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Anti-Muslim bigotry is pervasive. Standing up against it is neither cowardly, nor the same as being an apologist for fanaticism

My reply to Nick Cohen on Richard Dawkins and prejudice

Owen Jones
Friday 23 August 2013 13:27 BST
Muslims gather on the steps of Trafalgar Square to celebrate the end of Ramadan
Muslims gather on the steps of Trafalgar Square to celebrate the end of Ramadan (Getty Images)

It's official: I'm no longer the Justin Bieber of the left. According to The Spectator's Nick Cohen, I'm now the Peter Hitchens of the left. Got to admit, I chuckled at that. Peter Hitchens is an ex-leftist who spends a considerable amount of time writing strawman attacks against the left in right-wing publications. Which is sort of what Nick Cohen does, too.

Cohen has rushed to Richard Dawkins' defence after the High Priest of New Atheism was criticised by numerous atheists for pejorative generalisations about Muslims, with pieces coming from myself in The Independent, Tom Chivers in The Telegraph, Martin Robbins in the New Statesman, and Daniel Trilling, the new editor of premier atheist rag the New Humanist. The problem is Cohen's piece is full of the sorts of strawman arguments that have characterised this whole exhausting “debate”.

Cohen writes that I think the same as "Craig Brown, Private Eye's high Tory satirist." Really? After a bit of Googling, I'm none the wiser as to whether Craig Brown thinks Dawkins has made bigoted generalisations about Muslims at a time when anti-Muslim prejudice is pandemic: if he does, he would be a rare voice on the right, with notable exceptions such as Peter Oborne.

Cohen then attacks me for a criticism I made about Dawkins tweeting: "Who the hell do these Muslims think they are? At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate." Cohen then adds: "If Jones can't see what is wrong with segregation, then not even an equality course for beginners can save him."

This is almost painfully obtuse. In no way do I support gender segregation, including this specific instance at a UCL debate. And it is pretty obvious from my article that this was not my objection. It was the fact that, rather than criticising the individuals responsible, Dawkins tweeted "Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?" Let's put it this way: imagine a religious Jewish person was involved in the gender segregated debate instead, and Dawkins had tweeted: "Who the hell do these Jews think they are?" Would it be in anyway far-fetched to describe this as bigotry, tarring millions of people with the actions of a few individuals in this dismissive way?

And before I'm accused of being inconsistent, I've criticised Lib Dem MP David Ward for doing just that, when he wrote of being "saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution in the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians."

Here's another example of a strawman argument. Following his attack on myself and Tom Chivers, Cohen writes:

"The BBC refuses to run contrary views. It assures the nation that ‘militant’ atheism is as fanatical as militant religion — despite the fact that no admirer of The God Delusion has ever planted a bomb, or called for the murder of homosexuals, Jews and apostates."

I read this and two words cried out: Citation needed. Where exactly has the BBC done this? Which official pronouncement? And how has the BBC refused to run contrary views when Richard Dawkins himself presented and featured in documentaries on both BBC TV and radio? Cohen's claim is straightforwardly not correct.

But I'll engage in this strawman argument: whoever claims “'militant' atheism is as fanatical as militant religion” is completely wrong. The second part of his sentence is inviting trouble, however. I've no idea about what the full ideological complexion of Dawkins' admirers is: on Twitter they have ranged from progressives to EDL supporters who have threatened me. And have not some of the worst tyrants of the 20th century happened to have been atheists whose victims have included religious people – as well as gay people, for that matter? Does that mean I blame atheism for such atrocities: of course not, any more than I blame Islam for 9/11 or Christianity for Norwegian Muslim-hating terrorist Anders Breivik.

Cohen does at least concede something of a point. “But let me try to be fair,” he writes aspiringly. “Dawkins has also tweeted against all Muslims – not just sexist god-bothers at University College London. I accept that generalising about Muslims can incite racism.” Well there we go then: that was the crux of the objection against Dawkins, so what is exactly Cohen's problem? Is this really a minor objection? After all, anti-Muslim prejudice is rampant in modern Western societies. The far-right – whether they are the BNP or EDL – focus on Muslims where once it was black people and Jewish people. Polls show that nearly half of Brits think they are too many Muslims – again, we would be justifiably horrified if the same proportion felt the same about Jews. Over a third think Muslims pose a "serious threat" to democracy. Repeated studies have shown that Muslims are overwhelmingly negatively portrayed in the media. It is this climate that there has been a series of terrorist attacks against mosques.

It is then Cohen savages Dawkins' critics for being cowards. Apparently “they stay silent because they are frightened of breaking with the crowd, of the faint threat of Islamist retaliation, and of absurd accusations of racism. Journalists want the easy life. They want targets who cannot hurt them.”

A confession: these are the sentences that infuriated me most about Cohen's strawman diatribe. Given the prevailing mood I describe above, it is those rare voices in the media (and they are rare, as numerous studies have shown) speaking out against anti-Muslim prejudice who are breaking with the crowd.

Here's my own experience. On the one hand are those who attack me for being in love with or somehow in league with Islam: here are the modern-day equivalents of the McCarthyites who assailed defenders of civil liberties as Communist fellow travellers, as soft on Communism or for being in bed with Moscow.

Then there are the more menacing responses. On a recent EDL counter-demonstration, an EDL affiliate sent out my picture by tweet, text and Facebook, urging their goons to keep their eyes peeled for me. On their Facebook page, they debated creative ways of killing me, like hanging me from my testicles and carving 'traitor' into my chest, or just stamping on my head. I have letters sent to me denouncing me as a Muslim lover, claiming to have followed me and suggesting I would die in a car crash. One of those enraged by my attack on Dawkins tweeted: “Owen Jones thinks he's safe from Muslims by defending them but I feel like attacking him as a traitor.” The subsequent tweet posted my full postal address, and triggered the police coming to visit me.

These are the consequences I have faced for standing against the suffocating atmosphere of Muslim-bashing that currently exists. So, Mr. Cohen, with all due respect, your suggestion my opposition to this sort of prejudice is driven by cowardice, of wanting to fit in with the crowd and of the “faint threat of Islamist retaliation” is as insulting as it is absurd.

Many of those who defended Dawkins claim that I want to protect Islam from criticism. This is simply untrue. As an atheist, I believe all religions to be equally wrong; as a secularist, I want religion to be separated from the public sphere and protected as a private matter. The objection is about making sweeping generalisations about Muslims; treating them as one homogenous mass, or as though they are all fanatical or backward, or that they collectively pose some sort of threat. The reality is airbrushed out of existence: the fact there is a yawning chasm separating the likes of, say, Sadiq Khan who like nearly all Muslim Labour MPs (and unlike most Tory Christian MPs) voted for equal marriage; and, say, Abu Hamza.

The distinction should be made between fundamentalists, who should be attacked as such, but who constitute a small minority; and the majority of Muslims, who polls show abhor violence as much as any of us do. Attack religion by all means, and passionately so; but we have to stop the fuelling of the widespread demonisation of Muslims. And let's abandon this myth that critiquing or attacking Islam on the one hand or Muslims on the other are courageous fringe stances, rather than the completely mainstream perspectives that they are.

Nick Cohen concludes that one day there will be a reckoning. Yes, there certainly will be. In past eras, other communities faced pandemic bigotry in Britain: like Irish people and Jewish people. History has judged kindly those who challenged such prejudice. It has not been so kind to those who failed to do so. Those few of us with a public voice who defend Muslims from bigoted generalisations are currently fighting an unpopular battle. But it the right thing to do, and history will absolve us.

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