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A couple months after the 9/11 attacks, I happened to hear a radio program that included biologist (and atheist gadfly) Richard Dawkins, and also ex-Muslim writer Ibn Warraq. After Dawkins denounced Islam, the program host asked, “But isn’t that encouraging bigotry, to single out Islam?”

Dawkins answered, lightly, “I’m not singling out Islam. I despise ALL of the Abrahamic religions equally — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” Listening to the radio, I chuckled “Good one, Professor Dawkins!” (Biology was my second major in college, and I hugely admired Dawkins for The Selfish Gene.)

At which point Ibn Warraq broke in: “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree. I’m an atheist like you are, and I disbelieve equally in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But I feel no reason to despise Judaism or Christianity in the same way that I despise Islam.”

And this really floored me. I was an atheist who’d been raised Christian, and up to that point I’d taken for granted what Dawkins had said — that one “Middle Eastern desert religion” was as backwards as another. But what if Ibn Warraq was right? What if 21st-century Islam was lagging far behind 21st-century Judaism and Christianity in getting rid of the primitive, tribalist, heathen-killing origins?

That said, I reject the idea that Islam is inherently incapable of reform. The Jewish and Christian Bibles contain verses that treat slavery as perfectly normal, and that recommend the death penalty for adulterous wives (but not adulterous husbands!), and for male homosexuals (but not female homosexuals!), and for “worshipers of false gods.” It took centuries for Judaism and Christianity to admit that perhaps these verses were only applicable in harsh ancient times, and were not perpetually binding on believers. So Islam, too, might change — but it hasn’t happened yet.

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