commit mass murder from a fortune cookie. If someone wants to do something, they’ll find an excuse anywhere.

    Again, this discourse has devolved into one not about the right of every American citizen (and as the UN proclaims, every human) to practice the religion of their choice, but about the validity of belief itself. I challenge every atheist to proclaim their support of the freedom of belief and to universally and emphatically defend that right. Otherwise, we submit ourselves to the same injustice and should expect an equal measure of derision.

  7. Hitch said

    I’m sorry, to see 9/11 as catalyst by no means implies that “people continue to blame all Muslims for the psychopathic acts of terrorists”.

    Frankly I’m sick and tired of that false implication. Yes, thousands of people dying in one day because of religious fanaticism does make one think about religion.

    But just because that is a very legitimate catalyst does NOT imply that people have lost all perspective. Do you guys even know that the level of distrust of atheists in the USA was worse than that of Muslims throughout much of our history and still today? And that the level of distrust against atheists in the US was worse than that level against Muslims during 9/11?


    And you know what. For me personally the catalyst was not 9/11. But I don’t have to bash people who say that it was that for them. I understand that exactly as it is to be understood.

    For many of us, personal stories are quite enough to be outraged how atheists get treated. So why do we NOT engage with the whole talk of Greta, and instead do the divisive thing of claiming that “people continue to blame all Muslims for the psychopathic acts of terrorists”?

    Well perhaps that way we don’t have to talk about Greta actually having issued a bridge-building message!

    What better way than accuse people of being islamophobes. Well done!

    As said this many times now. This is not bridge building. It’s inflaming and offending people by accusing them of stuff they are not. It’s treating a diverse bunch as homogeneous and connecting them with the worst possible. It is exactly stereotyping and yes, the connections to other movements by stigmatized groups are there.

    Now if you rather continue to stereotype or not, is to be seen. So far it’s going down the dirt slinging road. Sadly exactly the opposite of what Greta advocated. But no, I really am close to concluding that Chris just pretends to want bridge building. Else he wouldn’t do stuff like this. It’s all about undermining any bridge building in the atheist camp. The only good atheist is the one noone sees, just like the only good gay was the invisible one. And I’m sorry, just in the LGBT movement we say no to that. You guys do not get to define what “good gay” is and that is the gay that is publicly self-denying. I’m sorry, but no. People come out of the closet, and if you cannot tolerate them but rather have to brand and stereotype them, that is a problem with you.

    “Mao-loving, islamophobic, violent, white privileged, emotionally robotic, arrogant” atheists we are. Truly ignorant and offensive.

  8. @Hitch said

    Seems like you need your own blog, Hitch! You can call it “Wah wah, no one likes atheists.”

    Bridge building among atheists is like herding cats. It’s a catch-all more diverse than the democratic party. Some atheists want to create loving, supportive communities with each other to fulfill the human need to be part of a meaningful community, and actively support the efforts of other to create their own belief-based communities. Other atheists want to attack religion, most often as a reaction to their own painful experience with it. What do these atheists have in common? Nothing, in fact they antithetical to each other. You cannot simultaneously want something for yourself while you deny another. It simply cannot be done! In order to build a bridge, it has to be built from both sides.

    Hitch, were you at the SSA conference in Ohio? Chris sat on a panel about interfaith cooperation. If you didn’t attend, you should watch the video of it and decide which side of the debate is more willing to have a civil discussion.

  9. Hitch said

    “@Hitch”, How would you feel if I promoted that people make “Wah wah, no one likes Muslims.” blogs? Well it would be reprehensible, and so is your suggestion.

    Bullying taunts like that have no place in civil dialogue, that you claim to defend.

    Because I fully agree with this: “In order to build a bridge, it has to be built from both sides.”

    So as long as it is OK to brand and stereotype atheists you do not build bridges to that side. That is exactly the point! So what has your “Wah wah” achieved? Division or bridge building? Well not bridge building. I’m all for bridge building. This blog post and your comment was not it.

  10. Beautifully spoken, Chris. The comparison fails at the most basic level.

    Queer people were (and still are) the victims of centuries of systemic oppression. At Stonewall, the oppressed fought back against their oppressors.

    9/11 was a tragedy, 3000 lives obliterated in senseless violence. But it was one incident, not part of any systemic oppression. Muslims do not and can not oppress the West, nor America, nor liberal democracy as such. Violent Muslims have failed every single time at imposing their demands upon us. On the contrary, on 9/11 the United States government decided to murder well over 300000 innocent Iraqi and Afghani civilians.

  11. Emy said

    This is a very well-written and passionate post. As a Christian who wants to engage the Secular community, I find Greta Christina’s remarks very insensitive and alienating. I’m glad that you are able to raise a new perspective that encourages others to dialogue with and respect the identities of secularists in an enlightening way. Thanks for writing!

  12. […] the religiosity of our friends and loved ones – so that we do not miss opportunities to learn by not listening, as I did last weekend – but I also hope that we will focus less on what sets up apart and more […]

  13. alykhan said

    I enjoyed this post – thought provoking!

  14. […] needs of a particular community or individual. This is one reason why it’s insufficient to “look at the Koran and say, ‘I know what Muslims believe!’” Interpretation of a text depends heavily on the individual’s history and surrounding […]

  15. […] should amplify the voices of Muslims who denounce violence. Contrary to popular narrative, a major finding of this report was that “Muslim-Americans have [denounced violence] in […]

  16. […] are not helpful, and they only serve to make people guilty by association. James J. Lee and the men responsible for 9/11 were extremists and terrorists; let us not pretend […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: