AFT Blog # 22: “Islamophobia”

Rethinking “Islamophobia”

Jackson Doughart and Faisal Saeed al-Mutar

The English language needs a moratorium on the word Islamophobia, a term often used to describe bigotry against Muslims. Unfortunately, it is also used reflexively to denounce critics of Islam, who contribute to a valuable and ongoing debate concerning the relationship between the West and the worldwide Islamic community. This subject is important because several Western countries, such as Denmark, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, are being forced to reconsider their approaches to immigration and culture in light of deep clashes between Muslim immigrants and the native population. These tensions have captured much attention in recent weeks with the series of violent protests that have spread to over twenty countries, emanating from the controversial Innocence of Muslims film.

In the opinion of some scholars, journalists, and activists, the nature of European and North American reaction to Islam is an example of prejudice, falling suitably under the umbrella of what they call Islamophobia. In our estimation, however, the use of this term, and its cognates Islamophobic and Islamophobe, is not only misapplied, as in the case of the Dutch dissidents Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but altogether inappropriate and deserving of repudiation.

It is worth acknowledging that some degree of hostility toward Muslims does exist in Western countries. This was perhaps clearest in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, where the West seemed content to allow the mass killing of Muslims as ethnoreligious factions carved apart Bosnia and Herzegovina. The eventual intervention in 1995, aimed at protecting Muslim civilians from aggression by Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, earned the West little respect in the Muslim world. The appalling abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib detention facility during the Second Gulf War, widely condemned as acts of torture, could also be cited as an example of anti-Muslim hostility. But to accuse all opponents of Islam of harbouring a deep-seated hatred, rooted in irrational fear, is a serious mistake, exemplified by the sweeping and liberal usage of Islamophobia. In fact, the only sentiment in this debate that could actually be described as phobic is the unconditional contempt among many Muslims for people who disagree with them. But one doubts that a formulation like “Infidelophobia” will gain traction anytime soon.

The strategic construction of “Islamophobia,” which is rooted in the word Islam and not Muslim, serves more than a mere lexical purpose. It is designed foremost to associate voluntary religious belief with involuntary skin colour, appealing to widespread and legitimate revulsion to racial prejudice, and further to equate bigotry against Muslims with criticism of Islam, blurring any distinction between these two very different actions. While the prejudging of all Muslim citizens as suspicious and untrustworthy is indeed comparable with other forms of racial and religious bigotry, the study and refutation of Islam’s claims to moral and philosophical authority is a just and necessary enterprise, fully compatible with a pluralistic society that values religious liberty. This is because freedom of belief, if it is to have universal and consistent meaning, must include the freedom to criticize beliefs and believers — a concept that is foreign to the social and political world view of Islam.

Beyond its intrusion upon intellectual inquiry, blind tolerance of anti-Western attitudes in the form of fundamentalist Islam has direct repercussions for the health and security of the West. For instance, the killing, assaulting, and intimidating of gay men in Amsterdam by Muslims enraged by homosexuality, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the offence of writing The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoon affair, and the recent attacks upon American embassies in Libya and Egypt, are all examples of violence related to these clashes. It is doubtless that our unwillingness to pursue a battle of ideas with the Islamic religion for the sake of political correctness will lead to more physical confrontations in the future. And since the word Islamophobia implies disapproval of such critical engagement, it ought to be entirely banished from discourse.

In addition to “Islamophobia,” the earnest employment of the term blasphemy, and its advancement by Islam’s apologists as a tenable concept, is a clear enemy of open and secular society. Free expression, which constitutes the bedrock of the West’s process of deliberating controversial questions of value, cannot be balanced or reconciled with the idea of sacred and unchallengeable beliefs, since it contradicts the first principle of free speech: that even the most profane dissent must be protected. Most importantly, the creeping influence of terms like blasphemy and Islamophobia is demeaning to both Muslims and non-Muslims for two reasons. First, it colludes with Islam’s attempt to infantilize its adherents — convincing them that critical thought, especially about the matters of faith, is immoral. Second, it presumes that Muslims, particularly in the West, are not mature enough to handle criticism of their chosen beliefs, and that their subcultures are reducible to archaic texts and practices. This is the real injustice, involving the basest abandoning of scruple and succumbing to cowardice, and can only be rectified by ditching this thoroughly nonsensical expression.

About the Authors

  • Jackson Doughart studies at Queen’s University. He is a policy writer for the Canadian Secular Alliance and a signatory of the Atheist Manifesto of Atheist Freethinkers.
  • Faisal Saeed al-Mutar is a student in Baghdad, Iraq, who writes about religion and secularism.

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