[Note from Hemant: There was an overwhelming response to a recent post on this site about a tweet made by Richard Dawkins, including strong disagreements within our writing team. For that reason, we’re posting some additional thoughts on the matter so the conversation can go beyond the comment threads.]
I’ve disagreed with Richard Dawkins before on his insensitivity to women, feminism, and majority privilege. Some of it he’s apologized for, so I’d like to think we’re starting to be heard. I know all too well from environmental campaigns the importance of acknowledging our successes.
And thus, I part with my fellow Friendly Atheist contributor Lauren Nelson in her recent post, which struck out scathingly at Dawkins for the following single tweet:
There is nothing wrong with those words. The question deserves answers, not attacks.
It’s not unusual for renowned atheist Richard Dawkins to rub people of faith the wrong way. It’s not unheard of for him to get on the bad side of feminists. But it’s not every day that he pisses off the intersection of the two groups. But this week, with a series of tweets, that’s exactly what Dawkins did.
He started the hullabaloo off with this humdinger: “Islam needs a feminist revolution. It will be hard. What can we do to help?”
When I first saw her headline — “Richard Dawkins Fails Spectacularly on Feminism and Islam” — I sighed and thought “Oh dear, what has he said now?” But when I arrived at his tweet, I kept scanning, looking for the bad part. I couldn’t believe it when I realized that was it. The entire article was a critique on those 15 words, and, in my opinion, it didn’t advance feminist goals, progressive goals, or Humanist goals.
Let’s work through her tally of problems with it.
For starters, Dawkins is a wealthy white Western male dictating what just under a billion women — and overwhelmingly, women of color — around the world “need” to do…
But Dawkins’ message was to the religion of Islam, not to women. That’s nearly all that needs to be said right there, but let’s continue:
He’s relying primarily on mainstream media accounts of what it’s like to be a woman living in Middle Eastern countries where Islam is prevalent.
How does she happen to know what information Dawkins uses to form his opinions? We shouldn’t be in the business here of trying to read minds. That’s a basic courtesy we want for ourselves and should extend to others. If anything, Lauren’s assumption is contradicted by the fact that Dawkins begged his followers to read feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now — hardly a “mainstream media account” — calling it “the most important book I’ve read for years” and describing Hirsi Ali as a “hero of rationalism & feminism.”
Before I go any further, let me say as a feminist that I’m not particularly concerned about defending Dawkins, whose record on feminism is such a mixed bag. What concerns me is the chilling message this article sends to our potential allies — that they risk their very reputation at our hands by merely asking if they can help. Not just allies in feminism, but in atheism, Humanism, and progressivism in general.
Let’s return to Lauren’s next point:
… what Dawkins, and many critics of Islam’s relationship with women, forget is that this is only part of the picture. There are many more lived female experiences within this far-from-homogeneous culture of faith, and not all of them are ugly or oppressed. Much like most practicing Western Christian women are not sold to future husbands by their fathers for a couple of goats, many Muslim women embrace a very different interpretation of Islam than what we see in the headlines or read verbatim in the Qur’an.
… the arrogance of assuming all women experience Muslim life the same way…
Where in that 15-word tweet is any of this? And is her point that because not all Muslim women are oppressed, atheists are to turn a blind eye to the systematic oppression of the many who are?
Next on her list:
… the ignorance of assuming that Muslim feminism doesn’t already exist.
Where is this assumption expressed in Dawkins’ tweet? It’s extremely improbable that Dawkins has not learned, at least from reading Hirsi Ali’s book, about the existence of Muslim feminism. How in the world does expressing the desire to see feminism succeed as a genuine Islamic revolution deny the existence of Muslim feminism?
The next problem Lauren has with those few words is:
… the implication being that these poor non-Western women of color could not possibly have figured this out before now and without his help.
Hate to be repetitious, but where is this in the tweet? For heaven’s sake (pun not intended), all the man did was ask how he could help. Isn’t that exactly what we feminists have long told men we want them to do? Not tell us what we need to do, but instead ask us how they can help? There is no mansplaining here. Dawkins asked a genuine question that deserves genuine responses.
Lauren goes on:
But Dawkins’ biggest offense rests elsewhere: ego.
After sending out his initial tweet, he was hit with an onslaught of messages from Twitter users calling him out on the first two problems with his message.
Instead of hearing their words and correcting course, he defensively doubled down, rattling off passages from religious texts and referencing practices associated with fundamentalism. He pretended not to hear those informing him of the existing feminist movement.
When you offer someone “help” and they decline, it’s hardly productive to berate them for turning you down.
Actually, he was responding to only a handful of critical tweets, amidst mostly supportive ones. How does it make sense that to satisfy three or four Twitter users he doesn’t know — people who made it clear they oppose any atheist criticism of Islam — Dawkins should have instantly withdrawn any longstanding solidarity with women he knows and respects who are concerned about Islam’s oppression of women? Why is Lauren so quick to trivialize these women’s concerns? The post breezily dismisses the well-documented oppression of women under Islam.
Very importantly, Islamic laws and teachings about women don’t just impact Muslim women, but all women living in Islamic cultures, including atheist women forced to feign religion out of fear for their safety. Nor is Islam confined to Islamic nations. British women in Muslim communities in Dawkins’ own country no doubt have a wide range of views about all this. I doubt Lauren polled all these populations to determine how represented they feel by these few people on Twitter who say Islam does not oppress women. So how exactly did she determine these few to be representative of all women impacted by Islamic teachings and in a position to decline Dawkins’ offer of support on behalf of them all?
Next is every religionist’s favorite criticism of Dawkins, which is by now like accusing the Pope of being Catholic:
He was derisive and belittling.
Lauren doesn’t present any of Dawkins’ tweets as evidence, but in reading through his responses to these critics, I did find a little derision… that was directed only at very specific ideas, not people. These tweets were certainly not derisive or belittling of women or feminism. Dawkins was derisive and belittling of the idea that Muslim women are all okay with oppression and that Islam has nothing to do with the oppression of women.
Criticizing an atheist for belittling religious ideas that belittle women? That’s the same rabbit hole Christians forever try to pull us into with their complaint that liberals are intolerant of their gay intolerance. At this point, it began to feel as if her post was less about feminism than a dispute with Dawkins’ criticism of Islam in general.
She concludes with her own advice on how to help Muslim women (which as far as I know was just as unsolicited by Muslim women as Dawkins’ tweet):
If Dawkins wants to help, here are some practical suggestions. He should educate himself on the rich history of Musawah. He should donate some of his wealth to the efforts of existing Muslim feminist organizations. He should use his wide network to signal-boost Muslim feminists advocating on Twitter. But most importantly, he should start by listening to the people he aims to assist.
Fine suggestions, all of which I would echo. But by surrounding them with attack for asking the question, the chance they’ll resonate are dramatically reduced. Also, is Lauren quite sure that Dawkins has never done any of these?
Lauren wrote another post for this site recently that I very much admired, and I think it’s worth highlighting to see how her own rules of conduct might apply. In the piece about author Ta-Nehisi Coates, she wrote:
To say there has historically been a stigma against non-believers in black communities might be an understatement; there are entire groups out there dedicated to combating such disdain.
For an atheist leader to rise to the prominence Coates currently enjoys, despite the church-oriented communities he advocates for, represents a growing frustration with the lack of progress in the battle for racial equality…
What Coates teaches us is that atheists need not run from their beliefs in order to gain traction with the public at large… It is possible to express oneself as an atheist without alienating a larger audience, and it is possible to do so with an audience that has historically been religiously oriented. With courage and conviction, the time is ripe for would-be atheist leaders to step out of the shadows and up to the challenges that face the country as a whole today.
Again, I agree with her thoughts on this matter. But if we were to boil her message down to a tweet or two, would they not look suspiciously similar to what Dawkins said? Is she not saying:
Black communities should combat disdain toward black atheists.
I’m frustrated with the lack of progress toward racial equality.
There’s a real disconnect between a white person expressing frustration with the lack of racial equality progress, then condemning a man for expressing frustration with the lack of gender equality progress.
There’s a disconnect between expressing a wish to see black atheists treated with more respect, then condemning someone for expressing a wish to see women within Islam treated with more respect.
Is she saying blacks need her help? Is she saying in her more recent piece that Muslim women need her help? Of course not. This is the surreal place such logic would take us.
When Lauren says “the time is ripe for would-be atheist leaders to step out of the shadows and up to the challenges that face the country as a whole today,” it seems she has two caveats: 1) As long as they criticize Christianity and not Islam, and 2) As long as they call for racial equality, not gender equality.
Or are we to assume that we atheists must also refrain from discussing inequality of women in Christianity as well because we’re not Christian either?
If so, what criticisms might Lauren have of my own recent post on race and Christianity? After the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, you’ll recall that Christian leaders widely claimed their liberty had been stolen just as slaves’ liberty was once stolen. I wrote:
This racially offensive trope being pushed by the Chief Justice, prominent religious leaders, and candidates with their expensive pollsters, is clearly set to become a significant theme with America’s white conservative Christians. They should be ashamed…
It seems like Lauren would say to me that someone like me (who isn’t Christian, black, or LGBT) shouldn’t call on the Christian community to do better with minority relations when I know perfectly well that it includes those oppressed groups. Shouldn’t they fight their own battles?
More recently, Dawkins tweeted this:
Was he suggesting that African LGBT people can’t take care of the situation themselves?
How about Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s praise for white male Christian David Cameron, for his speech setting out the British government’s “five-year strategy for tackling extremist ideology, describing it as ‘struggle of our generation.’” (at 1:15)
This was an excellent, excellent speech… he rejects outright any kind of narrative — whether it is violent or nonviolent — any kind of narrative that is about submission, that is about intolerance, that is about bigotry and gender segregation…
Was Cameron implying that British Muslim women needed his help? Was Hirsi Ali wrong not to have attacked Cameron, too?
Since no single atheist can ever be a part of every minority community represented by a given religion, this rule can be used to silence any atheist for speaking about the need for social progress within any religion. Really, it could be used to silence any progressive from speaking for social progress nearly anywhere. Should the West not have partnered in divestment from apartheid South Africa? Or is racial apartheid a cause worthy of Western support, while gender apartheid is not?
When I read Lauren’s earlier admonishment that “it is possible to express oneself as an atheist without alienating a larger audience,” I had to laugh wryly. It’s apparent from looking around the net that a sizable freethinking audience has just been alienated by her essay. In reading their reactions, what I’m seeing is not a defense of “our hero Dawkins,” but a kind of giving up on wanting to help so as not to risk getting blasted for imperfect phraseology. And that’s most unfortunate.
I can’t speak for all women. No one can. But I speak for myself when I say I don’t want to see us condemn anyone for asking how they can help promote feminism.
I submit that articles such as these from my fellows on the left do far more to discourage would-be atheist leaders from stepping out of the shadows than anything from the Religious Right.