The Great Courses

Richard Dawkins and The Rage Brigade

Jul 30, 2015 at 4:12 PM

Watching the latest dust-up over Richard Dawkins's tweet about the need for a feminist uprising in Islam.


I simply cannot understand the inclination by many in the freethought movement to torpedo it from within. Under a banner of indignant, frothing-at-the-mouth and almost incessant protest over every damn thing, these people apparently stand perched and eager to pounce on any and every opportunity to cry foul and latch onto the (very trendy) tarring and feathering of anyone standing close to the New Atheist brand.

I've interviewed Dawkins on a few occasions. We're friendly, while not really friends, and even though I tremendously appreciate his contributions to education and the promotion of non-religious thinking (and "The God Delusion," which was key in my own apostasy), I - like so many others - don't worship the man or consider him immune from criticism.

In short, no matter what some may charge, his fans don't see him as Atheist Jesus.

But he's also not the Devil.  He's certainly not unqualified to help promote the liberation of women (in feminism's purest sense) in oppressive Islamic environments simply because he's 1) white and 2) not a female.

Am I disqualified from standing alongside women as an advocate because I'm a male? Is my voice not welcome in the promotion of basic rights for non-heterosexuals, even though I'm a heterosexual? Does my white skin exclude me from all discussions about racism and prevent me from speaking out against prejudice? Does my background in a western nation make me unfit to promote liberation for someone in a non-western nation?  Does my background in Christianity disqualify me from speaking out against other superstitious beliefs?

In other words, do I have to be you to speak and fight on your behalf?

Dawkins' Twitter feed is, admittedly, challenging at times. Public figures are still flawed ones, and the near-perfect memory of the internet makes any and all missteps and misunderstandings a matter of permanent record. Make a mistake before the millions (and Richard has certainly made 'em), and you'll quickly become bloodied by the backlash. Some of this is healthy. not. And Dawkins has himself experienced both light and heat from a critical public.

But I can't see the mistake in this instance. Dawkins' post speaks to Islam (not all Muslim cultures), and it implies- as so many others have - that the liberation of women in oppressed religions and regions is an important and critical issue.  Equality is the goal.  "What can we do to help?"


Apparently, this sentiment is enough to send the Rage Brigade into a tailspin over race/gender, declaring RC unqualified to advocate equality for women in Islam.

He is qualifed.  We're all qualified to stand up for the oppressed. Anywhere. Anytime. And while it's true we need to see and understand the three-dimensional portraits of varying Muslim cultures, Dawkins' original tweet spoke specifically to Islam. He didn't say there weren't feminist groups working for women's rights within Islam.  He didn't declare that all Muslim cultures are identical with the same flavors of oppression (or non-oppression).  He didn't charge that all Muslims were Islamists.  He said that Islam itself suffers from gender inequality, and even a cursory look at Islam's scriptures about women reveals (as the Christian Bible does) a host of red flags.  Men are a "degree above them in status" (Sura 2:228), and his share is "twice that of a female" (Sura 4:11).  Women have a deficient mind (Sura 2:282), and in those unfortunate instances when husbands see their wives (and there can be a lot of 'em) in "highhandedness," the wives can be beaten (Sura 4:34).  Etc.  Of course, this is where the "progressive" Islamists redirect to the cherry-picked "love verses" and/or attempt to equivocate or distance themselves from darker doctrines, much like 21st century Christians step awkwardly away from much of the Old Testament. We see the scriptures.  We see the headlines.  We see the tragedy of gender oppression in the name of Allah.  Anyone charging that Islam's backward attitudes toward women are mere anomalies simply aren't paying attention.  

islam oppression

The protests are very telling, as many resemble the knee-jerk defenses of religion we see in mainstream protestant denominations.  Essentially, they boil down to

  • "I'm Muslim.  I have so much freedom.  Look at how happy I am.  Islamophobe!"
  • "Our cause is a White-Male-Free Zone. Have a nice day.  Misogynist!"

I love this movement. And I love the fact that critical thinkers help to keep it in check. But I'm honestly astounded at how eager, even happy, some are to divide in those moments when we should crave opportunities to unite. How poorly we choose our battles. How often we self-immolate at a time when we should be burning down the toxic ideologies and superstitions that enslave so many. How we only seem to be content...when we're malcontents.

One doesn't have to believe in "faith" to operate in "good faith," and this is something that vitriolic segments of the rationalist movement can and should embrace. We should be better than this.  There are so many other, worthier battles to fight.

-Seth Andrews

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