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Posted by on Apr 9, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Philosophy, Politics, Religion | 4 comments

Islam and “Islamophobia” – a little manifesto

(Republished in its entirety from my old site for this blog; still timely, I think.)

Islam and “Islamophobia” – a little manifesto

Let’s accept – as I think we should – that some dislike of Islam, or  impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, has a quasi-racist  character, grounded in parochialism and xenophobia, and perhaps a dislike of  Arabs in particular. It is not coincidental that much of the public criticism of  Islam as a religion, and of Muslims and their practices, emanates from European  political parties and associated groups found on the extreme right, such as the  Front National in France and the British National Party in the UK. These  organisations typically promote an intense, even bigoted nationalism – combined  with what they portray as a defence of Christian traditions and values, and an  endangered “Christian identity”. They thrive on a fear of strange cultures and a  fear of change.
An obvious problem for critics of Islam who do not share the values of the  extreme right is that they may find themselves painted with the same brush.  Conversely, extreme-right critics of Islam have gained a degree of  respectability by co-opting issues and adopting stances that many politicians  and members of the public find compelling. E.g., extreme-right figures have attacked such practices  as forced marriages, honour-killings, female genital mutilation, and highly  conservative apparel for women such as the burqa and the chador.
At the same time, many Muslims in Western countries continue to suffer from  suspicion, cultural and personal misunderstanding, discrimination, and outright  intolerance that sometimes rises to the level of harassment and violence. The  extreme right exploits and encourages an environment where all this is possible.  In the circumstances, it is unsurprising when a phenomenon such as Islamophobia  is identified by academics, political commentators, and public intellectuals…  and steps are taken to combat it.
This situation creates a complex set of advantages, disadvantages, and  risks. The extreme right benefits from the availability of politically  respectable criticisms of Islamic thought and associated cultural practices. As  this goes on, there is a risk that the word “Islamophobia” will be used to  demonize and intimidate individuals whose hostility to Islam is genuinely based  on what they perceive as its faults. In particular, we should remember that  Islam contains ideas, and in a liberal democracy ideas are fair targets for  criticism or repudiation. Religious doctrines influence the social and political  attitudes of their adherents in ways that merit public comment (favorable or  otherwise), and many religious leaders and organizations exert immense power or  influence. It is in the public interest that all this be subjected to monitoring  and criticism.
Even attacks on Islam that are made opportunistically – motivated by  something like racist thinking, or by extreme kinds of national or cultural  supremacism – cannot be dismissed out of hand as worthless.
After all, there are  reasons why extreme-right organizations have borrowed arguments based on  feminism and secularism. These arguments are useful precisely because they have  an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to  extreme-right opportunists. Regardless of who uses these arguments, they  plausibly apply to certain elements of Islam, or at least to attitudes and  practices associated with it. Whether or not they are put in good faith by  organizations such as the BNP, nothing precludes them being put sincerely, and  perhaps cogently, by others who are genuinely passionate about the issues.
Thus, there are legitimate reasons for some people who are not racists,  cultural supremacists, or anything of the sort, to criticize Islam, or certain  forms of Islam, or to express hostility towards it. These relate to their  disapproval of various doctrines, canons of conduct, associated cultural  practices, and so on, and to the power wielded by Islamic leaders and  organisational structures. In this situation, expressions of disapproval or  repudiation cannot simply be dismissed, a priori, with the assumption that they  are racially motivated. Such dismissals are, moreover, all-too-convenient for  those who wish to stifle genuine criticism of Islam.
A number of lessons can be drawn from all this. One is that opponents of  Islam, or some of its forms, cannot reasonably be expected to keep quiet when  accused of racism or the quasi-racism of “Islamophobia.” When these accusations  are misdirected, they are likely to inflame passions even further, though they  may intimidate some individuals into silence. This suggests that we understand  that quasi-racism does not underlie all attacks on Islam. In particular, it  would be wise to avoid painting critics of Islam as members or dupes of the  extreme right without additional evidence.
There is also a lesson for critics of Islam, and associated practices, who  do not identify with the extreme right. For a start, they need to understand the  situation, including the extreme right’s co-option of mainstream issues and  arguments. This may lead to greater patience with opponents who make the charge  of Islamophobia, though it hardly makes the charge more palatable (and I must  say that I find it difficult to maintain my patience when I see people who are  palpably not racists being maligned).
At a more practical level, opponents of  Islam who do not wish to be seen as the extreme-right’s sympathizers or dupes  would be well-advised to take care in the impression that they convey. Where  practical, they should explain their positions with as much nuance as possible,  distance themselves from extreme-right figures making similar arguments, and  avoid sharing platforms with them.
But these are all voluntary choices and there are limits. The words “where  practical” are important, because what is practical in, say, a philosophical  essay may not be practical in a satirical cartoon, or even in a polemical book aimed  at a popular audience. We mustn’t exclude the talents of people whose  training or temperament does not suit hedged, half-apologetic communication. Nor  must we always communicate in ways that most people find boring and bland.  Beyond a certain point, there is too much disadvantage in walking on eggshells.  We don’t have to do it all our lives.
  • Still a good post.

  • im-skeptical

    I often refer to ‘extreme religious fundamentalism’, and I include radical Islam in that category. It is sometimes useful to point out Christian fundamentalism isn’t excluded from that. That helps to avoid a label of Islamophobia and at the same time it avoids an association with the right-wing.

  • Charles Sullivan

    I wish the spacing and paragraphing could be adjusted, so it doesn’t appear as a wall of words.

  • RussellBlackford

    You’d think this would be straightforward to fix, but it isn’t. WordPress has its oddities that way.

    Just click on the link to read the original post.