Richard Dawkins, Shut Up and Listen

If Richard Dawkins is honestly interested in liberating women oppressed by patriarchal religions—that is to say, if he’s not just interested in the suffering of religious women as a foil for his atheistic evangelism—then Richard Dawkins needs to shut up and listen. In fact, we all do.

As with all things of any significance, it started with a tweet:

A student of Indian origin in the UK is fighting back against the allowance of “voluntary” gender segregation in Muslim-student gatherings. Dawkins lauds her as a hero (and rightly so, in my opinion), but cannot resist another opportunity to display his utter disdain for Islam. He labels the “voluntary” student segregation “misogynistic” and likens it to “apartheid.” A Twitter user responds:

To which Dawkins retorts, pedantically:

Dawkins falls back on technicalities, justifying his use of the pregnant “apartheid” by reference to its dictionary definition, ignoring the distinction between government-imposed segregation (South Africa, Palestine, etc.) and the voluntary segregation of students in a university. Fraught with problems as this notion of “voluntary” is here, it is certainly the case that many Muslim women embrace this tradition, much to the chagrin of Western liberals like Dawkins and myself, but for reasons that may very well be intelligible within their culture without being, always and everywhere, misogynistic. Yet rather than acknowledge the inflammatory implications of his choice of language, Dawkins doubles down. He intends to be inflammatory, but retreats to the dictionary when challenged.

At this point enters Salya AlHamdi—Muslim, psychology undergrad, fourth-generation Palestinian refugee, and self-described feminist.

While I’m sure Dawkins has spoken out against sexism in Western culture in various places and formats, it is unarguably true that he has devoted the lionshare of his “feminist” energy in service to his crusade against Islam. But then, there’s also this, wherein Dawkins responds with scorn and ridicule to a young atheist woman’s measured narration of an anecdote in which she was sexually propositioned by a man in an elevator at 4 A.M. This, to Dawkins, was so trivial that he compared it to a hypothetical situation in which he had to suffer a man with the temerity to chew gum in an elevator. In response to this white American woman’s plea for sensitivity, Dawkins writes a letter to a fictional Muslim woman:

I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car and can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery, but stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

All that is to say, I think Salya makes a fair point. Dawkins commits the fallacy of relative privation and exposes that his sensitivity to the plight of women is primarily a function of his anti-Islam agenda. (Meanwhile, American atheist PZ Myers, in his response to the same anecdote, shows what an atheist committed to gender equality for its own sake looks like.) But Salya isn’t through:

To which another white male, Greg, responds:

A typical knee-jerk response that, in its deafness to feminist criticism, misses the point. Salya corrects:

Salya is not advocating for gender segregation. As a Muslim feminist, she opposes it. Her point rather is that Richard Dawkins’ modus operandi for Islamic women’s liberation is of no use to her. An anti-Islam crusader’s disparaging dismissal of her culture’s longstanding traditions as misogynistic and “gender apartheid” is of no help to Islamic women, according to Salya, even when they themselves are opposed to gender segregation. What might this mean? The heroic white man steps in to save the day regardless:

Greg simply betrays his patronizing ignorance here. In Greg’s world, Muslim women are not speaking out against patriarchy and misogyny in Islam. No, in Greg’s world, Muslim women need Greg and Richard Dawkins to do that for them. In Greg’s world, there is none of this or this or this or this or this, etc.

It’s also clear that he hasn’t heard a word she’s said to him. “Stay inferior to men thats fine with me” exposes so much here. It shows he hasn’t heard her when she’s stated plainly that she is opposed to gender segregation, and it betrays his lack of genuine concern for her plight in his smarmy resignation: “thats fine with me.” He’s not really interested in allowing Muslim women to speak for themselves, although he feigns concern for their emancipation from male domination. What he’s really interested in is opposing Islam. If he was truly concerned to see that Muslim women have the right to speak freely, he would listen to her when she speaks. Salya sums this up nicely:

Enough said.

But now the man himself, Richard Dawkins, chimes in in response:

Which is, of course, a thoroughly privileged, white male thing to say. This whole ordeal is just another prime example of the white savior complex, and the inability of privileged white males to listen to the voices of their “damsels in distress.” True humanists recognize that the voice of liberation must be formulated by the oppressed on their own terms. Dawkins could attempt to help cultivate that kind of dialogue, but instead he cries “victimization” for himself when one of the people he is “liberating” refuses his “help.”

Salya’s response is dead on:

Her point, aphoristically formulated, is that when white males exist in a unique position of privilege over other genders and races, white males are the ones in a unique position to be racist and sexist. The matter is put very cogently by Daniel McClellan here:

What Dr. Dawkins apparently doesn’t know is that racism and sexism are about power and oppression, not about judgments and insults. When Salya says you cannot be racist to a white person, or sexist to a male, what she’s saying is that those comments cannot reflect or reify oppression. Salya’s words can never oppress Richard Dawkins, but Richard Dawkins’ words can absolutely oppress Salya, particularly when he insists that the right to represent Muslim women belongs in the hands of white atheist males. Just look at how many of his 879,500 Twitter followers came out of the woodwork to rhetorically brutalize her. Who has more social leverage in this situation? Who needs to be aware of the effects of that leverage? This is made all the more ironic by the fact that it’s just that power and oppression against which Dr. Dawkins ostensibly fights. That he’s willing to leverage his white male privilege directly against the perspective and integrity of one of those for whom he pretends to advocate in the interest of defending the inerrancy of his own broad characterization of Islam shows his interests lie not in the people, but in his own opinion. His conceptualization of Islam is the priority, not that of actual Muslims, and certainly not that of a Muslim woman.

Also, of course, this.

But Salya brings it home:

Meanwhile, Greg unplugs his ears and opens his mouth:

And Salya patiently reiterates, being careful to enunciate clearly, for the apparently disabled white man:

And this brings us to the crux of the matter: liberation is self-determination. When Salya says that she doesn’t need the help of Richard Dawkins, she’s not being testy. She’s being a feminist Muslim. Muslim women must determine the course and outlook of their own self-determination, or else it isn’t self-determination at all. It’s merely subjugation to another outside power, in this case, white, Western, male-dominated secularism. What Salya demands is that those who do not share her experiences (e.g., white, atheist, liberal males) try to refrain from defining her identity (i.e., “victim”) on her behalf. Dawkins is engaging in etic description of gender issues in Islam, that is, he’s using language and categories foreign to those of Islamic tradition and culture. He is imposing an outsider’s perspective, and a particular breed of outsider at that, onto a predicament that is properly owned by Muslim women first and last. Dawkins’ language is perennially etic, in fact, and so bloody nineteenth-century anthropology.

Now if Richard Dawkins is really interested in the self-determination of Muslim women, I imagine (without presuming to speak on her behalf) Salya would be happy to have him listen in and participate in a conversation that is directed by Muslim women toward their own desired ends, a conversation in which Dawkins would listen and learn to understand Islam’s problems in emic terms, that is, in language and categories that emerge from within Islam’s traditions and culture. I imagine Salya would be happy to have a subordinated Richard Dawkins’ support in Muslim women’s self-actualization. But if, as is clear, Dawkins is instead concerned to use Salya and her sisters as a prop in a drama all his own, well, Salya thinks Dawkins can go fuck himself.

She knows full well that Dawkins’s solution for her plight is conversion to atheism. She’s not interested in Dawkins’s brand of liberation. Dawkins has talked incessantly about Islam’s oppression of women, but his solution is: abandon Islam. What she wants is an Islamic solution to gender segregation, a solution that draws upon resources from within the Islamic tradition, that will be intelligible to practitioners of that tradition. If Dawkins would care to take notice, there are numerous feminist voices and movements emerging from within Islam all across Europe and the Middle East. But he does not care to notice because, to Dawkins, that’s not good enough. Islam must be abandoned because gods are silly and destructive things. She wants the freedom (from Dawkins et al.) to participate in an emic conversation about women’s rights in Islam. But Dawkins isn’t a big enough person to speak in emic vernacular. He is a small man, who insists on etic language, because it’s his language.

Salya does not see herself as a victim, because she has a voice, and as any Muslim would, she rejects an atheist’s solution to her problems, thank you very much.

Does this mean outsiders are simply forbidden to make criticisms of other cultures’ unjust practices? No, it does not. A serious example commonly bandied about (we talked about it over and over in my International Law course) is the horrific practice of genital mutilation. What about women in such cultures who embrace genital mutilation? What about those women who are not pursuing their own course toward liberation? This common question ignores the fact that there are already many strong voices of women in such cultures that strongly oppose genital mutilation. These women give voice to their opposition to the practice, but they do so in emic terms, with references to other shared traditions within those selfsame cultures. As we privileged, “civilized” liberals seek to speak to the liberation of women from the horror of genital mutilation, we must do so as partners with those who stand against it from within those cultures. If none are, then it is our responsibility to learn to speak their cultural language, to learn their traditions, and help them to formulate their own voice of liberation, rather than imposing our own outside voice onto them, and being arrogantly dismissive of the cultures themselves. To do the latter would be to trample on their very identities in the name of their liberation. What Dawkins is in the business of doing represents the very epitome of cultural arrogance. But his is a methodology that is, if I may say so, not without ample precedent in British tradition.

In the same way, the voices of women in Islam, and the Muslim men who support them, must formulate their opposition to patriarchy in their own terms, in ways that at once preserve and improve their shared culture and traditions.

But is a feminist Islam possible? Despite the fact that Muslim feminism and peace activism are actually real things that demonstrably exist and are steadily growing the world over, many contemporary atheists are wont to insist, quite repetitively, that an Islam of peace is all very well and good, but is not representative of “real Islam.” You can cherry pick all the good bits if you want, such atheists say, but that doesn’t change the fact that Islam is, as Dawkins has called it, an “unmitigated evil,” that Islam is fundamentally and authentically a religion of violence and intolerance. There are two things to say in response to this fatuous assertion.

1) It never ceases to amaze me that those who argue so exhaustively and persuasively against fundamentalists of faith for the intelligibility and cogency of darwinian evolution so consistently fail to recognize the obvious fact that, as phenomena of the natural world, religions are themselves ongoing products of evolution. That is to say, religions can, have, do, and indeed must evolve over time (fundamentalists’ unselfaware insistence to the contrary be damned).

A religion’s sacred texts can remain constant, but the interpretive traditions necessarily evolve in response to new experiences, conversations, discoveries, and socio-political contexts. Religious texts are sacred to their respective traditions precisely because they are living, not dead, texts, just as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. rightly averred of the U.S. Constitution back in 1914 (so too Al Gore in 2000). The U.S. Constitution is sacred to the United States in the same way that the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Qur’an are sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They are not, as Holmes phrased it, “mathematical formulas,” but “organic, living institutions,” in the sense that they are texts which are (necessarily) in the constant state of being reinterpreted in light of new experiences and realities. If religions are a phenomenal fact of nature—and they are—their continual and compulsory evolution too is a fact of nature, and an unassailable one at that.

2) What too many atheists fail to understand is the difference between atomistic “cherry-picking” and longstanding hermeneutical traditions that preclude certain interpretations and ensure or encourage other interpretations. This latter is not cherry-picking, not remotely. When the majority of Muslims say that Islam is a religion of peace, they are not “cherry-picking” from the Qur’an. They are speaking out of longstanding interpretive traditions, traditions that, in part, exist to safeguard the Qur’an from abusive readings employed to justify violence and misogyny. These traditions are robust, yet dynamic and developing.

We can either allow Islam to be its best self, or we can self-servingly condemn it to be its worst self. If we wish to act like adults and choose the former, then it also behooves us to support Islam in this endeavor by repenting of our own complicity in the oppression of Muslims (oppression and poverty breed violence) through the installation of Western-friendly yet brutal dictators, the Western-orchestrated and forcible exile of millions of Palestinians and the continued theft of Palestinian land, the increasing hegemony of Western capitalism in the Middle East, and so on. The truth is, we only condemn ourselves when we denounce them as “geopolitical children” after a century treating them as the children of slaves.

So this is the question that confronts us, as Western liberals, as men and women of privilege, as we are confronted with the “strange” and “terrifying” specter of the Western world’s nemesis of the week. Are we going to be adults, or will we continue to hold peace with Islam hostage to our own terms, like the petulant child who will allow the other kid to play in his sandbox providing he gets to make the rules? Will we step back and allow the oppressed in Islam to achieve their own self-determination? Are we “brave” enough to let Islam be its best self in its own terms?

There are a host of reasons that atheists and other outsiders should cheer for emic solutions to Islam’s problems (while we, hopefully, try to manage our own). But two are most significant, in my mind. The first is empathy. It’s the golden rule, that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us. If an imam wished to critique our practices and be heard, we would prefer that he make an effort to understand our practices as we understand them, and to make use of our own traditions of art and justice to make his appeal to us for (what from his perspective would be) our liberation. If an imam were to tell an atheist that he is a misogynist because he does not believe that in creating woman, God gave her inherent dignity, the atheist would, at the very least, say that such a criticism is of no use to him. But if the imam made reference to the atheist’s own cultural language and philosophical traditions and thereby exposed a facet of his speech or practice that by his own standards offers something less than total dignity to women, well, the atheist may be offended, but not for any good reason.

In the same way, it is just basic ethics that, in our concern for the well-being of oppressed Muslims, we take the time to learn their cultural language and traditions well enough to be able to formulate our criticisms in terms that would genuinely challenge them. But this challenge we would pose to the perpetrators of injustice, not to Islam itself, and certainly not to the victims of those injustices, just because they are Muslim. In the same way we would expect an empathetic imam to challenge Richard Dawkins on his abuses of Enlightenment, and not to condemn Enlightenment itself wholesale. Moreover, the failure of one party to extend this basic amount of respect is no excuse for the other party to dispense with it in turn.

This is, at least, how a fruitful conversation is started. With empathy, which is something that is cultivated through the virtue of hearing.

The second reason atheists and other outsiders should cheer for emic solutions to Islam’s problems is pure pragmatism. The wishful thinking of some atheists aside, and trending atheism granted, humankind is never going to be a religionless species. Thus we want to engender solutions to injustices that are more likely to work within cultural context. And I daresay that, among Muslims, an Islamic formulation of women’s rights is going to be more successful than a Western, secular formulation of women’s rights eleven times out of ten.

The least successful liberation movements are those that articulate the rationale for liberation solely in terms foreign to the common traditions of the society they seek to transform, valid though their foreign vernacular of justice might be. The most successful liberation movements throughout history have employed the shared cultural language of the oppressive society in order to formulate the rationale for liberation in terms coherent to that selfsame society.

The U.S. civil rights and women’s rights movements exploited the best facets of the American tradition in order to expose and overcome some of its worst features. Resultantly, portions of the Constitution had to be reinterpreted in order to accommodate justice as articulated by language mined from the Constitution itself. New interpretive traditions are born in the fires of internal struggle, and, if they are successful, eventually become normative for the culture. This is not just how nations work, nor merely religions; this is how human society works. It is how human society has always worked, and always will work.

If we are serious about seeing systemic injustice in the Islamic tradition (and in others, including our own) give way to a culture of justice, peace, and equality, then we are committed to internal cultural revolutions, to listening to the oppressed within these cultures as they formulate the language of their own liberation in their own terms.

dawkinsBut Richard Dawkins isn’t invested in the liberation of women, per se. He’s invested in the liberation of women solely on his terms. The final solution for religiously-motivated gender oppression is atheism. He’s not interested in what Muslim women have to say about their own liberation in Islamic terms, because he knows that Islam is fundamentally and irreparably misogynistic. Islam is “an unmitigated evil.” For Dawkins, it’s liberation through assimilation.

The challenge for the rest of us, then, if we want to see other cultures become more just, if we want to work together to forge a better world, is to shut up and listen.

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