Islam, racists, and legitimate debate
I’m simply reposting something I wrote for Talking Philosophy a year ago. As the post says, it has an even earlier history from the previous year. I still think it’s about right, and it’s still timely. It follows…
A version of this post was published as “Islam and ‘Islamophobia’ – a little manifesto” on my personal blog, over a year ago now. You can look up the earlier version if you’re interested in the changes, which are intended, in part, to produce some extra clarity, but especially to develop some thoughts at the end. Both versions are based on a longer discussion of related issues that was eventually published earlier this year in my book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.
First, I acknowledge that it doesn’t settle all the questions about criticism of Islam to point out that Islam is a belief system, or a set of overlapping belief systems, rather than a category based on ancestry or so-called “racial” characteristics. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But if we simply think of Islam as a “race” and treat criticism of it as racism, we can go very wrong.
Let’s accept – as I think we should – that some dislike of Islam, or impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, has a kind 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.
Once that’s noted, 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 (sometimes) gained a degree of respectability by co-opting issues and adopting stances that many politicians and members of the public find compelling. E.g., these figures have sometimes 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” – or, as we are now seeing, even the more dramatic word “racism” – will be used to vilify, 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. To be clearer, attacks on Islam that are opportunistic and ill-motivated may repeat critiques that originally had merit, and still have merit in themselves.
After all, there are reasons why extreme-right organizations have borrowed arguments based on feminism, secularism, etc. These arguments are useful precisely because they have an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to 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 – and I take it they are not – nothing precludes them also 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, especially heavily political varieties, or to express hostility towards it. People can legitimately disapprove of various doctrines, canons of conduct, associated cultural practices, and so on, and of the power wielded by Islamic leaders and organisational structures. Accordingly, expressions of disapproval or repudiation cannot simply be dismissed, a priori, with the assumption that they must be 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 also intimidate some individuals into silence. This suggests that we should understand that quasi-racism does not underlie all attacks on Islam. Quite the contrary. In particular, it would be wise, and only fair, to avoid painting individual 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 usually these people do take some care. When they do so it would be good for debate on these sensitive issues if their disclaimers were presumed to be in good faith. Furthermore, 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.
I’m a philosopher, so unsurprisingly I prefer to read material that is written in a reasonably civil, thoughtful way, but even if you try to do this you don’t have to walk on eggshells or adopt a defensive, hedged tone that makes you sound boring and bland. If you do end up saying some things that are false, or exaggerated, or unfairly snarky, or in need of qualification, other people can, quite properly, pick you up on it. That is all part of the back-and-forth of discussion in the public square.
But neither you nor those other people should be trying to bully ideas about important, yet difficult, topics off the table (to use a phrase that I picked up from Jean Kazez). It’s one thing to be clear and forthright, or even to use devices such as satire or ad absurdum arguments: you might be able to show that an opponent is logically committed to something untenable and even crazy-sounding unless she modifies her view. But trashing an opponent’s reputation, such as by falsely labeling him or her as a racist, is an unfair, intimidating, and fundamentally anti-intellectual tactic. This really shouldn’t have to be said, but increasingly I think it does have to be said … said and repeated.