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.


  1. Interesting post - this is all quite complex and tangled. I remember Tell MAMA tweeted that it did not favour segregation (although I'm assuming the writer of the post you criticise, and the tweeter are different people). I completely agree that one should be able to criticise Islam, and that doesn't amount to anti-Muslim bigotry. It was ridiculous (and typical) that Mo Ansar was suggesting that Dawkins should be held to account (how exactly one wonders?) for saying such things. But neither do I think there is a complete disconnect between criticising Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry. There's a very natural correlation (partial of course) between the two - I'm thinking of a recent tweet which said something like 'Islam is a disease and Muslims are the vermin who carry it'. Slippery slope arguments can be dodgy - and this should not be used to silence or shame Dawkins or anyone else criticising Islam. But I think the point that a tweet taken out of context may have the same impact on a sensitive Muslim no matter whether it originates from a racist or a nice liberal is a reasonable one. And this perhaps maps onto a recent discussion on Steve Hynd's blog about criticism of Israel. A supporter of Israel was acknowledging that the prevalence of antisemitism may make some people a bit oversensitive to even quite measured criticism of Israel. That doesn't mean such criticism should be silenced but, if you are trying to make an important point about an injustice suffered by Palestinians, then it might be worth bearing that fact in mind and choosing your words carefully. I do agree with you about that particular Freedland quote and criticised it myself over on HP - yes, I think it is true of *some* bigots that they use human rights as a weapon against Muslims - but many people simply have a genuine concern about, eg, homophobia. I really don't think, generally, Tell MAMA is trying to silence criticism of extremists though.

  2. Interesting post, attempting to make some important distinctions. In case it is helpful, here are some further thoughts and key words...

    CONTEXT – as humans we are accustomed to deriving meaning from the context of words, and the way that words lose their context in the digital mash is one of the challenges of that medium. That makes it all the more important for writers to choose their words carefully, as the blog above says. However it also makes it important for the reader to interpret words carefully too. Which brings us to...

    MOTIVE – the uncertainty created by the digital medium makes it all the more important that one acts in good faith, and assumes from a starting point that other people are doing the same – or at least, not ruling out the possibility that they are. What happens instead is that people are quick to assume that everyone they agree with is acting with good intent, and those with whom they differ are not.

    I'm busy right now working out a kind of 'rhetorics' which might help make sense of all this

  3. Everything is connected to everything else if you turn it upside down and invert it with your eyes crossed. The universe is a mobius strip. "Sensitive" Muslims, Christians, Jews, , Hindus, Freemasons and Wiccans who can, if they stand on their heads, find something wounding of their delicate psyches in a word or phrase isolated from context, history, argument and the insights of the Enlightenment (except when enlisting that last only for the cynical or deeply confused purpose of disarming their critics) should devote their lives to monastic rural retreat. The Morning bird and Nightingale tweet such soft sounds.

    It does not matter how the “sensitive” and the tendentious can misconstrue or mischaracterize the argument if that isn’t the argument. Political and cultural warfare are not counterargument. Islam denotes the religious faith. Muslim denotes the adherent to the faith. If we really wish to conceive of a bigotry, we should call it Muslimphobia – a fear or dislike directed against people as people, which is what bigotry is. One may be entirely justified by reason in disfavoring, even scorning, a religious faith – any or all of them – if the doctrine of ideas or historical practice of that faith may be justified in argument as deserving of it. Anyone wish to get sensitive over scorn of the Catholic Church’s systematic protection of child sexual predators or its official imprimatur on the conquest of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere?

    The term “Isamaphobia” is clearly and regularly used by many to confuse the disfavoring of ideas with the disfavoring of people and in the attempt to establish a protective barrier against criticism of the Islamic faith or its practices. This confusion is regularly overlooked by many who believe that because other people sensitively hold this faith (or any other), they are entitled to automatic deference in respect for that faith. They are not. The fact that some people call it God and bow down to it, does not entail – even as a sensitivity – that others cannot criticize, mock, or even simply laugh at what they think wrong or foolish. I detailed this argument more fully in “The Faith Fallacy”:

  4. As an atheist, I've been called a racist and Islamophobe many times on Twitter whenever I dare criticise the aspects of Islam that I find misogynistic, homophobic and offensive to my lefty sensibilities. But, I don't get similarly attacked for criticising other religions. If I was genuinely racist or phobic against religious people I'd be alienated from most of my friends and family. It's a ridiculous charge.However, there is no denying that anti-muslim bigotry exists and is rampant amongst the likes of the EDL etc. and that must be deplored and reported.

    Scrutiny of religion, religious and cultural practices, is not only acceptable but ought to be encouraged. Failing to do so allows religious abuses to go unchecked, as we have seen in the case of the Catholic church & child abuse which no one dared speak about for decades. We are only now starting to shine a spotlight on the appalling misogyny, child & human right's abuses prevalent in Islam and we shouldn't be cowed by name calling.

    The appalling hypocrisy is the hate speech some Muslims use when they talk about non-Muslims as 'Kuffar'. This is highly offensive yet they see no duplicity in insulting us in this manner while logging every offensive tweet, FB post or comment as a 'hate crime' against the Muslim community.

    Time, I think, that a group was set up to record Muslim hate crime against non Muslims. A quick search on Twitter for the word 'Kuffar' immediately brought up this offensive tweet.

    ''These #Kuffar who some #Muslims take as role models are worse than pigs dogs and donkeys. Take the people of #Islam as your role model.''

    Oh, and the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby might be included too.


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