Come in Spinner: An unexpected mystery at the atheists’ convention

It seems like a bit of a mystery when you hear at an atheists’ convention what a good job Christians are doing to help defend the rights of women against fundamentalist Muslims – particularly when the support is contrasted with the problems caused by Western middle class liberals.

But when you know how skilful some US think tanks are in framing their offerings it’s not so mysterious.

The Melbourne Atheists’ Convention at the weekend was a huge success attracting about 4000 attendees and speakers from Peter Singer and Leslie Cannold to Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. The conference details are available at and presentations will probably be on line at some time or other.

Among the speakers was also Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of two enormously successful books (Nomad and Infidel). Her life has been remarkable. Forced to flee Somalia to avoid a forced marriage and political oppression; forced into hiding in the Netherlands (where she was a refugee) after threats from extremists; deported after an unconscionable act by the Netherlands Immigration Minister of the sort one expects from an Australian government; and, now a fighter for the rights of Muslim women. A slightly more nuanced view of this sequence of events can be found in The Economist, 8 February 2007 in an article ‘A critic of Islam’, but you have to think that even if it was only partly as bad as she says it was still intolerable and nuance is hard when an Islamist protestor outside the weekend convention allegedly said he would kill Ms Hirsi Ali if he could.

In her first presentation at the convention she told part of her story and gave a few of the many examples of how Islam oppresses women. But in between the examples there was an odd undercurrent – the accusation that it is western middle class liberals (apparently driven either by Rousseau-derived attitudes to the noble savage or guilt about racism and imperialism) who are a big part of the problem.

The comments came straight after Geoffrey Robertson spoke. Robertson reprised some of the material from his book on the Pope and child abuse (see previous Come in Spinners); gave some details of the co-operation between Islamic states and the Catholic Church in attacking women’s rights through international fora; and, gave a horrific description of the murder of thousands of Iranian atheists and dissenters under the direction of Ali Khamenei, now the Iranian Supreme Leader.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali picked up Robertson’s comments and said that she wished Robertson had been able to take the case (while sort of implying that he wouldn’t or hadn’t) of a Muslim woman in Florida who was said to have suicided but was probably the victim of domestic violence. She then said that no liberals had come forth to take up the case and that Christians had taken it up instead. It must be one of the few times the hyperactive ACLU has been inactive.

Later, in a panel discussion (with Dawkins, Dennett and Sam Harris), she supported the view that Western liberals had failed to support Salman Rushdie, a view that the scientists on the panel appeared to accept. Now the scientists had spent much of the conference talking about scientific method and evidence and it would be interesting to see an empirical study of where Rushdie’s support came from and where the support for the fatwa came from – my memory is that a lot of the latter came from conservatives and other religions who, and which, expressed concern about respect and blasphemy in the way religious figures always do when people confront them on the nonsense they believe and the evil they do. But I concede that an empirical study is needed to decide what the truth is. (Incidentally, this ‘respect’ infuriatingly even extends to crikey where the subs always change ‘god’ into ‘God’ when you try to get the former usage into the newsletter.)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali got rapturous applause but the constant references to the shortcomings of Western liberals kept nagging away. Not that Western middle class liberals don’t have shortcomings – too many of them to enumerate. Then the penny dropped. She is also a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington – an organisation which seems to blame all the ills of the world on western liberals and Obama.

The AEI is opposed to US healthcare reform and asserts that all health care should be privately provided; opposes all cuts to US military spending; promotes Charles Murray’s IQ work; and is not exactly convinced on climate change. Among its scholars are John Bolton, the man George W. Bush sent to the UN as Ambassador with a brief to undermine it; and, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Iraq War (of ‘fixing the facts’ to get the required outcome fame) and a notable feminist who got sacked from the World Bank for practising nepotism for the benefit of his girlfriend. Other scholars include Richard Perle (another part of the team that brought the world that great Iraqi success), and John Yoo, the author of the various legal memos and opinions used by the Bush administration to justify torture.

Now, to be fair, there was no chance to ask Ayaan Hirsi Ali, what she thought of these people and their views and a quick online search didn’t provide more data on this. It is also impossible not to support her views on Islamic oppression of women – just as one would support anyone campaigning against the oppression of women by fundamentalists and other religions. Equally we must admire her bravery in the face of threats to her life by fundamentalists – such as those outside the Melbourne Convention Centre on Sunday – which makes one wonder where the Victoria Police were. She may also have been right about white guilt as it seemed to inhibit the discussion of some of the issues on the panel. None of the panellists, other than Sam Harris, apparently knew much about recent research on the sociology of religion and the paradox (largely still inexplicable) that fundamentalism may be a product of modernism rather than madrassa indoctrination.  Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God (Ballantine 2001) discusses some of this.  Harris did, to his credit, diffidently ask a question which seemed to be probing how Ali felt about the support she got from fundamentalist Christians but she batted it way with a story about how the doubting Muslims who contacted her were becoming Christians because the Christian god was more ‘benign’ than the ‘malign’ god of the Muslims. This answer did not attract rapturous applause.

The fundamental, so to speak, problem, however, is not the nuances but empiricism and reason. Good atheists don’t take anything on faith. They want evidence and reason. Reason, the major focus of the convention, also has two meanings: reason the process and the reason why people say things. Snide asides about the problem being condoned by Western liberals are not evidence; nor is blaming the problems of the world on ‘liberals’; and, nor is it reasonable to fail to disclose possible reasons for the positions you take.