Dawkins's Accusers and the New "Oriental"
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