The cancellation of public speeches due to the fraught views of speakers on sensitive issues has become a staple of our daily news. We appear incapable of addressing the problem in a meaningful, straightforward way, and the negotiations over the line that separates hate speech and criticism so often fail. This time, the controversy emerged around the cancellation of Richard Dawkins’s speech at a live public radio event in Berkeley, due to his tweets and comments about Islam.
To be clear, I have zero sympathy with Dawkins’s views. When it comes to Islam, I find him deeply prejudiced and, for a scientist, surprisingly dismissive of facts. He has called Islam (and not Islamism, as he claims in his letter) the greatest force of evil, the most evil religion in the world, has condescendingly asked for a feminist revolution in the Muslim world without bothering to google it for five minutes and learn that it began a long time ago. His interventions have done little more than pouring salt into deep wounds of our troubled world, widening an already dangerous fissure, and providing fodder for the extremists of all sides. The issue here is not the content of his views, but denying him a platform to express them.
In the statement released by the radio station we read: ‘he had offended and hurt – in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people.’ That is the main reason for the cancellation. To me, the most problematic part of the phrase is the word ‘people’: who are the ‘hurt and offended people’? who is representing them? The question is never asked, because it is apparently commonplace to assume Muslims are being hurt by the slightest criticism of their religion. This is the view shared by many on left and right, and the fight is over whether the rest of the world should hurt them or not.
Hailing from the Muslim world, I have naturally been surrounded by Muslims of all backgrounds throughout my life. Whenever a controversy of this kind emerges, I have a hard time spotting the ‘hurt and offended’ people. They are out there, of course, but I doubt if they make up any meaningful portion of Muslims. I also doubt that the most of the offended ones care so much about Dawkins as to campaign to deplatform him. Like other people, most of Muslims are too busy to care what Dawkins says or believes, and among those who do care, most of them are willing to listen to him and read his books and debate him. The voices of those Muslims, however, is often absent from such debates.
What we usually see in these cases is a community of progressives being offended on behalf of Muslims, opposing the conservatives who go out of their ways to offend Muslims. Those we know as ‘Muslims’ (which, by the way, includes countless secular people who happen to have been born somewhere in the Muslim world), have become a buffer for a struggle among Westerners, the subject of fights between left and right, college students and conservative agitators, FOX NEWS and MSNBC, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. They are talked about all the time, but we hardly hear their voices or see their faces.
In her book On Violence, Hanna Arendt offers a sharp criticism of Jean Paul Sartre’s introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Fanon’s book is packed with ideas about decolonization of the so-called third world. He puts forth a mix of brilliant intellectual insights and a militant call to arms. Arendt believes that Sartre cherrypicks the passages that encourage violence, takes them out of context, and deploys his impressive dexterity with words to create a poetical aura around them: ‘Violence, like Achilles’ spear, can heal the wounds it has inflicted’, ‘Sons of violence: at every instance, they draw their humanity from it’, etc. Sartre irresponsibly projects his idealized notion of the struggle of the oppressed upon Fanon. The image of Fanon in Europe, probably to this day, is more tied to Sartre’s rendition of his work than the work itself.
This is an example of what Arendt calls the ‘disinterested leadership’: European intellectuals who want to fight their conservative enemies or aggressive governments, and in the process assume the leadership of a movement that has no tangible bearing on their lives, and damage it by their inclination for idealization and romanticization. ‘Natives of all underdeveloped countries unite!’ can only come from someone in Sartre’s position. No actual leader of any anti-colonial movement anywhere in the world has ever labored under such a grand illusion.
What is happening in America today with regard to Muslims is not that different: progressive Americans are up against conservative Americans. On the former front the Muslim voices make up a tiny minority, on the latter they are nonexistent. This is a perfect example of the leadership of the disinterested: if the Islamophobe-in-chief and his acolytes get their way, the people fighting over Dawkins’s right to speech will not be affected. During the travel ban debacle we all witnessed who the potential victims will be: those brown-skinned immigrants who happen to carry Middle Eastern passports, those accented voices that desperately try to prove their innocence, those frail-bodied grandparents and terrified children that have to explain why they will not pose security threat to America.
The ‘offended Muslim’ do exist, obviously, and they can get violent: from the Rushdie affair to Danish cartoons, the evidence is overwhelming. The problem is that a very small minority of Muslims have hijacked the image of an entire community and dominated the Western imagination. All other Muslims get lumped in with them as the ‘hurt and offended people,’ and their voices are hardly heard.
A large factor, of course, is the shockingly distorted and unjust portrayal of Muslims by the mainstream media. All the patterns and structures Edward Said teased out in his book Covering Islam are well and alive after more than thirty years. It is not just FOX: you will be hard-pressed to find a Muslim eating cookies on CNN or reading a sci-fi novel on NBC or discussing the stock market on ABC. They are called on only in the wake of a terrorist act, and even then not to analyze, but to apologize. In this climate, demanding fairness from the media is a total fantasy.
The only way to have a leverage in current debates around Islam is to have many strong and effective voices, to the extent that Muslim voices become indispensable. We need a dozen Reza Aslans from all across the spectrum, articulate sensible voices capable of challenging the army of professional Islam-haters on air.
It is no longer a matter of intellectual contribution or media hype. The Trump administration is hell-bent on targeting Muslims, and the possibility of being persecuted based on religion or country of origin is now all too real. The stakes are too high, and the struggle shouldn’t be left to the disinterested.