Bisexuality’s supposed ease: another letter to Dan Savage

April 6’s post, taking to task the warping of a two-syllable mumble by Tom Daley, did quite well. Those who shared it included Dan Savage at the Stranger, who’d joined the chorus hailing him as a former fake bisexual.

‘Daley will never have a sexual relationship with a woman again,’ Andrew Sullivan had written months before, ‘because his assertion that he still fancies girls is a classic bridging mechanism to ease the transition to his real sexual identity. I know this because I did it too.’ Gay press outlets, agreeing, waited on tenterhooks for evidence of this – jumping the gun by claiming victory when a quiz show host told the diver ‘You’re a gay man now’ and got this answer.

Assuming bi-identifying men are gay then saying they cast doubt on ‘real bisexuals’ is a common if circular tendency. Teenage boys in particular are often accused, to use Owen Jones’ words in this week’s Guardian, of ‘coming out as bisexual (fuelling a sense of “bi now, gay later”, much to the annoyance of genuine bisexuals), hoping that having one foot in the straight camp might preserve a sense of normality.’

Savage, having written rather often of ‘transitional’ bisexuality in youth, agrees. Discussing his own for Sullivan’s website The Dish, he states that when ‘you meet some somebody who’s fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, and they tell you that they’re bi, a little voice in the back of your head goes “Yeah, so was I.” You don’t think that out loud, but you think it. And I don’t think you can help it. And it’s not the fault of bisexuals that you think that, it’s the fault of people who were not bisexuals who said that they were’.

Frightened young gays, we’re told, call themselves bi to escape homophobia, restrained by fear and circumstance from just telling the truth. This isn’t fiction, but nor is it the whole story. While many gay men describe such a past, what was funniest about Daley’s non-statement was how clear a case it was of the opposite pressure – an instance where most bi folk would find accuracy near-impossible.

I’ll let Dan Savage in on a secret here: bisexuals call themselves gay all the time – or at least, allow people to call them gay. It’s often difficult not to. Like several others, Savage claimed Daley’s response to being named a gay man ‘sounded like an “I am”’ (judge for yourself), adding that if the host was wrong, ‘you would think Daley would’ve corrected him’.

While I don’t want to say he definitely is bisexual, it’s easy for me to see why, if so, he didn’t. Correcting people on your sexuality is awkward, especially in a lighthearted context; especially when their mistake (in this case a popular catchphrase) was also a joke; especially on national TV. Providing corrections, details and explanations each time we’re mislabelled can moreover be emotionally exhausting.

When I asked bisexual Twitter users if they ever went by ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, or let others describe them thus, many said things to this effect: ‘Sometimes [I’m] not comfortable trying to explain’; ‘I don’t have [the] energy’; ‘it can at times be simpler’; ‘I often just lack the moral energy to correct them; I am often guilty of failing to’; ‘if I can’t be bothered to have the conversation explaining myself to the person I’ll just go along with it.

Why, asks Savage, wouldn’t Daley correct someone calling him gay if this was false? Perhaps, as is an everyday occurrence for bisexuals, he didn’t feel like it.

Others blur categories for practicality. ‘Bi,’ Charley Hasted says when asked if they’re gay, ‘but yeah.’ (‘I know what they mean, but people are bad at accuracy.’) ‘If I’ve just said “Hey, that’s kinda homophobic”’, AutistLiam told me, ‘and someone says “Are you gay or what?”, I’ll say “Yeah, I am”.’

Sometimes it’s about hostility. Pseudonymous user TTE reports, ‘When I first came out and all I wanted was the woman I was in love with . . . she and her friends were very keen on letting me know bi women weren’t welcome.’ ‘I clarify that I’m attracted to more than one gender or just tell them I’m bisexual’, Laurel May adds, ‘and prepare to roll my eyes at their biphobia’.

Especially for women, keeping bisexuality quiet can be convenient. Valen mentions doing so ‘When dealing with friends’ jealous significant others… “Oh, don’t worry, she’s gay.”’ Charlie Edge comments, ‘I only ever call myself a lesbian to deter unwanted advances from hetero dudes’. Greta Christina likewise uses the term ‘to fend off straight guys hitting on me if I don’t feel like having the whole conversation and saying “I’m bisexual – I just want you to piss off”.

Finally, ‘gay’ has extra political or individual use for some of us. MxsQueen is ‘trying to reclaim an older usage from before everything got so differentiated’; Tyler Ford, speaking of their personality, states ‘I call myself “gay” sometimes but it’s because regardless of the gender of the person I’m with, I’m really gay.’ ‘In the nineties,’ remembers Pyra, ‘there was a panel discussion at a local university. After introduction as a lesbian, I didn’t correct them. . . . For the sake of just being a woman on the panel, and to expose some very uptight Catholic students to the idea, I didn’t feel it was bad.’ KitsuneKuro, a ‘[gender-]nonbinary person currently in a relationship that’s read as heterosexual’, says ‘I refer to myself as gay despite actually being pi/pan as a sort of reminder that I’m not straight and absolutely not a woman.’

I’ve been called gay by family and friends, on national radio and in nationwide papers. Usually I complain, but not always, and I’m fussier than most bi people I know. Some – mostly men attracted mainly, but not solely, to other men – have switched permanently to the gay label. Statistics tell a similar story. Bisexuals are dramatically more numerous in LGB populations than appearances imply (an outright majority, several studies suggest) because we frequently call ourselves something else.

From 12 to my early years at university, I went with ‘gay’. It wasn’t a lie, or meaningfully ‘wrong’, nor was there a bisexual eureka moment. ‘Gay’ was the way to interpret my attractions that made most sense and felt most useful as a label… until my thoughts changed, and it didn’t. I’ve used nonbinary labels now for several years – most recently, ‘bisexual’ – and as such, gay was to me exactly what bi is called much of the time: a temporary, adolescent bridging phase.

What’s clear to me is that since switching teams, I haven’t regained ‘a sense a normality’; I eminently don’t have ‘one foot in the straight camp’. Being bi four or five years has been emphatically harder than being gay seven or eight – because of all the enmity and erasure above, and because I’ve experienced just as much homophobia. I’m less gay than I was, but no less queer: straight men across the street harassing me have not, for some reason, discovered I’m bisexual and politely quietened down.

When I read authors like Sullivan and Savage say we ‘real bisexuals’ are dismissed because of those people who claim they’re bi for an easier life, I want to say it isn’t all that simple: that being bi is far more difficult for me and countless others than being gay ever was. (I wonder, actually, if some drop the pretence partly because it no longer seems worth it.) And then I want to tell them two can play at that game.

We know that ‘true’ bisexuals are extremely numerous – at least as much so as gay men – however many ‘fakes’ there are. How does Savage presume to tell who is and isn’t an impostor, and who made him the judge to start with? The truth is denialism doesn’t discriminate: it’s used against everyone who says they’re bi, especially among young men. If gay and straight teenagers can be believed, why can’t bisexual ones?

Yes, gay men sometimes call themselves bi – but systematically, at least as many bi people call themselves gay. Per Savage’s logic, it would be totally valid for us to treat gays, teenage and otherwise, as bisexuals in disguise; to feel a pressing, overpowering need to question the identity or truthfulness of those we meet, telling them ‘So were we, at that age’; ‘This is classic bridge-building’; ‘We know, because we did it too.’

I don’t get that urge, because I’m capable of seeing my narrative isn’t everyone’s – of detaching my experience from any given stranger’s. Also, because I don’t know their inner thoughts better than they do. Also, because when people express preferences about how their sexuality is labelled (the same as ones about their name or pronouns), respecting them is just effing polite.

I consulted dozens of bi people for this post; I know and interact with dozens more; I’ve read and followed the work of still dozens more for years. I’ve yet to encounter the anger ‘genuine bisexuals’ feel, according to gay men, at those who borrow our label because it helps them feel safe. Being constantly expected to prove it legitimate ourselves, often resorting to using other ones, we’re unlikely as a community to want anybody stripped of labels (pretend or not) that help them through the night.

As Marius Pieterse says, there’s ‘Nothing wrong with stopping over in bi-town on the way to gayville. Many stop over on the way back too. More still stay.’ Tourists from gayville and straightbury alike, indeed, can regularly be found visiting. All are welcome: mistrust of our identity is fuelled by biphobia, not by this, and gay men who propagate it, Savage included, should take responsibility.

If you’re unable to recognise that other queer lives may not mirror yours; if you can’t take people at their word on things that only they can know about; if you can’t avoid treating them like they need to prove to you their sexuality is what they say – all favours bi people do gay people – this is your fault. The problem isn’t ‘fake bisexuals’ casting doubt on them: your doubt is your choice, and the problem is you.

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Are British Muslims a threat to gay people? Polling on homophobia, sharia law and violence

I was recently linked to Pat Condell’s newest video, which argues ‘the most comically deluded people on this planet, outside creationists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists, are idealistic left-wing gay people’ who ‘indulge a religion that wants them dead’ by opposing his campaign against Muslims, migrants and the left – the likes, in other words, of queer atheists like me, Chris Stedman and Owen Jones. (Vilification by Condell is, I’m quite sure, the first thing apart from the above Stedman and I have ever had in common.)

The video, if you can stand to view it, is below.

Personal as this is, my first response was to fisk it start-to-end – unfortunately, and as I found out quickly, there is simply so much wrong with this that a post comprehensively rebutting it would be very, very long. Responding to Condell is like playing chess against a wasp, as unfulfilling as it is unchallenging, but the argument in question is one atheists need urgently to settle, so I’m splitting my reply in two. The blow-by-blow analysis, including the more philosophical points to be made, will come after this post, which I’m focusing more purely factually on his specific claims about the attitudes of (British) Muslims. These can I think be summarised as follows:

  • Attitudes to homosexuality within Islam are uniform.
  • Muslims find homosexuality disgusting and ‘completely unacceptable’, disapproving of it and supporting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy such as Iran’s, including punishment with death.
  • Muslims don’t support or recognise concepts of gay or human rights, finding them vile, insulting and obscene.
  • Muslims do support extrajudicial homophobic violence such as criminal assaults on gay men.
  • Muslim population growth (and Muslim immigration in particular) thus threatens gay people’s rights and safety.

Based on the former point – his insistence Islam is devoid of nuance, variation or capacity for change – and how he flits confusingly between using UK Muslims’ views and the actions of Islamic governments and lobbyists around the world to buttress his case, it seems Condell is arguing these premises apply to Muslims wherever on the globe they are. (Trying to summarise his claims with accuracy is challenging, in fact, since his statements sprawl so inconsistently.) Odd, then, that despite stating ‘opinion polls’ (plural) support his views, he cites only one survey of British Muslims.

Actually, he doesn’t cite the survey in his video description: he cites the Guardian‘s coverage of it, headlined ‘Muslims in Britain have zero tolerance of homosexuality‘, which features no link to the poll itself. I strongly suspect that despite it being the only statistical research he gives to back up his assertions, he hasn’t read it, since its findings refute several of his main points.

Moral views on homosexuality

Britain’s media, for those still unaware, reports opinion polls notoriously badly, preferring dramatic headlines to detailed analysis not just on Islam, but generally. Publicising them without linking to data is exceptionally bad journalism, and whether you’re a columnist, a blogger or a video maker, it’s almost always better to give links to polls themselves than stories about them in newspapers. Properly carried out and analysed, polls are a powerfully useful tool, but their results – as no doubt will become clear in this post – require careful interpretation. (I’m going to examine several polls of British Muslims which appear relevant here. While I don’t feel like I need to – Condell’s entire case stands or falls on one – the hotly-argued nature of the topic makes me think a meta-analysis would be a good resource for the commentariat as well as atheists.)

‘Most Muslims’, Condell says in his video, ‘are disgusted by homosexuality and think it’s completely unacceptable. Among UK Muslims, disapproval is 100%. . . . [T]hat’s from a sample of . . . 500 people who all happened to agree unanimously.’ The study he’s describing is The Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations, which examines social attitudes of UK Muslims, comparing them with the general populace’s and of those in Germany and France. The part in question shows participants’ answers when prompted, ‘Tell me whether you PERSONALLY BELIEVE that [homosexual acts are] MORALLY acceptable or MORALLY wrong?’

‘Acceptable’ responses among Muslims ranged from 35 percent in France to 19 percent in Germany and none in Britain.

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Among the general public, the same responses numbered 78 percent in France, 68 percent in German and 58 percent in Britain. The stark gulf between general British views and those of Muslims makes more sense framed as the product of two general rules: British attitudes are significantly more conservative than those in Germany and (especially) France, and Muslim attitudes more conservative than non-Muslims’, so British Muslims are correspondingly the most conservative group polled.

Whatever else we might say about these figures, it’s notable they contradict in several ways Condell’s assertion that ‘there’s nothing nuanced about the Islamic position’, since ‘Islam will never be remotely gay-friendly’ and isn’t ‘open to persuasion on the matter’, as well as his treatment of British Muslims as representative of Islam at large. Among Islam’s followers, views can and do vary, in line not just with country of residence but also with country of origin and/or ethnicity.

‘Sex between an unmarried man and woman’, on the next page of the study, was deemed morally acceptable by only three percent of British Muslims, compared with 27 percent of those in Germany and 48 percent of those in France, a similar difference of views to that on homosexual acts. Chris Green of the Independent writes that ‘this discrepancy is likely to be caused by the fact that British Muslims mainly originate from rural parts of conservative Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, whereas French and German Muslims tend to be from Morocco, Algeria and Turkey‘.

The second point here, moving toward a commentary on the actual views voiced by participants, is that these questions’ formatting is rather odd. Particularly given Gallup later adopt a scaled, 1-5 answering system to gauge support for certain actions (see below), I don’t know why they offer only two possible answers here, forcing individuals polled to call homosexual acts and other examples either ‘morally acceptable’ or ‘morally wrong’. Views in all populations are almost certainly less binary than this – of the 500 British Muslims all of whom ticked ‘morally wrong’ on homosexual acts, how many found them ‘absolutely morally wrong’ (comparable to, say, murder) versus ‘somewhat morally wrong’ or ‘not morally preferable’ (comparable to, say, lying)? If all 500 found homosexual acts analogous with murder or deserving of hanging, results would be the same as if they all found them analogous with telling lies.

Moreover, how does this formatting accommodate participants whose views are neutral or uncertain, when no ‘Unsure/Don’t know’ option is given? Given the general public’s view on this was less than 60-40 in favour of ‘acceptable’, a surprisingly low ratio in itself, it seems plausible respondents who felt no strong attraction to either answer were likelier to opt for ‘morally wrong’ than ‘morally acceptable’, though I’d like to see this properly investigated; certainly, in view of the overwhelmingly conservative leanings of the Muslim population, I can imagine some indifferent or indecisive Muslims defaulting to ‘wrong’ over ‘acceptable’. We can’t know how common this was because the question’s formatting is imprecise, and I wouldn’t like to speculate, but it’s worth considering. Certainly, Condell’s claim the 500 British Muslims surveyed ‘happened to agree unanimously’ implies a greater degree of consensus than was likely the case.

Finally and most importantly, the ‘homosexual acts’ question does not measure disgust around homosexuality or support for ‘zero tolerance’ approaches (this phrase, used in the Guardian and by Condell, is suggestive of hardline stances on crime) – it doesn’t measure tolerance at all, including stances on criminalisation, and it definitely doesn’t measure how many people (Muslims among them) support flogging, imprisonment or death for homosexual acts.

It’s quite possible, common in fact, to find something morally wrong but oppose its prohibition. Among members of the British public Gallup surveyed, 45 percent called abortion morally wrong and 85 percent called ‘married men and women having an affair’ morally wrong:

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While we can’t compare results side by side from separate polls – different polls have different sample groups, questions, orders of questions and so on – research elsewhere shows comprehensively, and as one would expect, that only small minorities of Britons want either to be criminalised. (2-11 percent for abortion, according to various polls collated by Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report; 12 percent for adultery according to a YouGov survey.)

This effect is especially in evidence among religious groups. Catholics might, for instance, find contraception morally wrong while supporting its availability to those who wanted it; Jews might consider eating pork immoral without wanting it banned from supermarkets. Further, if we wouldn’t assume the 42 percent of the British public who called homosexual acts morally wrong support their recriminalisation, let alone violence toward or execution of those committing them, we shouldn’t assume Muslims who gave the same answer support this.

So far, then: Islamic attitudes to homosexuality, while predominantly negative, remain visibly varied, with over a third of German Muslims finding it morally acceptable. Islam is as malleable as any religion, and consensus among believers can and does change over time and between countries. British Muslims in particular unanimously describe homosexual acts as morally wrong rather than morally acceptable according to Gallup, but don’t necessarily oppose their legality or social permissibility.

The emphasis on ‘MORALLY’ of Gallup’s staff when carrying out its poll suggests to me the question is meant to gauge specifically religious attitudes to homosexual acts, rather than what participants thought the civic or social status of those acts should be – nonetheless, it’s very possible interpretation of the question varied. That it was the first one asked seems likely not to have helped this. Believers might understand moral acceptability differently having been asked already about secular social concerns like speeding on the motorway or refusing to vote from how they would after answering specifically religious ‘morality’ questions – condoms or expressions like ‘Oh my God’ for Catholics, sausages or writing ‘God’ for Jews, alcohol or interest-paying for Muslims and so on.

We know 100 percent of Muslims polled called homosexual acts morally wrong, considering them at least to be sinful, but can’t automatically read this as a statement about gay or human rights in a broader social/legal context – for data on this front, we have to look elsewhere.

Sharia, British law and LGBT/human rights

One headline-making survey from YouGov two years ago (Gallup’s data was collected in 2008, and in specified cases 2006-7) gauges agreement across various social strata with the phrase ‘I am proud of how Britain treats gay people’. It seems sensible to treat this as a measure of support for LGBT legal and social rights in the UK, assuming most people considered Britain to treat gay people well – one annoying aspect of this poll was that it didn’t cross-reference by sexual/gender identity, so we don’t know how many LGBT people were surveyed who disagreed because they felt they weren’t treated well enough or hadn’t enough rights. (Bear in mind this is from 2011, before Britain introduced gay marriage.)

On the page surveying various religions, Muslims are tied with Anglicans and Episcopalians as the second-most agreeable faith group (behind Sikhs) at 47 percent agreement each, though Muslims were also slightly more likely (by 19 percent to 12) to disagree.

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I include this poll largely because it was cited widely by the left as evidence of Muslims supporting LGBT rights in Britain (even while, according to Gallop, considering homosexual acts to be condemned by their religion – the same essentially secularist, if not-unproblematic position advanced by Mehdi Hasan this May). Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy, for instance, headlined news of YouGov’s findings as ‘Muslims prouder of gay rights than others‘ and wrote, noting its relationship with Gallup’s data, ‘Muslims can agree that Islam does not tolerate homosexuality, while celebrating gay rights enshrined in the law’; LGBT site Pink News, cited by Owen Jones, called the data evidence Muslims are proud of Britain’s gay rights record.

I’m actually extremely hesitant about this interpretation, though no more than any other, for the simple reason this was a poll of 2088 Britons of whom only 42 were Muslims – the margin of error in this subcategory is therefore very wide, particularly as compared to Anglicans (648 were polled) or the non-religious (355). The average error margin for surveys of 1000 people by major pollsters is +/-2-3 percent; for surveys or crossbreaks of 100, it can be as wide as +/-10 percent. Numbers for almost all groups mentioned here are therefore close to meaningless in and of themselves, though they may be useful signs further research is needed: even accounting for the tiny sample size, we’d expect significantly less diversity among Muslim opinion if Condell’s characterisation of them as invariably opposed to gay people’s rights were accurate. (Still, I’d advise extreme caution about trying to extrapolate anything from this table except about non-religious people, Anglicans and perhaps Catholics.)

Where else to turn, then? In 2009, a research group of four in Birmingham (two Pakistani Muslims, two white non-Muslims) polled 1511 Muslims in Alum Rock, a Muslim-dominated part of the city. While I’m usually inclined to take amateur polls with a heavy pinch of salt, their survey work is impressive – the questions, while not always formatted with much nuance, are clear and unbiased, and the sample size is the biggest by far of all polls under discussion here.

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Asked ‘If your son/daughter came out as gay, would you accept them?’, 1487 participants – that is, 98 percent – answered ‘Yes’. While all Gallup’s British Muslims found homosexual acts morally wrong, then, popular views of them as sinful don’t seem necessarily to impact on behaviour toward gay people. It’s a shame the only survey here to give control data from other religious groups was the unreliable one on ‘how Britain treats gay people’: I’d imagine that among Christians who found homosexual acts immoral, for example, answers to questions like this would be fairly similar. (More on the Birmingham data below.)

Another YouGov poll, this time of 632 Muslim and 831 non-Muslim students in Britain during 2008 (the same year most of Gallup’s work was done), asked respondents how much respect they had for Jewish people, atheists and homosexuals.

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Crossbreaks here are generally – particularly for men and women, and unlike those of the previous poll – large enough, the questions straightforward enough and the answers accommodating enough (unlike in parts of Gallup’s poll) for results to be firmly reliable. They’re also, as it happens, interesting.

Perhaps surprisingly, non-Muslims are ten percent less likely than Muslims (by 56 percent to 66) to respect atheists as much as anyone else. (Muslims are also more likely to have no or not very much respect for atheists, by 11 to 2 percent, but in both cases these are small minorities, and ‘not very much respect’ covers everything between ‘no respect at all’ and ‘the same as anyone else’.)

The same isn’t true for Jewish people: non-Muslims, by 81 to 59 percent, are likelier to have the same respect for them as anyone else, although the numbers of each who have little to no respect are close enough (four percent among Muslims, seven percent among non-Muslims) to be statistically indistinct when error margins are considered – it’s the Muslims who aren’t sure (14 percent, versus 2 percent among non-Muslims) and those who have ‘a lot of respect’ for Jewish people (16 percent, versus 9) who chip away at the ‘same amount’ figure.

On ‘homosexuals’ specifically, Muslims had the same amount of respect as for other people significantly less often than do non-Muslims, by 53 percent to 77, and were dramatically more likely (by 25 to 4 percent) to have little or no respect. Factoring Muslims who have ‘a lot of respect’ or ‘a little respect’ (which from its placement I assume to mean a little more respect than average) for ‘homosexuals’, 62 percent in total have a positive view of their status, compared with a quarter whose attitude is decidedly negative; the remaining 13 percent are unsure.

While it’s probably coincidental considering the previous YouGov poll’s unreliability, the two paint quite a similar picture of a Muslim population polarised on how it views gay people, with a significant minority staunchly opposed but a large number (62 percent here) supportive and the rest undecided. If at first it seems concerning that none of the 632 polled identified themselves as gay or lesbian, only five percent among of the 831 non-Muslims did, numbers well within each other’s error margin. Considering that being either a Jew, an atheist or a ‘homosexual’ is proscribed under traditional and currently dominant versions of Islam (in the latter case, considered morally wrong by all British Muslims Gallup surveyed), we can probably interpret respondents’ declaration of respect for them as support for their legal/human rights, including gay people’s.

The only thing which might affect how much we can read into this poll is that all its participants were students. It’s unclear, perhaps unexpectedly, in which direction this is likely to skew data: earlier in the poll, only 33 percent said when asked that their perception of Islam was very different (11 percent) or fairly different (22 percent) from their parents’, of whom 73 percent (i.e. 24 percent overall) called their parents stricter Muslims than they were, compared with 18 percent (5 percent overall) who said their parents were more liberal.

Assuming they have an accurate perception of their parents’ stances, which seems likely, this suggests the poll’s results are more or less representative of Muslim sentiment at large, with a slight liberal bias. (One other possibility is that Muslims who don’t go to university, or whose children don’t, have significantly different views – this feels plausible, but I’m not sure how to test for it on current data, so for now it’s just conjecture. Moreover, it’s hard to guess just what the difference would look like – on the one hand, we might expect university-educated people to be broader-minded; on the other hand, universities are often, not entirely without basis, accused of being targeted as breeding grounds for Islamist fundamentalism.)

Conversely, data collected by Populus and presented in Living apart together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism, a report by conservative think tank Policy Exchange, shows Muslims between the ages of 16 and 24 consistently to support more radical positions than their older counterparts, especially those aged over 45. (The Centre for Social Cohesion, for whom YouGov surveyed the students, was run by Douglas Murray and also widely perceived as a rightist group, so we can’t attribute these contrasting findings about Muslim youth’s attitudes to opposite political agendas. In almost all cases, in fact, shouting ‘Right wing think tank!’ is a very bad way to dismiss reputable polling firms’ results when unaccompanied by substantive commentary on survey methods.)

Asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘If I could choose, I would prefer to live in Britain under sharia law rather than British law’, 37 percent of Muslims between 16 and 24 agreed and 50 percent disagreed, compared with 28 and 59 percent among Muslims generally. (Among those over 45, only 16-17 percent agreed while 75 percent disagreed.)

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It’s worth noting that Policy Exchange’s final report only shows net ‘Agree’/’Disagree’ figures, conflating participants’ views who said they ‘tend to (dis)agree’ and that they ‘strongly (dis)agree’.

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This is in itself slightly misleading: while one might think results were simply being summarised in brief, I’d be willing to bet that had the same sample group been asked ‘Do you agree OR disagree with the statement, “I would prefer to live in Britain under sharia law rather than British law”?’, answers would have looked at least slightly different. More importantly, it’s clear those who disagreed did so more strongly than those who agreed. More than half as many participants again strongly preferred British law to those who only tended to prefer it, whereas about equal numbers ‘tended to prefer’ sharia and preferred it ‘strongly’.

Polls on sharia exemplify the press’s habit of sensationalising complex data with misleading headlines. In 2006, for instance, the Telegraph reported on an ICM poll conducted for its Sunday edition with the header ‘Poll reveals 40pc of Muslims want sharia law in UK‘. What ICM actually found looked like this:

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The first point is that, while it’s technically true 40 percent supported sharia’s introduction, an almost exactly equal number (41 percent) were opposed to it. (Again, the question offers a binary choice – we can only guess whether strength of feeling follows the same pattern Populus identified.) 18 percent also said they didn’t know, suggesting they hadn’t thought enough about what the introduction of sharia law would be like to have a clear opinion on it. A fairer headline, then, would have been something like ‘Muslims divided over sharia in UK’.

More to the point, the association most non-Muslims have with sharia law operating in Britain is the kind of Salafi-style transformation of the UK into a theocratic, totalitarian state like Saudi Arabia or Iran warned of in high-pitched tones by Pat Condell and figures like him. What this question describes, particularly given how UK sharia courts caused a lot of (not unjustified) press furore in 2006 when the poll was published, seems much closer to a parallel legal system for Muslims, contained within the wider infrastructure of British law much like arbitration over workers’ disputes or global trade – these are the kind of things, in fact, that the Arbitration Act 1996 was drafted to govern whose support sharia courts now claim.

There’s obviously still a lot to be concerned about here from a secularist point of view (for the most part, I’m trying to keep personal views out of this post and focus on what polls show), but the issues aren’t necessarily the ones we might assume. Specifically, Muslims who say they support introduction of sharia can’t automatically be said to support British law’s nationwide replacement with rules based on Islamic texts – further, they certainly can’t be assumed to hold a particular view either on whether homosexuality should be prohibited under sharia or whether it should be punished with floggings, imprisonment, execution or at all.

Populus did ask a question gauging agreement with orthodox views on sharia law, in particular ones relating to marriage, conversion and sexuality. While the sample of 191 Muslims between 16 and 24 (compared with 1003 overall) has a wider-than-average error margin, they were significantly more likely than Muslims at large (by 71 to 61 percent) to agree with the statement ‘homosexuality is wrong and should be illegal’. (Bear in mind that the survey switches at this point, for no apparent reason, from asking about degrees of agreement – ‘tend to’ versus ‘strongly’ and so on – to a simple ‘Agree’/’Disagree’ format, and all the potential effects this might have.)

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Similarly to the point about the meaning of sharia’s introduction, we need to ask what ‘illegal’ means here. 61 percent agree with scholarly tradition that homosexuality should be illegal, but we don’t know exactly what this implies – it might be illegal under sharia law as understood by historical authorities, but then if supporters of sharia today want it as a parallel court system specific to Muslims rather than a top-down national body of law, replacing current legislation, this very possibly isn’t the same kind of ‘illegal’ as burglary or copyright infringement. If nothing else, we certainly don’t know what its consequences would be.

Participants in the Birmingham poll of Muslims were asked both whether they’d like to live under sharia themselves and whether it should apply to non-Muslims. Only 21 percent said they’d like to live under it, and only 2 percent said it should apply to non-Muslims.

1Asked about their attitude to homosexuality and adultery – both things prohibited by orthodox understandings of sharia – respondents’ collective answers on both issues were exactly the same: only 1 percent supporting stoning, and only two percent supporting any kind of punishment. (For reporting purposes, both these results can be glossed as ‘practically none’ when margins for error are considered – in other words, the difference of one percent is probably meaningless.)

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These figures necessarily include the fifth of participants in the study who said they’d like to live under sharia – so while, in line with Gallup’s findings, they might consider homosexuality to be frowned on in Islam, they oppose the treatment of it we’d usually (and correctly) associate with sharia states.

Among its less specific findings, the Populus poll also shows significant support for reinterpretation of sharia according to human (e.g. LGBT) rights and other ‘modern ideas’:

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Slightly more Muslims polled (45 percent) said sharia should be reinterpreted in line with human rights concerns than said it was sacred and fixed (39 percent), though again the true figures may be about the same. It’s hard to guess how this gels in reality with the views measured by the homosexuality question (and adjacent ones on orthodox sharia positions), and it’s annoying that we don’t know how these findings show up when compared with desire to live under sharia rather than British law – Populus missed a trick, I think, by not asking the ‘reinterpretation’ question separately to participants based on their answer there. (Are the 28 percent who said they’d rather live under sharia contained within the 45 percent who think it should be reinterpreted, or are supporters of reform opposed to living under sharia because they don’t consider it to have been interpreted the right way in its current form?) What is clear is that there’s around 40 percent support both for strict/hardline interpretations and for modernising approaches, further illustrating Muslims to be far from agreed on what institutionalised sharia should look like in Britain.

Compare these findings to YouGov’s poll of students for the Centre for Social Cohesion – remember, this is the survey where 62 percent respected ‘homosexuals’ at least as much as other people. Asked ‘How supportive if at all would you be of the official introduction of Shari’ah Law into British law for Muslims?’, responses were extremely mixed.

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The Daily Mail‘s coverage of this study as a whole was spectacularly misrepresentative, dressing it up as ‘a survey revealed by the WikiLeaks’ publication of U.S. diplomatic cables’ when in fact YouGov had published it two years before (as is the norm for polling) and claiming ’40% [of Muslim students] want Sharia law’, conspicuously dropping ‘for Muslims’ to tap into the same paranoia as the Telegraph. In fact, 21 percent of participants were ‘very supportive’, 19 percent ‘fairly supportive’, 16 percent ‘not very supportive’ and 21 percent ‘not at all supportive’, with ’23 percent’ – the most popular category – ‘not sure’.

All these figures are within each others’ error margins, so it’s sensible to treat the numbers as the same to practical extents. Moreover, I’m strongly suspicious of the formatting, which smacks more than anything else in all these polls of an agenda: why is there no neutral option in the middle? Responders who were ambivalent, equally supportive and opposed – which isn’t the same as being unsure – were clearly forced to choose between declaring themselves ‘fairly’ or ‘not very’ supportive, of which the former sounds much more balanced. (A ‘fairly full’ glass, to use a clichéd image, could be either half-empty or half-full; a ‘not very full’ glass sounds distinctly like it has less water in it.)

The same poll’s supplementary questions on religion and government, even adjusting for the sample group’s slight liberal bias, suggested very little support for a violent, theocratic or fundamentalist version of Islam. 68 percent said Islam was fairly or very compatible with ‘the Western notion of democracy’, while a further 19 percent said they weren’t sure. Only 13 percent said it was fairly or very incompatible, and 43 percent said it was fairly or very compatible with ‘the separation of religion and government’, whereas 28 percent said it was incompatible and 29 said they weren’t sure.

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Extraordinarily high numbers of ‘Not sure’ answers are a recurring aspect of this poll – again, they suggest to me that answerers just didn’t have strong concepts of what things like ‘the separation of religion and government’ actually meant. (Not all that encouraging for secularists, but on the other hand, we might expect committed theocrats or fundamentalists to recognise the term.) Nowhere is this more evident than in answers to the question, ‘How supportive if at all would you be of the introduction of a worldwide Caliphate based on Shari’ah Law?’, where 41 percent said they were unsure. Like most questions on sharia being implemented, this would benefit from greater specificity, but while a hardline hump of about 20 percent seems to persist throughout this poll, two thirds of participants are either unsure (not knowing, I’d guess, what ‘a worldwide Caliphate based on Shari’ah’ would look like, thus probably not supporting it) or unsupportive.

What may be a useful predictor of views on homosexuality and LGBT rights is that while half of participants said they’d be ‘fairly’ or ‘very unsupportive’ if a friend wanted to leave Islam (compared with a quarter each who’d be supportive or were unsure), only 6 percent said they should be punished according to sharia, and only half those people said the punishment should be death. The hardline hump, then, is obviously only so hardline, and I’d guess somewhat tentatively that apostasy and homosexuality, both being traditionally prohibited, would be viewed the same way, just as homosexuality and adultery were in the Birmingham Muslims poll.

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The Populus poll for Policy Exchange seems to be a bit of an outlier viewed as part of a bigger picture, then, although I’m not sure what’s determining the discrepancy in its results from other polls’, particularly this one’s. Both are studies by respectable polling firms for centre-right think tanks, conducted with large sample sizes – there are some problems I’d identify with their phrasing and formatting, as with most of these polls, but they don’t account for the difference in findings, and the student poll (contrary to what one might expect, perhaps) seems to fall more in line with broader data than Policy Exchange’s.

It may come down to something circumstantial in their methods which I haven’t noticed or they fail to mention – how they polled participants (in person, by telephone or online, for instance), how sample groups were selected and so on. This is the kind of area where a professional polling expert’s view would be much more useful than mine. What we can say, however, is that none of the data supports Pat Condell’s views, either that Islam is set in stone and unaccommodating of diverse views or that Muslims are opposed to human rights or humane treatment of gay people.

Although support for sharia law exists among British Muslims, this appears only to be the view of a significant minority ranging between surveys from approximately 20 to 40 percent (for comparison, about the same as the proportion of the general populace who vote for any of the major parties). Moreover, while advocacy for Iranian-style theocracy does exist among a few percent of British Muslims (see the polls in full for this), sharia as endorsed by these 20-40 percent seems to be understood best as a court or arbitration system specifically for Muslims rather than as the overthrow of Britain’s current political and human rights regimes.

More and better research is needed to determine exactly what most Muslims consider the requirements of sharia to be, including specifically on homosexuality – views here seem to vary – but large majorities support non-religious mainstream law outside Muslim communities, including established human and LGBT rights, and equally large if not larger majorities voice attitudes of acceptance and respect toward gay people, even while dominant understandings of Islam in the UK consider homosexual acts immoral. The people actually endangered by Islamic attitudes to sexuality in Britain are LGBT people within the so-called Muslim community whom Condell ignores while smearing them and it in general. (More on this in the blow-by-blow response, coming up next.)

Violence in the name of religion

The final claim to address is that Britain’s Muslims, irrespective of their stance on gay people’s legal or human rights, are supportive of violent, criminal homophobic attacks. To quote, ‘The more Islam there is in a society, the more physically dangerous it’s likely to be for gay people. In parts of Europe with high Muslim immigrant populations, we know that openly gay men are far more likely to be attacked and beaten up on the street for being gay. And there’s a good reason why they don’t hold gay pride marches down Brick Lane.’ (At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, everything about this is categorically and completely wrong, but a full rebuttal is beyond this one post’s scope. Sit tight, it’s coming.)

Assuming the amount of Islam in a society is measured by the number of Muslims, and it’s hard to see how else to quantify it clearly, research on Muslim attitudes to anti-gay attacks specifically, beyond things like the Birmingham poll’s question on stoning ‘homosexuals’, is hard to come by. (If anyone knows of any that I don’t, please let me know.) What we do however have – including in Gallup’s report, the lone one cited by Condell – is consistent polling evidence Muslims are by and large strongly opposed to violence.

Asking respondents to answer on a scale of 1-5 between ‘Cannot be justified at all’ and ‘Completely justifiable’ (if only they’d done that on the ‘homosexual acts’ question), French, German and British Muslims in 2008 were asked to rate numerous actions, among them ‘attacks in which civilians are the target’. Overwhelming majorities in all three countries answered in opposition.

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99 percent of British Muslims said either that such attacks ‘cannot be justified at all’ (89 percent) or rated them a ’2′, which I imagine we could gloss as something like ‘Only justifiable in exceptional circumstances’ (10 percent). The remaining one percent answered ’3′, whose precise meaning Gallup’s researchers queried. The only figure anywhere higher than Britain’s was the 91 percent of German Muslims who answered ‘Cannot be justified at all’, but the difference of only 2 percent is statistically negligible. While British Muslims may have considered homosexual acts most immoral, they were also the most opposed to attacks on civilians.

We can’t interpret this on its own as conclusive, of course, since ‘attacks in which civilians are the target’, while strictly speaking still descriptive of homophobic assaults, is more suggestive either of terrorist activity targeting the West (suicide bombings etc.) or military activity abroad (drone strikes on villages, etc.). Also, no control figures from the general public were given in this question, making a direct comparison difficult – Gallup does, however, cite identical polling from 2006 and 2007 in which nationwide publics in all three countries were compared with Muslims in their capital cities.

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London Muslims in this period were slightly more sympathetic to civilian attacks than British non-Muslims, but nothing like significantly: 92 percent of the public rated them ‘not justifiable’, a 1 or 2 on the scale of response, compared with 88 percent of Muslims in the capital, but sample error could easily account for this. What does seem noticeable, though again it could conceivably be sample variation, is that 9 percent of London Muslims gave a ’3′, compared with only 3 percent of the public, showing perhaps more hesitance to answer such a generalised question. We don’t, of course, have data specifically for non-Muslims in London at this time: I’m not sure it would tell us anything very different, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

On ‘use of violence for a noble cause’, an answer which more conceivably could include homophobic assaults (and a much wider range of actions generally) British Muslims were more sympathetic than those in Germany or France – or rather, more polarised.

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While answers of 2, 3 and 6 were about the same across the board, only 48 percent of British Muslims answered ‘Cannot be justified at all’ compared with 75 percent in France and 80 percent in Germany, and 31 percent answered with ’4′ (something like ‘Often but not always justifiable’) compared to only 1 percent in both European nations.

This is exactly the kind of finding – though in this case, the ‘homosexual acts’ question jumped the gun – that tends to be shouted in panicked tones by the right wing press, as if to suggest Muslims support jihadism, but the previous question almost certainly rules this out: Muslims are almost all categorically opposed to attacks targeting civilians, so it seems extremely likely those who rated ‘violence for a noble cause’ a 4 (this is where numbers answering ’1′ have gone, compared with European figures) had something other than terrorism in mind. Crucially, this question isn’t specifically religious: one commonly cited example of violence justified by a good cause would be the Second World War; mine would be the Stonewall Riots.

All we can reliably conclude from this is that British Muslims are less likely to be pacifists than those in Germany or France, which if trends between countries resemble those on sexuality may not be at all unique to them. Control data for the general population would once again be useful here for just this reason – it’s given in the 2006/7 equivalent question, whose results are curiously different.

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Whereas among Muslims throughout Britain in 2008, only 51 percent called violence for a noble cause unjustifiable (compared with 37 percent who called it justifiable and 13 percent in between), 81 percent of London Muslims in 2006 and 2007 found it unjustifiable, compared with 8 percent for unjustifiable and 11 percent in between – not significantly different from the British public’s views in the latter cases, and nine percent higher on the ‘unjustifiable’ count.

I’ve struggled to account for the discrepancy between the 2006/7 and 2008 results. While the ‘homosexual acts’ data was dramatic, it was also in keeping with established patterns in the data; the difference between Muslim views in these cases (especially in view of questions’ wording and formatting, and presumably administration of the survey, being identical), seems totally anomalous. One possibility I have considered is that since Muslims in capital cities seem more often to have been against all forms of violence, Muslims in London – especially while being polled self-consciously as Muslims in London – may have been primed to interpret ‘violence for a noble cause’ specifically in relation to things like the 7/7 attacks, quite plausibly more of a presence in public consciousness there than across the country. I don’t know though, and I’m very reluctant to advance any solid interpretation without 2008 data from the general public for comparison.

Taking a quick detour, the Centre for Social Cohesion’s YouGov poll of Muslim students included a (widely and badly) reported question specifically on killing in the name of religion. Again, we can’t compare different polls’ numbers side by side, but it may serve to address the question of how many Muslims support religiously motivated violence in particular, which presumably would cover homophobic attacks.

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1 in 3 British Muslim students back killing for Islam‘ the Mail reported when the poll came out, perhaps the greatest and most outrageous misrepresentation of any data here. While 32 percent did say killing in the name of religion could be justifiable, only 4 percent answered ‘Yes in order to preserve and promote that religion’ – i.e. the kind of violence that commonly makes headlines when fundamentalists plant bombs.

The other 28 percent answered ‘Yes but only if that religion is under attack’, an annoyingly vague statement – what constitutes an attack on a religion? (Most people would, I think, call Muslim participation in the Crusades a justifiable response to being attacked; on the other hand, the Christian right in Britain regularly describes itself as ‘under attack’ when prayers aren’t part of council meetings and so on, so I can’t help thinking this question feels obfuscatory by design. Additionally, the formatting of the question gives no other opportunity for a ‘Yes, sometimes’ answer that doesn’t fall into the ‘preserve and promote’ category, as for instance a more neutral, open-ended statement like ‘Yes, but only in extreme/exceptional circumstances’ would have allowed.) 53 percent answered that killing for religion was never, in any circumstances, justifiable, and given the other findings of this same poll (high levels of respect for ‘homosexuals’ in particular) I’d find it very odd if more than negligible numbers supported killing gay people.

Treating Gallup’s 2008 figures as anomalous, then, what’s obvious is that Muslim populations are likely to be opposed in principle to any kind of violence, presumably including homophobic violence. We can’t compare urban Muslims with nationwide non-Muslims head-for-head, but the trend for 2006-7 Muslims to be more opposed to violence than the general public may be confirmed by Gallup’s finding that particularly religious Muslims were at least as likely to oppose it as less religious ones – possibly more so, though figures are close enough to be treated as the same.

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In all three countries surveyed, participants who said Islam was important them displayed slightly higher rates of conviction that ‘violence for a noble cause cannot be justified at all’ than those who said it wasn’t important. The 7 percent differential for British Muslims, in fact, is the highest of the lot. All these numbers are near enough that repeat polls might reverse or equalise them, but it’s obviously not true that Muslims’ religiosity makes them more likely to condone violence.

On top of the fact Muslims in general are especially predisposed to pacifism in Gallup’s research – again, the only research Condell actually cites – it may just be possible that how heavily religious they are correlates with how non-violent they are, if only slightly. All this is pretty damning news for the claim Muslims at large endorse homophobic attacks, and given he deems its source authoritative enough to mention no other polls, he has no excuse not to withdraw that claim.

Conclusion

All the data analysed in this post is available online, and I recommend you read it in full yourself (particularly before making wild, unsupported assertions about what polls show Muslims think.) Here they are in order of appearance:

For those who’ve skipped to the bottom, as a tl;dr summary, the landscape they suggest can I think be distilled as follows:

  • Muslim attitudes are often highly varied, in some cases powerfully polarised, including on questions of sexuality.
  • Determinants of this variation, in addition to other less obvious ones, include nationality, ethnicity and age.
  • All of these, age in particular, challenge the view conservative and fundamentalist approaches to Islam are ‘imports’ through recent immigration; their followers are often young, born or raised in Britain, more ‘strict’ or ‘radical’ than prior generations.
  • Most if not all British Muslims consider homosexual acts ‘morally wrong’ over ‘morally acceptable’, but large majorities in various polls tend to express respect, acceptance or otherwise humane responses to gay people.
  • Supporters of sharia law are not an ‘extremist fringe’ as some have claimed, but are a clear minority, with most surveys showing them at somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of Muslims.
  • More and better polling is required on what exactly sharia supporters understand it or its (ideal) function to be in Britain, but advocates almost always desire it as a Muslim-specific legal system within Britain rather than a totalitarian alternative to the country’s current governance.
  • Further, strong appetites exist for reform or reinterpretation of sharia in line with contemporary views on human (and LGBT) rights, although it’s unclear what the relationship of ‘sharia reformers’ to ‘sharia advocates’ is.
  • Muslim support for extreme draconian punishments and human rights abuses such as the Iranian government’s executions by stoning or hanging is extremely low most of the time.
  • More broadly, Muslims are by and large extremely unlikely ever to find violence justifiable, though Muslims polled by Gallup across Britain in 2008 were an unexplained exception to this. (This does not, however, suggest support for terrorism or homophobic attacks, and other data explicitly suggests a near-universal lack of support in these areas.)
  • All of us – think tanks, journalists, agitators on the right and left, opponents of Islam, defenders of Muslims and people who are both – need to become more literate in polling analysis, more willing to survey the bigger picture and less exploitative of polls as propaganda.
  • Polling companies need to be more judicious about wording, formatting and research methods, refusing to use biased or imprecise techniques when agreeing questions with clients (especially those, like newspapers or think tanks, with particular outlooks).
  • Numerous points raised by research above are legitimately concerning for secularists and human rights campaigners – not just the minority of Muslims supporting fundamentalist or violent practices, but the view itself that queer sexuality is immoral (even when no structuralised oppression follows this belief) and the support and continued operation of sharia courts as parallel, separate legal institutions in the so-called Muslim community.
  • These concerns are not well dealt with by smearing, homogenising and misrepresenting Muslims generally, and sensationalist xenophobia which characterises the presence of Muslims as a major threat to ‘the British way of life’ is both unfounded and unhelpful: non-Muslims (or those outside the ‘Muslim community’) are directly threatened very little by the issues above, whereas Muslim women, LGBT Muslims and other parts of that community marginalised by conservative religious tendencies are strongly affected.
  • Atheists, secularists and skeptics should stop engaging in anti-migrant/anti-Muslim racism, taking on the actual problems.
  • Pat Condell should stop citing polls he hasn’t read.

See also: Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade

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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.