Over Crooked Timber Chris Bertram posts something titled Religious groups as ethnic minorities where he suggests that 1) Muslims are an ethnic group 2) there are can be atheist Muslims and atheist Catholics. My first thought is a Ph.D. in philosophy don’t mean you aren’t an idiot (though it probably makes you more confident about spouting off on things you don’t know about), but my second thought is that looking at the comments Bertram’s operational definition that something is an ethnic group if that group understands itself and another group as different and the feelings are mutual is awful fuzzy. It seems Bertram is concerned that Muslims will be denied special protections, i.e., laws against “Islamophobia.”
On the point about Muslims being an ethnic group, I think a problem is that in many European countries Muslims in a given nation are overwhelmingly from one particular ethnic group. So of course it is easy to think of them as an ethnic group. Bertram lives in England, where brown (“Asian”) and Muslim intersect pretty well (though many Asians are not Muslim, almost all Muslims are Asian). In France, the preponderance of Muslims are North African. In Germany, it is Turks. And so on. The Muslim ~ ethnic group conflation is easy in nations where Islam and ethnicity have a strong correlational relationship. In contrast, this couldn’t happen in the United States, where Muslims are multiethnic, ranging from black converts to immigrants from the Middle East and Asia.
As for whether there can be an atheist Muslim, I think you know my opinion on that. Nevertheless, I am close to a nominalist as to whether individual Y is a member of religion X, but if public policy is contingent upon my definition of a Muslim, i.e., one who professes the shahada, vs. someone who has a ‘culturalist’ idea of Islam, so that even if they reject God they don’t reject his religion (?), well, I think I’d have to lean toward mine as being less nutso. As an irtidad I am not positively inclined toward the religion that the likes of Dr. Bertram would have governments classify us as part of because it is an ‘ethnic group,’ that what really matters is how others perceive us, not the decisions and choices we make in our own life. The Muslim attitude toward irtidads is well known, as is the problem with the way European Muslims treat their own. Certainly European racism is unacceptable, but on the facts it seems clear that much of the most extreme invective against Muslims is derived from ideological opposition (i.e., Oriana Fallaci), not ethnic hatred. Instead of focusing on Westernizing the Muslim community many of Bertram’s ilk seem to want to focus purely on the faults of European civilization, which has birthed the most spectacular and creative culture on the history of his planet, all the while trivializing the quality of life issues arising from Muslim oppression upon each other (mostly male to female) as well as the Muslims’ hostility toward the norms of liberal (“pig eating”) society.