‘Trans people are real people. We are not an agenda’ – Zinnia Jones on CNN »« Smash the closet! 10 alternative coming out tips for young people

Dawkins and Islam: Nick Cohen replies to me at the Spectator

Friday’s post, on die-hard refusal in some quarters even to entertain critique of Richard Dawkins, took to task a column by Nick Cohen, parrying broadsides against Dawkins’ statements on Islam from me, Tom Chivers, Nesrine Malik, Nelson Jones, Martin Robbins, Owen Jones and others.

Half an hour ago, Cohen posted a reply to me and his (/Dawkins’) other many critics at the Spectator.

Alex Gabriel, an atheist blogger, said I had failed to understand that it was possible to criticise Dawkins for being “a dickhead” – to use his elegant language – and to oppose religious fundamentalism too. Of course it is, everyone can be in the wrong. And Dawkins of all people must know that there is no such beast as a sacred cow. All I can say in reply is that Gabriel’s even-handedness may exist in his blog, but it does not exist in modern culture. Look at the bureaucracy, the media, the universities.

To clarify: the title of my post, ‘Don’t be a Dickhead’, was a pun on Phil Plait’s much-debated ‘Don’t be a dick‘ talk from TAM 2010; ‘Dickhead’ (capital ‘D’) serves here as a byword for the parts of Dawkins’ fandom which refuse to hear him questioned: die-hard fans of someone named Richard, that is, as die-hard fans of the Pet Shop Boys are Petheads and die-hard believers, in Dawkins’ words, are faithheads. I wasn’t calling Dawkins himself a dickhead (small ‘d’), nor calling Cohen one – certainly, I think his column was one of the fairer and more relevant apologies for tweets like this – my point was only to suggest the territory Cohen risks entering by saying Dawkins should always be left alone.

To comment: it’s certainly true there are widespread, serious Islam-related problems in Britain – female genital mutilation, say, the Sharia courts system or the harassment and intimidation, yes, of ex-Muslims like Nahla Mahmoud. This does not, however, licence anyone to deny Muslims equal citizenship rights, as figures praised by Dawkins like Pat Condell and Geert Wilders do, to fall back on racist, xenophobic narratives for critique of Islam, as he regularly does, or to excuse leading atheists like him for doing so. In my view, in fact, his rhetoric jeopardises the secularist cause. As I said in my original post about this,

I’m an atheist and a secularist. Within the context of a broader critique of religion, I have no problem saying the architecture of public space, as a prerequisite for democracy and human rights, must be secular; that it’s absurd to think violent, inhumane ancient texts provide superior moral guidance to everyone else’s; that if you claim religious morality based on those texts should be enforced in the public sphere, you deserve to have their contents thrown at you; that the God idea is a bad idea; that Islamism is a regressive, oppressive political movement; that non-Islamist, non-fundamentalist, mainstream Islamic beliefs deserve as much scrutiny and criticism as any others; that they can and should be indicted for promoting sexual ethics based on the whims of an imagined being; that Mehdi Hasan deserved evisceration, not praise, for his article on homosexuality; that cutting apart infants’ genitals is violence and abuse; that subjecting animals to drawn-out, agonising slaughter is unspeakably cruel and religion no excuse; that going eighteen hours in July without eating or drinking is more likely to endanger your health than bring spiritual enrichment; that blasphemy is a victimless crime, and public prohibitions of it antediluvian. I am not ‘soft on religion’; I am not softer on Islam than any other.

But there are still ways to say these things that have racist subtexts and ways that don’t. There is nothing inevitable in facing a barrage of indignation from sensible people when you talk about Islam-related things…

The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.

There are better ways we can discuss Islam.

There are better ways we can critique Islam.

‘Does Gabriel seriously think’, Cohen asks in his new column, ‘that our society will be able to maintain that it has acquitted itself well?’ To date, certainly not. But keeping our commentary on Islam(ism) couched in the language of epistemology and human rights, away from the anti-Muslim McCarthyism of Dawkins’ Twitter feed, sharpens rather than blunts our critique of it. Perhaps Cohen’s first column didn’t mean to defend those tweets – but by telling us to back away from Dawkins just as his comments came rightly under scrutiny, that’s part of the message it sent.

Comments

  1. Scott says

    You’ve got it wrong again. Cohen hasn’t been arguing that Dawkins should be left alone or shouldn’t be criticised. Where did he say that? He has argued that the priorities of some left-wing writers, namely Owen Jones, are lopsided. For example, when Dawkins tweeted about the gender segregation incident during the Tzortzis/Krauss debate at UCL, Jones reaction was to attack Dawkins instead of remarking on the illiberal, reactionary attitudes of the Muslim organisers of the event.

  2. says

    I always boggle my mind at ‘FGM is an Islamic thing’ talk. It’s an East African thing – the Christians there do it just as frequently. Yes, it needs to be stopped, regardless of who’s practicing it.

    Does Gabriel seriously think that our society will be able to maintain that it has acquitted itself well?

    Considering the abuse your society (and mine) place on immigrants, no, I imagine not. Also, white people, you are still not the heroic saviors in a Mighty Whitey story.

  3. coelsblog says

    my point was only to suggest the territory Cohen risks entering by saying Dawkins should always be left alone.

    Nice strawman!

  4. says

    It’s not a strawman; Nick did overstate his case. I told him that on Facebook (I don’t think he responded). I didn’t do it at the Spectator because there were too many comments there.

    He used the word “never” when he shouldn’t have…I don’t have the citation handy because Alex forgot to link to his article.

    [Edit: amended! And here you are. http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9000431/forget-about-richard-dawkins-fight-the-real-fanatics/ AG]

  5. says

    Found it.

    I would go further and concede that Dawkins’s critics had other arguments that weren’t wholly asinine, were it not for a telling detail. They never stick their necks out and defend real liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims who are being persecuted in Britain right now.

    Not true. Just not true. Badly overstated.

  6. Pen says

    And West Africa, also Asia and the Middle Eastvto a lesser extent. But as you point out, our primary responsibility might be that it is also now a British thing.

  7. coelsblog says

    Dear Ophelia,

    Not true. Just not true. Badly overstated.

    You’re right, that was badly over-stated, and in Cohen’s response (linked to in the OP) he admitted he was wrong in at least one case and retracted.

    Note that if your “not a strawman” was a response to my comment above, then that was a different issue, of whether Dawkins “should always be left alone”.

  8. Jacob Schmidt says

    RE: Leaving Dawkins Alone

    I often read people defending who take pains to reaffirm that Dawkins can and should be criticized when he’s wrong. Yet it seems every single criticism gets dismissed while saying so. Every time someone points out that Dawkins is being an ass about Islam, people jump to his defense even if the criticism is bloody obvious. Their constant reaffirmation that we’re allowed to criticize Dawkins wears thin when every criticism gets dismissed.

  9. thisistheend7 says

    Liberal writers like Owen Jones find it difficult to recognize that religion provides the means for the religious to espouse leftist political views (Mehdi Hasan) from a illiberal perspective (Mehdi Hasan).

  10. coelsblog says

    Well, maybe it’s not “bloody obvious” to us that Dawkins is “being an ass” about Islam. Maybe we genuinely think that Islam can and should be criticised, and that Dawkins is doing it appropriately.

    Afterall, most of the criticism has to twist and misrepresent his words, paraphrase into things he hasn’t actually said, draw out “implications” that aren’t there, and spend much of the time criticising others (e.g. Condell and Wilders) rather than Dawkins himself.

  11. says

    I agree with Alex and Ophelia. If Nick Cohen had wanted to make a general point about people neglecting ex-Muslims, victims of FGM, and other groups because of anxieties about being bigoted – that would have been fine, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to connect the issue with critics of Dawkins. It seems to me that very many of Dawkins’s critics are atheists who share many of Dawkins’ concerns but don’t care for his rhetoric and some of his judgements. I’ve both criticised him and flagged the issue of Nahla Mahmoud as well as several other stories about ex-Muslims. John Sargeant is another example of someone who criticises both Dawkins and (regularly) covers issues to do with Islam.

    http://homoeconomicusnet.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/islam-and-women/

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/john-sargeant/richard-dawkins-fitna-geert-wilders_b_3729214.html

  12. says

    Are we to just go with the theory that Richard Dawkins is right about EVERYTHING. Even things which he has no special training in… ??

    Ugh. This is not what I signed up for…I find the man really embarrassing when he leaves his lane.

  13. coelsblog says

    Hi Alex, I’ve re-read various of these articles this morning. A few points:

    To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion …

    Which comments by Dawkins are you thinking of, in which he describes Islam as “alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’”?

    Second, a large part of the criticism is his “praise” for Condell and Wilders. As far as I’m aware, Dawkins has only praised the film “fitna” (possibly only the “remade” version of it). I’m not aware that he’s praised or supported Wilders’s policies in general (many of whch I don’t agree with, by the way).

    The “guilt by association” idea is dubious. For example, PZ Myers has previously linked to Condell’s videos and, for example, commented: “He’s a little too generous towards Islam at the end, though. Strip away the fear-mongering and hatred from Islam, and it would still be a religion of ignorance and delusions”. Isn’t that as bad as anything Dawkins has said about Islam? Should you also criticise PZ for this?

    Third, while much of the criticism of Dawkins is that he chooses derogatory wording that can be “misinterpreted”, in this article you find yourself having to explain your own use of somewhat derogatory wording.

    Lastly, the comparison with “McCarthyism” seems inappropriate, since this is not about a state body repressing people for their opinions, it is merely an activist with no state power using his free speech to criticise ideas. If his target were, say, capitalism, no-one would bat an eye.

  14. says

    Examples of Dawkins’ commentary are in the original post; PZ has publicly withdrawn his endorsement of Pat Condell, and in any case, one shouldn’t praise a film like Fitna without any awareness of the context or agenda behind it; and yes, you’re right I could have been clearer about ‘Dickhead’. Nobody’s perfect. On the other hand, it’s not an ambiguity likely to empower the EDL or legitimise racism, so I’m not too worried.

  15. atheist says

    It’s almost as if we wanted a skeptical movement that could walk and chew gum at the same time…

  16. coelsblog says

    Alex, you seem to me to be making mountains out of molehills. Let’s take the “alien” comment. It comes from a TES interview which is about creationism. A lot of that interview is Dawkins lambasting Christian “faith” schools that teach creationism. He also deplores Islamic “faith” schools teaching creationism.

    He does indeed use the phrase “alien rubbish”, and it’s probably not the wisest choice of words, but it refers here to 6000-yr-old creationism, and in the context of the article could apply equally to the Christian schools teaching the same. This doctrine is indeed somewhat “alien” to the UK, whether imported from US fundamentalists or from Islamic countries that promote creationism.

    It’s notable that most of the media commentary about this interview focussed on the Islamic creationist schools, and omitted to mention that the TES interview was equally about Christian creationism.

    Your complaint (quoted above) is that to use such language “is to racialise the terms of discussion”, and yet the comment by Dawkins was “These are now British children who are having their minds stuffed with alien rubbish” (i.e. creationism). The “these are now British children” surely shows he is *not* thinking in racial ways, but is objecting to the teaching of creationism in UK schools (funded by the taxpayer!). It’s clear from that wording that he’s not seeing the *people* as “alien”, he’s seeing the creationism as “alien”.

    I’ll also quote Ophelia Benson’s remark on this at the time: “Stop the presses! Alert the world! Dash off madly in all directions! Richard Dawkins thinks just possibly schools should not be teaching students that the world is 6000 years old. What a terrifyingly radical militant shrill strident dogmatic doctrinaire scientistic positivist neo-colonialist claim.” (Of course Ophelia may have updated her opinions on Dawkins’s language since that 2011 remark.)

    Alex, you then take this “alien” word, expand it into “alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western” and say it is then “racialising” the issue (the additions are yours, not Dawkins’s, and he probably wouldn’t have said “un-Western” given that much creationism comes from the US). Hmm, you really do seem to be exaggerating and distorting for effect.

    As for the “barbarian” quote, it very explicitly refers to people who destroyed the Bamiyan statues for religious reasons and for those who destroyed/damaged an ancient library full of irreplacable ancient manuscripts. “Barbarians” seems an appropriate word.

    Sorry, but you do seem to be making mountains out of molehills, if these are the worst things Dawkins has said then I’m not siding with your complaint.

    And it’s easy to find just as bad from, for example, PZ Myers. E.g. “… idiots of Islam …”. “Vile Islam”. And “… I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism”. (Is “barbaric” an ok description when PZ uses it, note that here he is clearly applying it to Islam as a whole, whereas Dawkins was only applying it to those who destroyed a library?)

    If I were to go beyond PZ to Horde comments it’s easy to find lots more, E.g. “Islam is (almost always – & esp. here) a barbaric and brutal way of life and thought”

    And: “Stating that Islam and the things done in its name are currently vastly more barbaric than what is done in the name of Christianity is not islamophobia but a simple statement of fact.”

  17. says

    “You really do seem to be exaggerating and distorting for effect” – please refrain from conjecture about my intentions, and other users’, in this comment section.

    I have reason to think PZ’s position has changed in the recent past, but he isn’t any more above criticism than Dawkins. I am not interested in arguing with you further.

  18. organic cheeseboard says

    As an aside – this petition that Nick is condemning everyone for not signing. Nick Cohen signed it yesterday morning – the same day he published this article.

    James Bloodworth sent him a direct message via Twitter, urging him to sign on… the 2nd August.

  19. organic cheeseboard says

    Cohen admitted he was wrong in ONE case – but this is simply not good enough.

    It’s entirely in keeping with his ranty straw man approach to writing that he accuses people (even people he has elsewhere PRAISED such as Ophelia Benson) of ‘silence’ when they’ve been far more vocal – just less preachy and judgmental – than he has on topics.

    I am at least glad that Cohen has started to note the difference between Muslims and ex-Muslims at least – that’s progress of sorts.

  20. organic cheeseboard says

    I’ve looked over Bloodworth’s timeline too – his ‘repeated requests’ for Owen Jones to sign the petition were not accompanied by links to the petition – a bit harder to sign it when you have to Google (it doesn’t take a long time to Google it but a link would surely help).

    From the beginning Bloodworth’s been trying to use it not as a cause to unite behind but a stick to beat Jones with – and it;’s understandable that Jones would ignore it since from the start Bloodworth’s been actively promoting it as such. And Cohen’s stupidly decided this is a good idea despite his being far more culpable of actively ignoring it since Bloodworth tweeted him the link directly on the 2nd – that’s 24 days of inaction.

    But more generally, it’s really something when a failure to click a link = not caring about ANY persecuted Muslims/ex-Muslims.

  21. says

    Alex, you seem to me to be making mountains out of molehills. Let’s take the “alien” comment. It comes from a TES interview which is about creationism. A lot of that interview is Dawkins lambasting Christian “faith” schools that teach creationism. He also deplores Islamic “faith” schools teaching creationism.

    He does indeed use the phrase “alien rubbish”, and it’s probably not the wisest choice of words, but it refers here to 6000-yr-old creationism, and in the context of the article could apply equally to the Christian schools teaching the same. This doctrine is indeed somewhat “alien” to the UK, whether imported from US fundamentalists or from Islamic countries that promote creationism.

    Why do you only know how to apply context when it means ‘consider Dawkins’ speech as a whole’ and not ‘consider where and when Dawkins is’?

    Alex, you then take this “alien” word, expand it into “alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western” and say it is then “racialising” the issue (the additions are yours, not Dawkins’s, and he probably wouldn’t have said “un-Western” given that much creationism comes from the US). Hmm, you really do seem to be exaggerating and distorting for effect.

    Uh, ‘foreign and un-British’ are exactly what a british person means when they say ‘Alien’. The only addition that might be Alex’s is Un-Western. You know this, but you treated the entire thing as invalid.

    And it’s easy to find just as bad from, for example, PZ Myers. E.g. “… idiots of Islam …”. “Vile Islam”. And “… I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism”. (Is “barbaric” an ok description when PZ uses it, note that here he is clearly applying it to Islam as a whole, whereas Dawkins was only applying it to those who destroyed a library?)

    If I were to go beyond PZ to Horde comments it’s easy to find lots more, E.g. “Islam is (almost always – & esp. here) a barbaric and brutal way of life and thought”

    And: “Stating that Islam and the things done in its name are currently vastly more barbaric than what is done in the name of Christianity is not islamophobia but a simple statement of fact.”

    AFAIK, PZ has, in fact, changed his diction in response to criticism, and learned to clarify so as to not be used as a springboard by racists. Ophelia, AFAIK, hasn’t, and I’ve criticized her for it. PZ’s commentariat has also generally improved on the matter. Tu Quoque is also not a friggin’ defense.

  22. coelsblog says

    Hi Rutee,

    Uh, ‘foreign and un-British’ are exactly what a british person means when they say ‘Alien’.

    Sure, but if one says “To object … on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, …” it gives the impression that Dawkins has said all three and has thus put considerable emphasis on it, rather than being one word he used once in the interview.

    It’s also relevant that it was specifically *creationism* (not Islam) that was described as “alien”, and that in the context of interview this could be taken to apply also to Christian creationism imported from the US.

    And it’s also relevant that Dawkins did indeed spend much of that interview on Christian forms of creationism. Alex’s original article spent a whole paragraph asking: “why concentrate specifically on Muslim schools … Targeting Muslims seems curiously selective”, when Dawkins indeed *had* covered Christian creationism in his TES interview. It was media reporting and cherry-picking of that interview that then presented it as an Islam-only thing.

    All this is relevant, though having said that I do agree that the word “alien” was sub-optimal there.

  23. says

    Considering the bulk of Dawkins’ problems are his own, and can’t be attributed to editing by the interviewers, you’ve got a fucking myopic picture of what matters here. Has Dawkins even complained about the racism of the interviewers in their edits? Emphasis matters, incidentally.

    FFS I’d never heard about this interview before Alex Gabriel mentioned it. If you think I’m using it to base my “He is a fucking racist jackass” opinion, you are highly misinformed. Stop defending your god damn hero from himself.

  24. atheist says

    Alex, you then take this “alien” word, expand it into “alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western” and say it is then “racialising” the issue (the additions are yours, not Dawkins’s, and he probably wouldn’t have said “un-Western” given that much creationism comes from the US). Hmm, you really do seem to be exaggerating and distorting for effect.

    Do you actually live somewhere in the US or UK? If so, how can you repeatedly fail to see the obvious xenophobia associated with these words?

  25. atheist says

    Suppose you have a person espousing leftism from an illiberal prespective. What should this mean to a liberal writer in your opinion?

  26. atheist says

    Right, I forget that the UK “liberalism” does not equal the US “liberalism”. To an American, a “liberal” generally means something like what a “Democratic Socialist” means in the UK, I think. I guess I’m trying to determine what “thisistheend7″ is trying to get at… what is the danger of “illiberal leftism” in their opinion.

  27. coelsblog says

    Yes, I live in the UK. Firstly, about “these words”, part of the point is that Dawkins only used one of them, namely “alien”. Second, he wasn’t talking about Islam as a whole, he was explicitly refering to young earth creationism in faith schools and contrasting it with old-style CofE faith schools. Young earth creationism *is* largely “alien” to the UK, a fairly recent import from the US and some Islamic countries.

    Third, as for “xenophobia” (defined, e.g., “irrational or unreasonable fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign”). Dawkins’s opposition to creationism (and to faith schools) is anything but “irrational” or “unreasonable”, it is rational and reasoned and applies just as much to such deriving from Christianity.

    Further, the actual quote of Dawkins begins “These are British children ….” who are being fed the “… alien rubbish”. In other words he is seeing the children in that Islamic faith school as *British*, it is not *them* who he is calling “alien”, he is saying that he doesn’t want them fed creationism but wants them to have a proper science education (just as he does for any other British children, from whatever community, as he said in an interview which also deplored Christian creationist schools).

    A xenophobe would be to have regarded the *children* (of relatively recent Muslim immigrants) as “alien”, that is very different from Dawkins’s remark. So, no, I don’t see any “obvious xenophobia” in the original remarks, sorry! Mountains out of molehills.

  28. atheist says

    @Coelsblog, I am simply not interested in this sort of deliberate obtuseness. I like people to be intelligent, not deliberately stupid.

Leave a Reply