A response to Nick Cohen, regarding Islam, Richard Dawkins, and my liberal cowardice

Unbeliever, heretic, etc

Much as I love Nick Cohen, who is wise and splendid and who I’m pretty sure owes me a drink, I’m going to have to take issue with him. He has described me, in his latest column in The Spectator, as “a journalist stuck in the office without an idea in your head”, after I wrote a piece asking Richard Dawkins (quite politely, I felt) to put a sock in it. Nick wrote:

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.

There are a few things I’d like to say. First, I’ve written defending Richard Dawkins on at least three occasions. I credit him with changing my life. I actually admire his willingness to criticise Islam’s nastier tendencies, as I’ve said here. I’m aware that he gets unfair attacks from people who are hyper-keen to misunderstand him. Broadly speaking I think he’s a positive force in the universe.

Second, I have absolutely no idea what Andrew Brown (of The Guardian – no relation to our Andrew M Brown) said, but from what I’ve read of his, I disagree with basically every word he writes. I was writing in specific response to Dawkins’s tweets about Muslims winning Nobel Prizes, and saying that baldly stating the fact that Trinity College Cambridge has more Nobels than the Muslim world is uninformative and needlessly insensitive – a topic that I don’t think Brown has written about. I have absolutely no problem with Dawkins criticising Islam, I just think that, on that occasion, he did so very badly.

Third, I certainly don’t think that “militant atheism” is as fanatical as militant religion. (Quote from me: “Until you behead someone, or blow them up on a bus, or at the very least tell them they’re going to hell for sleeping with the wrong people or eating the wrong food, you’re hardly being militant, at least as far as theological positions go.”)

Fourth, I not only think it’s OK to criticise Islam, I have done so myself on several occasions. In the very piece Nick’s responding to, I wrote “many Islamic theocracies are viciously repressive, and that many cultural practices carried out by some Muslims are horrible, notably female genital mutilation and honour killings”. I have previously written about the violent response of some Muslims to even gentle satire; about the war on atheism by Islamists in Turkey; and about a Christian pastor facing death in Iran for apostasy. I’ve written about the problems of misogyny in Islam, and how it is linked to some of the horrible sexual abuse cases that we’ve seen in some British cities recently.

I entirely agree with Nick that some parts of Sharia, for example that bit which says a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man, are ugly. I didn’t know about the case of Nahla Mahmoud, who has suffered such unpleasant threats for saying as much on television, but I agree with him that it’s appalling, and that Dawkins is both brave and right to call attention to such cases.

But supporting liberal Muslims, and supporting Dawkins when he does so, does not mean supporting his every utterance on the subject. The lines “some Muslim or other” and “who the hell do these Muslims think they are?” were ugly, as well as the Nobel Prize business, and it is no surprise that his words get picked up by the EDL and other nasty groups (my own piece, for the record, was the subject of a very long and angry pro-Dawkins response on the EDL site). While he is not himself a racist, when he expresses himself in these thoughtless ways, his academic status and fame provide an intellectual fig-leaf for those who are. I know you can’t blame someone for their fans’ behaviour, but if you’re aware of who some of your fans are, you might, sometimes, want to avoid stirring them up too much.

Maybe I’m just a coward who doesn’t dare criticise Islam; I don’t think so, as I’ve tried to show above. But even if I am, I certainly am not someone who was “too busy fighting Richard Dawkins” to do so. Nick, I am saddened. I will accept an apology in the form of a pint.

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