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.