Raza Habib Raja
Richard Dawkins, the famous scientist and bestselling author is no stranger to controversy. Fiercely atheist, his attacks on religion in general and Islam in particular, have often generated polarized reactions, with some hailing his candidness and freethinking while others alleging that he generalizes too much and is in essence a racist and xenophobic.
Due to increasing penetration of social media, particularly Twitter, Mr. Dawkins’s views have started to reach a much wider audience. And one of the biggest problems with Twitter is that 140 ( or less) words statements, if controversial, evoke strong reactions as the point of view of the author cannot explain the complete rationale behind his statements.
But Mr. Dawkins’s statements are often too blunt to give him any benefit of the doubt but he is not seeking it either. He is pretty unapologetic about his views. He hates religion and of all the religions, he thinks that Islam is the greatest evil.
And despite the fact that he acknowledged his lack of knowledge about Islamic text, he still justified his opinion by adding “ Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without reading Quran. You do not need to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about Nazism”.
And before that he also attributed lack of enough number Nobel Prizes won by Muslims to their religion.
These comments have evoked very strong and polarized reactions from various quarters. Some have hailed Dawkins for saying “plain truths” in a blunt and befitting manner. Many have gone on the justify his stances as “essential” to jerk Muslims awake and show them the mirror.
Others have branded Dawkins as promoting xenophobia and racist beliefs. Dawkins has been criticized for stereotyping and generalizing and painting every Muslim with the same brush.
Dawkins expectedly defends his views by saying that statement of fact is not bigotry and that religion is not like a race as you can convert into the former.
So which side is “correct” here? Is Dawkins really doing a service here by being blunt and calling what his supporters claim spade a spade?
It is true that a religion is not exactly like ethnicity and consists of a set of ideals and beliefs which can, at least theoretically be adhered to, or left. In this sense, it is not like ethnicity.
However, in contemporary times, Religion has also morphed into an objective identity marker. When a country is objectively identified as a Muslim country or population is categorized along religious affiliations, then the issue becomes much more complicated.
We are actually contradicting ourselves when we say religion is merely a set of beliefs and then in the same breath uttering phrases like Muslim World. When discrimination is shown or for that matter benefits, are allocated on the basis of religion then it becomes much more than mere set of beliefs. Moreover, it is easy to say that religion can be adopted and also left through free will, but this is actually very difficult to do in practice. Moreover, religious beliefs and culture are transmitted from generation to generation and while the level of adherence to rituals may vary a lot among individuals, but very few are actually able to change their religion.
These characteristics are especially prominent among religions of the developing world. It is because of these reasons that in political science some actually treat religious identity on the same lines as ethnicity.
So when Mr. Dawkins makes such sweeping statements, he is in reality augmenting the already entrenched identity markers. In fact he is trivializing other identities and emphasizing too much on just one identity ( religious) when he attributes violence, bigotry and even low number of Nobel Prizes to Islam.
And yes his statements do contribute to xenophobia as all Muslims due to the fact that they follow Islam are made to look like extremists. This is a very significant fact which is often completely overlooked by Mr. Dawkins and his supporters.
However, at the same time, one can not completely dismiss everything which Dawkins is saying. Yes, he may be stereotyping but that does not mean that there is no problem with Muslim countries today. And yes, unfortunately Mr. Dawkins had a point when he said the following words:
““There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.”
This is what Muslims need to understand that one can not just completely dismiss every concern on the pretext of generalization and stereotyping. It is the time we admit that there is a critical mass ( a minority) who believes in a very hardline and extremist interpretation of Islam and is ready to resort to violence, to perpetuate its implementation.
It is also time to accept that many Muslim countries have regressive laws which are explicitly based on hardline interpretation of Islam and a majority of population is either content or too afraid to challenge these.
It is time to accept that much of the transnational terrorism is perpetuated by Muslim militants who justify it on religious grounds and majority of Muslim world instead of condemning such acts either considers it a conspiracy or worse seek to justify it by calling it a reaction.
As long as we continue to be in denial, unfortunately Dawkins’s opinions though stereotyping Muslims, will continue to resonate with a large audience.
What Muslims have to understand that eventually the world will make opinion about Islam by the way Muslims actually behave. And the way a significant number of them are actually behaving, will force many to form opinion about Islam without bothering to read Quran, just like Mr. Dawkins.