About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, August 16, 2013
Time to talk about Islamophobia
There is almost no way I’m not going to get in trouble with this one, and my name isn’t even Carlos Danger! But I’ve been asked several times by readers to comment on accusations of “Islamophobia” aimed at prominent New Atheists (henceforth, NA) — particularly Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins — and it seems time to get down to work.
A few prelims, though. First, this isn’t my attempt at sitting, Q-like, in judgment of the whole shebang, rendering the final verdict on the matter. Yes, I will provide my (solicited, in this case) opinion, but that’s all it is, an opinion. Second, the reason I have not touched on this before is twofold: on the one hand, I’ve logged a substantial number of posts critical of several New Atheists, and there is only so much one can criticize the same people before getting annoying rather than constructive. On the other hand, for a while now I’ve been busier with matters of science, philosophy and epistemology than with political ones, as testified to by the significantly lower frequency of posts on political issues at RS. Third, this cannot and will not be a comprehensive examination either of Islamophobia as a concept or even just of what Dawkins, Harris, etc. have written about Islam. Instead, I will focus on what seem to be some of the most aggressive accusations to the NA in this regard, those made in two posts over at Salon, by Nathan Lean. I wanted to get an idea of what the criticism was based on, both in terms of evidence and in terms of arguments. In other words, lower your expectations a bit, and let’s see where we can get with some reasoned discourse.
The first article by Lean was published on 30 March 2013, and was sparked by a series of tweets posted by Dawkins. Lean doesn’t start out too well. He accuses NA’s of sharing an “unholier-than-thou worldview” and of having “built lucrative empires” with their works. Not only can this sort of generic accusation be easily aimed — which much more reason — at a number of writers on the religious side of things, but it is irrelevant. The better-than-thou attitude may be irritating, but most certainly not uncommon among writers and commentators (including Lean himself); as for making money out of one’s books, as an author myself I seriously don’t see the problem, as long as one does it out of honest toil, as opposed to say plagiarism.
Lean proceeds with the suggestion that the whole NA phenomenon is the result of the 9/11 attacks, and particularly of the (surprising, even astonishing, in my mind) revival of the religious American fervors that followed them. He’s probably right, though again the identification of the causes of a social phenomenon is no indictment of said phenomenon.
And here comes the first incriminating quote, according to Lean, uttered by Dawkins a few days after 9/11: “Those people [the terrorists] were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards ... On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from. It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East, which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.” Well, I think Dawkins got it partially right here. I say partially because I think religion is better thought of as a symptom, as well as a reinforcer, of these kinds of events, more than anything like a root cause. Regardless, religious fanaticism certainly had a lot to do with 9/11, together of course with a number of other causes that ought to be more deeply troubling for Americans: their military presence in Arab countries, their interference with said countries internal policies (often, though not always, not in the best interest of the people of those countries), their manipulation of Middle Eastern dictators, and of course their abysmal and willful failure to broker a fair peace in Israel-Palestine.
Lean also chastises Hitchens for mocking Muslims with the very title of his book, God is Not Great (because Muslims recite “God is great” during their prayers). So what? Atheists have always mocked religion, and for darn good reasons. And the best refrain to mockery is counter-mockery, not indignation. The latter only makes the receiver of the mockery look even more silly than he did before. But of course a number of religious fundamentalists are not exactly known for their sense of humor. Indeed, humor and sarcasm have always been among the most terrifying enemies of every strict religion. (btw, for the rest of this post it should be assumed that when I say “religion” I mean the fundamentalist, intransigent variety of the Abrahamic flavor, not religions or religious people in general. Please keep this in mind, it’s an important distinction.)
Now it’s Harris’ turn. He is quoted from Letter to a Christian Nation: “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge.” That’s where things get complicated. Taken at face value, Harris is spectacularly wrong: terrorist attacks by Muslims do represent a small fraction of what’s going on in the Islamic world. But it is true that by far the larger number of terrorist attacks in recent years has been carried out in the name of Islam (of course, it depends on what one means by terrorism: include government actions, like the US war in Iraq, and we are talking about a completely different ball game). I don’t think that’s because Islam is an inherently more violent religion than Judaism and Christianity. Jews and Christians, after all, have been responsible for their share of massacres, genocides and ethnic cleansing throughout history. It’s just that in this particular historical moment they are violently affecting through terrorism far fewer people in far fewer areas of the world. (The last few lines, of course, represent my interpretation of what is essentially an empirical question. I will be happy to be corrected if I got the facts wrong.)
And now we are back to Dawkins’ twitter “rant” about the Quran: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.” Well, that’s just shabby, Dick. First off, criticizing books that one hasn’t read (or at least hasn’t read serious secondary sources about those books) is simply unacceptable for a major public intellectual. Second, here we go again with “greatest” and “evil.” Once more, fundamentalist adherence to Islam (and of course by far not all Muslims are fundamentalists) is likely one of the causal factors in a number of acts of violence in recent history, but to talk about it as the cause of it is unbelievably naive. (See partial list of other causes above; to which we should of course add lack of education and health care, major variables related to the success of religious fundamentalism.)
Another “incriminating” tweet from Dawkins: “Islam is comforting? Tell that to a woman, dressed in a bin bag [trash bag], her testimony worth half a man’s and needing 4 male witnesses to prove rape.” Lean thinks this sort of reasoning is ludicrous, but I think he is just as much off the mark as Dawkins, only in the opposite direction. Yes, Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand that some Muslim women truly do find wearing a burka comforting, and even a sign of respect. But Lean seems to ignore that that’s not really a sign of respect: it is a blatant sign of male oppression, and said women have simply been indoctrinated, sometimes violently, into a particular worldview. I’ll call this particular skirmish a draw.
More evidence: “Dawkins’ quest to ‘liberate’ Muslim women and smack them with a big ol’ heaping dose of George W. Bush freedom caused him to go berserk over news that a University College of London debate, hosted by an Islamic group, offered a separate seating option for conservative, practicing Muslims.” To begin with, to accuse Dawkins (unlike, say, Hitchens) of endorsing W.’s foreign policy is highly disingenuous. Second, Lean goes on to point out that at a recent event (a concert by Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman) at the newly minted Barclays Center in Brooklyn the organizers offered separate gender seatings (as an option) to cater to the local Orthodox Jewish population. So why pick on the Muslims? Islamophobia! Setting aside the fact that Dawkins probably didn’t know about the latter event, how on earth is this “see? they do it too!” reasoning compelling at all? Dawkins was criticizing a British institution, qua British intellectual. Someone else in New York ought to have done the same in the case of the Barclays Center event (yes, I know, I missed that boat, wasn’t paying enough attention). And notice that just because the separate gender seating was facultative it doesn’t make the whole idea right to begin with, contra what is implied by Lean. (And of course it is worse in countries where this sort of thing is in fact mandatory, legal, and almost universally enforced. None of those countries can be found in the Western hemisphere, and not by chance...)
Lean is on better ground where he mentions that Dawkins has apparently praised right-wing extremist Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician known for saying that he hates Islam and that the Quran should be banned in the Netherlands. Dawkins is also alleged to have praised the short film Fitna, produced by Wilders, which draws a strong parallel between the Nazis (oh no, the Nazis!) and Muslims. Bad move indeed, Professor Dawkins.
And back to Harris (I know, this is causing you a headache from swirling around too much, but I’m following Lean almost paragraph by paragraph). Lean disapprovingly quotes Harris (in The End Of Faith) as writing: “The Israelis have shown a degree of restraint in their use of violence that the Nazis never contemplated and that, more to the point, no Muslim society would contemplate today.” Well, that strikes me as just about right on Harris’ part. Then again, it’s lowering the bar for Israel a bit too much to un-ironically say that the Israeli military is not quite as bad as the Nazis, no?
Finally (as far as the first essay is concerned) Lean impugns the very motives of the NA: “That’s not rational or enlightening or ‘free thinking’ or even intelligent. That’s opportunism. If atheism writ large was a tough sell to skeptics, the ‘New Atheism,’ Muslim-bashing atheism, must be like selling Bibles to believers.” I hardly think this is fair. I have no reason (nor, I suspect, does Lean) to think that the only, or even major motive for Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens and others to write what they write is to make money. It seems to me that they really do believe what they are saying. Which of course doesn’t automatically mean that it is intelligent or particularly informative.
Now to Lean’s second article, published on 10 August 2013. This time the focus is squarely on Dawkins, and again the occasion is offered by a tweet: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” Yeah, that’s vintage Dawkins all right. But factually he is, of course, correct. And while one may not appreciate the sarcasm, there seemed to me little to criticize here, especially in terms of Islamophobia (since the number of Christian and Jewish Nobel winners is pretty high, I think, making picking on Islam fair.)
So on what bases, other than an accusation of superfluous sarcasm, does Lean criticize Dawkins? He begins by saying “Yes, the truth is that Muslims have received fewer Nobel Prizes than the sophisticated academic specialists at Trinity. But who in the hell cares apart from people like Dawkins.” Well, I would hope that Muslims cared. Assuming for a moment that the number of awarded Nobels in, say, science is a rough reflection of actual contributions to science (it is), then a society or societies whose recognized contributions are disproportionately less than their share of the world’s population ought to be worried. Of course, not all is well in Dawkins’ quarters either. I’m sure he meant to suggest that it is, again, religion that is responsible for this; and I again maintain that religion is more likely a co-causal factor as well as a symptom of the state of things, not the root cause. Investment in scientific research, level of and access to education, and so on, are also very much at the top of the list of explanations.
Lean: “there’s a difference between problematizing a religion’s tenets and persecuting its adherents.” Here perhaps we are simply using different dictionaries, since I don’t see how sarcastic tweets in any way constitute “persecution.” Persecution, rather, is what a number of Islamic countries do to their own freethinking citizens. (Of course they are not alone: see, just for a case recently in the news, Russia’s crackdown on gays and lesbians.)
Lean goes on to bring up again the University College debate (he must not have that many examples of Dawkinsian bigotry after all), and then moves to point out that Dawkins uses far too broad a brush when he talks of “Muslims” or “Islam” indiscriminately. This is definitely true, as the target should be more narrowly defined (say, Islamic fundamentalism), and the NA’s haven’t exactly made their mark in the Subtlety and Nuances department.
And then Lean slides into politically correct innuendos like this: “Sure, the Nobel Prize is an honorable recognition like no other. But it’s not insignificant that in Dawkins’s haste to come up with something cheeky to say about Muslims, he would use an accolade created by a Swedish philanthropist and awarded by an all-white committee of Scandinavians as a measuring stick for Muslim contributions in the world.” No, sorry, no go. This is sloppy to a vertiginous degree. First off, Lean is committing the genetic fallacy, criticizing X because of the origin of X (in this case the Nobel prize because it was established by a white dude and is awarded by other white dudes). The Nobels in science are always pretty much on target, and it is to the shame of Muslim countries that their scientists don’t have proportional entries in that roster. Second, Lean proceeds by pointing out that six Muslims have been awarded the Nobel for peace, notoriously the most politicized and questionable of the awards. Indeed, in the previous paragraph Lean himself had pointed out that Obama had been preemptively given the peace prize, going on to authorize drone strikes and secret surveillance operations on his own people. Finally, Lean reaches the absolute lowest point of his article when he says: “Muslim Nobel Prizes to date: 10. Dawkins Nobel Prizes to date: zero. That too, is a ‘fact,’ Mr. Dawkins.” Yes, and that is an irrelevant and childish comment to make, especially for someone who’s been ranting all along — for months — about the responsibilities of public intellectuals, a group to which surely a journalist writing for Salon belongs, or would like to belong.
So where does all of this leave us? Hard to keep score, given the bizarreness of comments on both sides. I’m pretty sure Dawkins and other NA’s are in fact guilty of over-focusing on Islam. Then again, there are somewhat good reasons to do so provided by recent history, given that the Christian Crusades and Inquisition have been over for a while. Dawkins & co. are also overly sarcastic, certainly not subtle, and they do seem to use far too wide a brush to paint their nemeses. But it’s not like one reads writings such as Lean’s and finds shiny examples of restraint, subtle humor and focused targeting. The obvious casualty of all this is serious criticism, of both Muslims and New Atheists.