New Atheism and the art of civilised dialogue – Part I

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Sabahat Ali Rajput, Missionary, Mexico

Civility is not the cleanness of one’s shave, the knot on one’s tie or the smile he wears before the masses, for by the blade of his tongue, the mace of his mind and the hatred of his heart, he may be no more than a snake in a suit. There are certain sentiments which are precious and sacrosanct to everyone. When these beliefs are insulted, especially publicly, a sinister seed of hatred and pain is sown. With time and the constant bombardment of such insults, the roots of this seed become entrenched in the mind and their unassuming branches begin to possess one’s actions. Such a wound drives the victim toward retaliating, perpetuating devastating chain reaction of resentment and frustrations between the parties.

Richard Dawkins has devoted an entire chapter in his book, The God Delusion to what he calls the “undeserved respect” that religious sentiments enjoy today. He writes:

“The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe ‘religious liberty’.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 23, Bantam Press [2006])

The very first sentence is preposterously antithetical to the Islamic philosophy of intellectual dialogue. It is amazing to see how conveniently atheists like Dawkins take grossly ill-afforded liberties to dub all religions as one. So far as Islam is concerned, it demands rational justification as a prerequisite to faith and when elucidating its teachings, the Holy Quran itself puts forth numerous rational arguments in support of its statements. In fact, it calls upon those who seek an intellectual contest with the Holy Quran in the words, “Bring forth your proof and your evidence” (Surah al-Anbiya, Ch.21: V.25).

Hence, insofar as Islam is concerned, matters of faith do have a rational basis and scholastic dialogue requires backing evidence to substantiate one’s claims. However, to publicly mock and ridicule someone’s religious belief in childish ways is both juvenile and inane. Caricaturising sacrosanct personalities is one such example. While it goes against the dictates of good will and respect in general, it is also malicious because more often than not, such disrespectful expression is not limited to the confines of quill and ink – eventually, it has a physical impact as well.

Evan Davis, a well-known BBC Reporter, interviewed Mr Dawkins and, in the context of how people of different belief systems should interact, he asked Mr Dawkins, “What do you think the rules of the game should be?” Dawkins replied:

“I think the rules of the game are that you should be allowed to believe anything you like – and of course that’s right – but that you shouldn’t impose your beliefs on other people. And so, any creed that thinks it has the right to say, ‘Not only do we believe this, but you’ve got to believe it too or else’, I mean, that is a very very serious violation of everything that democracy stands for.” When asked about the burka ban in France, he surprisingly replied:

“I’m not in favour of the burka ban; it seems to me to be a violation of individual liberty. I mean, when I see woman in a full burka with just the slit, I feel personally offended. But it’s an important part of what I believe that what I feel personally is irrelevant, what I feel, nobody else should have to abide by what I feel. And that applies on the other side as well.” (Richard Dawkins on Islam, Jews, science and the burka, BBC Newsnight, Evan Davis speaks to Richard Dawkins, Published on 18 February 2015)

Professor Dawkins must be applauded for analysing the burka ban relatively unbiasedly and, based on the preservation of personal liberty, defending women’s right to wear what they please. However, while his belief that “nobody else should have to abide by what I feel” sounds fair enough, it can cause more problems than it resolves, if left to the whims and caprice of the public. After all, the feelings and sentiments of other members in society are of utmost importance.

It seems that Dawkins does not understand the destructive effects and consequences that can emerge when members of society publicly disrespect each other, especially where religion is concerned. By making statements such as, “Nobody else should have to abide by what I feel”, New Atheists lay the groundwork for various problems. Not considering the feelings and sentiments of one’s fellow men can be damaging on many levels, from fueling an increase in hate crimes, to even pushing individuals toward murder.

For instance, according to Psychology Today, two-thirds of all murders in the US are carried out by young men because of someone having publicly disrespected them. Criminologists have observed that numerous acts of violence stem from people being publicly disrespected. The United States witnessed a staggering rise in the number of “flashpoint killings” some years ago. Typically, the flashpoint killer was a young man who became furious after feeling that he had been disrespected in front of others. (Steve Taylor, “Slighting – the Dangers of Being Disrespected”, Psychology Today, 22 January 2012)

New Atheists posit that religious ideas and sentiments need not be respected because they are not backed by evidence. However, they do not just stop there. For example, Dawkins mentions that Andrew Mueller, a journalist, interviewed Sir Iqbal Sacranie, a “moderate” Muslim, about the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. Even after Sacranie tells Mueller that for Muslims, “the Prophet Muhammadsa is held in higher esteem, respect and regard than their own parents and children”, Mueller assumes falsely:

“… that the values of Islam trump anyone else’s, which is what any follower of Islam does assume, just as any follower of any religion believes that theirs is the sole way, truth and light. If people wish to love a seventh century preacher more than their own families, that’s up to them, but nobody else is obliged to take it seriously …”

Firstly, the conclusion that Andrew Mueller draws is a typical example of how New Atheists’ attitudes toward Islam are corrupted by premature bias. Mueller’s statement, that “the values of Islam trump anyone else’s” demonstrates how rigidly New Atheists hold on to their totally false and preconceived notions of Islam. Rather than focus on the actual point, which is the reasoning behind why Muslims were hurt and offended by the cartoons, Dawkins presents such quotes as suggest lies and falsehoods about Islam.

Secondly, arguing that “nobody is obliged to take it seriously” is fundamentally against the dictates of basic human respect. To go out of one’s way and publish derogatory drawings of a man held as the holiest person in mankind’s history by almost two billion people, just because freedom of speech allows it, is both impudent and unbecoming of any decent human. Especially when it would prove a source of humiliation, embarrassment, offense and outrage to people all over the world, it is but elementary to avoid tactics which fan the flames of disorder and violence. This is not to excuse any violence in response to written expressions of hate.

However, how many men will simply walk away if someone, God forbid, caricaturised their mothers in an unbecoming manner for the world to see in papers? Even after knowing that the Prophetsa of Islam is held with greater reverence by nearly two billion Muslims than their own mothers, how can one continue to brazenly declare that “nobody else is obliged to take it seriously”?

Islamic philosophy of communication

Islam pointedly rejects the expression of arrogant and condescending attitudes towards one’s fellow man and calls for a brilliant balance betwixt humility and dignity. It enshrines the sentiments of loving for others what we desire for ourselves and describes a Muslim as one from whose hands and tongue others are secure and safe. In fact, every interaction between Muslims begins by pronouncedly offering a prayer of peace for the other. Such is the spirit of communal good-will between Muslims and this is before any other exchange even occurs. Beyond this, the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa gave such enormous emphasis to speaking kindly and using dignified language that he deemed it an action which could save one from the hellfire (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab-ul-Adab).

By using the words “Kalimatin tayyibatin” (a pure word which is intrinsically and extrinsically useful and free of malice and rancour), the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa intended to convey a great many things. The words “Kalimatin tayyibatin” have been used and subsequently defined by the Holy Quran in a superbly comprehensive manner, which casts open vistas of understanding about the style in which a Muslim should always conduct his/her speech, discourse, dialogue and, in fact, all communication with his fellow man.

Curiously enough, the Holy Quran describes a good word as the following:

اَلَمۡ تَرَ کَیۡفَ ضَرَبَ اللّٰہُ مَثَلًا کَلِمَۃً طَیِّبَۃً کَشَجَرَۃٍ طَیِّبَۃٍ اَصۡلُہَا ثَابِتٌ وَّ فَرۡعُہَا فِی السَّمَآءِ

تُؤۡتِیۡۤ اُکُلَہَا کُلَّ حِیۡنٍۭ بِاِذۡنِ رَبِّہَا ؕ وَ یَضۡرِبُ اللّٰہُ الۡاَمۡثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّہُمۡ یَتَذَکَّرُوۡنَ

“Dost thou not see how Allah sets forth the similitude of a good word? [It is] like a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches [reach] into heaven. It brings forth its fruit at all times by the command of its Lord. And Allah sets forth similitudes for men that they may reflect.” (Surah Ibrahim, Ch.14: V.25-26)

In these words, Islam appeals to the loftiest excellences of human communication and challenges mankind to adopt such a towering caliber of speech that it becomes like a tree of life which is firmly entrenched in the soil of true and long-lasting goodness. This illustration is astonishing for several reasons.

Firstly, the roots of a tree draw upon the water in the subsurface of the ground and through the incredible mechanism of reverse osmosis move against the natural tug of gravity to supply water to the tree. The most impressive trees like the sequoia and large oaks are able to transmit up to 500 gallons of water a day – so much water in fact that the colossal volume of water vapour they emit as a result contributes to condensation and encourages rainfall, which in turn becomes a blessing for all life in the forest.

Hence, the first characteristic of a “good word” in Islam refers to such speech as draws upon the water of true and vestal goodness. If the subsoil of a person’s mind is truly pure, then the water that is unearthed to express one’s thoughts will also be pure and wholesome.

On the contrary, if the subsoil of one’s heart is without the water of human compassion and universal love, then that will reflect in his speech just the same.

The second salient characteristic in this example is the ingenious process of reverse osmosis. Just as gravity naturally pulls the water downward in a tree and reverse osmosis defies gravity in an epic struggle against the elements, heaving the water upward instead, so too does a good word demand that a believer fight against his animal self which seeks to drag down with it the water of human compassion and goodness.

Hence, the first quality of a good word is intrinsically intertwined with the soil of the human heart and the water of human empathy and respect, for it is this which irrigates the garden of delightful and beneficial speech that gives life to the people who hear it.

Secondly, no matter how much the gravity of the baser (carnal) self seeks to pull a believer down, he pushes upward and against it with this water of extraordinary benevolence and warmth, just like a tree forces water upward against gravity. The third major role of a tree’s roots is one of anchoring the body of the tree for its structural upkeep and resilience against powerful winds and other climatic factors which threaten to compromise its mechanical as well as operational integrity.

Hence, a good word is one whose roots are firmly grounded in truth and the placement of which is aligned with rationality and human reason. If the soil which contains the roots is too over-laden with clay or the oxygen and moisture levels are not favourable, the roots of a tree will not continue to grow, which consequently will weaken its structural potency.

Likewise, a good word must enjoy the soil of truth in whose nature it is to grow and flourish and must be aligned with the dictates of rationality and wisdom, which are no less than oxygen and nutrients to a tree.

The forest of pristine speech and communication

And so, Islam invites each believer to become a “Shajaratin tayyibatin” (pure and noble tree) within him/herself, so that the Ummah becomes as though a lush forest of good words, pure speech and beautiful communication. The trees of a forest envelop the ground with their shade, which is also why paradise is referred to as Jannah or a place covered by the cooling shade of trees. Just as trees take in carbon dioxide and other pollutants and respond with oxygen, so too does a believer hear unkind words and respond with speech, which gives life – whether that is by educating the attacker about the truth, pointing out the error of his ways or restraining him from hurting another.

As trees offer restorative nectars, splendorous beauty and invigorating fragrances, so too are Muslims challenged to become a sumptuous and verdant community of the trees of righteousness in their communication and speech. So lofty are the standards of human interaction to which Islam invites man that upon reflecting on the profound qualities which constitute Islamic etiquette, one is left thinking a thousand times before they utter any words at all.

It is this very idea which the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa conveyed, when he said, “Speak only if you have something good to say, otherwise, remain silent.” (Sahihain – Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim)

This is how Islam has also championed the genius of silence and encouraged its application over hurtful or non-beneficial speech. As any person who has ever regretted saying something will gladly observe, sometimes, the best thing to say is nothing at all.

The greatest tree of nobility in action

The pristine example of the Holy Prophetsa of Islam lucidly exemplifies and demonstrates for us the application of the above-mentioned analogy of a good word being a pure tree. From the soil of goodness to the roots entrenched firmly in truth, to the life that his words gave, the following example beautifully paints a picturesque example of a true shajaratin tayyibatin.

When a Muslim proclaimed before a Jew that the Prophet Muhammadsa is greater than Mosesas, the Jew was offended by this and brought the case to Prophet Muhammadsa. According to the established attitudes of New Atheists, Prophet Muhammadsa should have simply brushed the matter aside, quoting freedom of speech as a justification.

According to them, the Muslim had every right to profess his belief in the superiority of Muhammadsa over Mosesas. Yet, the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa, who was a paragon of sympathy and mercy, saw that the Jew was hurt and his universal love and empathy for all of mankind compelled him to admonish the Muslim, saying:

لَا تُخَيِّرُونِي عَلَى مُوسَى

“Do not give me superiority over Moses.”

This is yet another example of how Islam fosters the ideals of going beyond the basic level of justice and seeks to be benevolent and considerate of others’ feelings at every level.

Secondly, the fact that the Jew went to the Holy Prophetsa to complain about this matter, itself discloses that he knew full well that the Prophetsa was a man of boundless sympathy, who would understand the pain of his fellow man. This is yet another timeless lesson for today’s self-styled civil elites on how to deal with issues where one’s freedom of speech clashes with other people’s sacred views.

The very fact that the Jewish person made recourse to the Holy Prophetsa indicates that he expected mollifying treatment from him for his aggrieved religious sentiments. It also reveals the incredible level of sympathy, love and respect that the Prophetsa had for the beliefs of those who did not share his views. It is a lesson to all followers of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa to not look at others with condescension and arrogance, and a profound message to peoples of all eras that wherever someone makes an upsetting remark about another’s religious leader, a statement of apology or the retraction of that statement should be expressed out of respect for the person.

After all, if a person makes a crude and offensive remark about another’s mother, is it not basic civility to at least offer an apology or withdraw the comment? Then what about one who is held with even greater reverence and dignity than one’s mother? Regrettably though, when it comes to the anguish that Muslims suffered at the publication of the infamous Danish cartoons, New Atheists like Dawkins are apathetic and indifferent.

Thus, referring to the pain felt by Muslims at the publishing of these ignoble cartoons, Dawkins writes:

“The ‘hurt’ and ‘suffering’ consisted, remember, not in any person enduring violence or real pain of any kind: nothing more than a few daubs of printing ink in a newspaper…” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 27, Bantam Press [2006])

It is mortifying to note how quickly and conveniently a man of Dawkins’ gargantuan educational calibre can forget the power of the pen when seeking to justify vilifying and provocative expressions of hate against Islam. One must bear in mind that Dawkins has been at the forefront of opposing the notion of doing good for the sake of God and instead, promotes the idea that man does not need religion to be moral.

Yet, the above example is sufficient to demonstrate without a shadow of doubt that there is a disparity of several light years between the civility of Dawkins, an ambassador of atheism, and the “seventh century preacher”, peace and blessings of God be upon him, who he believes was no more than a war-monger and a savage. Yet, the light of this Prophet’ssa compassion continues to outshine even those who lay claim to the highest echelons of civility 1,400 years later.

(To be continued…)

In the next issue, the second segment of this piece, we shall explore how New Atheists ride the wave of Islamophobia to perpetuate fear and insecurities and the Islamic response to hate speech by such detractors

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