In the olden days, at the turn of the century, it was hard to come by vaguely-racist bigotry in our day-to-day lives. Back then you had to go and visit your grandparents a few times a year, and sit there quietly while they talked about the coloured folk in the corner shop and how you couldn’t walk to Sainsbury’s to buy your Daily Mail without being robbed by a gang of Asians. Then somebody built Twitter, and then Richard Dawkins joined.
@RichardDawkins is the increasingly erratic comedy creation of a bored Oxford Professor called Richard Dawkins. One of the best science writers of the last few decades, Dawkins has succeeding in crafting an online character that ironically parodies the more militant tendencies in capital-A Atheism, serving as a useful reminder for all of us to be more nuanced and tolerant.
Or at least that’s the kind interpretation. The alternative is that one of Britain’s leading intellectuals really has degenerated to the point where he believes that the following is an intelligent argument:
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people have found this offensive. It contains no meaningful criticism of religion, nor can it reasonably imply any – there are many reasons why the residents of North Africa or the Middle East win less Nobel prizes than Cambridge scholars, just as there are many reasons why more men than women win Nobel prizes. And ‘designated religion’ is a long way down that list. Besides, on what planet are Nobel Prizes the best metric for achievement or progress?
No, this is simply a statement about Muslims - all Muslims – and a spectacularly bigoted one at that. “Dark age achievements undoubted,” Richard kindly acknowledges, “But since then?” Well, since then I’d imagine a lot of Muslims have achieved a great many things, and many of them without the benefits of a Cambridge education.
What’s frustrating is the practiced naivety with which Dawkins and his supporters defend bigotry like this. “It’s a simple statement of fact,” people protest, but of course there’s no such thing. All statements are made in a context: if I were to create a Tumblr linking to stories about black people who did dumb things, each story might simply be a ‘statement of fact’, but that wouldn’t detract from the inherent racism of such an exercise.
“Islam isn’t a race,” is the “I’m not racist, but. . .” of the Atheist movement, a tedious excuse for lazy thinking that is true enough to be banal while simultaneously wrong in any meaningful, real-world sense. Yes, congratulations, you can read a dictionary. Well done. But it’s possible for a statement to be both true and wrong. “Homeopathy worked for me” is one example (as is its inverse): it may genuinely make people feel better, emotionally or through the placebo effect; but it doesn’t work in any medical sense.
Take immigrants, even though many people would rather we didn’t. A lot of people like to say that you can’t talk about immigration without being accused of racism. To follow the binary logic of Dawkins’ defenders, this is clearly nonsense. ‘Immigrant’ is not a race, so how on Earth can you be racist about an immigrant? Except that of course when people talk about ‘immigrants’, often they have a very particular type of immigrant in mind, and the segregation of immigrants into ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ tends to occur along lines of class and race - Canadians are far more welcome in Britain than Nigerians. ‘Immigrant’ is not a race, but discourse about immigration can still sometimes be racist.
The same holds true for ‘Muslim’, a term thoroughly linked in the public imagination to a particular set of ethnicities. Plug the term into Google Images, and what do you see? Hmm, yes, thought so. Sam Harris fell face-first into this trap with his infamous suggestion that, "we should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,” an idea clearly inspired by watching Team America: World Police after one too many fizzy drinks. Yes, Islam is not a race, but only the profoundly ignorant would suggest that discourse about ‘the evil Muslims’ doesn’t veer into racism on a depressingly regular basis.
When Dawkins talks about ‘Muslim’ Nobel prizes over the years, he is not simply criticising a religion; he is attacking a group of people in a fairly well defined geographical area, associated with a particular set of ethnicities. He contributes to racially-charged discourse through his choice of dubious facts, the exaggerated and inflammatory language he uses to describe them, and the context within which he presents them. In short, he is beginning to sound disturbingly like a member of the far right – many of his tweets wouldn’t look out of place on Stormfront. Whatever the motives behind it, one wonders how much further he can continue down this path before the tide of opinion turns firmly against him.
Dawkins remains a powerful force in atheism for the time being. Increasingly though, his public output resembles that of a man desperately grasping for attention and relevance in a maturing community. A community more interested in the positive expression of humanism and secularism than in watching a rich and privileged man punching down at people denied his opportunities in life. That, ultimately, is the tragedy of Richard Dawkins - a man who knows the definition of everything and the meaning of nothing.