In which I disagree with Nick Cohen

Following the recent controversy which I addressed in an earlier post, Nick Cohen has defended Richard Dawkins’ views on Islam in today’s Spectator. Unsurprisingly, I find myself in profound disagreement with Cohen – although I will also concede that his column is far more coherent and reasoned than most defences of Dawkins’ position I’ve seen, and indeed far more coherent and reasoned than Dawkins’ bizarre defence of his own position. It is because of this that I think it merits a point-by-point response.

It’s August, and you are a journalist stuck in the office without an idea in your head. What to write? What to do? Your empty mind brings you nothing but torment, until a thought strikes you, ‘I know, I’ll do Richard Dawkins.’

Dawkins is the sluggish pundit’s dream. It does not matter which paper you work for. Editors of all political persuasions and none will take an attack on Darwin’s representative on earth. With the predictability of the speaking clock, Owen Jones, the Peter Hitchens of the left, thinks the same as Craig Brown, Private Eye’s high Tory satirist. Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s science blogger, says the same as Andrew Brown, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent. The BBC refuses to run contrary views. It assures the nation that ‘militant’ atheism is as fanatical as militant religion — despite the fact that no admirer of The God Delusion has ever planted a bomb, or called for the murder of homosexuals, Jews and apostates.

This narrative is a convenient strawman by Cohen. He lumps all of Dawkins’ opponents togethertarring the intellectually serious critics with the same brush as the pot-stirrers and reactionaries. In this way Cohen refuses to engage with reasonable criticisms of Dawkins’ position.

It is certainly true that Dawkins has on many occasions come under fire merely for being an outspoken atheist. But that is an entirely false characterization of the criticisms levied against him for his recent string of foolish comments about Islam. Many of those criticisms have in fact come from people who are themselves vocal atheists, such as Alex Gabriel. Speaking as an atheist myself, I am certainly not criticizing Dawkins for being too “militant” in his opposition to religion in general. Nor am I criticizing him because he is in some sense a fashionable or a convenient target. Rather, I am criticizing him for failing to fully appreciate the social and political impact of his statements about a specific minority group.

I do not say these things because I derive some pleasure from attacking Dawkins. I love Dawkins’ science writing, and he has an unparalleled gift for explaining the complex concepts of evolutionary biology thoughtfully, eloquently and clearly. And, as far as it goes, I agree with him that there is probably no God. Unfortunately, I have become increasingly aware in the last couple of years that when he weighs in on social and political issues, he is very often stubborn, overconfident and wrong.

Cultural conservatives have always hated Dawkins for challenging traditional Christian beliefs. The liberal-left is fine with knocking Christianity, but it hates Dawkins for being intellectually consistent and tweeting — yes, that’s right, tweeting — against Islam too. Many of the charges against his inappropriate tweets are extraordinary. Jones denounces Dawkins for tweeting ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are? At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate’. If Jones can’t see what is wrong with segregation, then not even an equality course for beginners can save him.

But let me try to be fair. Dawkins has also tweeted against all Muslims — not just sexist god-botherers at University College London. I accept that generalising about Muslims can incite racism. It is all very well atheists saying that religion is not the same as race, because you are free to decide what god if any you believe in, but cannot choose your ethnicity. But try telling that to the persecuted Christians, Shia and Sunni of the Middle East. Their religious persecution is no different from racial persecution.

Here, Cohen accepts rightly that stirring up hatred against Muslims can incite racism – but he does not bother to explore this, or to understand the reasons why many of us find Dawkins’ anti-Muslim rhetoric to be problematic from a racial justice perspective.

It is true that Dawkins is a vociferous critic of Christianity as well as Islam. And it is also probably fair to say that his attacks on Christianity, even when very strongly worded, have never attracted the degree of opprobrium from the Left that his attacks on Islam have. But if this is a double standard, it is a justified and necessary one. There is a meaningful difference between attacking Christianity and attacking Islam; because in Western societies Muslims are a marginalized minority, and are associated, both in the public imagination and to a great extent in demographic reality, with particular ethnic and cultural minorities. Some factions of the political Right in Britain and elsewhere use Islam as a bogeyman to stir up hostility and fear about immigration, and advocate repressive measures to push expressions of Muslim faith out of the public square. None of these observations are true of Christianity, which is the historically-dominant majority religion in Western society, which enjoys considerable institutional privilege in most Western countries, and which is not, in our culture, particularly associated with an oppressed ethnic or cultural minority. The dynamics of power and privilege involved in talking about Christianity are entirely different from those involved in talking about Islam.

(This is not to deny that there are plenty of Christians who do belong to oppressed ethnic and cultural minorities. And, indeed, one can identify cases in which atheist polemics targeted specifically at Christians from ethnic minorities have had racist overtones, such as the controversial American Atheist billboards. But that is a discussion for another post.)

None of this means we should not criticize Islam, and I have never suggested that it does. Minority religions are not beyond criticism. But it does mean that we ought to be careful not to perpetuate stereotypes about Muslims, or to say things which play into racist and xenophobic tropes, lest we inadvertently give ammunition to bigots who do not think that Muslims belong in this country. The litmus test for atheist commentators should be this: if the provocative thing you are planning to say about Islam is something which could be repeated uncritically by a UKIP or EDL supporter, then don’t say it. It does not matter how pure and non-racist your intentions are. What matters is whether your words are capable of being used to reinforce bigotry. If you choose to wade into a debate as racially-charged as this one, you have a responsibility to distance yourself from racists.

I have often pointed to examples of how to do exactly this. Maryam Namazie, for example – with whom I disagree on some things, but for whom I have great respect – has expressly and loudly distanced herself from right-wingers like Douglas Murray, and has stood up for the rights not only of people suffering under Islamism but also of ex-Muslim apostates suffering at the hands of the British state. It is perfectly possible for atheists to be critical, even very harshly critical, of Islam without promoting racism or xenophobia. But Dawkins has utterly failed to make this vital distinction.

I would go further and concede that Dawkins’s critics had other arguments that weren’t wholly asinine, were it not for a telling detail. They never stick their necks out and defend real liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims who are being persecuted in Britain right now.

They stay silent because they are frightened of breaking with the crowd, of the faint threat of Islamist retaliation, and of absurd accusations of racism. Journalists want the easy life. They want targets who cannot hurt them. Dawkins has never hurt a fly, so he’s all right. Looked at in a certain light, however, the enemies of Nahla Mahmoud might not be.

I have picked on her, not because her case is unusual, but because it is so typical. She is a Sudanese refugee who became a leading figure in the British Council of ex-Muslims. Earlier this year Channel 4 gave her one minute and 39 seconds precisely to talk about the evils of Britain’s Sharia courts in Britain. In these institutions, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, a man can divorce his wife by simple repudiation, and women who remarry lose custody of their children. One minute and 39 seconds may not sound long enough to list their vices. But it is one minute and 39 seconds longer than the BBC has ever given her.

Nahla described how she grew up under Sharia. She was ‘always dealt with as a second-class citizen, always bought up to believe that I am an incomplete human being [who] needed a man as a guard.’

She was shocked to find the same system here in her land of refuge. ‘Muslims have been living in Britain for hundreds of years and never needed sharia courts,’ she concluded. ‘Everyone should have equal rights and live under one secular law.’

This part of Cohen’s argument is simply premised on a falsehood. It is not true to say that Dawkins’ critics as a group – and they are not a homogeneous group – do not speak out in support of ex-Muslims or liberal Muslims who are facing persecution, in Britain or anywhere else. To make such an argument does a profound disservice to many longtime social justice activists who have been critical of Dawkins’ more extreme rhetoric.

Indeed, Cohen does not seem to realize that for some of Dawkins’ critics, our support of ex-Muslims and liberal Muslims is one of the reasons to oppose Dawkins’ rhetoric. For myself, speaking as someone whose most active political cause is that of supporting asylum-seekers and immigrants, I am deeply concerned that broad-brush anti-Muslim rhetoric like Dawkins’, which does not draw the subtle distinctions which ought to be drawn, can readily be used by the xenophobic Right to push for tighter restrictions on immigration. Such restrictions directly harm the very people, those fleeing Islamist persecution, about whom Cohen claims to be concerned. If the anti-immigration lobby had their way, Nahla Mahmoud would never have been granted asylum in the UK in the first place – as indeed many people in similarly desperate circumstances are not.

I agree – as do most people in the secular community – that there should not be Sharia courts in Britain. But Cohen needs to understand that we are also fighting another enemy with far more institutional power: the anti-immigration lobby, those who want to close the borders and stop immigration from developing countries altogether. The British state already inflicts untold cruelty and brutality on those who come to this country as asylum-seekers, as the women detained at Yarl’s Wood can testify. If the xenophobic Right – a potent force in British politics – had their way, our border controls would be harsher still. And when well-meaning white atheists embark on tirades against Islam, it is all too easy for anti-immigration interests, for whom Islam serves as a convenient bogeyman, to twist it to their own purposes. Dawkins’ own naivete in this respect is revealed by his endorsements of the video blogger Pat Condell, whose work I have long described as profoundly racist, and the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders.

One day there will be a reckoning. One day, thousands who have suffered genital mutilation, religious threats and forced marriages will turn to the intellectual and political establishments of our day and ask why they did not protect them. The pathetic and discreditable reply can only be: ‘We were too busy fighting Richard Dawkins to offer you any support at all.’

Equally, there are thousands more people – many of them Muslims or ex-Muslims – who have suffered genital mutilation, religious threats, forced marriages and countless other abuses, and who, having come to this country as asylum-seekers, find themselves held against their will by the British state in hellish detention centres, wrongly accused of lying about their experiences, and facing deportation to the very countries where they face further abuse. And many more Muslims in Britain face xenophobic hate crimes, and deep hostility and prejudice from some sections of the community. Those people might justifiably ask what the likes of Cohen and Dawkins are doing to protect them. And it is legitimate to ask whether Dawkins has considered the consequences of allying himself with anti-immigrationists like Condell and Wilders, and voicing inflammatory anti-Muslim talking points which the anti-immigration lobby can and does twist to its own purposes.

In short, Cohen’s defence of Dawkins is misguided. His column, unlike Dawkins’ own response, at least makes an attempt at engaging seriously with the views of Dawkins’ critics from the secular Left, but he nonetheless fails to resist the temptation to caricature his opponents’ views.

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9 Responses to In which I disagree with Nick Cohen

  1. CaitieCat says:

    Well-said, sir. Came by from your comment at Alex Gilbert’s chez FTB.

  2. David Marjanović says:


  3. Roz says:

    A friend in need is a friend indeed: please donate to this urgent cause

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