04/29/2013 12:45 am ET Updated Jun 28, 2013

Is Richard Dawkins a Racist?

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The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Richard Dawkins hail from the same intellectual birthplace, and so let's start by looking at how the OED defines racism. According to the OED's rather long entry, racism is:

The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one's cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions.

As a follower of Dawkins' work on atheism, and an admirer of his rhetorical flair, I think I can say with certainty that he finds the notion of white supremacy abhorrent, and calling him a racist as defined by his home institution's dictionary is inaccurate. However, some of his recent tweets, brought to my attention by a recent article in the London-based Independent, suggest that it's not racism we should be worried about, but xenophobia. The OED defines xenophobia rather laconically as "a deep antipathy to foreigners," which doesn't quite fit the bill either; but the entry in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary does, it seems. It defines xenophobia as the "fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign."

How does Dawkins fit into all of this, you may ask. Well, on March 1st, he tweeted the following: "Haven't read Koran so couldn't quote chapter & verse like I can for Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today." In a wildly popular tweet from a few weeks later, he added: "Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur'an. You don't have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about Nazism."

This is a shocking assertion which appears to have become intuitive to a lot of people--the tweet has been favorited by 466 people and retweeted by a whopping 809. But it is an assertion that outside the Islamophobic universe appears entirely unwarranted, not to mention gratuitously offensive. It is akin to suggesting that one may fairly make generalizations about the West on the basis of the horrific atrocities committed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who have collectively killed far greater numbers than al-Qaeda and its lackeys. Very few people would describe Nazis as Western terrorists, although that's where they originated. Why then do we so readily use the label Islamic/Muslim terrorist simply because they originate from Muslim-majority lands? Shouldn't we take the time to develop a similarly nuanced understanding of terrorism that originates in Muslim countries as we appropriately do with Hitler's terrorism that originated in a Western one with an ideology that is also of distinctly Western origin? As it happens, in mainstream Western discourse, we are far more discriminating when it comes to ourselves--we would never conflate the likes of Stalin with the mainstream of Western thought--but when it comes to others, we remain much less charitable.

Perhaps, however, I shouldn't single out Dawkins for such absurdly unintelligent remarks. Another leading atheist, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, appears to be even more extreme than him. Dawkins may technically be a xenophobe, but according to Princeton scholar and atheist, Jeffrey Stout, Harris teeters dangerously near the totalitarian. In a short essay entitled "The Folly of Secularism," Stout examines the implications of what he suggests is some of Harris' unevidenced animus towards religion in general; although the quotes are taken from passages of Harris' The End of Faith that give special attention to Islam. In it, Harris asks rhetorically whether Muslims should be free to believe in their faith; and later adds that "we have simply lost the right to our myths." In response, Stout asks, "If theists, be they extremists or not, have no right to their convictions, it seems that people who know better, people like Harris, will be within their rights if they use the coercive power of the state to suppress theism" (p. 537).

Later, in the same article, he concludes that "[Harris'] hints about the need to stop granting rights to theists brings him at least into the vicinity of Lenin's view that until the day when faith gives way to reason, an enlightened avant garde must rule on the people's behalf" (p. 538). Harris has also been criticized elsewhere for comments he made in the same book suggesting that a "nuclear first strike" against Islamists that "would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day [...] may be the only course of action available to us" (p. 129). Here, Harris is countenancing murder on a scale beyond the holocaust. Thank God he's a pop intellectual, and not a Pentagon planner!

Let me close by returning to the issue of racism. Focusing on it too exclusively may, ironically, cause us to miss the point of why we rejected racism in the first place. At the end of the day, the West eventually renounced racism not only because it is scientifically untenable, but, more importantly, because it lead to the marginalization, persecution, and oppression of minority groups we did not particularly like because they were different from us in some way. The reality is that the vast majority of the world's Muslims are non-white, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Dawkins and his fellows may remonstrate that what they object to is a belief system, freely adopted by its holders, but they are still participating in the unhealthy marginalization of a minority group, which, if left unchecked and lacking in nuance, may eventually cause history to repeat itself with Muslim victims.