In which Richard Dawkins attacks a series of strawmen

Richard Dawkins has come under fire this week for some inflammatory tweets about Islam, which prompted vociferous criticisms from Alex Gabriel and Martin Robbins, among others. In response, he has penned a rebuttal which surely has to qualify as one of the more foolish things ever written by a respected public intellectual. In this post I shall not be concentrating primarily on the original tweet which sparked this debate: I will be the first to say that the 140-character medium of Twitter is a terrible forum for any kind of in-depth discussion of a social issue, and that throwaway tweets are easy to misunderstand. Rather, I shall be concentrating on Dawkins’ defence of his position as outlined in this post, much of which, frankly, leaves me puzzled.

He responds to his critics thus:

You’re a racist (actually usually written as “Your a racist”)

If you think Islam is a race, you are a racist yourself. The concept of race is controversial in biology, for complicated reasons. I could go into that, but I don’t need to here. It’s enough to say that if you can convert to something (or convert or apostatize out of it) it is not a race. If you are going to accuse me of racism, you’ll have to do a lot better than that. Islam is a religion and you can choose to leave it or join it.

Here, Dawkins – wilfully or not – misunderstands his critics. No one is actually arguing that Islam is “a race”. And no one has suggested that criticizing Islam is inherently or inescapably racist.

But that does not mean that anti-Muslim rhetoric is not capable of being racist. Asylum-seekers are not “a race” either, but I hope Dawkins would not dispute that the Daily Mail’s inflammatory rhetoric about asylum-seekers is in substance racist.  Like asylum-seekers, Muslims are a group who are largely associated in British society – both in the public imagination, and to a great extent in demographic reality – with racial minorities. It is true that some Muslims are white, and that many members of racial minorities are not Muslim; it is equally true that some asylum-seekers are white and that many members of racial minorities are not asylum-seekers. But inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims, like inflammatory rhetoric about asylum-seekers, is perfectly capable of playing into racist and colonialist tropes, of stirring up racial hatred, and of lending support to the xenophobic far right.

A prime example of racist rhetoric about Muslims can be found in the YouTube ravings of Pat Condell, a man whose work Dawkins has publicly endorsed. To offer just one illustrative example: in Condell’s video Goodbye Sweden, he says “no country has done more to embrace the multicultural nightmare… I mean dream… than Sweden”; accuses the Swedish government of trying to “wipe their culture clean out of existence”, fearmongers about the imagined danger of Sweden becoming “the first European Islamic state”, and asserts that it is “now unconstitutional to uphold Swedish values in Sweden”. He goes on to allege that immigrants are responsible for an increase in rapes in Sweden, saying that Sweden is now “the rape capital of Europe” and explicitly linking this to “immigrant Islamic culture”, and argues that “[w]hen you allow millions of people to immigrate from places where they mutilate their daughters as a matter of course, where they kill them in a heartbeat over some twisted sense of honour, and where rape victims are treated as criminals, it doesn’t take a genius to know that you’re going to be importing these values and attitudes as well, wholesale, unless you take steps to prevent it.” This is, virtually verbatim, the kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric we hear from xenophobic movements such as the British National Party and the English Defence League. And, not coincidentally, Condell supports the right-wing nationalist UK Independence Party. Condell’s rhetoric plays straight into racist tropes which portray immigrants from foreign cultures as “barbaric” or “savage”, and which portray “our culture” as being under threat from a foreign influx – exactly the kind of rhetoric that has sparked outbreaks of nativist violence throughout history.

I have never said or implied that all criticisms of Islam are racist. Plenty of people engage in sensible and reasonable criticisms of Islam without veering into racist rhetoric. The journalist Johann Hari wrote a rather good piece on homophobia in British Muslim communities, for instance. And there are vociferous ex-Muslim critics of Islam, like Maryam Namazie, who have gone out of their way to stand up for immigrants’ rights and dissociate themselves from anti-immigrant sentiment. It is perfectly possible for atheists to talk about Islam without being racist. But that does not let Dawkins off the hook for promoting the work of anti-Muslim zealots whose rhetoric and agenda are racist, nor for making sweeping and careless generalizations about Muslims and Islam.

Race is not a biological concept at all but a socially constructed one. In the sociological sense you can convert to a race because race is a social construction.

There may be sociologists who choose to redefine words to their own purpose, in which case we have a simple semantic disagreement. I have a right to choose to interpret “race” (and hence “racism”) according to the dictionary definition: “A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”.  Sociologists are entitled to redefine words in technical senses that they find useful, but they are not entitled to impose their new definitions on those of us who prefer common or dictionary usage. You can define naked mole rats as termites if you wish (they have similar social systems) but don’t blame the rest of us if we prefer to call them mammals because they are close genetic cousins to non-social mole rats and other rodents.

This passage frankly leaves me scratching my head in bemusement. Dawkins thinks that “race” is conventionally defined as “a limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”? And is annoyed at sociologists for arguing that race is a social construct? When has “race”, as a social category, ever been defined cladistically? It might make intuitive sense to a biologist to understand it that way, but it does not tally with the reality of how racial categories are actually understood in human societies, and how people actually identify themselves and are identified by others. It is fairly universally accepted that races, in the common everyday sense, are social constructs rather than biologically meaningful distinctions. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, possibly the world’s most famous evolutionary biologist: he of all people ought to know that human racial categories are not defined by genetics. In some circumstances the same individual with the same ancestry can be considered “black” in one culture – under the “one-drop rule”, for example – and “white” in another.

Of course Dawkins is free to adopt his own pet definition of “race” if he wishes, in the same way that Humpty-Dumpty defined “glory” as “a nice knock-down argument”. But it has no relevance to a discussion of racism. What matters, for the purpose of considering whether a particular action is racist, is the sociological definition of race, because racism is a social phenomenon whose study is within the province of sociology. This should not even be controversial. The whole discussion reminds me uncomfortably of Deepak Chopra’s insistence that his own idiosyncratic definition of “quantum” is superior to that used by actual quantum physicists.

In any case, this argument over the definition of “race” is largely beside the point, because, as I have pointed out above, no one is actually contending that Islam is “a race” or that “in the sociological sense you can convert to a race”. This is a strawman, and reveals that Dawkins has not bothered to understand his critics’ position.

OK, maybe you aren’t strictly a racist, but most Muslims have brown skins so you are in effect a racist

Incidentally, the reverse is not true: huge numbers of brown skinned people are Hindus or Sikhs or Buddhists. But in any case, I’m a lot less interested in skin colour than you seem to be. I don’t think skin colour has the slightest bearing on ability to win Nobel Prizes, whereas it is highly probable that childhood education in a particular religion does. Educational systems that teach boys only memorisation of one particular book, and teach girls nothing at all, are not calculated to breed success in science.

Here, again, Dawkins shows little interest in engaging with his critics’ actual arguments. The question is not whether he is “interested in skin colour”. I don’t dispute that he intends no racist implications when he attacks Islam, but intent is not magic. The question is whether his anti-Muslim rhetoric has the effect of reinforcing racialized stereotypes.

He is obviously right to say that religious indoctrination is not a substitute for a secular education. But he is quite wrong to suggest that all or most Muslims desire “[e]ducational systems that teach boys only memorisation of one particular book, and teach girls nothing at all.” Dawkins is, once again, uncritically promoting prejudicial stereotypes about Muslims, and ignoring the countless Muslim students and academics in secular higher education institutions worldwide. And in so doing, he is lending support to those who see Muslims – and the cultures from which they come – as inferior.

Well, quoting an undeniable fact may not be bigotry in itself but you left an offensive, though unstated, implication dangling on the end of the fact

You may be reading in an implication that I didn’t intend. Since (unlike many tweeters, apparently) I am firm about Islam being a religion and not a race, I certainly didn’t, and don’t, imply any innate inferiority of intellect in those people who happen to follow the Muslim religion. But I did intend to raise in people’s minds the question of whether the religion itself is inimical to scientific education. I don’t have the answer, but I think it is well worth asking the question. Has something gone wrong with education in the Islamic world, and is it a problem that Muslims themselves might wish to consider? Just to throw in a separate piece of information, colleagues lecturing to aspiring doctors in British universities inform me that Muslim students boycott lectures on evolution. And I have myself interviewed, for television, pupils and teachers at one of Britain’s leading Islamic secondary schools – one with impeccable Ofsted ratings – where I was informed by a teacher that literally all the pupils reject evolution.

If Dawkins wants to start a debate about education in the Islamic world – hardly a small or a homogeneous topic – a good start would be to actually engage with the work of experts on the subject, instead of loudly voicing his own speculations based on unsupported personal anecdote.

Cambridge University, like other First World Institutions, has economic advantages denied to those countries where most Muslims live.

No doubt there is something in that. But . . . oil wealth? Might it be more equitably deployed amongst the populace of those countries that happen to sit on the accidental geological boon of oil. Is this an example of something that Muslims might consider to improve the education of their children?

This is hardly a reason to attack Muslims as a group or Islam as a faith – rather, it’s a reason to criticize the hereditary elites who control much of the Middle East’s oil wealth, and the undemocratic political and economic systems which keep them in power. Again, that is a reasonable conversation to have, but voicing unevidenced speculations in throwaway tweets, and then doubling down when criticized for doing so, does not really assist the debate.

Henry Kissinger won a Nobel Prize. That just shows how worthless they are.

That was a Peace prize, and the Peace prize does have a rather more controversial reputation. Mother Teresa won it, after all, and said in her acceptance speech that abortion was the “greatest destroyer of peace in the world”. I’d be happy to subtract the Peace prizes. Trinity would lose only one of its 32 and Muslims would lose fully half their tally. Because of the second of the two boasts that I mentioned at the outset, I was in any case primarily interested in scientific achievement. If we count only science prizes, discounting Economics, Literature and Peace, Trinity’s count drops to 27 and the Muslim count drops to two (and even that includes the great theoretical physicist Abdus Salam, who left Pakistan in 1974 in protest at his particular version of Islam being declared “non-Islamic” by its parliament). Bizarrely, some counts of Muslim scientific Nobelists are boosted by inclusion of that quintessential Englishman Sir Peter Medawar (born in Brazil, his father was Lebanese, a Maronite Christian).

I would not assert that Nobel Prizes are “worthless” – but surely Dawkins, with his keen interest in history of science, could hardly claim that they represent a completely objective benchmark of scientific achievement, unaffected by social and cultural context. Nelson Jones at the New Statesman analyses this claim, and the problems with it, in more depth.

In short, Dawkins’ answers to his critics are highly problematic, and do not really engage with the substance of the criticism. He apparently believes that “You are racist” is a blanket, contentless insult thrown at anyone who criticizes Islam: he does not seem willing to understand or respond to the actual argument his critics are making, that certain kinds of anti-Muslim rhetoric can reinforce racist and colonialist tropes and stir up xenophobic sentiments. It is a shame that one of our most highly-regarded public intellectuals – the author of excellent books such as The Blind Watchmaker, and someone who has done more than almost anyone else to make evolutionary biology accessible to the public – is capable of such poor reasoning when it comes to social and political issues.

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12 Responses to In which Richard Dawkins attacks a series of strawmen

  1. I can tell you that I know he read my post, in which I address (and, I think, quite clearly dispel) the “You must be saying Islam is a race” stance. So yes, the misunderstanding/misrepresentation is perfectly wilful.

  2. Suppose Dawkins were to successfully prove that Muslim areas of the world had been undistinguished in science for the past 1,000 years, as he recently claimed on Twitter. In what way would this benefit our understanding of Islam? Would this affect the question of whether Islam is true? No. Would we then be free to ignore statements from Muslim scientists going forward? No. Could we be confident that Muslim nations were incapable of developing dangerous weapons systems? No. So what actually is accomplished beyond belittling Muslims?

  3. I suppose that if one wished to sidestep the intellectual chaff about the meaning of race, one could simply call Dawkins’s statements “bigoted”.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    *applause*

    BTW, one Nobel Prize for Physiology Or Medicine was given to the inventor of lobotomy.

  5. Iku Turso says:

    I’m just bemused that most people know so little about history that they find Dawkins’ original tweet offensive. Did you know that the Ottoman Empire banned printing books for religious reasons, unlike Europe? Religion did hinder science, that was spot on.

    • someguy says:

      “Religion did hinder science, that was spot on.”

      You could definitely say that’s true in a number of contexts. The problem is that the historical interaction, on the whole, is more complex than that and as such Dawkins’s historical analysis is still weak.

      “Did you know that the Ottoman Empire banned printing books for religious reasons, unlike Europe?”

      In other words, religion in Europe in that particular case didn’t particularly hinder publishing? The Ottoman case is a bit more complex than the way you present it here too since in the long run the prohibition was about religious books (including the Quran) and didn’t affect the non-Muslim millets who set up printing houses already from the 16th century (though they too had their own problems among their intelligentsia on how to reconcile religion and/or traditional natural philosophy with modern science).

      Shit, almost defending the Ottomans and religion. I feel dirty now.

      • Iku Turso says:

        Certainly that is, and was, a case for Christianity as well. However, Europe reached the Age of Enlightenment which was not the case for Islamic states, even if Muslim Arabs did embrace scientific progress in the past.

        Another important point is the present. There are plenty of Islamic universities in the world, and I think it’s important to critique mixing of religion and science. Islam is not a small religion, so it’s not irrelevant. What Dawkins has critiqued and even ridiculed in the past are “scientific facts” from the Quran: for example that the holy book has predicted fantastic scientific facts like that fresh and salt water do not mix or that only female bees produce honey. You can Google with terms like “salt water + Quran” and see how these things are hyped by believers. This is part of the context.

        So, I do think there’s a reason to tackle Islam’s relationship with science. It seems to me that Dawkins’ tweet just breached unwritten rules of social liberalism: he takes ‘pride’ in “privileged Western colonialist countries”, which is not very trendy even if it’s just a statement of fact, like he puts it.

  6. @Iku Turso – August 10, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Another important point is the present. There are plenty of Islamic universities in the world, and I think it’s important to critique mixing of religion and science. Islam is not a small religion, so it’s not irrelevant.

    It seems delusional to imagine that Dawkins’s statements would induce Islamic universities to give up Islam even if that religion were proven to impede scientific progress. I suspect that Dawkins knows he is not speaking to Islamic intellectuals, but rather to Westerners. The kind view of Dawkins’s statements is that they are pointless intellectual wankery, the more likely view is that they are expressions of bigotry.

  7. Pingback: In which Richard Dawkins attacks a series of strawmen | ChristianBookBarn.com

  8. jac0bs1nger says:

    The Nobel Prize was first instituted in 1901, at a time when Western economic, geopolitical, and intellectual influences were – for better or for worse – already dominant. That situation has changed little in the past hundred years. It is therefore disingenuous and frankly ridiculous of Dawkins to use the Nobel Prize as a measure of intellectual superiority, when Western and Islamic civilizations have been locked in such starkly different positions over that particular period of time. It is the same logic that leads some to conclude that African American communities are inherently more violent because of the higher rates of violence within them.

    Conversely, Dawkins doesn’t note that the equally laughable pseudoscience scattered across the Bible has not prevented great scientific advances in the West. If he did, it would force him to proceed to the conclusion that highlights his bigotry: that he thinks intellectual (not to mention sociocultural) stultification is an especially, if not uniquely, inherent and intractable problem within Islam, as opposed to within any organized patriarchal religion.

  9. Pingback: In which I disagree with Nick Cohen | Shining Artifact Of The Past

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