“No offence, but…”

14 Aug

No offence

Professional atheist Richard Dawkins was in the news last week, after comments he made regarding the number of Muslim Nobel laureates (10) compared with the number of Nobel laureates to have graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge (32). In typical diplomatic style, Dawkins tweeted, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Now, there are plenty of things that are a little off with this statement. For one thing, limited by 140 characters, it doesn’t go much beyond the level of “snarky dig”. Dawkins didn’t ask why this is, or offer an explanation of why this is. Given his agenda – and he does have one – it’s clear he was suggesting the religion itself holds back scientific research and learning, thus affecting the number of Muslims ever likely to win a Nobel prize. He was also acknowledging, albeit in a way that sounds a little bitchy (again – that 140 character limit affects tone), that Islam’s contribution to science during the Middle Ages was significant.

Predictably enough, there was a backlash. Predominantly left wing pundits the length and breadth of Britain, were up in arms, with Chavs author Owen Jones leading the charge. Dawkins was accused of racism, he responded by pointing out that Islam isn’t a race, the pundits were even more outraged, nothing was resolved, and everyone stomped off home in a sulk, like the aftermath of a particularly fractious game of tag.

What was interesting, however, at least in my time line, was that the majority of those telling Dawkins to shut up weren’t Muslims. The Muslims I follow on Twitter, including the Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hassan and Radical author Maajid Nawaz, may have had a chuckle about Dawkins’s comments, and shared the odd tweet about how the world’s Muslims still hold more Nobel prizes than Richard Dawkins, but they all seemed to agree that within his badly-worded, clumsy tweet there was a grain of truth.

Two, if you include the bit about Medieval Islamic science being awesome.

Two, if you include the bit about Medieval Islamic science being awesome.

It is interesting that with a world population of over 1 billion there have been only ten Nobel laureates, and that only two of those were in the sciences. Of course, there could be many reasons for this. A Euro-American bias, for instance. Or the relative poverty of many predominantly Muslim countries. A scientist would – or at least should – factor all that in before co-opting the bare statistic to make a point. But even when we do factor that in, two Nobel prizes in science seems awfully low, given that some predominantly Muslim countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates) are so insanely wealthy, and their economies so dependent on science and technology.

Of course, it would be slightly odd if only Richard Dawkins were making this point, but the fact is, he’s not. In his excellent book Islam and its Discontents, the Islamic scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb asks more or less the exact same question. Of course, unlike Dawkins, Meddeb gives his argument room to breathe, and makes the point more clearly, but his tone is still one of anger and dismay – not at the Nobel committee, but at his own religion – or, at least, some schools of it – for stifling the sciences. Over on the other side of the Atlantic, the Canadian author Irshad Manji asks similar questions in her book The Trouble With Islam Today. And Meddeb and Manji aren’t alone.

Meddeb and Manji

Meddeb and Manji

It’s predictable that pundits such as Owen Jones should choose to ignore those voices, as they sought to paint Dawkins as a frothing-at-the-mouth Islamophobe. For some on the Left, any non-Muslim criticism of the contemporary practices of Islam counts as Islamophobia, and even when those practices (female circumcision, stoning, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny etc) are so clearly barbaric, they can’t quite bring themselves to condemn them with the same fervour with which they would condemn the troglodytes of the EDL and BNP.

Not long after the Dawkins brouhaha had died down, UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom caused another storm in a similarly-sized teacup when he criticised the UK government for sending billions in aid to “Bongo Bongo Land”. Again, people were “offended”. Bloom himself, looking like Victor Meldrew and almost literally swivel-eyed with bellicose indignation, popped up on Channel 4 News, for an hilariously stroppy interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Buried somewhere inside his pomposity, Bloom actually made one valid point.

Godfrey "Bongo Bongo Land" Bloom, about to storm out of an interview because his interviewer isn't taking the subject of foreign aid seriously.

Godfrey “Bongo Bongo Land” Bloom, about to storm out of an interview because his interviewer isn’t taking the subject of foreign aid seriously.

When told that the Labour MP Rushanara Ali was offended by his use of the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land”, Bloom replied, “She’s a political opponent. We all know the political game.”

Now, ignoring for one moment the fact that Bloom is a bigoted old prick, we should acknowledge that he has a point. Only seconds earlier Guru-Murthy had pointed out to Bloom that “Bongo Bongo Land” invariably refers to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Ali is of Bengali descent. Whatever offence she took couldn’t have been personal; a sleight against her family or her ancestors. And she is an opponent. In effect, she was taking offence – like Owen Jones et al – on somebody else’s behalf.

I would ask, was anyone genuinely offended by Bloom’s remarks? On hearing them, was anyone genuinely upset? Or rather, does his use of the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land” simply confirm what we already know; that UKIP’s members are mostly stuffy Daily Mail readers who play to the gallery, and whose cultural reference points and whose vision of an ideal Britain are all cemented somewhere in the mid-1930s? 

"Things were going swimmingly until this happened..."

“Things were going swimmingly until this happened…”

The point I’m trying to make is that in taking offence on behalf of the people of “Bongo Bongo Land” (and not just ridiculing those who say it) you’re practically admitting that there is such a place, and lending the phrase (and its user) far more validity than they deserve. In defending Islam against any criticism from a non-Muslim, you’re treating Muslims, and the different schools of Islam, as homogeneously and simplistically as the likes of Richard Dawkins and – at the far end of that particular spectrum – Tommy Robinson.

I say all this not as an apologia for Dawkins or Bloom, because neither deserves it. Dawkins has a habit of retweeting anything against Islam without checking who said it, thereby forming a rather queasy alliance with some genuinely unpleasant people, while Bloom is just a fucking idiot. Rather, this is an argument against the far too predictable Twitter mob, which leaps into action, ready to shut the door on a debate, when sometimes those it’s seeking to defend would like that discussion to go further.

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