Saturday, July 05, 2008

On "Islamophobia"

In a recent post at his blog Greater Surbiton, Dr. Marko Attila Hoare considers the question Is Islamophobia equivalent to racism or anti-Semitism? His focus is on the Balkans, but I believe that the reason why, as he puts it

"There is some resistance among liberal intellectuals to the term ‘Islamophobia’..."

has little to do with the region. While he does conclude that sentence by correctly noting that

" is assumed that Islam is a religion, therefore an ideology, and it is questioned if one can be prejudiced against an ideology."

the larger debate in the West over Islam and the unfortunately named (if necessary and worthwhile) "War on Terror" inevitably frames most any public discussion of Islam and its adherents.

I do not wish to make more of this than necessary since I do agree with Dr. Hoare's larger point, but at the risk of seeming callous or unsympathetic (and I would hope that after over two years of relatively steady work and advocacy on this blog I would be safe from such accusations), I am compelled to point out the unfortunate, reflexive use of the word "Islamophobia" by individuals who are less interested in fighting bigotry than in curbing or diverting useful, or even merely pointed, criticism of the practice of Islam in certain places, certain cultural or social practices within the Muslim world, and so on. I would not at all be surprised if some of the voices being raised in dismay at the current endorsement of sharia law in Great Britain were not met with indignant claims of bigotry against non-Western cultural practices and Islamophobia.

As a staunch secularist, I hesitate to endorse giving sanction and legitimacy to a word which, from a certain perspective, seems tailor-made for the purpose of stifling criticism of religious belief or of any religious institution. At the same time, I recognize and abhor the signs of genuine bigotry, hatred, and fear directed towards the Muslim world and individual Muslims wherever I encounter or learn of them. That there exists genuine bigotry against Muslims because they are Muslims seems irrefutable. Serb and Croat nationalists and their apologists wouldn't go to such great lengths to appeal to such sentiment if it didn't exist.

So is Islamophobia a better term than, say, "Muslimophobia"? It is somewhat less awkward, no doubt, but is it more fitting, since our concern should be with the existence of bigotry directed at individuals because of their religious affiliation rather than with the religion itself?

Ultimately, I would say yes. Muslims are not a race, an ethnic or national group (speaking globally, rather than in the narrower, pre-Bosniak Yugoslav context); they lack linguistic and culturally unity. The only thing which the 1.2 billion or so Muslims have in common is their religion (putting aside the great diversity of sects and schisms within Islam, and of course the varying degrees of personal piety). Islamophobia preaches hatred and intolerance towards the Muslims of the world because they are presumably all unquestioning followers of an implacably hostile and unwaveringly anti-Western/anti-Christian belief system. Islamophobia is premised on a crude, nuance-free, and deliberately confrontational misrepresentation of one of the largest religions on the planet. In order to justify the bigotry against members of a group who are only identifiable as followers of a belief system, it is necessary to both demonize that belief system and to believe that all adherents are unquestioning followers of said systems dictates and teachings.


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what you've written, Kirk. The term 'Islamophobia' has indeed been abused by those seeking to stifle criticism of the Islamic religion, and debate over its proper role.

In a democracy, any religion should legitimately be open to criticism, condemnation, ridicule, even abuse. Unfortunately, many radical and conservative Muslims do not respect this fact, and try to intimidate those who do this. But this does not, of course, mean that we do not face a genuine problem of Muslim communities in the West being targeted with hate propaganda. In this context, whether we define them as 'ethnic' or 'religious' communities is secondary.

Muslims, like other religious or ethnic groups, have to be free to practise their religion, and protected from physical harm. But the flip side is that they have to accept that their religious beliefs - no matter how deeply felt - cannot be shielded from criticism by censorship.

Equally, these religious beliefs cannot be allowed to corrupt our secular democracy, through for example demands that female schoolchildren or teachers be veiled, or that girls be kept back from swimming lessons in school. Muslims are entitled to protection as part of our citizenry - not as a group attempting to stand outside of it, and outside of its laws.

Hamdija Custovic said...


I respect your views on the matter but disagree that Islam should be open to criticism. Islam is not an ideology but a religion and, just like Christianity, should not be "criticized" in a manner that alientates millions of followers of the faith. However, criticism is completely legitimate for any muslim, christian, or any other person who claims to follow the religion but, are in fact, abusing it for their own benefit.

Furthermore, I think those criticisms are justified in countries that have allowed culture to cloud the islamic practices, in particular Saudi Arabia, and other more "conservative" societies. But I think when it comes to Bosnia, the word islamophobia can never be abused because Bosniaks have suffered so much just for being muslims, even though they have done everything to integrate ourselves into the european society. And the main reason that the war in Bosnia was allowed to go on was their fear of an islamic state. We know that this fear was unfounded because Bosnian muslims are very moderate, if not liberal, and tolerant of others.

This is my first time reading your blog and am glad that Bosnia & Herzegovina has friends like you in the American society. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I think that Islam should be publicly open to criticism (just like any other religion), as long as criticism is not used to propagate hate. For example, one might legitimately criticize Islamic teachings about the treatment of women, but one should not be given a green light to spread hatred against Muslims with claims that Islam is inherently evil.

Hatred brings nothing positive to society.

PS: I would like to invite everybody to commemorate the 13th anniversary of Srebrenica genocide on their blogs. Please, do not forget July 11th....

Kirk Johnson said...

I absolutely agree with you, Marko--I regret that I did not take more care in writing my post. I meant it more in the spirit of adding to your commentary, rather than as a rebuttal.

Hamdija--thank you for reading my blog. I of course agree that it was wrong and criminal to use Islam as an excuse to commit genocide against the Muslims of Bosnia; it was equally wrong for the West to turn its back on this crime at least partially because the victims were Muslims.

But I cannot accept that a religion should be above criticism simply because it has millions of adherents. Quite the contrary--religions should be exposed to scrutiny and criticism because many people follow them and take their teachings seriously.

Daniel--I am confident that you know where I am coming from. And you are right--tomorrow is the anniversary of Srebrenica. We all need to take a moment at some point during the day to remember.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with Kirk. Religion is fair game for criticism.

Katja R. said...

I think that a lot of the criticism and actual hatred Muslims face in the West, and persecution is very similar to anti-Antisemitism, as in Muslims come under various sorts of pressure, varying degrees of pressure for believing in and trying seriously to follow their religion, without excuses or compromises.

Christians can't exactly say that about themselves as a community, that they follow Christianity without exception or compromise anymore.

Much of what is Christian custom and mandate is ignored in favor of being 'modern'. Muslims by following their law, and their customs make the Christian ignorance (as in ignore, as in 'don't know' as in 'don't want to know') very obvious by contrast.
Jews fell under persecution for having been noticeable for following their Jewish law, and even wholesale accommodation and assimilation was not enough to save them from the gas-chambers.

Basically sometimes if you believe something, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

That is not to say religion is not open to criticism, it is possible to go to extremes in ANY religion.
Christians are as likely to go to extremes as Muslims, (Rvd Phelps, Exhibit A., Abortion clinic bombers Exhibit B., The guys who are breeding red cows for Israel, Exhibit C.)

The other point is that even in the West, the secular way isn't always free of discrimination. Sometimes it is a very insensitive way.

In Britain, there has in modern times been some acceptance of Jewish law, so why should Muslim law not benefit from a similar making of room? Why should Muslims not have accommodations which are freely granted to Sikhs and Hindus?

It doesn't have to be a corruption of the Western system do make that room.

The fact that Amish people in America can have their own communities and lead their lives as they see fit doesn't threaten American democracy. They get accommodations Muslims seldom if ever have asked for.

God knows, Muslim law and Christian law coexisted in Bosnia for centuries without too many problems. The modern world with it's corporations and sameness, and various extreme political ideologies made that much more difficult.

I think there needs to be some middle ground, and that everyone needs to take an honest look at their own views on religion, their own openness to others, whether that person is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic.

As for things like demands over physical culture classes, I as a Christian was damned uncomfortable in gym class. I feel very great sympathy toward the Muslim families in the old days who had a problem with it, the point they made was that their daughters were being forced to take off most of their clothes in gym class and would be denied an education altogether over this matter.

Teenagers in particular are at an age where there is great discomfort over their changing bodies ANYWAY.
An adult has a choice if he or she wants to bare it all or cover up, teenagers in the school system do not have a choice.

That said, people need to learn to swim, it is important for staying alive, and a good exercise, even a lot of very conservative Muslims, Jews and Christians agree on that point. The demand in the West isn't so much that people be covered, as that people be UN covered. This demand has to do with abandonment of perfectly reasonable traditions of modesty and decorum having been abandoned.

All that said, I do agree with both you and Mr. Hoare that the term 'Islamophobia' has been abused at times, but the term 'Muslimophobia' is AWKWARD in at least the English language and probably, however 'accurate' will likely never be adopted.

Anonymous said...

Yakima, the Christianity is one of the most criticized religions in America. If you go to YouTube, Christians are attacked and criticized from everywhere. Same goes for Muslims. I guess, same goes for any religion, because in this modern World, people are losing patience with traditional values. I don't really like religions, but I would never waste my time to demean (hope I spelled that right) someone based on his/her religious beliefs. If somebody wants to believe in God, then go ahead, but please don't ask me to do the same. Religions have claimed millions of lives... if there is really God in this world, then we wouldn't have another Genocide in Darfur.