“Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?” – The Dark Side of Dawkins 11 August 2013

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Dawkins is quite obviously no friend of religion. As one of Britain’s (perhaps the world’s) most outspoken atheists, he has made his distaste for theism well known through numerous publications, TV shows and the internet.

But there is a line between intellectual criticism and the dangerous discourses that fuel division and hatred within society. For Dawkins, and indeed for other neo-atheists such as Sam Harris, this line does not exist. Often their criticism of religion, particularly Islam, transcends into the racist, discriminatory and Islamophobic.

These are claims Dawkins is quick to dismiss. He is not racist, he argues, as Islam is not a race. Dawkins considers Islamophobia as nothing more than a way to silence critics of Islam. He is wrong on both counts.

Criticism of Islam, especially by a public intellectual, is not something that should be shied away from. But what Dawkins espouses is not rationale and level-headed critique, it is part of a wider narrative that demonises Muslims and Islam in a way that can lead to horrific violence. To quote Richard Peppiat: –

“You may have heard the phrase, “The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas.” Well, try this: “The lies of a newspaper in London can get a bloke’s head caved in down an alley in Bradford.””

On previous occasions, Dawkins has called Islam “one of the greatest evils in the world”. This fact, for Dawkins, is such a by-gone conclusion that he even mulls about whether atheists should support evangelical Christian missions in Africa – since Islam is such ‘unmitigated evil’. Take a moment to let these words sink in. One should be troubled by the way Dawkins essentialises a world faith followed by billions. The way he constructs it as inherently evil, something that needs to be contested and fought against.

Earlier this year, when controversy arose about gendered seating in a scheduled Muslim-Atheist debate, Dawkins tweeted: –


Again, read those words carefully. ‘These Muslims’. The wide ranging generalisation here is evident, constructing Islam and Muslims into a single monolith. For the 2008 documentary by Channel 4 on Islamophobia, Peter Oborne took  a handful of front page headlines about Muslims. He replaced the word Muslim with ‘Jews’ or ‘Blacks’ and presented them to members of the public. Naturally, they found them horrifying. Do the same thing with Dawkins’ tweet. ‘Who the hell do these Jews think they are?’ ‘Who are the hell do these blacks think they are?’ How comfortable are you reading those words?

Most recently Dawkins tweeted about Muslims and Nobel Prizes: –

The logic itself is simple. All the worlds Muslims have won less Nobel Prizes than a single academic institution, thus Islam and Muslims are clearly backward, unscientific and ignorant. The same logic is applied by racists in a host of contexts. Black people are overrepresented in the UK prison system, thus of course black people are more violent and prone to crime than white people. Or the argument that there are disproportionately less black or Asian students in Oxbridge than white students, thus of course white students are more intelligent than black or Asian students. Social structures that privilege or disadvantage certain groups are completely ignored by Dawkins, or perhaps he is simply conveniently unaware of them.

Dawkins vehemently argues he is not a racist and contests the validity of Islamophobia. But racism is nothing more than the combination of bigotry and the essentialisation, generalisation and dehumanisation of a specific community. Islamophobia is similar, by essentialising Muslims into a single, homogenous monolith, by making huge generalised statements about Islam, and dehumanising Muslims by insisting they are evil and backward, Dawkins has crossed the boundaries of valid criticism.

In the last few months over a dozen mosques have been burned or bombed in the UK. A man has been held and accused of a campaign of terror which includes explosives placed in mosques and the brutal murder of a Muslim pensioner. These incidents do not occur in isolation of narratives about Islam. Dawkins may not see the link, but he is part of a cacophony of voices that have led to this violence.

As a public intellectual he should certainly not hesitate to criticise Islam or religion, but he should think carefully about the way he presents his objections.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

A graduate of Religion and Theology BA and a Masters in Islam in Contemporary Britain. Abdul-Azim is currently completing a PhD on Islam in Wales.