Richard Dawkins's, 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 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 mainly because the rationale of the author cannot be fully understood.
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.
In one of the latest tweets, he was very blunt when he said "Haven't read Koran so could not quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today"
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 to 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 defends his views by saying that a statement of fact is not bigotry and that religion is not like a race as you can convert into the former. His supporters also claim that he has also been very harsh on other religions and it is Muslims' own inability to deal with criticism which is to be blamed. It is being said that reaction of the Muslims is often more than warranted and they lack ability to enter into a civic debate.
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? Do Muslims need to be shown how evil their faith is and only by doing so, can they be made to awaken from state of self delusion and and the rest of the world spared from Islam's wrath?
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 identity is objectively allotted 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 left, 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 ethnic identity.
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.
There is much more to an individual other than his faith and frankly his success or failure or for that matter his outward behavior is an outcome of many factors.
And while I fully I agree that Mr. Dawkins himself is a fair person and is not a bigot, his statements do contribute to xenophobia of all Muslims due to the fact that they follow Islam and are made to look like extremists. Moreover, many of his statements are used by the extreme right to justify their hatred and bigotry. This is a very significant fact which is often completely overlooked by Mr. Dawkins and his supporters.
One has to keep in mind that Islam is not a monolithic religion and has various strains, some tolerant and some not so tolerant. In fact because of the crucial differences, there is a fight even within Islam.
Islamic texts may contain some harsh statements with respect to today's times but the Islamic thought which interprets it is extremely heterogeneous. Some strain of thoughts interpret Holy text literally and some contextually. Some scholars claim that infidels should be fought and some claim that Jihad is only compulsory in self defense.
So calling Islam evil without distinguishing between various strains is frankly immature and shows lack of proper analysis.
Right now most of the problems we are facing are due to emergence of what is known as Salafi Islam. It is the most reactionary strain and aims to reform Islam to bring it in harmony with what was practiced in 7th and 8th century.
Moreover this resurgence is a relatively new phenomenon. If Islam is really complete evil and its followers are by deduction also evil then something has to explain as to why the world started to face problems since early 1970s.
Today, we see Middle East and casually call it a hotbed of Islamic radicalism but we fail to even acknowledge that in 1960s and 1970s, it was not Islam but Pan Arab nationalism -underpinned by secular and socialist ideologies- which was the dominant narrative.
To some extent the resurgence of this Salafi and hard-line Islam is due to interplay of international developments focusing that area and also due to failure of domestic rulers in bringing widespread prosperity and openness to the society.
Hard line Islam will continue to flourish if the status quo persists. You cannot counter it by calling entire Islamic thought as evil and its followers as fanatics. Such sweeping statements do contribute to xenophobia and do nothing to effectively engage Muslims.
In fact by calling even moderate Muslims as followers of fanatic faith and justifying it as "honest" and "candid" feedback, you are merely alienating Muslims. Yes, Dawkins may be harsh on Christianity as well, but he by own admission considers Islam a greater evil. Moreover the western societies have evolved over centuries in such a way that religion's influence as well as its reverence has waned and consequently they can easily take even unfair criticism. Same is not the case with Muslim countries and here we need to be careful in engaging. If you need to be critical, choose your words wisely and avoid sweeping statements like entire Islam is evil. Such statements are politically insensitive and even factually inaccurate.
At the same time I would like to acknowledge that the many Muslims also need to deeply introspect and understand that opinion about their religion is formed by the way some Muslims behave.
This is what Muslims need to understand that one can not just completely dismiss every claim 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 hard line and extremist interpretation of Islam and is ready to resort to violence, to perpetuate its implementation. With respect to terrorism, I have continued to witness that an overwhelming majority of Muslims is in denial.
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 worst seek to justify it by calling it a reaction.
Moreover, while Salafi Islam is definitely very hard-line, some of the other strains too need reform. Many Muslim countries after all have regressive laws which are based on religion and a majority of population is either content or too afraid to challenge these.
As long as we continue to be in denial, unfortunately Dawkins's opinions though stereotyping, will continue to resonate with a large audience.