Richard Dawkins, communalism, and the death of an Indian hero

Richard Dawkins and ex-Muslim campaigner Maryam Namazie at a rally in support of free expression, London, February 2012. Image Demotix/Peter Marshall

Richard Dawkins and ex-Muslim campaigner Maryam Namazie at a rally in support of free expression, London, February 2012. Image Demotix/Peter Marshall

This week has seen an outbreak of atheist infighting, as Observer and Spectator writer Nick Cohen launched an attack at writers such as the Independent’s Owen Jones and the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers. Their crime, apparently was to focus criticism on atheist superstar Richard Dawkins for his tweets, particularly those about Islam and Muslims, while not criticising religious fundamentalists.

Jones and Chivers have both replied, quite reasonably, to Cohen’s article.

Dawkins’s controversial tweets display a political naivety that can often be found in organised atheism and scepticism. Anyone who’s witnessed the ongoing row within that community over feminism will recognise a certain tendency to believe that science and facts alone are virtuous, and “ideologies” based on something other than empirical data just get in the way.

Hence the professor can tweet the statement “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge” as if this in itself proves something, without further thinking about the political, historical, social and, indeed, geographical factors behind this apparent fact, and then be surprised when people object.

I’m not going to suggest that Dawkins be silenced. He can and will tweet what he wants. And it’s worth pointing out that those on the liberal left who have raised concerns about Dawkins’s pigeonholing of Muslims can be equally guilty of treating all adherents to a religion as a monolithic bloc: this happens mostly with Muslims, but often, at least in the UK with Roman Catholics as well, as if declaring the shahada or accepting the sacraments is akin to being assimilated into Star Trek’s Borg. Any amount of non-Muslim commentators who opposed the Iraq war, for example will tell you that “Muslims” care deeply about the Iraq war, neatly soliciting support for their arguments while also casting themselves as friends of a minority group. And for a great example of treating “Catholics” as a single entity, Johann Hari’s address ahead of the visit by former pope Benedict XVI to Britain in 2010, takes some beating:

I want to appeal to Britain’s Roman Catholics now, in the final days before Joseph Ratzinger’s state visit begins. I know that you are overwhelmingly decent people. You are opposed to covering up the rape of children. You are opposed to telling Africans that condoms “increase the problem” of HIV/Aids. You are opposed to labelling gay people “evil”. The vast majority of you, if you witnessed any of these acts, would be disgusted, and speak out. Yet over the next fortnight, many of you will nonetheless turn out to cheer for a Pope who has unrepentantly done all these things.

I believe you are much better people than this man. It is my conviction that if you impartially review the evidence of the suffering he has inflicted on your fellow Catholics, you will stand in solidarity with them – and join the [anti-Pope] protesters.”

Hari is literally telling people what they think. A bit like the Vatican tries to do.

Communalist rhetoric, whether used to attack or support certain groups, is the enemy of free speech, as it automatically discredits dissenting voices: “If you do not believe X, as I say members of group Y do, then you cannot be a true member of the group; ergo you can be ignored, or censored.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in India, where communalism, thanks to the British Empire, is enshrined in law. The 1860 penal code of India makes it illegal to “outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. This establishes, in an odd inversion of the United States’s model of secularism, a state where all religions are privileged, while those who criticise them are unprotected. And in India, that can be dangerous.

Sixty-seven-year-old Narendra Dabholkar was killed this week, shot dead on his morning walk.

Dabholkar was a rationalist activist, in a country where that means a little bit more than agreeing or disagreeing with Richard Dawkins. Dabholkar and his comrades such as Sanal Edamaruku have for years been engaged in a war against the superstition that leaves poor Indians open to exploitation from “holy men”. A large part of their work involves revealing the workings of the tricks of the magic men, like a deadly serious Penn and Teller. Edamaruku famously appeared on television in 2008, trying not to laugh as a guru attempted to prove that he can kill the rationalist with his mind. Dabholkar was agitating for a bill in that would curtail “magic” practitioners in Maharashtra state.

Edamaraku is now in exile, fleeing blasphemy charges and death threats that resulted after he debunked the “miracle” of a weeping statue at a Mumbai Catholic church. His friend is dead. Both victims of those who have most to gain from communalism: the con men and fundamentalists for whom the individual dissenting voice is a threat. Atheists, sceptics and everyone else have a duty to protect these people, and to avoid easy generalisations, whether malicious or well meant.

Moroccan atheist Imad Habib hiding from police

Moroccan atheist Imad Eddin Habib is now on the run, after police began searching for him last week. Habib told Irshad Manji‘s Moral Courage TV that officers confronted his father, asking him to bring an end to his son’s activism. Habib is the founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims in Morocco, which aims for the “application of a secular constitution.”


The 22-year-old student has gained a reputation for his activism and controversial posts online, including a photograph of himself eating ice cream during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. Shortly before he went into hiding, Habib was featured in an article on a high profile Moroccan news site, and police were searching for him hours after it was published.

Atheism is not criminalised in Morocco, but Article 220 of the country’s Penal Code forbids “shaking a Muslim’s faith”. The article’s vague wording can be used to punish anyone who criticises Islam openly, or promotes any other faith with a jail sentence of up to three years. Ahmed Benchemsi wrote that this says that “when you live in Morocco, you can think whatever you want of religion, but you better keep it for yourself.”

Habib is now said to be moving between the homes of friends, after his parents threatened to hand him over to the police if he were to return to their home in Casablanca. Even though he is uncertain about what will happen to him next, Habib is still committed to his beliefs, and called on his fellow Moroccans to push for the country to “work together to apply the universal human rights.”

“If Morocco doesn’t apply universal human rights, we will turn into another religious dictatorship”,  he said.

Atheist convicted of insulting Muslims apologises on Facebook

Atheist Ghazi Beji, who was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in absentia last March for insulting Islam has written an apology to Muslims. Beji, who fled the country before being sentenced for publishing a satirical book entitled “The illusion of Islam, published the apology on his Facebook page and in an interview with this week:

I belong to a very conservative family. At 12, I used to recite Quran. I took part in a Quran recitation competition at the Grand Mosque of Mahdia, and I won the first prize. When I mixed with Muslims, I discovered catastrophes and I was very disappointed. I saw them boasting about an external appearance of Islam, either clothes or utterances…But, in action they were faithless to God’s book…I was thinking about it and I wanted Muslims to wake up from their slumber. They would talk about truth but would never utter it if it harms their own interests, they would pray but would not care about garbage next to the mosque, and they would preach about justice but would not put it into practice. My idea was to provoke Muslims.


Verdict postponed in case of Tunisia Muhammad cartoon

Monastir Appeal Court has once again postponed issuing a verdict in the case of Jabeur Mejri. On 28 March, a primary court sentenced Mejri along with his friend Ghazi Beji to seven and a half years in prison for publishing cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad. Meji is currently serving his jail sentence, while Beji is now in exile after fleeing the country to avoid persecution.

Defence lawyer Bochra Bel Haji Hmida told Index that Mejri is to be examined in order to determine whether or not he is mentally stable.

Bel Haji Hmida also said that according to Mejri’s family, he has begun to pray to God. “I do not know if it is out of weakness, or if he is convinced,” said the lawyer.

“He is suffering; he faces enormous pressure. His family has received death threats”, she added.

Previously, Mejri reportedly told police that he “does not suffer from any mental disorder” and that the cartoons he published on his Facebook profile page reflect his “beliefs”. When interrogated by police, he said “I do admit that I had published cartoons, and expressions offensive to the prophet…Such acts reflect my beliefs as I do not recognise the Islamic religion, and I am an atheist”.

The next appeal session will take place on 4 June.