The New Atheist Richard Dawkins has made recent headlines. This comes after the cancellation of a book event that was to be hosted by the radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California (1).
In a public letter detailing the reasons for the cancellation, KPFA praises Dawkins for “his excellent new book on science,” however, they state his hurtful and offensive “tweets and other comments on Islam” as the reason behind them pulling the event. KPFA cites some of Dawkins’ statements as hurtful which is at odds with them because they do not “endorse hurtful speech. While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech.” The radio station apologizes for only learning of Dawkins’s views at a later stage, and has since refunded those who had purchased tickets. KPFA learnt of Dawkins’s views thanks to Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, who also emailed the station citing that Dawkins’s comments and anti-Islamic rhetoric provide legitimacy to extremist views.
This news also comes in the wake of Dawkins’s 1976 bestselling book on evolution, The Selfish Gene, that was named the most influential science book of all time by the Royal Society the week prior (2).
Numerous comments made by Dawkins over social media have been deemed controversial. For example, in 2015, he wondered whether Ahmed Mohamed, the boy in Texas who was suspended after bringing a homemade clock to school that officials said resembled a bomb, wanted to get arrested given that the episode led to an invitation to the White House and crowdfunding. A year prior to that comment, in a Twitter post said that people should “always put Islamic ‘scholar’ in quotes, to avoid insulting true scholars.” Dawkins has also called Islam the greatest force, and religion, of evil in the world today.
Dawkins was understandably quite upset about the cancellation. He criticizes KPFA for not consulting him prior to their decision, which, in my view, is unprofessional on KPFA’s part. Dawkins also argues the he has “never used abusive speech against Islam.” He contends that he has “called IslamISM “vile” but surely you, of all people, understand that Islamism is not the same as Islam. I have criticised the ridiculous pseudoscientific claims made by Islamic apologists (“the sun sets in a marsh” etc), and the opposition of Islamic “ scholars” to evolution and other scientific truths. I have criticised the appalling misogyny and homophobia of Islam, I have criticised the murdering of apostates for no crime other than their disbelief. Far from attacking Muslims, I understand – as perhaps you do not – that Muslims themselves are the prime victims of the oppressive cruelties of Islamism, especially Muslim women.”
I agree with much of what Dawkins has included here. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with his claim that Islam is the greatest evil in the world (which strikes me as being way too simplistic), but I will agree with him that it presents a massive challenge to human rights and world peace. In Islamic theocracies where the religion and the Koran’s statutes are fully and consistently applied, we find some of the most inhumane injustices and human rights violations. The list is nearly endless from martial rape to the superiority of men as revealed by God through Muhammad, and much more. But it is hardly surprising given that the Muslim’s holy book invokes them to emulate their Prophet, who himself was a coldhearted warlord, and a successful one at that. Proper Islam is not this seemingly watered down, tolerant, “all-loving” version espoused by western Muslims. I believe Dawkins is fully within his rights to say as much.
Some commentators at anti-evolutionist Christian thinktanks have argued that Dawkins deserves such treatment, and that it is him receiving his own medicine, so to speak (3). They don’t exactly put it in those words but it is quite obvious from the general tone and content of the piece. Nonetheless, coming from a Christian based thinktank I find this astounding. They chastise Dawkins for squelching free speech on intelligent design as well as his attempts to insulate Darwinism from dissent. But my view is essentially to ask: so what? So what if Dawkins is guilty of such crimes against free thought? In rational debate we can look at arguments and where applicable prosecute Dawkins for those crimes on an intellectual level, but that doesn’t make what KPFA did, which in my view is to undermine free speech and expression, justified. It especially doesn’t make it something worth celebrating just because KPFA’s victim is an ideological foe of theism, and who has been a rather impassioned one for a long time.
This brings me to my next point. I fully support Dawkins as well as any other atheist’s freedom and right to criticize my religion. That means I support Dawkins right to confront my own beliefs and to offend me. On the same token, however, I reserve the right to do the same to Dawkins, as I have at this website. This is just the nature of free speech. Free speech entails the ability to offend others and to disagree. Thus, my question concerns why Islam must be excluded from this. Dawkins, to his credit, observes this saying “I am known as a frequent critic of Christianity and have never been de-platformed for that. Why do you give Islam a free pass? Why is it fine to criticise Christianity but not Islam?”
Dawkins raises an important point and asks a very good question. Many of the cited “abusive” comments Dawkins has made about Islam, Dawkins has made about Christianity. In his books and over social media, Dawkins has several times referred to Christian theologians as not being scholars at all. Dawkins, albeit naively and irrationally, even contends that theology shouldn’t be considered an academic discipline, an argument I responded to more fully in a recent article. Dawkins, and other atheists, have said all kinds of nasty things about Christian religious leaders and religious personalities that most would regard highly. They even attack the heart of the Christian religion, Jesus himself. The point is that I respect Dawkins’s right to say these things, and I would never take it away from him. Why should Islam be exempt? And why is there a double standard where Dawkins can criticize Christianity but not Islam?
It is no wonder Harvard professor Steven Pinker calls KPFA’s decision “intolerant, ill-reasoned, and ignorant… He has criticised doctrines of Islam, together with doctrines of other religions, but criticism is not ‘abuse.’ People may get offended and hurt by honest criticism, but that cannot possibly be a justification for censoring the critic” (4).
1. Alaraby. 2017. US radio station pulls Richard Dawkins event over ‘abusive speech’ against Islam. Available.
2. Graham, C. 2017. Richard Dawkins hits back at cancellation of Berkeley event for ‘abusive speech against Islam.’ Available.
3. Egnor, M. 2017. Dawkins Gets Expelled. Available.
4. Flood, A. 2017. Richard Dawkins event cancelled over his ‘abusive speech against Islam.’ Available.