When you see an article called, “Is Richard Dawkins a racist?“, you’ll know by now to expect an affirmative answer. But not in this case! The article in question is in Huffington Post, and is by Usaama al-Azami, a PhD candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. al-Azami uses the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “racist”, given below, to show that Dawkins isn’t really a racist because he’s not a white supremicist:
[Defintion]: The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one’s cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions.
How charitable of Mr. al-Azami! Of course, anyone with two neurons to rub together knows that Muslims aren’t a race, and that Dawkins decries not genetic heritage or skin color, but religious belief. But that aside, al-Azami levels an accusation I haven’t heard before—Dawkins is a xenophobe!
However, some of [Dawkins's] recent tweets, brought to my attention by a recent article in the London-based Independent, suggest that it’s not racism we should be worried about, but xenophobia. The OED defines xenophobia rather laconically as “a deep antipathy to foreigners,” which doesn’t quite fit the bill either; but the entry in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary does, it seems. It defines xenophobia as the “fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.”
How does Dawkins fit into all of this, you may ask. Well, on March 1st, he tweeted the following: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter & verse like I can for Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today.” In a wildly popular tweet from a few weeks later, he added: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur’an. You don’t have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about Nazism.”
Yep, al-Azami has gone trolling through dictionaries until he finds a definition that, he thinks, fits Dawkins. Of course it doesn’t, because anyone who’s paid the least attention to Richard knows that he has no antipathy, fear, or hatred of strangers or foreigners. I’m an American, and I can attest that Richard likes Americans. Of course you could always assert that he likes white people but not brown or yellow ones, but that would be racism, which al-Azami claims isn’t true of Dawkins.
al-Azami is making a mistake that anyone with any brains shouldn’t be making, much less a Ph.D. candidate at a high-class university. He’s mistaking dislike and hatred of harmful religious beliefs with dislike and hatred of the individuals who hold them. I recall Richard saying many times that we must excise the cancer of religion, but I don’t recall him saying we must get rid of religious people.
To support his argument that you must read the Qur’an to have an opinion about Islam—and presumably that one must read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about the Nazis—al-Azami makes a dumb comparison:
It is akin to suggesting that one may fairly make generalizations about the West on the basis of the horrific atrocities committed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who have collectively killed far greater numbers than al-Qaeda and its lackeys. Very few people would describe Nazis as Western terrorists, although that’s where they originated. Why then do we so readily use the label Islamic/Muslim terrorist simply because they originate from Muslim-majority lands? Shouldn’t we take the time to develop a similarly nuanced understanding of terrorism that originates in Muslim countries as we appropriately do with Hitler’s terrorism that originated in a Western one with an ideology that is also of distinctly Western origin?
Does one really need to answer this? We use the label “Islamic/Muslim terrorists” when the terrorists justify their actions on the basis of Islamic belief—when they kill in the name of religion. The label doesn’t reflect just the religion of a terrorist, but his motivations.
As for the “similarly nuanced” understanding of Muslim terrorism, it’s not rocket science, any more than the need for a “nuanced” understanding of Nazism. The Nazis were economically dispossessed, they needed to blame it on somebody, and centuries of Christian persecution made the Jews a convenient scapegoat. If you read the Qur’an, that’s the kind of “nuance” you’ll need. And that’s not rocket science either: I’ve read the Qur’an, and it’s a horrific, bloodthirsty document, even nastier than the Old Testament. It doesn’t take much nuance to see how people could draw on that document—and the hadith that derive from it—to read the endless calls for the death of infidels, apostates, and unbelievers as an excuse to actually do those things.
When you hear talk about “nuance” in conjunction with Islamic terrorism, you know you’re dealing with an intellectually dishonest apologist. One needs no “nuance” to understand that people believe what the Qur’an says, and think they’ll find heavenly reward if they follow its dictates.
al-Azami goes on to tar Sam Harris with similar accusations using familiar tropes: Sam wants to suppress religion forcibly through state power (he doesn’t); Sam calls for a nuclear first strike against Muslims (al-Azami isn’t nuanced enough to see that this was merely a thought experiment, not a call for action). And al-Azami decries Harris’s “unevidenced animus toward religion in general”! Well, first of all, that’s ungrammatical, for Harris’s animus is of course evidenced: he’s documented it in two books. I presume al-Azami means that Harris has no evidence supporting that animus, but he’s wrong on that count, too.
At the end, al-Azami walks his statements back a bit and implies that Dawkins and Harris may racists after all:
Let me close by returning to the issue of racism. Focusing on it too exclusively may, ironically, cause us to miss the point of why we rejected racism in the first place. At the end of the day, the West eventually renounced racism not only because it is scientifically untenable, but, more importantly, because it lead to the marginalization, persecution, and oppression of minority groups we did not particularly like because they were different from us in some way. The reality is that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are non-white, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Dawkins and his fellows may remonstrate that what they object to is a belief system, freely adopted by its holders, but they are still participating in the unhealthy marginalization of a minority group, which, if left unchecked and lacking in nuance, may eventually cause history to repeat itself with Muslim victims.
This is madness. Dawkins and Harris are not calling for the marginalization of Muslims in society, their political disenfranchisement, or the like: they are calling for the marginalization of ideas. If those ideas are held largely by Asians and inhabitants of the Middle East (who are genetically Caucasian), then too bad. We won’t mistake skin color for an idea, if for no other reason that many people who are “white” have equally stupid and dangerous religious views (read Catholics, Mormons, or Scientologists).
What al-Azami is showing here is his own lack of nuance: his inability to distinguish criticism of ideas from oppression of people. In fact, one could consider that a form of racism, too—the view that it’s wrong to criticize bad ideas when they’re held by brown people, but okay to do so when they’re held by white people. The recent promotion of multiculturalism has its good side—many world cultures have wonderful things to which we should be exposed. But it also has its dark side, a side amply displayed by al-Azami. And that is that we should refrain from criticizing bad ideas when they’re espoused by people who don’t look like us.