Sunday, 24 March 2013

Slurs, Segregation & Decent Liberals

Richard Dawkins, Tell MAMA UK and 'Islamophobia'

Anyone wondering whether or not Professor Dawkins has a point need look no further than the lengthy and somewhat bizarre response to the above tweet posted by the organisation Tell MAMA UK.
The 'MAMA' in Tell MAMA stands for 'Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks' and the organisation was established, in its own words, to "provide a means for such incidents to be reported, recorded and analysed, working to ensure this data is accurate and reliable and the victims and witnesses affected receive support."

Someone at Tell MAMA evidently decided that Dawkins's innocuous tweet masked an agenda sinister enough to qualify and so devoted 2000 words to exposing it. This intention is made clear from the title of the article: "Decent, nice, liberal people – dispelling some myths about anti-Muslim hate and those who share it". Their post returns repeatedly to Dawkins's phrase, invariably enclosing it in inverted commas (the better to emphasise its spuriousness), as the author delivers a stern warning about the dangers of using such an apparently disingenuous term in the context of the debate about anti-Muslim hatred and 'Islamophobia'.

Dawkins can be controversial and divisive but he is usually a very straightforward and plain-spoken man. Far from being a dissembler, it is Dawkins's penchant for bluntness that tends to take people aback and get him into trouble. With that in mind, it's worth quickly rehearsing the context of his tweet.

On 9 March 2013, an Islamist organisation with euphemistic title 'Islamic Education and Research Academy' (iERA) booked a room at University College London for a debate between Canadian-American physicist Lawrence Krauss and former Hizb ut-Tahrir member Hamza Tzortzis.

Upon arrival, Krauss discovered that the auditorium had been segregated by gender, despite securing an assurance in advance that seating arrangements would be free and egalitarian in line with UCL's normal equality and diversity policies. Men and women attending the debate were instructed to queue separately and enter the auditorium via separate doors. Inside, three seating sections were provided - one for men, one for "couples" (since redescribed by iERA as "mixed", which is not the same) and one for women. Women were asked - in accordance with the subordinate position required of them by the Qur'an - to sit at the back. Those refusing to comply were accused of trouble-making and ejected. A fuller account of the incident can be found here.

Dawkins responded to this news with a blog post, which concluded with the following:
It is unclear whether the UCL authorities were aware that sexual apartheid was being practised in one of their lecture rooms, but we may hope that a full inquiry will be launched. University College, London is celebrated as an early haven of enlightened free thinking, the first university college in England to have a secular foundation, and the first to admit men and women on equal terms. Heads should roll. Isn’t it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?
Not that you would know any of this from the response to Dawkins posted by Tell MAMA.

It contains no mention of the incident at UCL whatsoever.

Instead, their article opens with a list of incidents of alleged anti-Muslim bigotry that Tell MAMA have catalogued in their first annual report, before casually observing:
That same morning, prominent atheist writer Richard Dawkins – pursuing a theme on Islam that seems to have occupied his mind of late – stated that: ‘Decent, nice, liberal people must stop being so terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stand up for decent, nice, liberal values’.
"Pursuing a theme that seems to have occupied his mind of late" is characteristic of the innuendo that follows, and is designed to create an impression of Dawkins as an obsessive crank. His words are not presented as a response to Islamist attempts to enforce gender apartheid in neutral public space, nor is there any mention of the blog post from which they come. Rather they are linked to the release of Tell MAMA's own report - a coincidence of timing the author found significant enough to point out, but not to explain.
Dawkins is not alone in making these sorts of claims, and many in the ‘New Atheist’ movement and beyond subscribe to similar conflicts between a decent, Western, liberalism and the Islamic ‘other’.
This strongly implies Dawkins and others are using the language of liberalism to mask a racist agenda. It's false. Dawkins's quarrel is with tenets and injunctions of Islam not with its adherents, whom he presumably judges on their views and behaviour, as he would any other individual. Given that it is an organisation whose entire raison d'être is correctly identifying genuine anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice, Tell MAMA's inability to make this elementary distinction is troubling to say the least. There are in fact a lot of moderate, secular and reformist Muslims who revile fundamentalist organisations like iERA with the same vehemence as Dawkins. And why not? Is it not natural that liberals, no matter what their religious affiliation, should recoil from illiberalism? But so preoccupied is the post's author by the identity politics angle, s/he is apparently unable to appreciate that opposition to Islamism can be the product of anything other than racism.

It is presumably with this rationale in mind that they then provide a list of some of the more offensive reports of online bigotry "since that was where Dawkins’s comment was raised".
[W]hen we look at the sorts of sentiments, statements, and harassment being reported in to Tell MAMA as incidences of ‘Islamophobia’ or ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’, we can see that these are far from the actions of ‘decent, nice, liberal people’. 
The first example of which is:
Fucking bastards time we killed 2 or 3 of the cunts kids just to let them feel the pain burn the koran
Further comparably unpleasant examples follow. "The combination of rape culture, anti-Muslim prejudice, and ‘banter’" we are informed, "combines to form a toxic online environment that is very far removed from the ‘decent, nice, liberal values’ that many prominent critics of Islam espouse."

Well that may be, but we have to get through another three faintly intimidating paragraphs detailing Tell MAMA's monitoring and reporting procedures before we discover what relevance any of this has to Dawkins, who has never said nor written anything remotely comparable to the example quoted above. I find it necessary to quote Tell MAMA's tortuous explanation in full:
Naturally, Dawkins, his supporters, and the broader movement of self-identified ‘liberal, nice, decent people’ may yet defend themselves as critics of Islam who do not adopt the violent extremist attitudes of EDL members. Many of them may well be decent people though it is important that they realise that their actions may feed into the rhetoric of hate organisations like the EDL. Sometimes, the language and comments used may well be perceived by Muslims as being identical to groups like the EDL and whilst they are coming from different places, the impact and perceptions on Muslim individuals may be the same – whether from the liberal or political left or whether from the Far Right. Any form of speech that lumps groups of individuals together and abuses them collectively is unacceptable in a tolerant, diverse, and equal society. Furthermore, these ‘decent, nice and liberal people’ need to understand that some in society attack Islam to undermine and dehumanise Muslims. Some genuinely believe that by attacking Islam, they are having no impact on the perception of Muslims by others.  It is therefore not a simple issue and saying that hating and attacking Islam does not impact or affect Muslims in our communities is naive. Whilst we defend their right to speak, we also raise the fact that their comments and actions may have impacts which can be perceived as hate speech, as well as direct impacts on community tensions. In the end such community tensions can and do impact on the lives of decent, law-abiding Muslims going about their everyday business.
If this is not an attempt to shame progressive critics of the Islamic Far Right into silence, I don't know what is. And in response to condemnation of segregation, no less! Tell MAMA's pro forma claim to defend the right of Dawkins et al to speak is to be predicted; they would be unable to defend their own pretentions to liberalism otherwise. But what they want instead is for critics of Islam to censor themselves. Yet, not two paragraphs previously, the article's author had the audacity to make the following declaration in bold type:
[I]t’s unhelpful at best, and disingenuous at worst, to consider Tell MAMA an organisation obsessed with restricting free speech and terrorising prominent public figures into silence whenever they dare criticise Islam.
Unfortunately, a bold typeface only adds emphasis - it says nothing about a statement's good faith, and the arguments Tell MAMA offer speak against them. So poorly conceived, badly wrought and incoherent is their case against Dawkins that they end up making his point for him. The article is self-refuting.

Which is not to say it is ineffective. It was uncritically retweeted a number of times, including by media figures who themselves have large twitter followings. Many on the liberal Left accept Tell MAMA's premises and conclusions without question. Which is the reason a nice, decent, liberal columist like The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland might find himself writing nonsensical sentences like this one:
[Bigots] can be confusing, because they often dress up in progressive, Guardian-friendly garb – slamming Islam as oppressive of gay and women's rights, for example – but the thick layer of bigotry is visible all the same. Call it progressives' prejudice.
For Freedland and others like him, condemnation of Christian or secular (and, presumably, Jewish) homophobia remains, not only permissible, but something akin to a progressive duty. But condemnation of Islamic homophobia is prima facie evidence of intolerance and bigotry, if not outright racism. 

Freedland (whose sincerity I can find no reason to doubt) seems to have bought into this stuff wholesale. But other liberals, presented with a false choice between condemning Islamic bigotry and racism are left either stunned into bewildered agnosticism or intimidated into silence despite reservations, concluding that dissonance is preferable to having to defend themselves from relativist accusations of intolerance. Sure enough, those who do speak up against the Islamic Far Right risk accusations of 'neo-Colonialism' and 'Cultural Imperialism' (if they are white) and 'inauthenticity' and 'careerism' if they are not.

Needless to say, this kind of thinking has been seized upon and enthusiastically promoted by Islamists who - unlike the Christian Far Right - find themselves afforded the space to bodyguard their regressive views with a demand for respect of cultural difference. A vital instrument in this pursuit is the slippery term 'Islamophobia' to which Dawkins refered, the ambiguity of which precludes a clear distinction between the criticism of religious tenets and practices on the one hand and the indiscriminate stigmatisation of adherents on the other.

In July of last year, a post appeared at Conservative Home entitled Islamophobia – a trap for unwary Muslims written by Vice Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohammed Amin (blogging in a personal capacity). In it, he argued:
[T]he most widely accepted definition [of Islamophobia] is from the Runnymede Trust’s Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia which published a report in 1997 called “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.”
Explaining the word Islamophobia, page one of the report says “The word is not ideal, but is recognisably similar to ‘xenophobia’ and ‘europhobia’, and is a useful shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.”
It is worth reading the full report, but even the short quotation above shows two distinct issues being conflated:
  • One’s belief about an abstract noun, Islam.
  • One’s attitude to real people, Muslims.
This conflation is of course nonsense.
It is indeed, and Amin does a pretty succinct, if not comprehensive, job of explaining just why. I encourage those interested to read his article in full, but - in short - he concludes:
I do not want other people to slag off Islam, any more than I want to see them slagging off Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism or any other religion. However, if they wish to do so, they have every right in a free society to be as trenchant as they wish about Islam. What people are not free to do is deny me the rights [listed at the top of the article]. That distinction needs to be understood by every Muslim (and indeed non-Muslim) citizen.

It would help if we stopped using term Islamophobia. “Anti-Muslim violence” and “anti-Muslim hatred” are much clearer, and focus the issue properly on the rights of individual citizens.
An irony: Mohammed Amin is a patron of Tell MAMA UK.

A further (even better) irony: the article he penned for Conservative Home was reported to Tell MAMA on twitter:

Reposting his article on his own website, Amin drily remarked "There were a large number of comments from ConservativeHome readers which you can read them at the foot of my original piece on ConservativeHome. The comments demonstrate the extent of the communications exercise that is needed by the British Muslim community."

In the light of the above, I'd say that's an understatement. But it is not just the British Muslim community who are in need of a communications exercise. The decent, nice, liberal people to whom Dawkins's offending tweet was addressed need one too.

At the top of their post, the author of Tell MAMA's article states:
Generally, people don’t want to align themselves with indecent, mean, and oppressive people.
The irony of this statement is entirely at Tell MAMA's expense. Because by occluding any mention of iERA's bigotry and choosing instead to attack Richard Dawkins's appalled reaction to it, this is precisely what Tell MAMA have done.