23 January 2011

‘Islamophobia’: is it racism or valid criticism of ideas?

Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the UK’s Conservative Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the Cabinet, recently gave a speech at Leicester University in which she criticised widespread anti-Muslim attitudes in the UK. According to Baroness Warsi, Islamophobia has “passed the dinner table test”, and has become a sort of casual bigotry towards Islam and its believers. Strangely, she also calls for people to not distinguish Muslims as either ‘moderate’ or ‘extremist’, since this mental categorising would apparently fuel misunderstanding and violence. One would think that not making the distinction between moderates and radicals would actually result in more negative stereotyping, not less. And besides, as many have observed, the so-called extremist Muslims are simply those who follow the tenets of Islam with greater fidelity than their co-religionists. The extremists are arguably the true Muslims. As Sam Harris said, “the problem with Islamic fundamentalism are the fundamentals of Islam.”

At the heart of this issue is the term ‘Islamophobia’. A phobia is a persistent, irrational fear, therefore an Islamophobe would be someone who is afraid of Muslims or Islam for no good reason. But most critics of Islam do have good, rational reasons for their concerns and anxieties over its anti-liberal, anti-secular, misogynistic, xenophobic, exclusionary and violent ideas. Yes, it is the ideas of Islam that its critics attack, ideas that are often freely chosen by those who label themselves as Muslims. One common argument is that unlike skin colour, sexual orientation or disabilities, a person’s religion is not an unchosen attribute of her identity, and thus cannot be exempted from criticism, ridicule or condemnation if there are good grounds for such.

However, Australian philosopher and writer Russell Blackford thinks that in many cases, a person’s religion can be said to have been ‘imposed’ on her through socialisation, and is therefore not simply a matter of choice, of “individual judgment based on the seemingly superior evidence for one or another set of claims ("Jesus was the Son of God," "Muhammad was God's prophet," etc.)”. Yet this concession that religion isn’t always a matter of choice doesn’t mean that criticism of religion is the same thing as racism or homophobia. This is because, as Blackford elaborates:

...[t]he true contrast with race is not that race is unchosen, whereas religion is unproblematically chosen – clearly it isn't, at least in typical cases. It is that racism is not, generally speaking, based on objections to doctrines, associated practices, and canons of conduct. Even where racism has been fueled by doctrinal disagreements, as with Christian anti-Semitism, it is possible to distinguish between doctrinal disagreement and racial hatred. Admittedly, some dislike of Islam, or impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, may have a quasi-racist character, grounded in parochialism and xenophobia, and perhaps a dislike of Arabs in particular. But Islam also contains ideas, and in a liberal democracy these are fair targets for criticism or repudiation. [Blackford’s emphasis]

On the ‘Heresy Corner’ blog, the Heresiarch wrote in a post that while there is a difference between religious and political extremism, with Islam, “the distinction is harder to draw.”

On the one hand, Islamic extremists – violent or merely ideological – act and think in ways that are very similar to the way in which political extremists have always thought or acted. But on the other, in doing so they draw plausibly upon Islamic history and tradition. It may be that violent or intolerant political Islam represents a perversion of what Tony Blair likes to call "the true faith of Islam". But if so, it is a remarkably pervasive and persuasive one – as recent events in Pakistan make clear. It's not the only Islam, and perhaps not the majority Islam, but it is a visible, energetic and growing Islam – and in Islamic terms, therefore, not particularly extreme.

Those “recent events in Pakistan” refer to the assassination of Pakistani politician Salman Taseer and the subsequent lionisation of his killer Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard Qadri because he was opposed to the harsh blasphemy laws of his country. While the killing of Taseer over his liberal values is evidence enough of the brutally intolerant aspects of Islamic ideology, what is even more damning to its credibility as a religion of peace is the rapturous support of Qadri by Muslims, including lawyers, who applaud his crime as “an act of heroism”. Of course, by the standards of their faith, Qadri is indeed a hero for silencing a critic of Islamic laws. But to say that the horror and revulsion felt by liberals is simply due to a ‘phobia’ of Muslims is to demonstrate ignorance of what ‘phobia’ means, and to defend the indefensible.

I’ll let Russell Blackford have the last word:

Accusations of racism, or something similar, may have some truth when applied to some of Islam's opponents, but they do not provide a good basis for suppressing, demonising, or marginalising anti-Islamic speech. Indeed, any state policy that equated hostility to Islam with racism, suppressing some speech and demonising the speakers, would tend to add to resentments against Islam in Western societies.

We do well, perhaps, to scrutinize ourselves as individuals, to be alert to possible racism, even unconscious, as part of our motivational set. That, however, is no reason for the state, or for any of us, to treat anti-Islamic satire as an ipso facto worthless form of speech with an improper motive behind it.


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