Accepting the notion of ‘Islamophobia’ means the end of legitimate criticism of Islam. We cannot allow de facto blasphemy to destroy our liberal values.
Much has been made of the controversy surrounding East London Mosque’s complaints against the Council of Ex-Muslims (CEMB) for being “Islamophobic” at this year’s London Pride march. Of course, a slew of articles have dispelled the claim that CEMB’s slogans, such as the one featuring the contumacious yet amusing statement ‘Allah Is Gay!’, is somehow an attack on Muslims. Accusations of Islamophobia are, unfortunately not isolated to CEMB. Indeed, most recently Richard Dawkins hit the headlines after the radio station on which he was scheduled to appear (in order to talk about his recent book and the usual vistas of anti-theism) cancelled his appearance, citing his supposed Islamophobia as unendurable for its listeners.
Arguably, the most well-known case of claims of Islamophobia in recent years have been levelled towards Charlie Hebdo. Indeed, in 2006 Islamic organisations under French hate speech laws unsuccessfully sued Charlie Hebdo over the newspaper’s re-publication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad. The newspaper received even more controversy after a 2011 issue re-titled Charia Hebdo (French for Sharia Weekly), featured a cartoon of Muhammad, whose depiction is forbidden in some interpretations of Islam. The newspaper’s office was fire-bombed and its website hacked as a result. In 2012, the newspaper received unprecedented ire from various Muslim communities after it published a series of satirical cartoons of Muhammad, including nude caricatures. Slathers of claims were levelled towards the newspaper, warning that by publishing Muhammad in racially clichéd form, adopting all sorts of scandalous positions, they would only be feeding the widespread discrimination towards Muslims. Moreover, the claim was made that such satire is another attack on Muslims – a group of people already victimised due to the West’s longstanding incursions in “Muslim lands”. As we know, Charlie Hebdo would eventually pay with their lives for having the nerve to depict their prophet and satirise their religion.
Origins of the term Islamophobia
In order to understand what Islamophobia is, it will be prudential to first offer a history of the term. The word ‘Islamophobia’ can be traced back to a series of articles published in the 1990s by the Left-leaning think-tank the Runnymede Trust. Robin Richardson, who edited the 1997 report ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All’ said that the term goes back even further. Indeed, in a recent paper Richardson traces the phrase back to Alain Quellien’s use of the French word ‘Islamophobie’ in 1910 to berate French colonial administrators for poorly treating Muslim subjects. Richardson’s paper notes that the first time the term is used in English occurs in “the connection between Islamophobia and antisemitism” by Edward Said – a pro-Palestinian and former professor of literature at Columbia University. In his work, Said chides writers who either fail or refuse to recognise that “hostility to Islam in the modern West had historically gone hand-in-hand with anti-semitism”. In its earliest historical usage, the term ‘Islamophobia’ denoted animus towards Muslims , not an “irrational fear of Islam – which is what the term should mean etymologically.
In the UK, the first known use of the word in print occurred in a book review in the Independent on 16 December 1991. Modood noted there is a view that The Satanic Verses was “a deliberate, mercenary act of Islamophobia” but indicated that his own view was that “while Islamophobia is certainly at work, the real sickness is militant irreverence”.
What is meant by Islamophobia?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word means “Intense dislike or fear of Islam, esp. as a political force; hostility or prejudice towards Muslims”. The Berkeley University Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project suggested the working definition: “Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalising the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve ‘civilisational rehab’ of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended”.
Let’s probe deeper…
In a world of identity politics, political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify have hijacked the hegemonic political discourse. ‘Cultures’ have become fatefully synonymous with the category of the ethnic or minority. As Davina Bhandar observed, cultures are being seen as an entity highly abstracted from practices of daily-life, thereby becoming represented as a ‘geist’ of the people. Cultures become a homogenisation of cultural identity and the ascription of particular values onto minority cultural groups. Put another way, cultures have become strange and saturated entities hybridising identity and ideology. In effect, what this means is that Islamophobia – or rather acts of Islamophobia – has become the new racism. Yesterday’s anti-racism activist has refashioned him or herself into the salesman of a highly specialised commodity: a niche form of discrimination.
‘Islamophobia’ today principally means an animus towards a people, i.e., Muslims. As former editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier states in his posthumous Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression, the phenomenon gained traction by the “mostly idiotic complicity of the media”, because of “laziness, then for novelty, and lastly out of commercial interest.”
Problems with the term
The problems associated with using the term Islamophobia are profound. Some of the problems principally concern the focal ring implicit in the concept of phobia. Others concern the overtures to the term Islam. Some of these are as follows:
- As many would likely discern, to label someone as ‘Islamophobic’- that is, as somehow having a phobia about Islam and for Muslims, is clearly preposterous. Of course, medically, ‘phobia’ implies an acute mental illness of a kind that affects only a small number of people. Whatever else anxiety about Muslims and/or Islam may be, it is erroneous to claim that it is merely a mental illness and it surely does not merely involve a small number of people.
- Etymological points of contention aside, to label someone ‘Islamophobic’ essentially absolves oneself of the responsibility, both intellectually and with empathy, why someone thinks and acts as they do towards Islam and Muslims, and attempt to modify their perceptions and understandings through engagement and argument. It has the rather scowling repercussion of shutting down debate and failing to address – let alone redress – an interlocutor’s views towards Muslims and/or Islam.
- ‘Islamophobia’ suggests that hostility towards Muslims is no different than other forms of hostility such as racism and xenophobia. Moreover, the way in which Islamophobia is understood suggests that it is a social disease bearing no connection with issues of class, power, status and territory; or with issues of military, political or economic competition and conflict. Islam, however, is not a race, ethnicity, or nationality; it is a set of ideas. Critiquing those ideas – such as some of the regnant positions held by the majority of scholars concerning women, LGBT people, apostates, etc., – should never be confused nor conflated with an animus towards a people.
- The term implies little difference between an animus for Muslim people within one country and an animus for groups (e.g. ISIS) and regimes elsewhere in the world, where those who identify as Muslim happen to be the majority, and with which ‘the West’ is in military conflict. This point requires fleshing out.
The Post-Modernist Left:
The Left, committed to defending and empowering the most persecuted in society, has provided fresh soil for this conflation to sprout. To be more precise, it is a section of the Left who, employing post-modernist world views (seeing social phenomena in terms of power structures needing zero-sum game responses) and harbouring Western guilt, see redressing social inequities as so important that it can validly – and even necessarily – justify pulling the plug on so-called Western hegemony. Examples include denouncing liberal principles such as free speech.
Art historian John Molyneux, member of the Socialist Workers Party, rightly accuses this section of the Left for “singing an old song long intoned by bourgeois historians of various persuasions”. Of course, those bourgeois post-Modernists do so with a post-enlightenment plume as they continue gaining considerable leverage within a section of politics eerily confused concerning what common value it should stand for. The intoned relativism renders so-called Western liberal principles – those things that people across the world rely on in championing rights for minorities – stripped of their merit and placed on equal footing with other schools of ideology, such as Islamism. Add Western guilt alongside a post-modernist weltanschauung and you have a group of people willing to embolden and further institutionalise some of the most perilous ideologies.
Such well-meaning sorts offer monolithic diagnoses of systemic problems (sexism, homophobia, extremism) in considerable numbers of Muslim communities. They see Muslims as largely reactionaries of Western agency (colonialists) as opposed to seeing them as autonomous hermeneutists. This is, they argue, owing to the West’s foreign policy in the Middle East, which has inflicted a maelstrom of death, collateral damage, and instability to those unfortunate enough to live there.
Given our general inability to neatly hold two different abstract entities (in this case, a people and an ideology) when they exist in conjunctional form, monolithism quickly follows. One can be pardoned for thinking that Orientalism precipitates this monolithism in rather straightforward fashion. A victimised group of people, predominately Muslim, are reduced to a single entity with a common set of ideas: Islam. Consequently, mocking Mohammed or lambasting the intellectual merit of its theism, is denounced. Ben Affleck typified this when rebuffing Sam Harris and Bill Maher as being, more or less so, ‘racist’, as did the ever-insensate journalist Yassin Musharbash.
The Islam/Middle Eastern Conflation
Middle Eastern people have, of course, been victimised by people who come from the West, and of course Middle Easterners have been victimised by other Middle Easterners. The Middle-East and the Wahhabi form of Islam (we often see all across our newspapers) have become identical with Middle Easterners. This almost appears to be a facsimile of the homogenisation of Judaism and the Jewish People – whereby Judaism, the Jewish People and Jewish culture and history are seen as a monolith. People expect Muslims to have some fundamental connection to the people of the Middle East, and Middle-Easterners and meant to be Muslim.
Equally worrying is that Muslims and Middle Eastern people are seldom seen by the aforementioned as capable of holding other religious ideologies or fundamental worldviews, such as the so-called humanist world view borne post-enlightenment. This is a form of Orientalism that not only plays on longstanding stereotypes, but systematises it under the guise of political egalitarianism.
By conflating an ideology with a group of people, these people are not only essentialised but are judged by a lower set of moral standards. When white westerners commit moral transgressions, the highest moral standards are referenced. This is largely owing to the fact that we think that they could have done otherwise. When a white westerner has a putative complicity in the far-right violence in Charlottesville, for example, they will be met with the highest degree of moral judgement and consequent opprobrium. When a British thawb donning, caliphate-craving Islamist is parading the streets of London screaming “Allahu akbar! Death to apostates!”, there will inevitably be people on the Left who refuse to condemn such a person because he or she unwittingly deems the Islamist unable to have really done otherwise. “He’s a Muslim, and we know that Middle Easterners have been vilified by us Westerners. We’ll be Islamophobes if we dare throw down the gauntlet.”
When a group of people and an ideology are conflated, those in that very group who dare modify the ideology, are met with scepticism. Indeed, progressive Muslims who argue that, for example, feminism and democracy are perfect compatible with Islam, are often accused of not being “real Muslims” and not speaking on behalf of the Muslim community. Many such progressives are often deemed ‘uncle toms‘, and colonial gambits.
Many people who identify as Muslim are attacked, harassed and persecuted simply because of their religion. Not only that, given that the majority of Muslims happen to be Middle Eastern looking, many have been subjected to unpalatable degrees of racism. We must call these two things for what they are – anti-Muslim bigotry and racism. The continued acceptance of ‘Islamophobia’ as an inclusive, voguish neologism to capture both manifestations is having grave implications concerning a particular ideology – Islam. The notion of ‘Islamophobia’ is constructed out of a desire to perpetuate a siege mentality and sense of victimhood amongst Muslims, or to put an end to legitimate criticism, or to engage in lazy abuse. The important liberal principles of free speech and open enquiry are being threatened by a wily – and let’s face it, ingenious – new form of censorship. I say ‘censorship’ but many would be inclined to call it by another name: ‘blasphemy’. There are people in Muslim majority countries who face threats from Islamists for daring to leave the religion or thumping for reform. This doesn’t just happen there, of course, because we know only too well what happened to Theo van Gogh and Charlie Hebdo here in Europe. There are many apologists of Islam who, such as the post-Modernist Left, will excuse such atrocities for the most perverse of reasons – social equality. “Muslims and Islam are under attack” they will lament. The time is now for the Left to restitute its defining, quondam principles, lest blasphemy make a bloodcurdling return.
Benjamin David founded Conatus News in 2016. He currently works as an editor for Parliamentary Review.