The Volokh Conspiracy

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Cancel Culture

Left-wing radio station KPFA cancels event with noted atheist Richard Dawkins because of his harsh criticism of Islam

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Richard Dawkins. (The Washington Post)

KPFA, the original Pacifica radio station - and one that I think can fairly be described as left-wing - often organizes events with book authors. One recent planned event (scheduled for Aug. 9) was with leading atheist author Richard Dawkins. But KPFA has now canceled that event because of Dawkins's past statements about Islam that KPFA management labeled "abusive" and "hurtful." (For more, see this article by Frances Dinkelspiel.)

Of course, KPFA is free to invite speakers based on their viewpoints. (Though it is a public radio station, it's not a government-run one; it thus isn't bound by the First Amendment, and indeed has its own First Amendment rights to decide what events it will organize.) And it is free to disinvite speakers as well, subject only to any contractual obligations (obligations that, even if they were entered into, would likely be discharged just by paying contractual damages).

Nonetheless, it's interesting to see KPFA's rationale, just as evidence of how some on the left - a place that has traditionally been quite hospitable to hostility to religion - view criticisms of Islam.

I asked Bob Baldock, the events coordinator at KPFA, about why the Dawkins event was canceled. Baldock said that, while there are "a number of things in [Dawson's] writing that we have enormous admiration for," KPFA objected to some public comments by Dawkins - in particular, remarks "about how Islam is the most evil religion on the planet" (apparently referring to the remarks quoted in an article in the Telegraph) and his statement, "to hell with Muslims and their culture." I believe the quote to which Baldock was referring was just "to hell with their culture," see this video starting at 3:30:

Baldock also said that having Dawkins speak would set up "such a problematic thing for our audience and, I feel, the Muslim community in the Bay Area." And Baldock remarked that he had traveled in the Middle East, and "I know how beaten down Palestinians feel" - "their collective self-esteem is the lowest it's ever been."

"To make remarks like that [i.e., Dawkins' remarks]," Baldock said, "I can't fathom what possible good it could do." "I think he should butt out of this issue," Baldock said (referring to the merits of Islam).

Baldock also noted that this was the only event they had canceled in the more than a thousand that he had helped organize, setting aside events when the speaker was sick or otherwise couldn't make it. For more details on the controversy, see this short program at KPFA itself, as well as Dawkins's response.

For a better perspective on just what KPFA was objecting to, here are Dawkins's Telegraph remarks to which KPFA appeared to be objecting:

It's tempting to say all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it's a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they're not.

If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world it's quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.

It's terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn't mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.

They suffer from the homophobia, the misogyny, the joylessness which is preached by extreme Islam, Isis and the Iranian regime.

So it is a major evil in the world, we do have to combat it, but we don't do what Trump did and say all Muslims should be shut out of the country. That's draconian, that's illiberal, inhumane and wicked. I am against Islam not least because of the unpleasant effects it has on the lives of Muslims.

And here are the remarks on the Maher show:

[Maher:] Also this notion that somehow Islam and Muslims are this protected species, that if we talk about them at all, or criticize at all, it's somehow hurting or humiliating Muslims. And that's a ridiculous idea.

[Dawkins:] And it's confused with racism as well, because an incredible number of people think Islam is a race.

[Maher:] Yes, oh, I've heard that, yes.

[Dawkins:] And so they think that if you criticize Islam, you're being racist. And you're absolutely right that the [repressive leftists] give a free pass to Islam where they're kind of right about everything else - I mean, they're right about misogyny and all the other … bad things … but in the case of Islam it just gets a free pass. And I think it's because of the terror of being thought racist.

[Maher:] Right, or at worst, an Islamophobe … - a silly word that means nothing…. It's so dumb because, you know, all the people that are accused of being Islamophobes - like you and me and Salman [Rushdie] and Ayaan [Hirsi Ali] - we're liberals, we're liberals about everything…. I knew we were on [black people's] side [in the civil rights movements] and then we were on the side of Cesar Chavez and the lettuce pickers. And then we were on the side of the women's movement and poor and minorities, whatever it was, gay people, disabled, the abused, the molested, whatever Caitlyn is up to, we were for it. And they applaud that, and if you say something about a woman who's forced to wear a beekeeper suit in the hot sun all day -

[Dawkins:] Oh, that's their culture, you have to respect it.

[Maher:] That's right! That's what they say. It's just insane.

[Dawkins:] It's just the one exception - liberal about everything else, but then this one exception, "It's their culture." Well, to hell with their culture.

Baldock also passed along this item from the Bay Area Chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace:

It has come to our attention that KPFA is sponsoring a talk by Richard Dawkins on August 9th, 2017 in Berkeley. As an organization that opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression, Jewish Voice for Peace - Bay Area urges you to cancel this event. Whatever one may think of Richard Dawkin's political views on atheism and religion in general, the reality is that he has publically promoted Islamophobia on many occasions, including tweeting the following: "I think Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today. I've said so, often and loudly."

We would encourage you to read two articles from Salon magazine which give numerous other examples of how Dawkins continues to promote Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry:

KPFA plays an important role in the Bay Area progressive community, and has a wonderful track record of bringing important political thinkers to address our community on a variety of issues, including speakers on Israel/Palestine. Hosting Dawkins is completely at odds with its mission of bringing progressive political thinkers to address our community. We strongly urge you to cancel this event.

Now one can agree or disagree with these criticisms of Islam, just as one can agree or disagree with various sharp criticisms of Catholicism, or conservative Protestantism, or many other religions. But I would have thought that these statements by Dawkins would be seen as plausible criticisms - criticisms that merit argument rather than casual dismissal as "abusive or hurtful speech" and "hateful or hurtful language" - of something that is, after all, an ideology: an ideology that ought to be as subject to criticism as other ideologies, religious or otherwise.

And it's telling, I think, just what criticisms of religion some on the radical left now seem to be consider to be intolerable.