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.

Don’t be a Dickhead: fisking Nick Cohen’s defence of Richard Dawkins

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post called ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist‘. Currently, it’s the most-read thing I’ve ever published.

The post argues Dawkins uses racialising, xenophobic language (‘alien rubbish’, ‘Islamic barbarians’ etc.) to mount a clash-of-civilisations critique of Islam(ism) – a misguided one which empowers the neocon right and the racist far-right; that we have to read this language in the context of his praise for figures like Geert Wilders and Pat Condell; that he homogenises ‘Muslims’ as a whole into a single hyperdevout, hyperconservative mass; that he singles out Islam in specific contexts where there’s no good reason to; that there are better ways we can discuss it, including critically.

It does not argue, at any point, that Dawkins is at heart ‘a racist'; it does not argue Islam is a race, or all criticism of it racist; it does not judge anyone ‘guilty by association’. (What it says, on the last count, is that if people like the EDL retweet you – if what you say can be so easily co-opted by such people – you should rethink your rhetoric.) I know for a fact that he read it shortly after it went up, then, making all the above complaints, returned to tweeting the same kind of material with added fervour.

That’s when things got busy.

Tom Chivers, at the Daily Telegraph, cited my post in an article called ‘Please be quiet, Richard Dawkins, I’m begging, as a fan‘.

Nesrine Malik, at Comment is free, wrote that ‘Richard Dawkins’ tweets on Islam are as rational as the rants of an extremist Muslim cleric‘.

Nelson Jones, at New Statesman, asked ‘Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?

Martin Robbins, also at NS, said ‘Atheism is maturing, and it will leave Richard Dawkins behind‘.

Owen Jones, at the Independent, asserted ‘Dawkins dresses up bigotry as non-belief – he cannot be left to represent atheists‘.

Then, finally – after these and probably a good few other salvos I managed to miss – Dawkins published a piece called ‘Calm reflections after a storm in a teacup‘, which near-epitomised the idea of doubling down. (It also persistently attacked the claim Islam is a race – a straw argument none of his critics here made, which most of us explicitly disavowed.)

Throughout all this, I heard regularly from the Dickheads – an army of online devotees who will never, ever hear anything critical of Dawkins said, no matter how nuanced or moderate. They accused me of hating freedom, being morally relativist, being left wing and long-winded (fair enough), dividing the atheist movement, knowing nothing about Islam, being racist, being PC, being ‘young and naïve’, being an ‘offensive little shit’, being in league with Mehdi Hasan. (Mehdi Hasan and I have no association whatsoever. We do not know each other. We have exchanged perhaps four or five tweets in the last year, such is the depth of our alliance.)

It’s as dehumanising to deify someone as to demonise them, and it’s one thing to like Dawkins while not thinking he’s perfect, but another to reject or try to silence anything negative said in relation to him. Secularity is not strengthened by being uncritical or unscrutinising of its press-appointed leaders, and the foremost of those deserve more scrutiny, not less. This is why Nick Cohen’s recent Spectator column, ‘Richard Dawkins attacks Muslim bigots, not just Christian ones. If only his enemies were as brave‘, which I’ve seen shared enthusiastically all over the place, grated on me – to the extent I thought it deserved a fisk.

It’s August, and you are a journalist stuck in the office without an idea in your head. What to write? What to do? Your empty mind brings you nothing but torment, until a thought strikes you, ‘I know, I’ll do Richard Dawkins.’

Dawkins is the sluggish pundit’s dream. It does not matter which paper you work for. Editors of all political persuasions and none will take an attack on Darwin’s representative on earth. With the predictability of the speaking clock, Owen Jones, the Peter Hitchens of the left, thinks the same as Craig Brown, Private Eye’s high Tory satirist. Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s science blogger, says the same as Andrew Brown, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent. The BBC refuses to run contrary views. It assures the nation that ‘militant’ atheism is as fanatical as militant religion — despite the fact that no admirer of The God Delusion has ever planted a bomb, or called for the murder of homosexuals, Jews and apostates.

It’s certainly true much critique of Dawkins has been lazy and irrelevant – the charges, for example, that his views on religion must be invalid since he couldn’t recite to order the full, almost-never-used title of The Origin of Species (analogous, apparently, to Christians not knowing which book opens the New Testament), or because his ancestors at one time owned slaves. This does not, however, mean any critique of his rhetoric is worthless, and it seems extraordinarily self-defeating for atheists and secularists to dismiss it from the off. (See also Tom Chivers’ own response to Cohen.)

Sharp operators could sell the same piece a dozen times without changing a word. Read the papers, and you will suspect that is exactly what sharp operators have done.

Yes. I’ve read it. It’s a boring, neither-here-or-there piece. But the arguments against Dawkins’ tweets on Islam aren’t about how he’s shrillstridentaggressive or any of the usual things. They’re about his language being counterproductive and enabling racists’ agendas. Most of the people who’ve rebutted it most strongly – Chivers, Martin Robbins, Alom Shaha – are out-and-out movement atheists with vested interests in taking religion, including Islam, to task. They just want to do it better.

Cultural conservatives have always hated Dawkins for challenging traditional Christian beliefs. The liberal-left is fine with knocking Christianity, but it hates Dawkins for being intellectually consistent and tweeting — yes, that’s right, tweeting — against Islam too. Many of the charges against his inappropriate tweets are extraordinary. Jones denounces Dawkins for tweeting ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are? At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate’. If Jones can’t see what is wrong with segregation, then not even an equality course for beginners can save him.

Certainly, many parts of the British left (not usually the liberal parts) fail to acknowledge the Islamist far-right or counter it. This is a problem – but it doesn’t mean that when opposing things like segregated debatesanything goes. Owen Jones isn’t defending separate seating for men and women, he’s objecting to the phrase ‘these Muslims’ with its ring of xenophobia, as in ‘all these Muslims, taking our jobs’. Object to Islamism; object to Hamza Tzortzis; object to his so-called Islamic Education and Research Academy. But call them that, referring specifically to them, rather than conflating them with ‘Muslims’ as a whole. (Cohen, in fact, seems next to acknowledge this issue…)

But let me try to be fair. Dawkins has also tweeted against all Muslims — not just sexist god-botherers at University College London. I accept that generalising about Muslims can incite racism. It is all very well atheists saying that religion is not the same as race, because you are free to decide what god if any you believe in, but cannot choose your ethnicity. But try telling that to the persecuted Christians, Shia and Sunni of the Middle East. Their religious persecution is no different from racial persecution. 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.

Yes we do. I do, Alom does, Owen Jones does – in fact, most of the people I know who’ve criticised Dawkins’ comments more than anyone else and shared my post with particular enthusiasm are ex-Muslims.

They stay silent because they are frightened of breaking with the crowd, of the faint threat of Islamist retaliation, and of absurd accusations of racism. Journalists want the easy life. They want targets who cannot hurt them. Dawkins has never hurt a fly, so he’s all right. Looked at in a certain light, however, the enemies of Nahla Mahmoud might not be.

I signed the petition to protect Nahla Mahmoud. [Edit: I signed it, in fact, three and a half weeks before Nick Cohen did (the same day he responded to this post).] So should you, if you haven’t heard about her being threatened. This does not mean I have to shut up and marvel at everything Dawkins says – especially on Twitter.

I have picked on her, not because her case is unusual, but because it is so typical. She is a Sudanese refugee who became a leading figure in the British Council of ex-Muslims. Earlier this year Channel 4 gave her one minute and 39 seconds precisely to talk about the evils of Britain’s Sharia courts in Britain. In these institutions, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, a man can divorce his wife by simple repudiation, and women who remarry lose custody of their children. One minute and 39 seconds may not sound long enough to list their vices. But it is one minute and 39 seconds longer than the BBC has ever given her.

Nahla described how she grew up under Sharia. She was ‘always dealt with as a second-class citizen, always bought up to believe that I am an incomplete human being [who] needed a man as a guard.’

She was shocked to find the same system here in her land of refuge. ‘Muslims have been living in Britain for hundreds of years and never needed sharia courts,’ she concluded. ‘Everyone should have equal rights and live under one secular law.’

She and her family have suffered for her simple moral clarity. Salah Al Bander, a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats, went for her. (I was going to write, ‘who, surprisingly, is a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats’ — but given the Liberal Democrats’ awful attitudes towards women and Jews, nothing they do surprises me anymore.)

Al Bander posted an article in Arabic on the Sudanese Online website (one of the most widely read sites in Sudan and throughout the Sudanese diaspora). He called her a ‘Kafira’ (unbeliever) who was sowing discord. These are words with consequences — particularly when Al Bander added, ‘I will not forgive anyone who wants to start a battle against Islam and the beliefs of the people…’ After mosques and Sudanese newspapers took up the campaign against her, religious thugs attacked her brother and terrified her mother. Nahla told me she is now ‘very careful when I go out’.

I understand that the Cambridge Liberal Democrats have had an inquiry and decided that Al Bander’s words were misinterpreted. My point is that women like Nahla are being terrified and abused every day in Britain. I have seen Richard Dawkins speak up for them as a matter of honour and a matter of course many times, but have never heard a peep of protest from his opponents.

Well then, listen more closely. Clearly this is a terrible, stupid turn of events that needs addressing – but attention to problematic things is not a non-renewable resource, which can only go toward one thing or the other. It’s possible to fight the Al Banders of the world while also pursuing better discourse around them on our own sight; useful, in fact, I’d say. (Also, Dawkins doesn’t help matters for moderate Muslims, especially moderate Muslim women, by erasing them – referring to all who practice their religion in blanket terms as violent, fundamentalist, abusive theocrats.)

One day there will be a reckoning. One day, thousands who have suffered genital mutilation, religious threats and forced marriages will turn to the intellectual and political establishments of our day and ask why they did not protect them. The pathetic and discreditable reply can only be: ‘We were too busy fighting Richard Dawkins to offer you any support at all.’

Not so – but I care less about ‘one day’ than the here and now, and here and now my feeling, to paraphrase Phil Plait, that no one in this movement is beyond critique or above reproach. Don’t be a Dickhead.