The attendees of the debate titled, “Islam or Atheism: Which One Makes More Sense?” came from diverse backgrounds. A group of Muslim women felt uncomfortable sitting with men, so they requested seating separate from the men. The debate organizers accommodated this request and let them watch the debate in a different area in the university. However, upon seeing this, a group of neo-atheists became convinced that this was a form of “gender apartheid” and that Muslim women were being discriminated against. They decided to sit in their section, which made the Muslim women feel very uncomfortable, and they were asked to leave. The atheist intellectual and debater Lawerence Krauss assumed that these Muslim women were being discriminated against by being forced to sit in a certain location, when in fact it had been their choice. He argued that it was “gender segregation,” but the university has recently upheld the rulings that what occurred at this event was not unjust, and there had been no forced segregation; it was simply a case of the event organizers meeting the requests of a group of women who had requested to sit by themselves. Thus, there had been seating for both men and women, in addition to this women’s only section.
A group of men looked to protest against this “gender apartheid” by sitting in the woman’s only section. Richard Dawkins even encourages comparing this incident to Rosa Parks, and Maryam has compared the social arrangement to South Africa apartheid and has drawn upon the imagery of the Civil Rights Movement. As an African-American Male Muslim who is affected by both racism, Islamophobia and benefits from patriarchy, I find this these comparisons to be incredibly silly. Obviously, there is a huge difference between a university seeking to accommodate the social customs of various groups of people and an enforced system of racial segregation and apartheid.
Richard Dawkins states: “After Lawrence walked out, the organizers, perhaps worried about adverse publicity, ran after him and persuaded him to come back, agreeing to let the three young men return to their seats in the “women’s section.” …It’s a bit of a shame that no women, in the spirit of Rosa Parks, moved to the men’s section.” Furthermore, on Twitter, Richard Dawkins states, “Support @MaryamNamazie against faith-based gender apartheid. Be a new Rosa Parks: join Maryam’s segregation busters.”
The women did not move to a separate seating section in the spirit of Rosa Parks because they felt their sense of empowerment was away from men and with their other sisters. They were simply content to sit where they were. Yet, out of pure arrogance, Richard Dawkins is acting as if he knows what is best for Muslim women, and in his own patriarchal sentiments, he seeks to force them to mingle with men against their will while simultaneously posturing as a heroic crusader for women’s rights. In truth, it was merely a matter of the event organizers being sensitive to the needs of everyone present. Richard Dawkins greatly misconstrued these events and set himself up as an “anti-racist” and “anti-sexist” figure, taking the opportunity to claim that this social arrangement was constructed by big, bad Islamists wanting to suppress Muslim women.
Contrary to Maryam’s tweet, I do not support sex apartheid. In fact, its because I strongly support self-determination and justice for women that I feel obligated to support the right of Muslim women to sit where they want, including away from men, if they choose. As a male African-American Muslim, I understand how patriarchy violently seeks to control women’s lives, and so I am vehemently against Muslim women being forced to sit with men against their will. The reality is that Dawkins and Maryam’s “anti-gender apartheid” accusations are simply an attempt to gain control over Muslim women while acting as if their actions are heroic. Even if one does not agree with Muslim women sitting in a separate group, there are more appropriate ways to address it than making immature hyperbolic comparisons to apartheid South Africa and calling on people to be a modern-day Rosa Parks.
But the question is, why do neo-atheists use such hyperbolic language? By conjuring up the images of Rosa Parks, Richard Dawkins can effectively co-opt historical African-American figures into purposes of Islamophobia while simultaneously feigning as a progressive figure who is simply for fighting for Muslim women’s rights.
So Richard Dawkins can compare Muslim women voluntarily seeking to sit by themselves to the system of South African apartheid, despite the fact that he stayed absolutely silent during the latter event, not giving it a thought? Perhaps him and Sam Harris could have come up with a scientific study to confront the actual apartheid that was taking place. Though he proclaims he is a vehement advocator of women’s rights, with the patriarchy stemming from Islam, he makes his misogyny blatantly obvious by contributing to the erroneous stereotypes that hurt Muslim women and reinforce the idea that they are repressed and devoid of political agency.
It’s laughable that he would try to twist this incident, in which no Muslim women were repressed or discriminated against, according to his own agenda. The only real issue at the debate was the men who chose—by sitting in the women’s only section—to cross the boundaries the Muslim women had clearly set, violating their desire to simply sit by themselves in privacy and further contributing to the patriarchal notion that men should dictate where women it. Maryam and Richard Dawkins insist that it is a case of discrimination and compare it to a time when African-Americans were forced to sit at the back of the bus due to the alleged inferiority of their race and superiority of whites. Their comparison is completely inaccurate both in terms of choice (i.e. the Muslim women willingly sat by themselves, while African-Americans were forced to sit at the back of the bus) and in terms of the scope of the event.
So what is the real reason for this grossly inaccurate idea Richard Dawkins is spreading about the incident at the debate event? White privilege occurs when Richard Dawkins seeks to equate Muslims who choose to sit away from men as a form of empowerment with the victims of the South African apartheid, though he has never protested against the actual south african apartheid and is contorting the facts of why the Muslim women were seated by themselves. Under Islamophobic Patriarchy, Muslim women will be boxed into tropes as victims who are devoid of political agency and are repressed who need white heroes like Richard Dawkins to come to their aid. He aims to box Muslims into a trope as the worst people imaginable by comparing them to the perpetrators of apartheid South Africa while his right-hand partner, Maryam,claims, “Islamism’s sex segregation is the apartheid of our era,” thereby perpetuating the false belief that the era of white supremacy in social affairs is over and that a “new era” of apartheid is being driven by Islamists without political power or a nation of their own.In Dawkins’ eyes, accommodating the requests of a group of Muslim women is equivalent to the apartheid regime of South Africa.
Moreover, Richard Dawkins’ Twitter use consists of criticizing Muslim nations for their various social problems and blaming Islam for it. This allows him, as a white first-world atheist, to sit back and benefit from the colonial plunder his nation acquires from colonialism, continuous acts of military aggression, and the multiple coup d’états which maintain corrupt leaders and Western puppets in third-world nations; this, in turn, keeps the people impoverished while increasing European corporations.
There are many examples of Richard Dawkins taking advantage of white privilege. For instance, he has been selling shirts that say, “We are all African,” promoting them as being based upon a scientific genetic affinity. Yet, he fails to recognize that under a global white supremacist power-structure, the term “African” has areal bio-political definition outside of mere genetic affinity. Africa is substantially underdeveloped due to European colonialism. The country continues to be exploited and its citizens impoverished due to Western multi-national corporations that fund and incite wars to continually exploit their resources. This is the plight facing true Africans, and Europeans are the ones who benefit from this unethical behavior. Being a white European, Richard Dawkins wearing a “We are all Africans” shirt is a move that is both privileged and nonsensical considering the fact that he is far removed from the struggles and poverty that the global white supremacist power has subjected Africans to.
White privilege is a huge problem. It occurs in the neo-atheist movement when Richard Dawkins utilizes the lack of Nobel prizes in the Muslim world while ignoring the history in which colonialism and the lack of social mobility may play a part. The implication is that the Muslim world and the West are on an equal playing field on which to compete, though he ignores the history of Western colonialism in Muslim lands.
White privilege also occurs in the neo-atheist movement when Christopher Hitchens say the Native American genocide was justified for the “technological and scientific” progress it allegedly led to despite the fact that this technology benefited whites while native-Americans continue to suffer on reservations.
This recent attempt by neo-atheists to co-opt African-American civil rights icons such as “Rosa Parks” to further anti-muslim social causes while staying silent on real racial injustices and even perpetuating them must be seen as a trivialization of the African-American struggle and the deliberate disrespect of such great figures.
It’s time for neo-atheists to confront their white privilege.