As just about everyone will already know, Richard Dawkins has been causing quite a stir by his tweeting about Islam. The criticism is that Dawkins’s tweeting is “racist”, “xenophobic”, “Islamophobic”, “bigoted”, “dishonest”, “counterproductive”, and that it enables the racism of the likes of the EDL.
Let me admit that I’m ambivalent about Dawkins’s use of Twitter, I think he’d make a far better blogger than tweeter, and he comes off much better given sufficient words to explain himself and show his eloquence. But Dawkins is clearly enjoying himself and gathering an ever-increasing Twitter following. He’s also quite capable of defending himself when necessary.
It seems to me that the criticism of Dawkins stems largely from one of the oldest memes, that it is uncouth to criticise religion. If he were criticising, say, communism or capitalism in similar terms no-one would bat an eye. But when he criticises Islam people try their best to interpret his language as “racist” and thus unacceptable.
One complaint is that Dawkins’s language is “careless” in that his language can be “co-opted into a wider discourse that Islam is in a sort of clash of civilisations with the West”, or as another critic puts it “The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative”.
Well, I disagree. I hold the principle of secularism to be of the highest importance for a decent, functioning and progressive society. Indeed I would argue that a key reason underpinning the West’s current economic dominance is that the West accepts the separation of church and state, even in highly religious nations such as the USA. This principle of being able to speak freely and question everything is vital to the development of ideas that drive progress.
The Industrial and scientific revolutions, modern medicine, political pluralism, freedom of speech and even freedom of religion (re both, see the U.S. Constitution, First Amendment), equal rights, and all sorts of movements aiming to ameliorate humankind’s lot came about in the West after it smashed the shackles of religion, and those governing in its name, imposed on us for centuries. We should not shy away from declaring this truth loudly and forcefully, and from defending it whenever and wherever it is necessary to do so.
Yes we do need the “clash of civilisations” narrative. We do need to insist that secularism and church–state separation are non-negotiable fundaments of future societies. If the Islamic world can be persuaded to adopt these principles (abandoning blasphemy and apostasy laws, allowing pluralism, allowing genuine freedom to criticise everything, including Islam, accepting that a religion is something one imposes on oneself, not on others, and not on society as a whole) then great. But if Islam continues to see itself as a political system as well as a religious one, and to see a future in which societies and their governance are entwined with Islam, then Islam is inevitably going to clash with the West.
We should not avoid or hide this issue, and it is not “racist” or “Islamophobic” to state it clearly. In the last century Soviet-style communism presented an alternative way of running society that clashed with the West’s property-owning and free-market liberal democracies, yet no-one who criticised those clearly dysfunctional societies would be howled down as a “communistophobe”.
It is surely only the idea that someone’s religious belief should be above criticism, and that any attack on their beliefs is an attack on the person, that means that clearly stating the superiority of the West’s secular societies over Islam-dominated societies is interpreted as “Islamophobia”.
There is a laudable side to this, a desire to protect people, especially minorities, and to esteem their equal standing in society. Yet how we run societies is important, and thus any idea system that is influential in society needs to be fair game for criticism. This principle, that voters accept criticism of the party they voted for, and that believers accept criticism of their religion — with neither being a denial of equal citizenship — is a core aspect of secularism.
And please note that saying that Soviet-style communism was a bad way to run a country is not saying that all citizens of such countries were bad people; nor is saying that Islam is a bad system saying that Muslims are bad people.
Yet, people will go to lengths to deprecate any criticism of Islam. Dawkins’s tweets have been widely debated, so I’ll focus narrowly on one revealing example of the criticism.
An interview with Dawkins in the Times Education Supplement in 2011 was mostly about his new book, The Magic of Reality, and about science education. During the interview Dawkins deplored the spread of creationism in some “faith” schools, saying “Good heavens!” about evangelical Christian literature, imported from American, claiming that the Loch Ness Monster disproved evolution. Such material was being used in taxpayer-funded faith schools. As Dawkins recalled about a visit to a Christian “faith” school: “That school was horrifying because it was clearly indoctrination and they were dragging religion in everywhere — science classes, mathematics classes, everything”.
Dawkins also stated his worries about the increasing number of Islamic schools, saying that some were having a “pernicious” influence by teaching creationism, referring to a “senior science teacher who believes the world is 6,000 years old” and adding “It’s just utterly deplorable. These are now British children who are having their minds stuffed with alien rubbish”. The phrase “alien rubbish” was picked up and widely repeated in the mainstream media.
That phrase is now being quoted as evidence that Dawkins is “xenophobic”. Blogger Alex Gabriel calls it “very racialising language”, he says that Dawkins was calling Islam “culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western”; and by repeating the concept four times with four synonyms Gabriel places on it an emphasis that isn’t in the original (where the one word “alien” was used once). And he omits that the topic was specifically creationism, not Islam.
Further, in claiming that to use the word “alien” is “to racialise the terms of discussion”, Gabriel overlooks the first half of Dawkins’s phrase: “These are British children …”. It is the young earth creationism that Dawkins called “alien”, explicitly not the people!
Dawkins has repeatedly said that he doesn’t see children as the property of their parents’ religion, but as people in their own right, who have a right to their own decisions about religion, and who have a right to a proper science education, not a diet of creationism. And in the context of that interview the “alien rubbish” was just as much the American-inspired Christian creationism.
Gabriel ignores all this. He spends a paragraph wondering: “why concentrate specifically on Muslim schools when discussing creationism in the classroom, to the exclusion of other religions?” saying that “targeting Muslims seems curiously selective”. This is oblivious to the fact that Dawkins did deprecate Christian creationism in that interview, and indeed has a long track record of doing so, and that it was the media who choose to cherry-pick and report only the remarks about one Islamic school.
Such are the lengths that critics will go to to snatch a phrase out of context, twist it around and present Dawkins as “bigoted” and “Islamophobic”. Granted, it perhaps wasn’t the best-judged choice of word, but the critics are hugely over-reacting, making mountains out of molehills.
It is, again, the idea deeply embedded in our culture that criticising a religion is inherently wrong, so that, even if one clearly attacks religious ideas, then the criticism will be reinterpreted as an attack on people, as a device for disallowing it.
The same happens regarding other religions. The Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claimed that Dawkins’s famous analysis of the god of the Old Testament is “profoundly anti-semitic”. Dawkins considered the charge “ridiculous” and asked “How you can call that anti-Semitic? It’s anti-God”. Dawkins is indeed anti-God, and is often contemptuous of religion and deliberately disrespectful in his remarks about it; but that doesn’t mean that he is contemptuous of people.
When the charge of racism cannot be made to stick, the accusation becomes that it sounds racist, that it’s the sort of thing a racist might say, and that it thus enables and legitimises racism. You can disallow most criticism of religion that way! Almost any religion will be more closely identified with some racial groups than others (that’s the way religion most often propagates, by indoctrination of children) and thus any criticism can be responded to with affected horror, as though denigration of ideas was equivalent to denigration of people.
Yet, the “sounds racist” idea, if over done, can harm those whom it is intended to protect. Why is it that in the 27 years that female genital mutilation has been illegal in the UK there has not been one prosecution for inflicting it? It’s not because it doesn’t happen, there are estimates that it has been inflicted on tens of thousands of British girls, though no-one knows for sure, and there are stories that French girls are sometimes shipped to Britain to be mutilated because it is easier to get away with inflicting FGM here.
Why has there not been a single prosecution for this? Isn’t a large part of the reason the strong desire in the UK to avoid “sounding racist”? To even suggest that this might be occurring in some communities in the UK “sounds racist”, it’s the sort of thing that racists would say, to denigrate those communities.
Thus, the British authorities have long preferred to just assume that it isn’t happening, and so not have investigations into it, and not have special units assigned to countering it. Ayaan Hirsi Ali said the same thing when she raised the issue in the Netherlands, that people refused to consider the issue, refused to consider that girls in some communities might be more at risk, because that assumption would be “racist”.
If a campaigner said that FGM was an “alien” tradition that should not be inflicted on British children they would surely not be being “racist” or “xenophobic”. Inflicting FGM is vastly worse than teaching someone creationism instead of science, but is it so reprehensible that someone who is against faith schools entirely should regard young-earth creationism as an “alien” concept that should not be taught in British schools to British children?
Continue to speak up Professor Dawkins. It’s important.