A response to Marwa, on Dawkins tweets

This post is a direct response to the most thoughtful reaction I’ve read on the much debated Dawkins Tweets about Islam (and Nobel prizes). It is a difficult post to write, on so many levels, but want to reply for 2 reasons:

  1. I want to testify how and why Marwa’s efforts are already making a difference
  2. I also wish to start discussing the new atheist position (largely anticipating a separate post).

Let me start with point 2, and state that I think that Marwa’s analysis of the New Atheist* position is almost perfect, it however lacks two details that revolve around purpose and otherness. (If you don’t know about Marwa, please visit her blog, it is well worth a place in anybody’s bookmarks. While you are there, make sure you’ll read this post, it is the best thing I’ve read in a very long time).

Marwa moves from the following assumption:

I will make the assumption here that Dawkins and other New Atheists seek to highlight the troubles with Islam in order to help solve real problems in the real world and actualize change.

Well, I don’t think this is the best possible assumption. I am sure that no New Atheist wants to exacerbate the troubles of those oppressed by Islamic societies, and even less foster racist positions in the West, but it is likely that avoiding to do so is not the first thing they will worry about. The way I understand Dawkins’ approach is that he is trying to demonstrate, or even better, trying to make it plain obvious, that religious beliefs (all of them) are indefensible, and actually stupid. Stupid is the key word here, because it leads to a typical New Atheist mantra that “all people deserve respect, but wrong ideas or beliefs do not”. This is central to Dawkins’ communication strategy (or, at least, to my understanding of it) and either leads to or is consequentially justified by another attitude that is perfectly explained in a comment (by Stephen Barnard) to a post on Jerry Coyne’s blog:

[…] sarcasm isn’t a good way to change someone’s mind about his religion, but in a debate that person and his sarcastic opponent aren’t the only actors. There are observers who may be on the fence — whose minds (unlike the true believer’s) are open to persuasion.

Leaving aside the sarcasm issue, this comment unveils a key strategic stance of Dawkins and some other New Atheists. They have already spectacularly succeeded to reach one first goal: thanks to their efforts, in the West it is now entirely acceptable to openly refuse to allow a special status to religious ideas just because they are faith-based. The key observation however is that, as a result of this undeniable achievement, Dawkins and many other New Atheists  have also experienced two opposite reactions:

  1. They have received the feedback and gratitude of all the “observers on the fence” that, because of the aforementioned success, found the courage to jump on the atheist side.
  2. They experienced the harsh reaction of religious campaigners, and their stubborn (and often intellectually devious) refusal to engage in honest debate. Because of the New Atheist initial success, they selectively got exposed to more and more harsh and vicious attacks.

This leads into a self-reinforcing routine: on the one hand, point 1 provides a constant stream of factual proof of how successful their attitude is; on the other, point 2 confirms that there is nothing to gain in trying to establish a fruitful debate with religious people. Therefore, the only strategically valid approach is to try and convince more and more “on the fence” folks. The result is a progressive entrenchment on harsh positions, which prevents any attempt of mediation. In other words, I see strong reasons to believe that Dawkins’ purpose has got narrower over time, moving from an initial goal of reducing the deleterious influence of religion on human welfare and concentrating more and more on encouraging as many people as possible to embrace atheism.

The other consideration is about otherness. The relevant observation is that the trajectory I’ve sketched above was born and carried out almost exclusively in the West, and specifically in the Anglophone world. I will now confess my own ignorance: I have almost no idea of what Islam is. Having spent all my active life in either Italy or England, I sure got in touch, and established plenty of cordial relationships, and sometimes true friendships with Muslim people. However, I still haven’t got a clue of what it means to grow up within a Muslim majority, how Islam permeates public ethics, what kind of secular arguments are tolerated and/or can be used to inject progressive topics in the public debate, and so on. I don’t know these things, because the only way to learn them is to live within a Muslim-majority community, and to do so for a long time. This reinforces Marwa’s take home messages:

ask us questions so you can learn more about us and this complex issue

Yes, we need to do so (and I’m writing this because I completely agree), but we also need to recognise that we (western atheists) are condemned to perceive Islam as an outside force, an entity characterised by all the things we don’t like about religion, but also by its inherent, inevitable otherness. It is a fundamentally alien thought-system, we don’t understand it, and because it’s faith-based, it’s likely that we don’t really want to. Given all this, it is no surprise that Dawkins uses arguments and language that reflect this otherness. He has no other choice, and reading the Quran is not going to help much. The only other option is to remain silent, and it’s even worse, because in that way he/we would be guilty of another mistake, in Marwa’s words:

On the other hand, much of the left is super antsy and trepidatious about approaching Islam in even close to the amount of criticism it has for harmful Christian-inspired legislation here in America, out of a fear of being racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and imperialist, and also out of a fear of furthering more war and destruction on our people and nations.

Instead of choosing silence, Dawkins approaches Islam with the same provocative and confrontational stance that he uses for Christianity and all other religions. This is why envisaging a different approach, once one has committed to the path of uncompromising New Atheism, becomes prohibitively difficult, or even counter-productive, because it risks to imply that  Islam requires a special kind of carefulness and therefore contradicting the core values of the path itself (i.e.  the refusal to allow a special status to religious ideas just because they are faith-based). The conclusion that I draw is that it will be difficult to find the kind of help that Marwa is seeking amongst the most abrasive ranks of the New Atheists. But this analysis also highlights why criticising them for their uncompromising stance (and for their white-centric approach to Islam) is largely unjustified or, if you prefer, unfruitful. There are good, factual, rhetorical, and consequential reasons for Dawkins tweets, one needs to recognise his aims, and appreciate his trajectory to understand them, and this isn’t alternative to the recognition of their shortcomings.

Having said this, I want to stress that I completely agree with Marwa about how all this does not help (and indeed aggravates) the situation of both the “victims of Islamic suppression and violence” and the victims of “racism against Muslims and brown people in the West”. I am writing this post because I agree. And I do think that we need to foster a more nuanced dialogue.

This leads to the first purpose of this post: testifying how Marwa’s efforts are already making a difference.

Her post concludes with some suggestions, that are thoughtful and essential. I will cite all of them in an effort to spread the message:

  1.  Recognize that people are not going to abandon Islam, that they work from within a framework of the faith, and completely throwing their initial premises outside the window as fairytales, delusional, evil, or wrong will not convince them of anything.

  2.  Recognize that it is not one thing or the other, that racism and anti-Muslim bigotry occur and damage real people just as Islam-inspired violence and misogyny do, and fair discourse will pay attention to both of these things.

  3. Recognize that rhetoric is important consequentially, that language is burdened with connotation and connotation feeds stereotype and stereotype leads to discrimination that actively harms people.

  4. And this is the most important one: Encourage, enable, and normalize the voices of progressive Muslim activists, LGBTQ Muslims, and ex-Muslims looking for peaceful reform of laws against women and children. ESPECIALLY the voices of women (because women of color have had enough white men speaking for them to last several lifetimes). Normalize those voices in mainstream media. Listen to them. because their voices are too often hidden and discounted.

And this is how: Ex-Muslims are working and gathering. They are writing and speaking, and quite often they represent a middle path that is acceptable as neither bigoted nor turning a blind eye to real injustices. Our presence is still tenuous but it is strengthening. This is a promise. There is good work being done.

We want to engage in good, accurate critique. We want to explain and make known how it is, and we want our voices to become accepted in mainstream media. We don’t run the same risk of coming across as xenophobic  because we ARE brown, we ARE from Muslim cultures, and we are the direct victims and those concerned with this issue, and, most importantly, we can often provide unique understanding and appreciation of being on the receiving end of both anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamist violence and oppression. We also are more likely to understand and not misinterpret our own cultures and the faiths we were socialized into.

So ask us, listen to us, and enable our voices.

Marwa is absolutely right, but I think she is also making a small mistake: she’s underestimating our own ignorance (with apologies to those that are not ignorant! I am projecting my own faults on the entire category of Western Atheists: it is guaranteed that I’m misrepresenting someone, and I apologise for taking this rhetorical short-cut).

Marwa: if you want to engage in fruitful discussions about Islam with western atheists, there is one additional prerequisite. You need to “educate” us. Let me explain: we need to know “what it’s like”, we need to be given the tools that are necessary to correctly engage our empathy (that is, avoid projecting “what it’s like to be an atheist in the West” into an Islamic context), and to do so we need to be educated on how it feels to grow and live in a Muslim society. But most of all, we need to find good reasons to engage with all the pain and misery that are attached to the subject. This is the work of both life-writing and fiction, and your blog, and your (no doubt, painfully nourished) ability to write engaging prose are precisely the kind of tools needed to achieve results. I realise that I do not really know where to start, and could use a “reading list for starters”, to reduce that sense of “otherness” of a culture I do not know. I speak for myself, but I guess I’m not alone. So if you have suggestions – fiction, autobiographies, blogs to follow – suggest them. But above all, keep writing!


* For the purpose of this blog, I will largely equate the New Atheist position with Dawkins’ approach. This is a gross over-simplification: it assumes that New Atheists are a compact, uniform block, which isn’t the case, so I wanted to acknowledge this diversity. If you don’t see why this note is required, please have a look (for example) at Dennett’s work with unbelieving clerics and see for yourself how much empathy and understanding certain New Atheists are able to produce.

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Posted in New Atheism, Religion

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