The purpose of this article is not to deny, defend, or even make claims about the presence of bigotry and racism against Muslims. It exists. Period.
The intention here is to talk about language and how it may be stifling honest and meaningful conversation between the Left and the Right.
Let’s take a moment to meditate on the term ‘Islamophobia’.
While this process appears straightforward — calling out bigotry where it exists — the term Islamophobia has actually introduced all sorts of moral confusion in the public debate about Islam and its relationship with terrorism, homophobia, and the West in general. Eliminating the confusion associated with the term is critically important for conversational progress.
Consider two hypothetical points of view that involve Islam:
- Hating someone because they are different than you: “I don’t like him because he isn’t Christian like me. He is a Muslim. I hate Muslims.”
- Concern about the doctrinal content of an ideology: “Certain beliefs that are inherent to Islam — such as martyrdom and the promise of paradise — may contribute to dangerous behavior, and this worries me.”
We must acknowledge and accept that there is a meaningful difference between these statements, and the term Islamophobia simply muddies the distinction.
The first point of view is certainly a form of bigotry. This individual hates a Muslim person for no reason other than that he is different. Hating someone for merely being different is bigotry. We should discourage prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of mere difference as this practice supports racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
The second point of view, however, isn’t an expression of bigotry. In this circumstance, the individual’s concern transcends mere difference and is directed at the content of a specific idea about reality. Beliefs are chosen, influence behavior, and inform worldviews. The power of belief makes it imperative that we apply immense scrutiny and criticism to all beliefs, no matter who subscribes to them. It is also fair for someone to claim the second point of view could be factually wrong and engage in a reasonable debate on the issue, but bigotry is not the correct label.
The problem seems to be that the term Islamophobia is leveled against those who take the first point of view and those who take the second point of view. In other words, the Left makes no distinction between these statements. When this occurs, as Sam Harris has said, “Every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.”
The central problem with the word Islamophobia is that, as a term, it conjoins both people and their beliefs, making them inseparable. Thus, if you attack an idea, then transitively, you are also bigoted against those who subscribe to that idea. The failure to separate people and their beliefs prevents honest criticism of ideas because the critique can easily be portrayed as a direct attack on a person.
This is an undesirable situation because it destroys our ability to challenge dangerous ideas and results in public intellectuals like Maajid Nawaz — a Muslim fighting for Islamic reform — being labeled “Islamophobic.”
.@MaajidNawaz it didn’t take you long to figure out how much $$$ ultra-ZIonist donors are willing to pay anti-Muslim fear merchants.
— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) February 23, 2015
There is a reason we have no other words like Islamophobia (at least that I can think of). What word describes hatred towards communists because people take issue with communist doctrine? What word describes hatred towards Christians because people take issue with Christian doctrine?
Our society has normally operated on the notion that critiquing an ideology does not equal a hatred of people. I can dislike Christian doctrine but still love my Christian neighbors. The idea of Islamophobia alters that tradition by conjoining the dislike for an idea with the dislike for a people. (Some may point to antisemitic, but it could be argued that this word encompasses a racial issue, not an ideological one).
This may explain why some on the Right believe their opinions about Islam aren’t bigoted. They take issue with the ideology of Islam, not the people (even though this isn’t always the case). We often hear conservative pundits interpret the word Islamophobia to mean “an irrational fear of Islam” stemming from the roots “Islam” and “phobia.” They prefer this definition because it reinforces the notion that Islamophobia is the fear of a religion, not people, and that they have every right to be afraid of religious doctrine.
One left-leaning group, the Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, admits this in their definition of Islamophobia,
“Rational criticism of Islam or Muslims based on factual evidence is not intrinsically Islamophobia, just as criticism of the tenets or followers of other religions or ethnic groups does not necessarily indicate bigotry or prejudice.”
The Left, on the other hand, thinks the Right is bigoted because the Left’s definition fails to separate the people who believe in Islamic ideology (Muslims) and the ideology itself (Islam). Consider this definition of Islamophobia from Gallup.
“An exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from social, political, and civic life.”
This definition clearly links people and ideas and, as we have seen, conjoining these entities threatens the possibility of a meaningful conversation about religious ideas.
In order for the political poles to have a genuine discussion, we should abolish this confusing word. We should call out bigotry against Muslims when it arises, and we already have the words to accomplish that.
(Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)