I was one of the many KPFA listeners who protested the station’s plans to host a talk by Richard Dawkins, and I encouraged friends and associates to do likewise. But I would have done none of that, and I doubt KPFA would have cancelled his talk, if the issues had been as portrayed in Berkeleyside’s July 21 article about the controversy.
The article gives ample space to Dawkins’ claims that he has denounced not Islam itself and Muslims in general, but only the horrific abuses perpetrated by some Muslims — “the misogyny, homophobia, and violence of Islamism.” These are indeed “oppressive cruelties,” and he is absolutely right that “Muslims — particularly Muslim women — are the prime victims.”
Some of his tweets and other published comments do focus on these issues. If that were the whole story, there would have been no controversy. I probably would have attended his talk myself (though hoping he would not simply denounce these well-known evils, but also try to explain their roots – including the role of the West in generating Muslim hostility, from the Crusades right up to the current U.S. bombing campaigns against at least seven Muslim countries).
A few minutes of googling for “‘Richard Dawkins’ Islamophobia,” however, clearly reveals that many of his comments about Islam and Muslims are not about the specific religious-political ideology known as Islamism, nor about the inhumane practices found in some Muslim cultures, but about Islam itself, a faith with which almost a quarter of the world’s population identifies. This tweet, for example: “I think Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today. I’ve said so, often and loudly.” And his frank admission that he’s never read the Qu’ran, the fundamental scripture of the religion he so despises.
Then there’s the tweet Dawkins sent out just last year with a link to a YouTube video called “Feminists Love Islamists.” Combining crude misogyny with its Islamophobia, it features an apparently Western woman and a Middle Eastern man whining about how marginalized they are, then ends with the man asking, “So do you mind if I rape you now?,” to which the woman replies, “Don’t be silly; it’s not rape when a Muslim does it!” (In response to Dawkins promoting that video, a major conference on “science and skepticism” withdrew its invitation to him to speak.)
At issue are not just a few, or even many, off-the-cuff tweets. Nathan Lean, research director of a project on Islamophobia at Georgetown University and one of the U.S.’s leading authorities on the subject, has closely studied Dawkins’ position. His conclusion: “The ugly underbelly of his worldview is anti-Muslim hate.”
Lean’s analysis was published not on some obscure far-left or Muslim-oriented website, but at the thoroughly moderate Salon.com. Similar articles have appeared in other outlets that can be characterized as, at most, moderately progressive, including the Atlantic, the New Republic, and the Independent.
It’s certainly true, as KPFA’s initial explanation of the cancellation put it, that Dawkins’s statements have “offended and hurt” many. But even for those who may not take personal offense, there’s a major political issue at stake: since 2001, but even more so in the Trump era, right-wing politicians, neocons, and other militarists have fanned the flames of Islamophobia in order to mobilize support both for the unending wars this country is engaged in and for the ongoing expansion of the surveillance state and other restrictions on our civil liberties.
I don’t know whether Dawkins supports those policies. But by sponsoring his appearance – and touting him on the air many times a day in the weeks leading up to the cancellation as a “reassuring” “voice of reason” – KPFA was helping to legitimate the worldview that underpins them.
The Berkeleyside article quotes a friend of Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, denouncing the cancellation in terms of “free speech.” Many articles in other publications around the world have used the same framing. But “free speech” is a red herring in this context: KPFA isn’t trying to stop Dawkins from speaking his piece. The U.S. Constitution guarantees us the right to express our opinions; it does not give us any right to have others organize opportunities for us to do so. As KPFA put it in a follow-up statement now prominently posted on its website, “While Mr. Dawkins has every right to express his views, KPFA has every right not to sponsor and profit from an event spreading them.”
In fact, the station has now offered Dawkins a chance to explain his views to anyone who cares to listen: its statement says “We have since extended an offer to Mr. Dawkins to discuss this matter on KPFA’s airwaves, a forum where his assertions can be engaged and challenged, but KPFA will have no financial stake in promoting them. He has not yet responded.”
Let’s hope he takes up that offer – and that KPFA finds someone to debate him who can truly expose his position on Islam for the bigotry it is.
Henry Norr is a Berkeley resident, a retired journalist, and a former member of KPFA's Local Station Board.