Islamic fundamentalism is one of the greatest threats to free speech and expression there is. It is not the only threat, nor might it be the greatest; however, it is the only threat which when criticised are people accused of racism/bigotry/Islamophobia. The latest person to be levied which such accusations is Richard Dawkins after he posted a series of tweets attempting to critique the lack of scientific achievement in the Islamic world, using Nobel prizes as a metric.
In a fallacy filled article, Owen Jones accused Richard Dawkins of dressing up his bigotry with non-belief.
So given Richard Dawkins is the most famous champion of atheism living today, why do I find him so objectionable? His supporters – and they are a passionate bunch – claim that Dawkins takes on all religion indiscriminately. But this is simply not true. Earlier this year, Dawkins tweeted: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter & verse like I can for the Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today.” In a recorded interview, he described Islam as “One of the great evils in the world.” Pretty clear then: he regards Islam as a particularly objectionable religion.
Indeed, Dawkins subsequently tweeted: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur’an. You don’t have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about Nazism.” He is an intelligent man, and he knows he is making as provocative a parallel as is possible.
Jones clearly misunderstood the analogy here. Dawkins wasn’t comparing Mein Kampf to the Qur’an, merely using it as an analogy to express the idea that one does not have to read the original source to critique the manifestations of what is contained therein. But it begs the question, so what if he was making that comparison? I challenge anybody to find me a sentence, passage, chapter, idea, tenet in Mein Kampf that repulses them which similarly can’t be found in the Qur’an (or the bible for that matter). The only difference is one book is treated with contempt while the other is used as the moral guiding principles for over 1.5 billion Muslims. I would like to make it clear however that highlighting the immorality of holy texts says nothing of the text’s believers. For instance, I constantly critique the bible for its homophobia and sexism, that does not mean I am accusing every Christian of being a homophobe and a sexist. Yet, it is undeniable that the bible does inspire homophobia and sexism, the same logic is applied to the Qur’an.
Jones then moves on to a guilt by association fallacy and some quote-mining.
Indeed, Europe’s Muslim-baiting far-right make this point explicit: the Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders directly compares the Quran to Mein Kampf, calls for the book to be banned, to end all immigration from Muslim countries to be ended, and wants Muslim immigrants paid to leave the country. “Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe,” he declares, warning it would mean “the end of European and Dutch civilisation as we know it.”
Perfect guilt by association here. He first takes a comparison Dawkins wasn’t even making to begin with, then finds a right-wing nut who said something remotely similar, and then throws in some book banning and anti-immigration as if they are somehow related to Dawkins’ original point. That is far easier than to try and analyse what Dawkins was actually trying to say.
For good measure Jones throws in a little quote-mine from three years ago after Dawkins viewed the film Fitna.
He [Wilders] made a short film, Fitna, which portrays Muslims as inherently violent because of their religion. Here is a man who should be damned by all tolerant people. But Dawkins wrote: “Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.”
I challenge anybody to watch Fitna and find something questionable in it. The only problem with Fitna was the motive behind the production of the movie. And Dawkins’ ignorance of the context surrounding Fitna is the only thing he is guilty of. Dawkins asserted several times that he knew nothing of Wilders and solely based his opinion of the movie in total isolation from any context.
Maybe Geert Wilders has done or said other things that justify epithets such as ‘disgusting’, or ‘racist’. But as far as this film is concerned, I can see nothing in it to substantiate such extreme vilification.
If it is complained that these disgusting Koranic verses, or these disgusting Muslim speeches, or the more than disgusting Muslim executions, are ‘taken out of context’, I should like to be told what the proper context would look like, and how it could possibly make any difference.
To repeat, Wilders may have said and done other things of which I am unaware, which deserve condemnation, but I can see nothing reprehensible in his making of Fitna.
It is quite clear Dawkins was completely ignorant of who Wilders was when he viewed Fitna. Had he known who he was and about his stance on immigration would Dawkins have made similar remarks? I do not know, but I shall not accuse a man of bigotry based on such a tenuous quote. Dawkins has never expressed such anti-immigration sentiments that I am aware of, and he should be judged on that, not the bigotry of some right-winger who happened to make a somewhat similar comparison.
Jones decides to continue with his quote-mining.
Dawkins has a habit of talking about Muslims in the most dismissive, generalising and pejorative fashion. “Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?” he once tweeted. Another of his tweets accused UCL of “cowardly capitulation to Muslims” because it “tried to segregate sexes” in a debate between Lawrence Krauss “and some Muslim or other.” There’s a good test here: replace “Muslim” with “Jew” and tell me you’re comfortable.
The “who the hell do these Muslims think they are?” tweet was in direct relation to the incident at UCL. In fact the full tweet read “who the hell do these Muslims think they are? At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate between @LKrauss1 [Laurence Krauss] and a Muslim”. So Dawkins wasn’t talking about all Muslims, he was clearly discussing those who tried to segregate the sexes at the UCL debate. As for Jones’ little test, yes, I am very comfortable. If Jewish people were segregating the sexes then I would have no issue with a sentence reading “who do these Jews think they are segregating the sexes at a UCL debate”. You know what I am deeply uncomfortable with? The segregation of sexes at a debate, or anywhere for that matter.
Jones finally gets to the offending tweet which prompted his article: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though”. Can a fact be bigoted? In short, no. But can facts be used in a bigoted manner? Certainly. Here is a perfect example, in the United States the crime rate is higher among black males as opposed to Hispanic or white males. This statistic in and of itself is not racist, but it can easily used in a racist manner to argue that black people are more prone to violence. Or it could be used how it should be, to argue that the socio-economics of the States are rigged in such a manner to keep the black community in perpetual poverty, and how black males on average are given longer prison sentences than white males for the same crimes. So the stat isn’t inherently racist, but how it’s used can determine whether a person is racist or not. So how was Richard Dawkins using the statistics that the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes? Quite frankly, it is impossible to tell from one tweet, he could easily be denigrating the intelligence of all Muslims or he could be highlighting how Islam stymies scientific progress. We clearly need more information before we can make an accurate judgement. Luckily, Dawkins published an article which details exactly what he meant. It was indeed a criticism of how Islam impinges upon science and education. Of course there are other factors, economy being a huge one. But it cannot be denied that Islam influences education in a negative manner. How could it not when 50% of the Islamic population are denied an education. Must I remind people of what happened to a little girl, Malala Yousafzai, who tried to get herself an education? Or how Iran recently banned women from over 70 university degrees? Or worse yet, how Islam bans the teaching of evolution, a significant barrier to scientific progress. So maybe Richard Dawkins chose a silly example to illustrate this point, the amount of nobel prizes won isn’t an accurate measure of how Islam impinges upon education. But does using a bad example make one a bigot? No, especially since the point he was trying to make is well grounded.
Jones finishes up discussing the broader context, something Dawkins has no control over.
And then there is the broader context of rampant Islamophobia. Europe’s far-right – including our own BNP and EDL – now almost exclusively focus on Muslims, and the alleged danger posed by them. Nick Griffin scapegoats Muslims for a range of social problems like rape and drugs, and labels Islam “wicked” and a “cancer”. Studies have shown that media coverage of Muslims is overwhelmingly negative: they generally appear as, for example, terrorists or extremists. The sort of Muslims I grew up with are rarely seen. Polls show nearly half of Britons think “there are too many Muslims”, and over a third believe Muslims pose a serious threat to democracy.
How can comments by the likes of Dawkins really be separated from a broader context where Muslims are feared, suspected and even hated? If we were to look back at literature from 1920s Britain, would we look at statements such as “Judaism is the greatest force for evil today” and divorce them from the atmosphere of then-rampant anti-Semitism?
While Jones is accurate in his summation of Europe’s far-right groups, this must be separated from legitimate criticism. Jones has tried his best to blur the lines between legitimate criticism and Islamophobia through the use of fallacies such as quote mining and guilt by association. Richard Dawkins himself has said nothing which can construed as Islamophobic providing one actually analyses what he says instead of misinterpreting tweets. And the fact that Jones is reduced to criticising tweets rather than articles, books or lectures shows that he is entirely relying on the difficult nature of using Twitter for his argument i.e. that it is extremely difficult to convey complex ideas in 140 characters. Jones has decided to take the most negative reading of each of the tweets to base his argument that Richard Dawkins is bigoted. However, it is quite clear that when you actually analyse the tweets then there is a substantive point being made which is difficult to argue against. At worst, Dawkins is acerbic and a bit hyperbolic in his criticism. But he was just as acerbic and hyperbolic in the years he spent criticising Christianity and there was not one accusation of racism or bigotry levied against him. The tactics of Dawkins haven’t changed in years, only his target. So am I at a loss as to how this is suddenly a problem. Islamic criticism has suddenly become a taboo and it is being propagated by people such as Jones who scream bigotry whenever Islam is criticised in harsh terms. Far too many people are conflating legitimate criticism with bigotry, which only serves to silence critics by shaming them. This will simply allow Islamism to spread without opposition.