The other day, I wrote a piece for The Friendly Atheist criticizing Richard Dawkins for his rhetorical choices in a tweet attempting to engage the subject of feminism in Islam.
The essay relied on academic and media coverage of Muslim feminist activism in addition to writings and social media posts of Muslim feminists, and argued that Dawkins’ approach to activism was problematic for a few reasons. You can read it here. The resulting uproar was fast and ugly, but in the midst of the mess, one thing was clear: the ideas involved deserve further discourse. As this is a personal response to the arguments in the mix, it is being published here instead of at The Friendly Atheist.
Let me start by saying this: I never said feminism could not be of benefit in the Muslim community. I never denied that women are often subjugated and abused under the justification of certain interpretations of Islam, particularly in Middle Eastern nations where religion is often wielded as a weapon against women. I never contended that we shouldn’t attempt to be allies to women in those positions. I don’t disagree with any of those sentiments. I disagree with the manner in which advocacy has been executed by Dawkins and others.
My argument, in a nutshell, is that we must be mindful of the ways in which we lend our support, and self-critical of our missteps along the way. Why? Why can’t it be enough to simply offer help? Because history shows us that failure to be measured in our attempts to help is often counterproductive.
Learning from Feminisms’ Failings
To lean on a Western example, one can look to the history of feminism in the United States as demonstration of the perils in advocates’ refusal to be self-critical. From the early stages of feminists’ efforts to gain equality for women, the movement stood primarily in the service of socioeconomically privileged white women.
Suffrage was pursued for white women. The pill’s initial medical trials were primarily conducted on women of color. The women’s liberation movement balked when black women even attempted to articulate the fact that, for most of them, the experience of being a woman in society was more arduous. At the time, the National Organization of Women referred to lesbians as the “lavender menace.” Even today, mainstream white feminism frequently continues to exclude voices of color, with calls for solidarity shouting out attempted discourse from women of color and trans women, in particular.
Acknowledging these shortcomings does not deny the positive impact that feminism has had in this country. Women gained the right to vote. They won the ability to pursue careers and established protection that allowed them to fight back against discrimination in the workplace. Access to contraception and abortion was secured. Good work continues today on other issues. I point out these failings because there’s an important lesson within. The rate of progress has been hampered by the unwillingness of a portion of the movement to interrogate their methods of advocacy. Just imagine how much more could have been accomplished by now had the movement not alienated potential allies with racism, heterosexism, and transphobia.
The only way we avoid repeating history is by learning from it. So when aspiring allies in any realm of the fight for social justice start down those same paths, it behooves us to call out the behavior and encouraage each other to not make the same mistakes as those who came before us. This form of intersectional self-criticism is of benefit to us all, and serves as a means of accelerating progress. Doing so is not easy. Being an ally takes work. It is not a title you claim; it is a position you earn. But if the result is faster, more complete progress, the effort is well worth it.
History and Dawkins
These painfully learned lessons are what motivated the initial article. The piece was about urging Dawkins, with all his influence, to apply historical and cultural consideration to the way he advocates for Muslim women fighting the good fight. It was about not making the same mistakes we’ve seen repeated over and over again throughout the course of world’s fight for progress. Let’s break that down further.
Islam’s feminist revolution is underway, and has been for some time now. It may not be as advanced or visible as Dawkins and the rest of us would like, but there are women within the faith working hard to attain political, social, and economic equality for Muslim women, particularly in nations where Islam and government are inextricably intertwined. To want to contribute to their noble pursuit is laudable, but in reflecting on history, it becomes clear that we should be measured in our approach to doing so. These struggles are taking place in a very different cultural context than Western feminisms’ wars. There are disagreements within these feminist communities as to how the movement should proceed. The conflict is complex, and demands a nuanced approach to allyship, particularly when coming from a place where one does not have first-hand life experience within the context in question.
This informs the criticism. When I point out that Dawkins is white and male, it is not to say that being white or male is inherently bad. When I criticize his activist efforts as a white male, it is not to say that white men should not participate in activism supporting people who are not white or male. It is to say that, as he has not lived as a woman, a Muslim, or a person of color — designations held common amongst a large portion of the most severely impacted by this issue — it is particularly important for him to be self-critical when engaging his influence, to consider history and culture in his attempts.
There is a heightened level of responsibility for Dawkins. His high profile and large audience grant him a great deal of influence. Influence is power. It is the ability to inform, motivate, and shape the behaviors of others. And with such power comes responsibility, even in the context of character limits.
The best way for us to help is not to blaze forward without recognizing the work that has been done. It is to start by seeking information and understanding, follow with acknowledging the victories attained, and continue with asking members of the community how support can be provided to existing efforts. Dawkins’ mistake was skipping the first two steps.
As atheists, not members of the community in question, we must not stumble by assuming the role of sparking others’ revolutions, particularly when they already exist. We should strive instead to be those who support them. Though the impact may not be readily clear today, history shows us that any other road is an unnecessarily slow one. This was the crux of the original piece.
Lessons for the Atheist Community
What followed the publication of this criticism further proves the need for that intersectional self-criticism within atheism. Though the essay was a criticism of rhetoric, the backlash largely ignored this and was stunning in its lack of engagement with the substance.
Many of the rejoinders came from people who seemed not to have read the post. There were calls to prove Islamic feminism existed (something demonstrated with outside literature — check those links, folks). There were incredulous, exasperated demands about how he possibly could have engaged fruitfully in light of my criticism (I point you to the last paragraph of the piece). There were claims that I was ignoring the plight of Muslim women in danger (read paragraph four). There were angry accusations of cultural relativism (ignoring that I cited, linked to, and reflected the opinions of many — not all, but many — Muslim feminists).
The list goes on. So many of the laments were directly addressed in the piece, but that didn’t stop the rageful comments pretending they were not.
A great deal of the reactions didn’t even pretend to respond to the piece. Instead, they resorted to personal attacks. I have since been called a sexist, a bigot, a racist, heartless, malicious, retarded, vile, evil — all for having the gall to criticize the rhetoric of a prominent atheist, for believing we were capable of more.
To be sure, not all the reactions can be characterized as such. Some raised valid questions, which is why this response was written. But the reactions that were defensive at best and derogatory at their ugliest were overwhelming. If this is how the community responds to calls for growth, we’re in trouble. If the community does not condemn such reactions vocally and publicly, it’s not just Dawkins failing to learn from the history of intersectional struggle; it’s the atheist movement as a whole.
We can do better. We should do better. We must do better. And that, from the beginning, has been the entire point.
Side note: I’ll say here what I said at the original post. I will engage *substantive debate* in the comments section on this post. If your comments are addressed in the piece and you ignore that, or if your comment does nothing to further the conversation at hand, your comment will hit the trash bin. Fair warning.