There’s Kenan Malik. I trust there won’t be too much sensitive frowning over the possibility that Kenan Malik is being obtuse about bigotry toward Muslims or immigrants or other races.
Ten years ago no one had heard of Islamophobia. Now everyone from Muslim leaders to anti-racist activists to government ministers want to convince us that Britain is in the grip of an irrational hatred of Islam – a hatred that, they claim, leads to institutionalised harassment, physical attacks, social discrimination and political alienation…
But does Islamophobia really exist? Or is the hatred and abuse of Muslims being exaggerated to suit politicians’ needs and silence the critics of Islam? The trouble with Islamophobia is that it is an irrational concept. It confuses hatred of, and discrimination against, Muslims on the one hand with criticism of Islam on the other. The charge of ‘Islamophobia’ is all too often used not to highlight racism but to stifle criticism. And in reality discrimination against Muslims is not as great as is often perceived – but criticism of Islam should be greater.
I hope there won’t be too many irritable accusations that Kenan Malik is being “too literal” in saying that, or indeed that nobody thinks of the word that way except people who are being too literal.
If statistics for racist attacks are difficult to compile, it is even more difficult to define what is an Islamophobic attack. Should we treat every attack on a Muslim as Islamophobic? If an Afghan taxi driver is assaulted, is this a racist attack, an Islamophobic incident or simply a case of random violence? Such uncertainty gives licence to peddle all sorts of claims about Islamophobia.
And that’s where things go wrong.
‘Islamophobia’ has become not just a description of anti-Muslim prejudice but also a prescription for what may or may not be said about Islam. Every year, the Islamic Human Rights Commission organises a mock awards ceremony for its ‘Islamophobe of the Year’. Last year there were two British winners. One was the BNP’s Nick Griffin. The other? Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. Toynbee’s defence of secularism and women’s rights, and criticism of Islam, was, it declared, unacceptable. Isn’t it absurd, I asked the IHRC’s Massoud Shadjareh, to equate a liberal anti-racist like Polly Toynbee with the leader of a neo-fascist party. Not at all, he suggested. ‘There is a difference between disagreeing and actually dismissing certain ideologies and certain principles. We need to engage and discuss. But there’s a limit to that.’ It is difficult to know what engagement and discussion could mean when leading Muslim figures seem unable to distinguish between liberal criticism and neo-fascist attacks.
In fact, we already live in a culture of growing self-censorship. A decade ago, the Independent asked me to write an essay on Tom Paine, the eighteenth century English revolutionary and freethinker. It was the 200th anniversary of his great polemic, The Age of Reason. I began the article with a quote from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to show the continuing relevance of Paine’s battle against religious authority. The quote was cut out because it was deemed too offensive to Muslims. The irony of censoring an essay in celebration of freethinking seemed to elude the editor.
These days it is becoming increasingly common for liberals to proclaim free speech is necessary in principle – but also to argue that in practice we should give up that right. Ruminating in the Guardian about the fallout from the Behzti affair, Ian Jack, editor of Granta magazine, suggested that whatever liberals believe in principle, in practice we need to appease religious sensibilities. ‘The state has no law forbidding a pictorial representation of the Prophet’, he pointed out, ‘But I never expect to see such a picture. On the one hand, there is the individual’s right to exhibit or publish one; on the other hand, the immeasurable insult and damage to life and property that the exercise of such a right would cause.’ He added that ‘In this case, we understand that the price is too high – even though we, the faithless, don’t understand the offence.’
There’s Pascal Bruckner:
At the end of the 1970s, Iranian fundamentalists invented the term “Islamophobia” formed in analogy to “xenophobia”. The aim of this word was to declare Islam inviolate. Whoever crosses this border is deemed a racist. This term, which is worthy of totalitarian propaganda, is deliberately unspecific about whether it refers to a religion, a belief system or its faithful adherents around the world.
But confession has no more in common with race than it has with secular ideology. Muslims, like Christians, come from the Arab world, Africa, Asia and Europe, just as Marxists, liberals and anarchists come or came from all over. In a democracy, no one is obliged to like religion, and until proved otherwise, they have the right to regard it as retrograde and deceptive. Whether you find it legitimate or absurd that some people regard Islam with suspicion – as they once did Catholicism – and reject its aggressive proselytism and claim to total truth – this has nothing to do with racism.
Do we talk about ‘liberalophobia‘ or ‘socialistophobia’ if someone speaks out against the distribution of wealth or market domination. Or should we reintroduce blasphemy, abolished by the revolution in 1791, as a statutory offence, in line with the annual demands of the “Organisation of the Islamic Conference”. Or indeed the French politician Jean-Marc Roubaud, who wants to see due punishment for anyone who “disparages the religious feelings of a community or a state”. Open societies depend on the peaceful coexistence of the principle belief systems and the right to freedom of opinion. Freedom of religion is guaranteed, as is the freedom to criticise religions. The French, having freed themselves from centuries of ecclesiastical rule, prefer discretion when it comes to religion. To demand separate rights for one community or another, imposing restrictions on the right to question dogma is a return to the Ancien Regime.