Richard Dawkins is not an Islamophobe

An attack on the renowned atheist as anti-Muslim is really designed to squelch honest conversation about religion

Published August 24, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

Richard Dawkins                    (Reuters/Andrew Winning)
Richard Dawkins (Reuters/Andrew Winning)

No doubt, Nathan Lean, the editor in chief of an Islam-positive online entity called Aslan Media, fired off his recent denunciation of Richard Dawkins’ alleged “Twitter rampage” about the paucity of Muslims among Nobel Prize laureates, and heaved a sigh of satisfaction.  Mission accomplished!  Godless biologist slapped down, “Islamophobia” denounced!

Lean would do well to stiffen up, however.  In tapping out a risible parody of a reasoned critique, he unwittingly both beclowns himself and lends credence to the very scientist and arguments he seeks to discredit.  His piece is full of wrongheaded thinking and blundering jabs at Dawkins for pointing out uncomfortable truths about the state of science, or, rather, the lack of it, in Muslim countries.  Lean purports to “expose” the “ugly underbelly of [Dawkins’] rational atheistic disguise,” but has authored a tract consisting almost wholly of politically correct shibboleths and befuddled assertions that insult his readers’ intelligence and aim to squelch honest debate about Islam and its role in the world today.  If one believes in free speech, one cannot let what he wrote go unchallenged.

Lean starts out by accusing Dawkins of “simple-minded anti-Muslim Twitter trolling.”  What first excites his ire is Dawkins’ Aug. 8 tweet that, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.  They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”  Lean does not – indeed cannot -- contest Dawkins’ factuality here, but snaps back in his essay by loudly impugning the messenger’s motives: “who in the hell cares apart from people like Dawkins who hope either to embarrass or discredit the faith group by pointing out such arbitrary things?”

Well, apparently Lean cares, and cares a lot, as the strangely truculent vehemence of his response shows.  In a false concession to conventions of free speech, he allows that, “to be sure, it’s always okay to criticize religious beliefs” since “no religion should be immune from — or its followers resistant to — well-intentioned and reasonable inquiries about faith claims.”  But straightaway he slips into obscurantist double Dutch: “there’s a difference between problematizing a religion’s tenets and persecuting its adherents.  There’s also a difference between raising legitimate concerns about doctrines, scriptures and the rationale of one’s beliefs, and hurling insults that shift the tenor of the debate into a machismo register better suited for high school locker rooms.”

Persecuting?  No definition of “persecution” fits Dawkins’ factually accurate, if often humorously acerbic, tweets about Islam.  Lean’s charge appears to be purposefully overblown to soften readers up for underhanded accusations of bigotry to come.  None of the tweets he adduces can be characterized as “insults,” hurled or delivered otherwise.  As for the “machismo register,” well, in his lofty state of dudgeon Lean apparently forgets that both he and his opponent use “hell” in an exclamatory sense.  And if, as Lean would have it, Dawkins does have a right to tweet his opinions on Islam, it’s a limited right, one to be exercised in strict accordance with boundaries Lean establishes post factum concerning which facts cited meet criteria of legitimacy, the tone in which they are cited, and their potential for causing offense.

The fact Dawkins presents – that so few Muslims have won Nobel Prizes -- does raise legitimate (pace Lean) questions that Dawkins himself addresses in a blog post about the controversy he stirred up by his tweet.  He points out that in view of the grandiose claims advanced by some Muslims for the “science” contained in the Quran, it’s rather depressing to note that not much by way of science has come out of the Muslim world in the past 500 years, and it behooves us, and certainly Muslims, to ask why.  Dawkins also wonders why Jewish people, with infinitesimal demographic stature, have won 120 Nobels, whereas the 1.6 billion-strong Muslim world can boast of only 10 (and six of those were Peace Prizes).  At the risk of being labeled an “Islamophobe,” I will here hazard a proximate cause: There are few universities with science faculties of note in the Islamic world.  According to accepted rankings, the top 200 to 400 universities are located predominantly in the United States, Canada and Europe; only three are to be found in Muslim-majority countries.

After going after Dawkins’ “Twitter rant,” Lean might have left good (or bad) enough alone, and ended there.  But no, he chose to launch another broadside against the scientist and decisively squib himself.  In March, the University College of London, a secular institution whose website proclaims it to be “the first university to welcome female students on equal terms with men,”allowed its premises to be used for a debate titled “Islam and Atheism.”  Nonbelief’s advocate at the event, the professor Lawrence Krauss, agreed to take part on the condition that there be no segregation of the audience by sex.  The Islamic host organization acceded, but, once the participates were onstage, nonetheless tried to seat women apart from men.  Dawkins, who was in attendance, tweeted, “Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?  At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate between @LKrauss1 and a Muslim.”  He followed up with, “How has UCL come to this: cowardly capitulation to Muslims?”  Krauss threatened to walk out, and the host relented.

Lean, in another feint to fair-mindedness, notes that segregation by sex was “without question, a poor decision, and one that many protested,” but then proceeds to jump on Dawkins for doing just that.  Since he professes to agree with the substance of Dawkins’ complaint, he muddles the issue, voicing no real problem with Dawkins’ objection to what happened, but finding, however, “normative statements like that” deeply troubling, indicative of a politically incorrect hamartia, Islamophobia.  “Dawkins is quick to grab the biggest brush he can find and paint ‘the Muslims,’ or ‘Muslims,’ or even ‘Islam’ with one broad stroke.”  As evidence, he then offers a Dawkins tweet from February (but dates it in March, after the debate, surely to create the impression of an unhinged, post-UCL “rant”): “Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today."

“The greatest force for evil?  How is that even quantifiable and what constitutes evil?“ Lean thunders back, as if blithely unaware of 9/11, suicide bombings, honor killings, acid attacks against women, and so on, and as though his issue here with Dawkins were purely metaphysical.  He then adds that, “For a scientist, Dawkins rarely provides any qualification, context or evidence for his hypotheses.  He doesn’t often give names or reveal identities that could help us better understand exactly whom it is that he targets.”

This is not true and I think that Lean knows it.  Dawkins’ claim to fame as an atheist is his masterly, detailed denunciation of theistic religion, "The God Delusion," which Lean himself brings up in another jeremiad against him (and celebrity nonbelievers Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) he published earlier in the year.  He is baiting and switching, clumsily and ineptly trying to deflect readers’ attention from Dawkins’ outspoken declaration (and therefore from “evil’s” ineluctable associations these days with atrocities committed, if nothing else, in the name of Islam).  Let’s not forget what prompted Lean to take to his computer keyboard here: Dawkins’ outrage at an attempt to segregate an audience according to Islamic tradition, something that should never, ever have taken place in the West at an avowedly secular educational institution purporting to “welcome female students.”  Outrage, and plenty of it, is the proper response.

Lean then delves deep into obfuscation, saying that his metaphysical objections to Dawkins’ tweet about evil are, after all his huffing and puffing, “beside the point.”  His real problem with the scientist turns out to be his reductionism: He sees Muslims as “’Muslims,’ not fathers, sons, daughters, mothers, bankers, lawyers or doctors.  They’re not informed by any other identity that makes them complex human beings; it’s ‘Islam’ that always animates these faceless people.”

It’s a pretty safe bet that perpetrators of terrorist acts (partly as a result of which Dawkins calls Islam a “force for evil”) are not acting based on beliefs they hold as fathers, mothers, bankers and lawyers, if they are any of these things.  Dawkins is speaking of the faith and ideology animating those who identify themselves as Muslims.  The last time I checked, the only thing differentiating a Muslim from a non-Muslim was, in fact, a professed belief in Islam – hence Islam is the pertinent factor here in the makeup of “these faceless people.”  Lean surely understood this well, but hoped to paint Dawkins as absurdly reductive, when bald reductionism is necessary to establish who belongs to the Muslim umma and who does not – that is, that people of every ilk, nationality and profession, married, single or whatever, must heed the truths inscribed in Islamic “holy” scriptures to win candidacy for eternal salvation, or else.

Lean finally gets to the gravamen of his complaint about Dawkins and his tweets: his supposed concealed agenda.  Here as earlier, he prefers to first assail Dawkins’ integrity as a thinker, stating that he “has long represented himself, and his beliefs about the world and its creation, as originating from an intellectual and scientific place,” which troubles him, since “some may consider [Dawkins’] bellicose ramblings to be reflective of his studied background and thus more salient than the mouthy insults of Islamophobes like Pamela Geller or Robert Spencer ...”  To advance this agenda, which Lean inelegantly implies is Islamophobia possessed of an “ugly underbelly” and wearing a “rational atheistic disguise,” Dawkins drags in the Nobel Prize.  Lean generously allows that a Nobel is “an honorable recognition like no other,” but it is, portentously, an “accolade created by a Swedish philanthropist and awarded by an all-white committee of Scandinavians,” and thus should not be used as “a measuring stick for Muslim contributions in the world.”

If the Nobel should not be used as “a measuring stick for Muslim contributions in the world,” then Lean should state just what measuring stick he would employ, at least to gauge contributions to science, which, after all, is what Dawkins was talking about.  But he does not.  He once again blatantly obscures the matter at hand – the dearth of Muslim Nobel laureates – this time by conflating race with religion, groundlessly giving readers to think that racist Scandinavians are depriving deserving Muslim candidates of their prizes based on skin color.

What Lean is doing here is deleterious to free speech: he is trying to equate criticism of a religion (whose followers, in this case, mostly happen to be nonwhite) with racism.  This sophistry cannot be allowed to stand.  “Islamophobia” is nothing more than a quack pseudo-diagnosis suggesting pathological prejudice against, and fear of, a supposedly neutral subject, Islam, in the way agoraphobic folk cringe at open places or claustrophobes dread an elevator.  Based on the erroneous premise that those who criticize Islam are somehow ill, the term, along with its adjective "Islamophobic," should be banished from our lexicon as pernicious to rational thinking.  People, regardless of race or creed, deserve equal rights and respect; religions, which are essentially hallowed ideologies, merit no a priori respect, but, rather, gimlet-eyed scrutiny, the same scrutiny one would apply to, say, communism, conservatism or liberalism.  No one has a right to wield religion as a shield – or as a sword.

Lean dribbles on into criticizing Dawkins for “bemoaning what he sees as [Muslims’] lack of contribution to modern science (and their supposedly violent nature), supposing that it’s their religion that’s to blame for the deficiency,” when, opines Lean, “education, poverty, unemployment, economic malaise, corruption and state-dominated institutions” are other “serious obstacles for advancement.”  He proceeds to deal Dawkins his less than rapier version of a coup de grâce: “Muslim Nobel Prizes to date: 10.  Dawkins Nobel Prizes to date: zero.  That too, is a ‘fact,’ Mr. Dawkins.”  (Note the quotes around “fact,” implying that the very nature of what a fact is is open to question.)  The egregious absurdity of this flailing put-down – a single scientist in 2013 and his Nobel record, vis-à-vis that of a billion and a half Muslims extending back to 1901, the year the first Nobel was awarded -- redounds to the ridicule of one person alone: Lean.

Because it so endeavors to steer us away from Dawkins’ statement of fact – about the scarcity of Nobel laureates from the Islamic world -- Lean’s shoddy philippic invariably gets us wondering just why there have been so few Muslim winners.  Might it have something to do with the notion of revealed truths, the kind forming the basis of Islam (and Christianity too) that must trump empirical evidence and inherently hamper the spirit of inquiry?  Could it be that Islamic or Islam-based laws and mores might de facto imperil creative thinkers and their thoughts, stultifying their efforts to deal with the societal problems Lean himself enumerates?  And perhaps most important of all, might not the second-rate status of women in the Muslim world interfere with their ability to better their societies and help them move ahead?

For Dawkins, says Lean, “everything great about the West is the result of secularism and everything miserable about the rest is the fault of religion.”  This is Lean’s reductionism, not Dawkins’, but, I grant, he’s not far off the mark.  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.

Surely, Lean imagined that he could mount the podium shouting “Islamophobe!” at Dawkins and hold forth unopposed, or he would not have ventured into print with such a maladroit, bungling critique.  But the age of politically correct timidity in the face of religious zealots and their apologist shills has, thankfully, come to an end.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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