Dawkins's Accusers and the New "Oriental"

September 04, 2013

Richard Dawkins is under attack—at least if the recent tide of opinion pieces targeting him is any measure. Accusers allege that Dawkins’s recent tweets exhibit anti-Muslim bigotry.

Now, I am not a fan or follower of Dawkins qua religious or theological thinker, for the simple reason that his writings fall short of the kind of argumentative sophistication that we analytic philosophers are trained for. If I want to read careful atheist thinkers, I read people like Michael Tooley, Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, or Adolf Grünbaum.

Yet in spite of this and of the fact that some of Dawkins’s tweets are insensitive and crude, the accusation that he promotes anti-Muslim bigotry or xenophobia is misplaced. In fact, I think that a significant part of what such bigotry usually involves—namely, viewing Muslims as a uniform, monolithic block, coupled with an attempt at racializing Islam—is more characteristic of Dawkins’s accusers.

Here is one of Dawkins’s tweets: “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.” It is obvious what is wrong with Dawkins’s claim: Hasan’s religious beliefs are irrelevant to his journalistic activities. It is what we call a “fallacy of relevance” in informal logic. Why do some commentators feel the need to also add that it is racist, or Islamophobic, or anti-Muslim? Just because Hasan is Muslim? That would be another instance of the same fallacy, at least if Dawkins were ready to say something similar of a Christian journalist who happens to believe in, say, the Immaculate Conception. And he is. Do the accusers know he is? I assume they should, given that Dawkins has for a long time been a fierce critic especially of the Christian faith.

Another tweet was: “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.” This tweet reflects a bad choice of analogy, not in the sense that the analogy does not hold, but rather in the sense that one could over-interpret it as claiming the resemblance between the Koran and Mein Kampf. Strictly speaking, though, the analogy is not about a resemblance relation between two books at all; the analogy is about two relations between people and books: (a) the relation between a critic of Nazism and his lack of familiarity with Mein Kampf, and (b) the relation between a critic of Islam and his lack of familiarity with the Koran. The claim is then that (b) is analogous to (a), so if (a) is acceptable, then (b) should be considered acceptable as well. Of course, if one wanted to avoid insensitivity, one would have found another particular example, not the Mein Kampf. But the essential idea of the analogy would still stand: you don’t need to read the whole Koran, let alone dedicate your life to studying it, in order to have an opinion about parts of it that you find morally unacceptable. Dawkins could just as well have said, “You don’t have to read Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos to have an opinion about astrology.”

Of course, one might still ask why Dawkins, a trained intellectual, wouldn’t have anticipated that his tweet would be poorly received or inflammatory. How could he have failed to know his claim would be misread, especially since he’s so used to the public spotlight? These are legitimate concerns. But I think there is a long way to go from the accusation of poor word choice to the accusation of outright bigotry.

The logic of Dawkins’s tweet aside, there is a tendency in the accusations against Dawkins that I find even more disturbing than Dawkins’s crude ways of expressing himself. That tendency is to conflate some geographic, racial, or cultural notion—meaning, roughly, any Middle Eastern person—with the idea of being Muslim, and conversely, to assume that all Muslims share a particular culture, geographic location, and race. It is that insidious background assumption which makes it possible to insinuate that some kind of generalized anti-Middle Eastern xenophobia is at work when someone like Dawkins criticizes the Islamic belief system. A good example is a recent article in Huffington Post by Usaama al-Azami, who writes:

The reality is that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are non-white, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Dawkins and his fellows may remonstrate that what they object to is a belief system, freely adopted by its holders, but they are still participating in the unhealthy marginalization of a minority group.

It is true that the majority of Muslims are “non-white” (actually, of non-European origin), but in order for Dawkins to qualify as a perpetrator of anti-non-white or anti-Middle Eastern prejudice, the converse must also be true: namely, that most Middle Eastern non-whites are observant Muslims who take issue with criticism of their faith. But this is not uniformly the case, especially within certain countries and among younger people. Even if the overall percentages of atheists per se are indeed very small in all Middle Eastern countries, the largest survey to date on Islam, conducted by the Pew Research Center, has revealed important intergenerational differences in all these countries when it comes to religious commitment, with the younger generation being less committed religiously. For instance, over the last six years I’ve been living and working in Turkey, I’ve had the chance to meet many people, especially from the young urban university-educated population, with extremely diverse views about Islam—from observant ones to some of the fiercest critics of it, and everything else in-between. Most simply find nothing wrong with enjoying a few pints of beer, a night in a club, or a cocktail after an art exhibition, and consider the rules of the dominant religious practice in their immediate milieu—praying a certain number of times a day, abstinence from alcohol or pork, and so on—to be arbitrary and not very sensible. And such “in-between” people, as well as critics, are not few, especially in the younger generations. Of course you can’t seriously claim that these people are “not really” Middle Eastern; that would be absurd. Yet this is what Dawkins’s accusers seem to assume when they insist that his anti-religious comments are, either implicitly or explicitly, xenophobic. In fact, Dawkins is quite popular in various circles in several Middle Eastern countries, which is easy to verify by checking atheist websites there.

More pernicious than Dawkins’s insensitive tweets is that his accusers promote a preconceived idea of what being Middle Eastern, now taken to be a religiously defined category, must look like. In their hands, one old stereotype—that of the mysterious and dangerous Orient—merely gives way to another, that of the dogmatically pious and hypersensitive oriental.

Photograph: Miriam Mezzera/flickr


As far as I can tell, the author is dressing up an old criticism in new language. Apparently anyone who criticizes Dawkins for being a racist, is themselves a racist. I must admit I didn't think Boston Review author spend their time reading right wing internet trolls and find their arguments appealing, but nonetheless here we are. 
Now, my understanding of logic isn't as impressive as someone who reads, "Michael Tooley, Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, or Adolf Grünbaum," but I'm certain the author is creating a strawman argument. 
"Why do some commentators feel the need to also add that it is racist, or Islamophobic, or anti-Muslim?"
Probably because they think it is. And probably because they were not born yesterday and have some understanding that Eurocentric thinking has lead the demonization of non-white people throughout the world. And that Dawkins criticism of Islam is not the product of rational (or logical) thinking but instead the product of a system that perpetuate stereotypes of unenlightened Arabs. And that Dawkins himself contributes to this by demonizing Islam (as hard as it is for the author to believe, a few Dawkins tweets are not the only things he's said about Islam). 
However, I think we can all agree that God must not truly exist. For if He did, how could he allow Dawkins to say such stupid things, and then have someone in the prestigious Boston Globe defend Dawkins? 
Someone please pass me a bottle. 

Should Dawkins then criticize Islam more gingerly than he does Christianity, on the theory that it is a "non-white" religion, and therefore entitled to special deference?  And, in your view, that's the *non-racist* approach?  One would think that a non-racist approach would actually treat all religions equally, not single some out as precious porcelain dolls that (because they are oriental) can't take the kind of criticism that a heroic white European religion can take.
If Dawkins treated Islam differently than Christianity or Judaism, you might have a point.  But he doesn't, he is just as critical of "European" religions, so your pleading for a special "oriental" exception on racial grounds is, itself, racist.  One might equally demand that Muslims refrain from criticizing the West because, you know, for centuries Muslims have delivered unfair and critical attacks on Western civilization, call it occidentalism if you will.  Therefore, as non-Europeans (we are racializing them, after all) they must henceforth refrain from attacking Europeans, recognizing their past history.
Such racialism is nonsense.  Which is the author's point here.

This point is well made, but I would go further and say there is nothing wrong with singling out Islam as the worst religion of all today.  One can quickly confirm which religion is most implicated in terrorism, which most often subborns violence against women and gays, and which is most likely to persecute minorities.
I am not prejudiced against Muslims; I am just critical of Islam as memeplex.
Nor do I care in the slightest what the race of someone is.  When Islamic memes inspire white Chechyans such as the Boston bombers to do mayhem, I do not feel any less condemnatory towards the Islamic memes that motivated them than I did as regarded the 9/11 hijackers.
The Catholic Church used to be the worst persecutor on earth; today that title falls, in the majority, to Islam.  The Nairobi mall massacre -- which included horrific torture -- implicates Islam in a way that other religions today do not inspire such insane sadism.
An internally-directed and freely-chosen Reformation is needed in the Islamic world, and until that day occurs, Islam will remain the largest threat to world peace.  There are many great things Islamic culture has brought the world, but without a Reformation, nihilism will dominate far too much of it.

On my father’s side I am Persian and Sephardic, I’ve lived in the UAE, taught Arabs at an all male high school, and have been engaged to a Muslim woman (it was haram, and we broke the engagement...). Most secular and secure Muslims or Middle Easterners are not threatened by Dawkins. The radicals tend to scream loudest.
In the West Christianity, conservatives, liberals, media and social views are all open territory for criticism, yet when Islam is criticized there is a strange cannibalizing censorship. British author Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad is an excellent look at all sides of the issue. Dawkins is on one side, and he might push the debate and Tweet a questionable Tweet, but István Aranyosi demonstrates well how the other side of Dawkins detractors often use poor logic. Within is a contingent apologists for Islamic atrocity and/or P.C. minded relativists that tend to find Dawkins statements problematic, and it seems like Adam is one of them.
Dawkins statements literally are not racist. Yes, most Muslims are non-European, but if the statement criticizes religion, leave it at that.
István Aranyosi, well done.
Adam, it’s difficult to engage with non-engaging pabulum. Your eyes must have rolled out of your head as you wrote. Writers with an inability to engage often resort to attacks rather than logic, and this is what you do does with comments like:  "Internet troll” & “I'm certain the author is creating a strawman argument.”
István Aranyosi– 1
Adam – 0  

insult in the guise of compliment dressed up as backhanded compliment looking like a patronizing insult ... just who the fuck this "tooley reading analytical philosipher" is .... does he know that in what light philosophers are seen by scientists ... hehe it is not amusing fir him ...

next time pick an easier target dumbo. bo.

Mehdi Hasan's "religious beliefs are irrelevant to his journalistic activities", asserts the writer of this sophomoric sounding 'articlette'.
Then again, why should I believe such a self-serving notion? My own self-serving idea is that the likes of R.Dawkins tend to be vastly superior in brain power than most other people, which include most adherents to the wool-gathering called analytical philosophy. The writer still seems to believe that objectivity is possible in the business of selecting and interpreting that constitutes journalism.
A quintessential feature of Islam seems to be that religion and other aspects of society as also those of the human mind are supposed to be inseparable.

Dawkins gets criticized on this score.  I've yet to read anyone doing the criticism, or discussing the criticism like here, who seems to know anything about Dawkins or his views.  They've obviously never read Dawkins's stuff, either on biology or on atheism and religion.  It's like birthers and truthers wanting to talk to you, and not shutting up, about chem trails and how easy it is to get a long-form birth certificate if you're born in Kenya.  In other words, it's clown talk.  And this is just more of it. This kind of tinhorn carping is tiresome.

All this analysis for a few tweets containing not a single original idea, concept, criticism? #lifeexistsoutsidetheinternet

I see that relativists and culturalists are having a hard time accommodating the unhappy fact that islam is a religion that contains elements of violence and intolerance. It is a religion that has never been reformed. Its doctrines are in conflict even with the most basic human rights. If you want to see in detail what happens to the people who have the misfortune of disagreeing with islam, please see the wikipedia entry on Sivas Massacre (spoiler: they are burnt alive).

This kind of lunacy should not be exempt from criticism, even if it is Dawkins-style brute criticism.

am fascinated about his views & the views of others comments on them.

Dawkins is publicity monger.For publicity he can do anything.I read his some books.All his books are pseudoscientific Take the example" God is delusion".Great philosopher Spinoza, Kant, Shankara wrote long long ago God is  delusion but they are wise people they argued that though God is delusion how can man survive  in this uncertain world without delusion?

Dawkins is far more literalist in his reading of the three big monotheisms than the bulk of their respective adherents are. Whether his tweets can be mined for racist thought (whether anyone's tweets can be mined for any thought) seems rather beside the point.

The author of this piece says that, "Hasan’s religious beliefs are irrelevant to his journalistic activities" but doesn't give a reason for that.  I think that a worldview, in this case that supernatural, magical events can and do take place, is likely to be relevant to his journalistic activities. 
Dawkins' point is that a journalist is supposed to inform us about the world, and if one believes that magic can happen when it cannot, then that journalist's ability to accurately inform us is compromised.  As an example;  suppose there is an earthquake somewhere, for someone who believes that people can fly into heaven on winged horses a legitimately possible explanation for that earthquake is that Allah did it rather than the movement of tectonc plates (or as far back with causality as you wish).  Depending on your view of the supernatural the journalist's reporting could be utter nonsense or completely true.
Dawkins believes that there is no supernatural occurrences, and therefore someone who does has serious difficulty in accurately describing the world because they are mistaken about the facts of the world.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions. CAPTCHA is not case sensitive.
Enter the characters shown in the image.