In the Spectator last week, I described how Richard Dawkins had become a space-filler for empty-headed pundits with no idea what else to write about in these slow summer days.
The standard form was to upbraid him for being an Islamophobe because of a series of remarks he had tweeted about Islam in general and the behaviour of Islamist conservatives in particular. Some were crass, others reasonable. A few writers chose to add a variant, which has been chugging along for years now, and asserted that ‘militant atheism’ was as bad as ‘militant religion’. If I had had the space, I would have pointed out that militant atheism has a precise meaning. Communist regimes were militantly atheist. They closed churches, temples, mosques and synagogues and murdered or imprisoned the faithful because of their faith. Modern China, with its harrying of Falun Gong and determination to arrest the members of Christian house churches, remains militantly atheist, although less militant than it was at the height of Mao’s dementia. North Korea is another militantly atheist communist state, which survives into the 21st century to the despair of all who live in or near it.
Neither Richard Dawkins nor any other western atheist I know wants to make religion a criminal offence. They (we) want to argue against it. You cannot say the same for religious militants abroad or, indeed, in Britain.
I made that point by reporting on the case of Nahla Mahmoud, a refugee from the Sudan. (No other reporter had, so I thought I should.) Nahla had presented a short film deploring British Sharia courts on Channel 4. She said that when she lived under Sharia in Sudan, the godly had taught her that women were second class citizens. Because she spoke out, religious thugs have attacked her family in the Sudan, and she has to watch her back when she goes out at night here.
Rather than defend women like Nahla from her enemies, I said, pundits attacked Richard Dawkins and his kind.
Not everyone was as pleased with the piece as I might have hoped. Owen Jones of the Independent saw a less-than-adulatory mention of his name, and cried that I was persecuting him.
‘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.’
I didn’t think I had attacked him particularly violently. I had just said he was a member of a loud claque of parochial and cowardly writers. Now that he is playing the victim, I find that I do need to educate him. McCarthyism was a movement led by the American Congress in the 1950s that forced thousands of people out of their jobs for their political beliefs. It was state-backed oppression. When I or anyone else disagrees with Jones, it is what we call ‘an argument’. People have them all the time. To fail to see the difference between a debate and a purge is vain, self-dramatising and a touch paranoid.
Still I read on and concluded that Jones wasn’t all bad.
‘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.’
Jones was prepared to treat all reactionary forces equally, I assumed. He would oppose Muslim fanatics as he opposed the BNP and EDL. By extension, he would also oppose reactionary Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. All far rights were the same in his eyes – black or white, clerical or secular.
I entertained these kind thoughts until James Bloodworth, of Left Foot Forward, got in touch. Bloodworth, a genuine leftist rather than a poseur, said he had been having a Twitter discussion with Jones earlier this month, and asked him if he would sign a petition asking the police to investigate the threats against Nahla Mahmoud and her family. Jones stopped the conversation at once. Another Twitter user asked the same question. No reply. Bloodworth tried again, and for a third time. Jones met all requests with silence.
Yet when he responded to my piece, which discussed Nahla Mahmoud at length, he did not say that he refused to do what little he could to help her. He was, he asserted, the true victim – a victim of McCarthyism no less. Nahla’s sufferings were so insignificant he could not even recall them. Perhaps Jones never saw Bloodworth’s requests to show solidarity and offer support. It is possible, I suppose, that urgent business called him away every time Nahla’s name came up. I hope for his sake this is the truth of matter. Otherwise, he would be the worst kind of hypocrite: a white western leftist who cannot defend black African feminists against religious misogyny because they are suffering at the hands of the wrong type of oppressor.
How common are such people? Alex Gabriel, an atheist blogger, said I had failed to understand that it was possible to criticise Dawkins for being ‘a dickhead’ – to use his elegant language – and to oppose religious fundamentalism too. Of course it is, everyone can be in the wrong. And Dawkins of all people must know that there is no such beast as a sacred cow. All I can say in reply is that Gabriel’s even-handedness may exist in his blog, but it does not exist in modern culture. Look at the bureaucracy, the media, the universities. As I said in my original piece.
‘One day there will be a reckoning. One day, thousands who have suffered genital mutilation, religious threats and forced marriages will turn to the intellectual and political establishments of our day and ask why they did not protect them.’
Does Gabriel seriously think that our society will be able to maintain that it has acquitted itself well? Multiculturalism has become an excuse to ignore the suffering of others. If you can’t see that, the world has passed you by.
One man who will be able to parade his record with pride is Tom Chivers of the Telegraph. He was understandably stung that I had included him in my list of phonies, when he had written against religious oppression many times. Generously he said he would accept a pint as an apology. I am ashamed to say that I already owe him a pint. I will buy him one of course, and as a gesture of goodwill throw in a bar snack of his choice as well.