Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist

[Disclaimer 1: this post isn't intended as a character assassination - I'm not sure it's helpful to talk about people (as opposed to actions or statements) as being innately racist, and what I say here refers to the latter.]

[Disclaimer 2: I'm writing from the point of view of a white atheist who isn't and never was a Muslim; I accept I could be missing something important, and I'm open to being told so.]

Pat Condell is not a pleasant man. If you haven’t seen his YouTube channel, don’t bother looking it up – suffice to say that if someone’s Twitter page claims they ‘make videos criticising religion and political correctness’ (as if the one necessitates the other), I’m not likely to admire them.

In particular, Condell thought the building of Park51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque, should have been prevented in 2010 – because Muslims as a whole held collective responsibility for 9/11, and simply being a Muslim, to him, means endorsing Al Qaeda. He supports the United Kingdom Independence Party, who feel the need to describe themselves officially as a ‘libertarian, non-racist party’ and who wish to scrap the Human Rights Act, one major piece of legislation secularists have on their side, alongside Ofsted, the body responsible for standards in science and sex education at British schools. (They also promote home schooling, ever the fundamentalist parenting choice, deny the realities of climate change and describe gay marriage as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance’.)

Condell says this of the nationalist, Christian theocratic, anti-immigrant English Defence League: ‘I went to their website and read it quite carefully, looking for racism and fascism of course, because the media keep telling me that they are far right, but, well, I’m a little puzzled because I can find is a healthy regard for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Not a whiff of racism or fascism and not a whiff of far right politics of any kind.’ He describes Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who supports the government banning of the Qur’an, the deportation of Muslims and the taxing of women who wear hijabs without a €1000 licence, as a hero. (Wilders is fine, of course, with identical headscarves worn by Christian women.)

These strike me all in all as the statements of a thoroughly despicable man, unpleasant and unadmirable not least from the secularist point of view. Richard Dawkins does admire him, however.

When YouTube pulled a video named ‘Welcome to Saudi Britain’, in which Condell refers to Muslims as corner-shop owners and to Saudi Arabia’s whole population as ‘mentally ill’ and ‘barking mad’, then subsequently republished it, here’s what he said:

‘I congratulate YouTube on an excellent decision. Pat Condell is hard-hitting, but always quietly reasonable in tone. That some people say they are “offended” by something is never a good reason for censoring it. Incitement to violence is. Pat Condell never incites violence against anybody. He always signs off with “Peace” and he means it.’

Previously, his foundation’s website compiled and sold a collection of Condell’s videos on DVD, announced with the following comments.

‘RichardDawkins.net has now compiled the first 35 of Pat Condell’s videos onto this DVD collection, with an exclusive introduction by Pat. Enjoy this newly remastered collection, totalling 3 hours of video.
“Pat Condell is unique. Nobody can match his extraordinary blend of suavity and savagery. With his articulate intelligence he runs rings around the religious wingnuts that are the targets of his merciless humour. Thank goodness he is on our side.” ~ Richard Dawkins’

Mehdi Hasan tweeted this morning that Condell’s what he claims is an EDL supporter’s ‘hatchet job’ on him was retweeted both by Dawkins and Steven Yaxley Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson), the EDL’s leader. Dawkins himself had previously written,

Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.

(Fitna, if you’re unaware of it, was a film in which Wilders asserted that since parts of the Qur’an – like just about any ancient religious text – say violent things, all Muslims are by definition supporters of religious violence and deserve the pariah status prescribed by Wilders’ policies.)

A state which halts immigration from so-called Muslim countries, which deports and criminalises citizens specifically for being Muslims, which imposes exceptional limitations on the exercise of Islam, alone among other religions, and assigns all Muslims collective guilt for Islamists’ religious atrocities is not one any secularist should wish to establish. (We want neutrality, not persecution rivaling that of Europe’s anti-Semitic, theocratic past.) And yes, Richard, it’s racist.

Asserting that because Islam is a religion and not a race, one can never discuss it (or treat its followers) in racist ways makes about as much sense as saying that because ballet is an art form not a sexual identity, it’s impossible to say anything homophobic about male ballet dancers. Hip-hop musicians and immigrants aren’t races either, but commentary on both is very often racist – or at least, informed and inflected to a serious degree by racial biases.

KebabI’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.

There’s nothing racist about critiquing misogyny in popular music, including in hip-hop, a prominent genre. But if you’re singling hip-hop out as the sexist genre, or talking disproportionately about rap lyrics rather than songs outside traditionally black genres by the Beatles, Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift or One Direction – particularly if you’re also essentialising hip-hop as misogynous by definition, ignoring all female and feminist hip-hop – you need to examine your motivations and consider where that bias is coming from.

If you’re singling out Islamic theocracies as countries with repressive laws about sex, you likewise need to think about why. In the civically secular, socially Christian U.S., it was only ten years ago that sodomy laws (used against unmarried heterosexual couples as well as gay sex) were struck down in Texas, and it was only in 2005 that the state of Virginia legalised premarital sex. In civically Christian, socially secular Britain, HIV-positive and transgender people are criminalised for having sex; in mainly Christian Uganda, gay sex is illegal. All over the Western world and the planet generally, sex workers face state violence, harassment and imprisonment. What sorts of countries have terrible, oppressive, violent laws about sex? All sorts. Of course we can attack Islamic theocracies, but if you’re not attacking them within a broader context – if you’re not discussing other nations with oppressive laws, and not talking about non-Islamic religious law’s use in policing consensual sexuality – you need to ask yourself why you’re driven to attack the religion especially and disproportionately whose image is most strongly racialised.

‘Richard Dawkins attacks Muslim schools for stuffing children’s minds with “alien rubbish”‘

Likewise, why concentrate specifically on Muslim schools when discussing creationism in the classroom, to the exclusion of other religions? Which choose Islam in particular as the exemplum of a very much broader problem? The British Humanist Association and other groups campaigned successfully against all (and not religiously specific) creationist teaching last year, such is the level of generalised malpractice in science education at British schools; a physics teacher at my wholly typical, religiously softcore and atheist-dominated comprehensive told my Year 10 class after explaining the formation of the Earth that if anyone had ‘any deeply held religious beliefs, this is just a theory’. In particular, a solitary network of 40 Christian fundamentalist schools (compared with 126 Islamic schools in total) exists in Britain where only a tenth of pupils deem Darwinism true – Jonny Scaramanga, who writes here, attended one and will tell you all you need to know – and according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll only 48 percent of Britain believes in evolution at all. Targeting Muslims seems curiously selective.

If the word ‘alien’ is one you’d use for creationism in Muslim schools, would you use it when discussing schools like Jonny’s – creationist, white-dominated and Christian? Would you, do you think, use a word meaning ‘foreign’, ‘unfamiliar’, ‘not from round here’ to describe white-British creationists outside a recent of context of immigration? Likewise, whether or not you consider all Muslims ‘Islamic barbarians’, is a historically imperialist term for foreign people to be ‘civilised’ through conquest one you’d have been as likely to apply if white Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. torched the Library of Congress? As much as describing Nigeria’s Christian fundamentalists as savages or calling opposition to Islamism a crusade, using such a racially inflected word in reference to Islam – whose members in Europe face racism from the assembled far-right forces of figures like Wilders, Condell, Lennon’s EDL, Anders Behring Breivik and Stop Islamisation of Europe – is spectacularly tone-deaf, regardless of intent.

It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal. Hamza Tzortzis, theocrat, Islamic fundamentalist and the organiser of UCL’s notorious gender-segregated debate earlier this year, is on record claiming ‘We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even of freedom’; it seems conceivable he doesn’t speak for all of Earth’s 1.8 billion Muslims, nor all those who’ve existed throughout history, but reactions to the debacle from camp Dawkins suggested the same.

Tzortzis is an individual. He runs one particular organization, and espouses one particular politicised form of Islam. He has a name. Referring to him in lieu of it as just ‘a Muslim’ or ‘some Muslim or other’ suggests he’s as generic a representative of those 1.8 billion people as he claims he is – and referring, moreover, to ‘these Muslims’ (not ‘these Muslim fundamentalists’, ‘these Islamists’ or ‘this organisation’) as juxtaposed with UCL suggests not only that Tzortzis’ group, the IERA, are ambassadors for Muslims everywhere but that Muslims as a homogenous, theocratic and foreign mass are being capitulated to; that ‘they’ are an external threat to ‘us’, and that no one could be both part of UCL’s establishment and a Muslim. We’ve seen this homogenisation again since then, in the statement that no happily Muslim women could possibly exist – that every Muslim woman everywhere is beaten by her husband and whipped for being raped, and by implication that the experiences of Muslim women in Sharia theocracies are representative of others’ elsewhere who practice non-violent, non-fundamentalist Islam. Again, I’m certainly not of the view that just because someone’s religious views aren’t murderous, violent or theocratic, there can be nothing wrong with them – but to erase all Muslims except merciless Salafists hands not only them, but racists, fascists and far-right imperialists the validation they crave.

My argument isn’t necessarily that you have to mean this consciously as and when you make the statements above, but these are your rhetoric’s implications and connotations. Rhetoric matters, and when your job as a writer – especially a globally recognised, influential writer – is saying things clearly, it’s one of your responsibilities to take into account how what you say could reasonably be (mis)interpreted. An analogy might in theory be possible which compares the Qur’an to Mein Kampf without implying Muslims are Nazi-like by definition, but when far-right figures like Condell and the EDL insist with characteristic lack of irony that Muslims have no place next to ‘human rights, democracy and the rule of law’, it’s absurd not to anticipate that reading; it might in theory be reasonable to say someone with a journalist’s critical nous is inconsistent if they believe in literal winged horses, but when Muslims are at heightened risk of falling victim to unemployment, a tweet which could be construed as endorsing discriminatory practice – with Muslims turned away from jobs just the way the EDL’s members would like – almost certainly will be so construed.

Two paragraphs back I mentioned merciless Salafists. Originally, the adjective would have been ‘savage’ or ‘bloodthirsty’, but it struck me that a comparison of Muslims with aggressive, predatory wild animals or reference to them with words traditionally justifying conquests of dark-skinned nations had unhelpful connotations – and connotations matter. If what you’re about to say has the potential to uphold racist or imperialist impulses – if it’s something fascists might end up quoting in their support – say something else or find a better way of saying it. When the leader of the EDL’s retweeting you, it’s time to rethink your rhetoric.

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.

Please, Richard Dawkins.

Stop.

The Pat Condell problem

I just watched a great Atheist Experience with Russell Glasser and Jeff Dee. At the beginning, a caller raised the issue of ‘Islamophobia’ among atheists, and specifically Pat Condell. His 2010 ‘No mosque at Ground Zero’ video came up, in which someone suggested he was blaming all Muslims for 9/11, as did the idea he’s too hostile in general.

I’ve said before that I have issues with ‘Islamophobia’ as a term. It’s a slippery, simplified glossing of sometimes complex issues, and I worry it lends credence to groups like the English Defence League who use discourse about ‘religion’ to mask racism. (Their leader, Stephen Lennon, makes comments in interviews which could be taken almost word for word from Maryam Namazie. It’s not inconceivable they actually are.) I have considerably more issues, however, with Pat Condell.

I’ve nothing against a combative, confrontational approach to religion – including Islam. Maryam, God only knows, can get pretty angry. So can Matt and Jeff. So, in case anyone still doesn’t know, can Greta Christina. Atheist anger is justified, useful and often persuasive. However: when I watch Condell’s videos, it feels like watching non-stop bile. There’s a whole lot of confrontation in Greta’s famed Skepticon talk, but there’s also a large amount of humour. There’s celebration, and optimism, and measured composure. With AXP, Maryam and in fact most atheist speakers, the composure is there too, and the outbursts, valid and – let’s face it – fun as they are, form the exception and not the rule.

To watch Condell’s vlogs is to feel constant, unadulterated rage. I can’t remember seeing him smile, laugh or empathise. I can’t remember him pausing for thought. It’s as if an endless barrage of concentrated venom is being spat at me; the same impression, incidentally, that TJ Kincaid/TheAmazingAtheist always made. That’s hard for me to watch.

Now of course, I’m only speaking for myself. If this isn’t how you feel about his tone, that’s up to you, and I’m not judging anyone else for enjoying it. It’s just not for me.

But TJ was objectionable more than just aesthetically. He was an MRA who spent his time harrassing rape victims and threatening violence. The main issue was his content, not just his style. (I use the past tense here because, as PZ points out, he’s now PR-bombed himself out of mainstream circles.)

The same is true, I think, of Pat Condell. So I’m now going to talk not just about why I don’t personally enjoy his work, but why I don’t think atheists, skeptics and secularists – or pretty much anyone else sensible – should admire him.

If in his ‘Ground zero mosque’ video, he was assigning collective blame to every Muslim for 9/11, he was clearly being stupid – but that’s not the question I want to address. (For the record, I think there’s a good case for that accusation, but it was covered on AXP around the time and is beside my main point here.) Supposing for the sake of argument that it was okay to blame Muslims in general for Al Qaeda’s actions – so what? Would he try to stop churches being built where witches had been burnt? Stop synagogues being built where the Old Testament’s genocides were carried out? Places untarred by religious violence are few and far between. Why only the furore when it’s a mosque?

Let’s be clear. I’ve no problem fighting ‘Islamisation’ if it means ending Sharia courts in the UK, animal cruelty in halal slaughter, mutilation of children’s bodies and state-funded Islamic schools. I’m a secularist. I’d fight all those things if other religions were doing them – they are, and I do.

I’ve no problem, either, saying that Islam is socially divisive, individually degrading and most importantly untrue. Most religions (perhaps all of them) are, most of the time.

And I’ve no problem suggesting to individual Muslims that they leave their religion, or making a case for that. Specifically, I’ve no problem attacking its empirical claims and its ethical standards. I’m happy to do so with every religion – and with every other belief system, too, if I think it’s flawed.

I’m clearly not soft on religion, and Islam is no exception. Yet for Pat Condell, it is.

For Condell, who enthuses at every chance about the freedoms of the West, Islam and its Muslim adherents deserve special restriction by the state. Ironically, he’d curtail their religious freedom just as theocrats have curtailed heretics’ throughout world history. In this case, that meant banning a mosque’s construction where the secularist U.S. constitution permitted it, but from the people he supports it’s clear Condell doesn’t stop at that.

A couple of years back, he praised the Dutch politician Geert Wilders as a hero. This is a man, in case you didn’t know, who campaigns to have the Qur’an banned from the Netherlands; who according to The Guardian wants ‘all immigration from Muslim countries halted, Muslim immigrants paid to leave and all Muslim “criminals” stripped of Dutch citizenship and deported “back where they came from”; who lobbied in parliament for Muslim women to be taxed who wear headscarves – not burqas or even niqabs, but ordinary headscarves – or else made to pay €1,000 a year for a license to wear one. He later stated of course that Christian headscarves wouldn’t be taxed, and also that he’d ban the hijab form altogether if he could.

Pat Condell, last year, was nominated for the NSS Secularist of the Year award. What kind of secularist, exactly, calls this man a hero? What kind of idiot sees Geert Wilders as a freedom-defender?

It doesn’t get better. In 2010, in the run-up to the UK’s most recent general election, he announced he’d be voting for the United Kingdom Independence Party, a right-wing group intent on withdrawal from the EU, specifically damning anyone who voted Labour. Unsurprisingly enough, his party also wants to freeze immigration. Now, I’m not necessarily saying everyone who supports that idea hates foreigners or Muslims – but given his track record, does it seem an unlikely motive?

With his traction among some parts of the atheist movement, one might think Condell would be all about skepticism, reason and critical thinking. But UKIP, whom he publicly endorses, have other policies which are batshit absurd, and which stand at direct odds with secular and freethinking goals. Some examples:

  • They support withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, and the scrapping of the Human Rights Act – the major legislative shield against Sharia courts and a large part of the National Secular Society’s successful court case against council prayers.
  • They support the scrapping of Ofsted, the government body responsible for teaching standards in our tax-funded school system. It currently monitors, among other things, sex education and science lessons and is one of few safeguards against dogma and distortion of facts in our classrooms.
  • They support home schooling as an alternative to school attendance with other children, frequently chosen by religious fundamentalists to avoid the exposure of their children to Darwin and diaphragms.
  • They oppose the legalisation of same sex marriage on the grounds that they deem it ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself’.
  • They oppose the idea of anthropogenic climate change, describing themselves as ‘the first party to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims’.

I know that atheists are united, strictly speaking, only by a common lack of belief in gods, and I know that we vary greatly throughout the world. But I also know the contemporary atheist community values skepticism, critical thinking and secularism on grounds of freedom of belief. And when I look at Pat Condell, I don’t see a good atheist, skeptic or secularist. I frankly think he’s everything we shouldn’t be about, and I’m disappointed by the kind of platform he’s found.

Then again, I voted Labour once.