Islamic criticism vs. Islamophobia


The freethinking community periodically finds itself in the paroxysms of indecision and self-recrimination for its inability to consistently address a simple question: what is the difference between “criticism of Islam” and “Islamophobia”? Whenever we seek to draw attention to atrocities committed in the name of Islam, we are caught in a firestorm of criticism on a variety of fronts. The most recent example was the fracas surrounding prominent atheist spokesmen Sam Harris and, to a lesser extent, Richard Dawkins, for comments they have made about Islam.

There are two extreme responses to this issue. The first, favoured by many within the atheist community, is to deny the very existence of Islamophobia – to claim that the term is political jargon that is used exclusively to deflect legitimate criticism by painting all critics as bigots. The second is to make the converse claim that all criticism of Islam is indeed Islamophobic, and that people’s religious beliefs ought to be off-limits. While these two positions are extreme, and while I am far more sympathetic to the former than the latter, I would imagine most people would agree on the following statement:

Bigotry is morally reprehensible, but we should be allowed to criticize bad ideas regardless of the social characteristics of those who hold them.

It’s a fairly balanced view, and one that I myself agree with. The problem arises when we seek to operationalize the distinction. There is a truly staggering amount of misinformation (or, more often, misattribution) about Islam that swirls around our public discourse, and because few of us were raised in Muslim households and aren’t up to the task of picking through the entire Qur’an and Sunnah (I haven’t – have you?), we are far more heavily influenced by stereotypes about Muslims than we are about, say, Christians or Jews. Because we are provided with no stereotypes about Buddhists or Zoroastrians or Hindus, we often neglect to criticize them. That leaves Islam, a much-hyped and starkly terrifying expansionist tradition, with several adherents issuing regular threats of destruction and hellfire against non-believers, and about which we know little – allowing our imaginations to run wild.

For the purposes of this series, I will define the term “Islamophobia” as an irrational aversion to or fear of Islam and/or its adherents. “Irrational” is a loaded word here, since nobody ever believes themselves to be acting irrationally, but again provisionally I will define it as ‘based on things other than sound logic and evidence’.

There are three general categories of errors I frequently see that cross the line from reasonable criticism to irrational criticism.

Errors of misattribution

Islam is, in many cases, practiced in countries with long histories of unchecked patriarchy (or, at least, recent histories of such). In several of these countries, there is severe wealth inequality, poor access to education, little secular infrastructure, and a society-wide veneration of religious authority as a valid source of knowledge and instruction. Wherever we see this pattern, whether it’s in Pakistan or Alabama, we see sexual abuse, homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of violence. To be sure, the presence of these factors doesn’t guarantee violence, nor does their absence ensure a lack of abuse (to wit: the Catholic Church), but we know that these societal factors are strong influences on the kinds of behaviour that we, as humanists, find abhorrent.

So when the claim is made that Islam is homophobic and misogynistic and violent, holding up examples of homophobia or misogyny or violence that happens in Muslim countries, even when Islam is claimed as the justification, is not sufficient evidence to support the assertion. Identical violence occurs in non-Muslim regions and countries where the claimed justification is different, but the conditions are similar. Short of finding surahs that specifically justify violence against non-believers (and, as far as I can tell, they seem to leave the punishment up to Allah), or that specifically justify misogyny and homophobia (which do exist, don’t get me wrong), the ‘criticism’ seems to be borne more of stereotypical prejudice than actual facts.

Errors of comparison

This one is probably the most common. Critics of Islam will point out how many awful things there are in the scripture as a way of demonstrating the Islam is uniquely terrible. The problem, of course, is that there are awful things to be found in all religions. Murder of homosexuals? The Torah’s got it. Forcing women to cover their hair? We can find that in the New Testament. Huge chunks of the Old Testament, incidentally, are stories of wandering Israelites murdering, raping, and enslaving surrounding ‘heathen’ tribes. It’s difficult to justify letting these religions off the hook, but we often do – or at the very least, we level these accusations against a religion, rather that recognizing that any religion is going to produce these beliefs and actions if given sufficient time and power.

None of this, incidentally, is to say that we should not criticize the atrocious parts of Muslim scripture, and condemn the behaviours of those who uphold it as gospel. Islam is a cruel religion, but it has lots of company. Finding evil in the Qur’an, no matter how long the list, doesn’t make Islam uniquely dangerous or harmful; it means that Islam is like any other religion – the product of flawed brains, ignorance, and a mechanism that shields it from scrutiny or criticism at the threat of death and/or everlasting torment.

Errors of individuation

The final typical error I commonly see from critics of Islam is where one group or individual is held up as the type specimen for all Muslims. Videos of a disgusting sermon preached by an imam will make the rounds on Facebook, or a crime committed in a Muslim country will hit r/atheism, and every atheist watching will begin to concernedly cluck their tongues and regurgitate shopworn lines about ‘Muslims’. These same atheists, meanwhile, will vigorously (and accurately) point out that prominent atheistic mass-murderers do not represent all atheists or even most atheists (or even many atheists).

When we allow this kind of double standard – when we say that terrorists or xenophobes are ‘the true face of Islam’ and fail to make the similar claim about Terry Jones being ‘the true face of Christianity’ or misogynistic hasidim being ‘the true face of Judaism’, we fail to hold up a logically consistent standard. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to recognize that extremists represent the, well… extreme parts of the belief, and while we generally don’t view Christians as being more likely to slaughter animals to atone for their misdeeds, nor do we expect Jewish parents to bludgeon their disobedient children to death with rocks, many among us somehow think that it is reasonable to suspect Muslim people of being more likely to commit terrorism based on a random and ambiguous surah.

Now I am sure that there will be many whose response to this argument is “well I don’t do any of these”, and to them I say “good”. I don’t believe that all criticism of Islam is illegitimate, nor do I believe that we ought not to criticize religious beliefs (obviously). What I do believe, however, is that our criticisms must be good in order to be effective, and not rely on stereotypes or misinformation. Whereas Islam is a religion like any other, it is corrosive and dangerous and should be opposed; however, whereas Islam is a religion like any other, we must be careful not to allow our opposition to become sullied by flawed paranoia.

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Comments

  1. Adam says

    I’m probably missing something so take this as a request for clarification:

    1) I agree with the point about unchecked patriarchy, but it does seem a little like a chicken/egg situation. That is, “Does religiously-justified, misogynistic/homophobic violence occur in these countries because of a misogynistic/homophobic culture, or is the culture misogynistic/homophobic because of the religion?”

    2) Errors 1 and 2 seem to make a bit of a Catch-22. If you point out someone doing terrible violence in a part of the Muslim world, you can’t criticize it as “Islamic” without referring to the Koranic verse. However, if you criticize Islam on the basis of a verse you need to mention all the other terrible religions and those Muslims not doing violence?”

    How then do we criticize Islam in a” legitimate” fashion, as it seems we’re kind of stuck if we challenge the people or the book? At least, we are unless we wish to add a length string of qualifications, caveats and disclaimers?

  2. mythbri says

    @Adam

    “Does religiously-justified, misogynistic/homophobic violence occur in these countries because of a misogynistic/homophobic culture, or is the culture misogynistic/homophobic because of the religion?”

    Misogyny and homophobic violence exists in more secular countries as well – such as the U.S. Is it because the U.S. is culturally Christian (by which I mean that most of the country identifies as such, not that it’s a “Christian nation”)? Or is it because the U.S. currently maintains a culture of misogyny and homophobia?

    Thankfully, because Christianity in the U.S. has been tempered for so long by secular governance instead of an outright theocracy, the effects of the toxic parts of the Christian religion are also (in general) tempered. That doesn’t mean that these problems don’t exist in the U.S. (they do) or that they are less important or urgent than the problems in other regions like the Middle East (they’re not).

    As to whether the one exists independent of or because of the other, well, we’ve seen that even in a community that rejects patriarchal religion still clings to patriarchal structure and attitudes. The secular/atheist/skeptic community has been having this conversation for years now.

  3. smrnda says

    I think about this issue a lot since though I definitely think Islam is full of shit, and full of bad ideas, I’ve known decent people who were Muslims my entire life. When someone says “Islam is a menace to civilization” I can definitely find some points in favor, but that statement kind of implies “Ahmad from accounting is a menace to civilization,” which is a ridiculous assertion, and which makes me worry that rhetoric about the”Islamic menace” would get someone like Ahmad, who espouses none of the negative views associated with the “Islamic menace” killed by a bunch of ignorant bigots.

  4. Jackson says

    I don’t find myself in a good position to distinguish “true” Islam from “false” Islam. Islam is not a book, and it is not defined or circumscribed by a book. Islam is a religion, a set of beliefs and practices, and I can judge it only by what adherents say and do. Of course, in doing this it becomes clear that “Islam” refers to an extremely diverse collection of religions, just as Christianity does. While I cannot in good faith judge one Islam because of wickedness done in the name of another, every form of Islam I know of contains ideas that I object to. I object to theism. I object to faith. Some of the other ideas and practices are specific to a particular Islam. I object to violence and misogyny and telling people what they can and cannot wear. So when I see a story about a rape victim being murdered, I will attack the ideas that led to that murder. Does it matter that there are other ideas that wear the same name?

  5. Jonathan, der Ewige Noobe says

    Technically, Thunderf00t isn’t a menace to society either–he’s a pathetic little dudebro with a Youtube account. Doesn’t mean he’s not part of something ugly and poisonous that needs to be stamped out.

  6. says

    I object to violence and misogyny and telling people what they can and cannot wear. So when I see a story about a rape victim being murdered, I will attack the ideas that led to that murder. Does it matter that there are other ideas that wear the same name?

    In an abstract sense, perhaps not. Rhetorically, pragmatically, politically? Absolutely. The claims being made are not about “an Islam”, people are not being profiled for looking like “some Muslims”, the general societal panic is not being kicked up over a specific and informed and particular branch of a thing – it is the entire religion in broad strokes, and its adherents along with it. I am not against criticizing Islam – far from it. I am saying that our criticisms should be equal to the thing they are criticizing, and there are enough complicating factors to make that too difficult to do without careful aforethought.

  7. says

    he’s a pathetic little dudebro with a Youtube account

    I think that point can be made without invoking the name of someone who has nothing to do with the topic at hand. I’d prefer not to have this thread show up in some obsessive anti-FTB “they’re just as bad as we are” circle-jerk.

  8. anne mariehovgaard says

    I agree, mostly – but…

    So when the claim is made that Islam is homophobic and misogynistic and violent, holding up examples of homophobia or misogyny or violence that happens in Muslim countries, even when Islam is claimed as the justification, is not sufficient evidence to support the assertion. Identical violence occurs in non-Muslim regions and countries where the claimed justification is different, but the conditions are similar.

    …are there any Islamic counter-examples? There are some non-Islamic, non-Muslim-majority countries where it’s mostly OK to be gay, or a woman, and stuff like religious freedom and free speech are mostly sort-of respected – but I’m having a very hard time coming up with any Muslim examples. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I do think that Islam makes things worse – for a number of reasons.

  9. Jonathan, der Ewige Noobe says

    Sorry, you’re right–feel free to delete that. ^^;
    Point is, regular little people are just as much part of The Problem (whatever particular problem we’re discussing) as the loud, angry, potentially violent types. What’s true for -isms is true for religions–it’s the quiet, more moderate atmosphere that enables the worse excesses.

  10. says

    but I’m having a very hard time coming up with any Muslim examples

    I’m not familiar with the specifics on the ground in many places, but there is some hope to be found in places like Turkey, Indonesia (minus Aceh province, which is its own thing), and Bangladesh (with a whole host of caveats, particularly to do with atheists bloggers at the moment).

    Keep in mind that the vast majority of the world doesn’t enjoy the levels of protection for free speech, gay rights, and women’s equality that western Europe, Canada, and (to an extent) the USA do. And even among we sainted few, our track record is far from sterling. I am seeing a lot of encouraging things out of South America on these fronts, but again I have to plead ignorance of anything other than a superficial understanding of the histories and contemporary politics of those areas.

  11. Jonathan, der Ewige Noobe says

    I was just trying to figure out how to quote Anne so I could bring up Turkey–they’re an excellent example of how a secular government can hold religious excess in check. Actually, from what I’ve scraped together on the topic, Turkey is kind of like an Islamic counterpart to America. Theoretically secular republic, founded on the nicest of ideals, but always held back and made to look bad by reactionary religious elements.

  12. Jonathan, der Ewige Noobe says

    Oh, and conversely, even little old harmless Roman Catholicism can still break out the braziers and tongs when civilization breaks down enough–like it has in Uganda. Religion is kind of like fascism–the specifics of how and why your family is going to be murdered may vary depending on the precise wording of “and then Moses killed all the goyim and let us rape their children, hallelujah” your particular group of thugs have been raised on, but in the end Hitler and Mussolini both wore the same impeccably tailored fetish gear.

  13. Adam says

    Thanks for the link. I’m not sure things are as clear cut as you make it seem in that artcile, but then I’m not sure it’s not. It definitely has me thinking :D.

    In many ways I think that, we as atheists, need to determine what constitutes “criticizing/challenging a religion.” Is it challenging ideals espoused in the books or the (sometimes) reprehensible actions of those who claim to be acting in their God’s name?

    It is not uncommon to see apologists use both sides to counter critiques of their faith.

    If you point to an incident of violence or antiscientific nonsense from a religious group (using Christianity as an example) you get things like: “No true Christian would do that, Jesus taught us to love our neighbors,” and “It doesn’t say anything about 6000 years in the Bible.”

    If you point out the misogynistic/homophobic scriptural verse you get:

    “No real Christian believes that, it’s the Old Testament.” or “It’s a metaphor, silly.”

    It seems that if we criticize the books we’re “attacking peoples most sacred beliefs” if go after the people we’re “stereotyping and being intolerant/predjudiced.” How then do we proceed?

  14. Jonathan, der Ewige Noobe says

    You can’t–that’s the whole point of doublethink. They believe whichever of the two is most convenient at the moment, so you always pick the wrong one and feed their fantasy of persecution by the ignorant heathen.

  15. steve oberski says

    I tell Catholics that to the extent that they provide moral and financial support to the Catholic church they are complicit in the ongoing criminal activities of the church in areas such as denying women and homosexuals equal treatment under the law, aiding and abetting paedophiles and so on.

    When Yasmin Ablihai-Brown, who has a column in The Independent, wonders how dare these letter-writers link me to the Woolwich savagery?, I say exactly the same thing, to the extent that you provide moral and financial support to Islam, you are complicit.

    And just like I think that there is no liberal version of Catholicism that will somehow stay faithful to the core tenets of Catholicism while simultaneously changing it’s position to be in accord with secular values, so it goes with Islam, there is no liberal or cultural version of Islam that meshes with the changing zeitgeist informed by human solidarity and not religious dogma.

    To claim that there is provides comfort and solace to fundamentalists of all persuasions.

  16. Jonathan, der Ewige Noobe says

    Precisely–and Islam’s only real foible is to publicly proclaim the doctrines that already underlie most of what’s wrong with our own culture.

  17. jesse says

    @anne mariehovgaard — besides Turkey — which has its own reactionary elements — there was Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Syria and Iraq. All of those countries were certainly better on issues of women’s status, though they weren’t democratic societies (well, Algeria has more of a claim to that, but not by much).

    The thing that gets me is that the idea that context can matter — that Muslims may be an oppressed minority here and not somewhere else — always seems to me obvious, but Sam Harris can’t seem to grasp it.

    Nor can he seem to understand that the whole profiling thing doesn’t actually, you know, work. (Not even for serial killers. Really — I can’t think of any that were caught with the profiling methods movies have made famous. It was all old-fashioned shoe leather police work). People talk about the Israelis a lot in these conversations, but the situation for El Al is rather different than for airlines in the US (for one, Israel makes no pretentions about being a pluralistic society).

    Also, it’s all based on what I would call the Star Trek view of culture. That is, people have some defining trait that governs every aspect of their lives. People are more complicated than that.

    Here’s another thought: homosexuality is basically illegal in China, and was in Cuba until recently. China also has a pretty awful human rights record. I don’t see any atheists ascribing that to atheism that is official in both places, and most would agree that when religious people carry on about Stalin and say that’s the fruit of atheism we tell them that is a dumb argument. But say “Islam” and the result is different. That’s Islamophobia at the very least, and a poor understanding of history as well.

  18. jesse says

    One other thing: One Islamic country that is reasonably democratic and such is Bosnia, and Albania as well.

  19. mythbri says

    @jesse

    Also, it’s all based on what I would call the Star Trek view of culture. That is, people have some defining trait that governs every aspect of their lives. People are more complicated than that.

    I agree with you, although I think it’s sadly ironic because Star Trek started out being incredibly diverse and inclusive.

  20. says

    steve oberski:

    I tell Catholics that to the extent that they provide moral and financial support to the Catholic church they are complicit in the ongoing criminal activities of the church in areas such as denying women and homosexuals equal treatment under the law, aiding and abetting paedophiles and so on.

    One might very well level the same kind of accusation against virtually everyone participating beyond subsistence level (*) in the societies of affluent countries, since the supply chain for our vast material wealth entails massive environmental destruction and exploitation of desperately poor people.

    That does not strike me as a very robust line of argument: suggesting that shopping at, say, Target entails being complicit in criminal negligence causing factory collapses in Bangladesh IMO amounts to a non sequitur. On this view, why should suggesting that dropping a few bucks in the plate while attending a Mass entails complicity in child abuse be considered valid?

    —-
    (*) I add that caveat in order for the circumstances to be analagous. One must eat and have shelter, after all. But, as belonging to the Catholic church is voluntary, so is participating more fully in modern affluent societies beyong subsistence. No one has to have a mobile phone, or surf the Internet for hours every day, etc.

  21. says

    Adam:

    With regards to your inquiry, keep in mind that you can always criticize an indefensible behaviour without regard for how those undertaking it justify their actions.

    For example, I do not think there is any way in which the act of throwing battery acid in the faces of schoolgirls can be morally justified. It is flat-out indefensible. You can always call that behaviour out as vicious and contemptible. Maybe the perpetrators can point to some Quranic verses supporting them; maybe they can’t. Who cares?

  22. Xaivius (Formerly Robpowell, Acolyte of His Majesty Lord Niel DeGrasse Tyson I) says

    Crommunist:

    I appreciate this post, and the others concerning islamophobia/criticism of islam, as they make me consider my position on these subjects. I’d like to pose a question: I consider religion as a whole to be a virulent plague on the mind. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have all done their part to worsen the human condition with dogma and crusade. When I see things like Woolrich, it disgusts me that humans can do such things to each other. But my takeaway is that the crimes are abhorrent, and the teachings of extremist religion are also abhorrent. This is not unique. I try to school myself in thinking “people who follow some form of Islam are not evil, but possibly deluded/set in their ways. Those who use those teachings to create human bombs are evil.” as an example of my thought process. I understand that there’s probably some sort of internal compensation for the concept of ‘other’ in there, and that I’m trying to squash it until further data is presented.

    Is this islamophobia? This probably sounds stupid, but my inner monologue has essentially reached its limit, so I’m seeking outside council. I’ll leave at this point for response

  23. lochaber says

    As to Islamic countries being inherently more sexist and misogynistic then, say, the U.S.:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_political_leaders_in_Islam_and_in_Muslim-majority_countries

    For all our claims of not needing feminism, or having acheived equality, we still haven’t had a female president (or even vice president).

    Sure, the Quran is used to justify misogyny in a lot of Islamic states. The U.S. is still using the bible to justify sexism and misogyny, despite being a secular state (see anything regarding abortion, contraceptives, harassment, or sexual assault, amongst others).

    Hell, just last week or so, there was some bit in the news about some Imam (D.C., I think?) that was holding same sex Islamic weddings.

    meh, I’m not sure it’s really that much different then any other religion. Sure, there is some horrible stuff in their book, but the reasonable folk (like the reasonable folk of any other religion) tend to overlook/take with a grain of salt/whatever those parts.

  24. jesse says

    @Setár, genderqueer Elf-Sheriff of Atheism+

    You haven’t spoken to a Native American, have you? The US policy was basically just that: kill them or destroy their culture by any means necessary. And in fact the last “Indian massacre” in the US was in 1911. (The family of Mike Daggett, a group of Shoshone).

    And lest you think that was the last such incident, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ten years later, white residents of the city took it upon themselves to try and kill every black person they could find. Similar scenes played out across the US for decades. Ethnic cleansing and pogroms weren’t just a European phenomenon.

    And I suggest you take a look at how government policy treated Native people in recent decades and why organizations like AIM or the Black Panthers appeared in the first place.

    Has the Turkish government done terrible things? Yup. But Western governments including those of the US and Canada have also, and it was a part of government policy in the case of Native people. For African Americans it was a situation where protecting them as citizens wasn’t deemed worth the trouble.

  25. says

    Many (most?) of my Facebook posts discuss atheism, religion, and criticism of conservative politics (and religion). Unfortunately, most of my family members, and many of my old friends, are very conservative Christians. So some posts will obviously raise conflicts. A criticism I have received several times from family and friends is: “You always talk about how bad Christianity is. Why don’t you ever talk about Muslims?” My response is usually…

    a) I do, usually when there is a news story (especially if it ties in with feminism, which is another topic I often post about). But, no, I don’t talk about Islam as often as I discuss Christianity, because…

    b) I’m more familiar with Christianity. I understand it from the inside, so it’s much easier for me to point out harmful aspects of Christian culture, and philosophical/theological issues, especially because I studied to be a minister, so I have quite a bit of theology and scripture knowledge accumulated. (I might as well get some use out of the tens of thousands I wasted at a Christian university.) Not only that, I lived it. It’s personal. Also, living in the US, the Christian right is much more of a threat to civil liberties and our government than Islam. Hell, purely based on statistics, terrorism from ultra-right extremist Christians is more of a threat than terrorism from Islamic extremists. (But I’m much more worried about the deaths and destruction being caused by religious extremists in legislative bodies across the country, than the potential threat of death and destruction from terrorist actions by religious extremists, frankly.) And…

    c) (moving back on topic) I don’t discuss Islam as much, honestly, because the right-wing fundamentalists among my Facebook friends hate Islam (and Muslims–and no, they don’t see any distinction) enough as it is. I don’t want to fuel the rampant Islamophobia that I see. And, unfortunately, as this discussion has shown, it is not just coming from my Republican/Libertarian fundie relatives…I’ve left several atheist pages over the last couple years because I’ve been uncomfortable with the level of Islamophobia I’ve seen from them, as well as their complete disinterest in evaluating their posts, their dismissive attitude towards concerns people had, and the denial that Islamophobia even exists. As you’ve shown, this is a widespread problem, and I have no interest in contributing to it.

    So that’s how I deal with the issue, at least on Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, on Twitter), which is where I do most of my internet writing right now. I don’t know if it’s the best solution, but it’s how I’m handling it right now.

  26. says

    PS: The thing that infuriates me is when people post parts of the Qur’an, or quote a particular Muslim cleric, quotes that seem to advocate violence, rape, domestic abuse, etc. and try to use it to show that all of Islam is evil. Because I can (and I do!) post excerpts from the Bible that are equally disturbing. And, jeez, if you open it up to all writings from Christian leaders and theologians over the past 2000 years (which is what you’re doing if you start posting quotes from Imams and such), I can easily match any horrific quote, usually off the top of my head without even having to search.

    But it’s a waste of time, because I always hear the same thing (from both Christians and atheists!): “It’s not the same! Christians don’t believe that anymore! You can’t take those verses out of context!” etc. etc. etc., we’ve all heard it.

    And yet, they are incapable of seeing that they are doing exactly the same thing! Drives me up a wall, but nothing annoys me quite as much as hypocrisy + irrationality. Guaranteed to make me start screaming at my laptop. Like I said, it’s pointless, and I don’t even bother, anymore, because I know exactly what the response will be. It’s not like anyone will ever exclaim, “OMG, you’re right! I never thought of it like that!” or something. So I just hide the post and go look at cute puppy clips on youtube, instead.

  27. CaitieCat says

    Well-reasoned post, Crom, thanks. I think you and I agree on this topic pretty much completely.

    Also, jesse, thank you for pointing out that we in North America have rather transparent and fragile walls to be chucking rocks at the Turks for not admitting genocide. Turkey is an excellent analogue to the US in the Muslim world. Ataturk wrought well when he wrung a secular society out of the old Ottoman seat.

    Its secular nature is under siege by Islamists, yes; no less so than the Southern Baptist Church is doing in the US, with their constant attempts to implement Christian shari’a wherever they get power (“rape is a gift from God”, anyone?).

    I don’t ever shy from criticizing Islam where needed, but I also never forget that the vast majority of Muslims never riot in the streets, never threaten someone for cartoons, never lift a finger to invade another country. They’re not uniquely awful as a religion. They’re in power in more places than Christian theocrats are, and so there are more current examples of bad behaviour by the religious, but they’ve not recently started a genocidal war which led to the killing of dozens of millions of people, either.

    Bangladesh has 150 million people in it. If 100,000 of them spill into the streets of Dhaka to shout about how awful someone is to say anything bad about their religion, that’s still only a small portion of the populace. Most of them are too busy trying to make a living to be bothered with that bullshit. And if we find mobs stringing people up, well, we in North America aren’t exactly a long long way from that being a part of our history too.

    Crommunist himself, fifty years ago, could have found himself in some deeply lethal shit if he were writing this same information about atheism in a pamphlet in Jackson MS, or Birmingham AL, no?

  28. Dunc says

    I tell Catholics that to the extent that they provide moral and financial support to the Catholic church they are complicit in the ongoing criminal activities of the church in areas such as denying women and homosexuals equal treatment under the law, aiding and abetting paedophiles and so on.

    When Yasmin Ablihai-Brown, who has a column in The Independent, wonders how dare these letter-writers link me to the Woolwich savagery?, I say exactly the same thing, to the extent that you provide moral and financial support to Islam, you are complicit.

    The problem here is that “Islam” is not a single institution in the way that “the Catholic Church” is. Do you tell all Christians that they are complicit in the criminal activities of the Catholic Church? The Christian equivalent of “Islam” is “Christianity” (in its entirety), not “Catholicism”.

  29. says

    The clearest examples I see of Islamophobia are assertions that Europe and/or the US are in imminent danger of a Muslim takeover. There just isn’t any evidence to support this. Separation of church and state is still mostly in place, but to the extent it is threatened, it’s not threatened by Muslims, but by Christians. For an example from the Netherlands, Muslims here tend to vote for the secular left-leaning parties, and these parties have been pushing for a repeal of an anti-blasphemy law that is still on the books. All three Christian parties voted against the repeal.

    Assertions that the Muslim immigrants will outbreed the native population certainly belong in that category too, with evidence showing that family size goes down with each next generation (probably as a result of education levels and economic stability going up) (source for the Netherlands: CBS).

    Religiosity is also coming down among Muslims, as measured by mosque attendance dropping quite fast (source for the Netherlands: CBS.

    So these fears of the US or Europe being overrun by Muslims in my view clearly qualify as a phobia, an unreasonable fear. I’m not even sure why that would be considered controversial, but apparently it is.

    In contrast, here are some quick examples that I think aren’t Islamophobia: pointing out the dangers of isolated pockets of Islamic extremism in Europe or the US, or pointing out the oppression imposed by theocratic, authoritarian regimes.

  30. steve oberski says

    @composer99

    Well if nothing else, “dropping a few bucks in the plate while attending a Mass ” will help pay for all those massive court settlements.

  31. says

    @Xaivius – specific criticisms leveled against specific ideas do not rise to the status of an irrational fear. The problem arises when we make broad, sweeping conclusions based on selected evidence.

  32. anne mariehovgaard says

    Crommunist@11: if Bangladesh, Indonesia and Turkey are your most positive examples, you have a problem (the situation for women, gay men, outspoken atheists, journalists or members of the political opposition is pretty bad by European standards).

    Jesse@18: yes, I think you’re right. Still not quite what I was hoping for.

    I don’t see why Islam should make people more violent; I don’t think it does. But I do think that basing your view of life/the world/… on a religion that, in addition to the (major!) problems the other two Abrahamic religions have 1. places such a strong emphasis on submission/obedience, and 2. treats its main religious text as something believers should simply memorize in the original language, whether or not they actually understand it, probably makes things like democracy and respect for individual freedom more difficult.

  33. Xaivius (Formerly Robpowell, Acolyte of His Majesty Lord Niel DeGrasse Tyson I) says

    Crommunist@33

    Thanks for the clarification. This is something that gets me tied up between my distaste for religious nonsense, and my distaste for irrational, institutionalized racism. I also tend to levy my disdain at political institutions that use religion as a tool of oppression.

    Now, I need to do some substantive research on the use of “Islamophobia” as a dog-whistle for “criticism of islam” and “Abhorrence of Brown People”

  34. jesse says

    @annie mariehovgaard

    Jews ask that people memorize the Torah, and in fact there’s a prescribed reading every week (called a parsha) and yes, we’re expected to memorize it. And no, most Jews don’t speak Biblical Hebrew or Aramaic.

    So, um, Israel?

    Both points you brought up are quite common to Jews as well.

    There’s nothing about culture in Islamic countries that makes democracy more difficult than anywhere else. I cold have said the same thing about India. Look at how very traditional Hindu families operate, for instance, with the emphasis on arranged marriages (“love marriages” are a VERY newfangled thing in Japan, too, BTW — my parents are old enough that most people in their cohort in Japan would have been in semi-arranged marriages).

    Do you understand why your points sound an awful lot like “those brown people in X place couldn’t possibly operate by governing themselves, which is why we are justified in doing so, because (insert some piece of Islam here).” or “There are fundamental reasons why Japanese people are not to be trusted, because (insert cultural trait here).”

    Want hierarchy and obedience? Japan. Patriarchy? Japan. India. Alabama. Poland, Russia. Ireland. Heck, Ireland operated slave labor camps (known as the Magdalene Laundries) for “fallen” women. Those were extant until the 1970s.

  35. Adam says

    I would agree with many here that the Qu’ran is really not worse than any other Abrahamic holy book. However, I don’t think this means that the concerns posed by Islam, as compared with Christianity or Judaism, in 2013 are equivalent.

    (That said, I’ve seen no mention of the Hadith, which are a non-trivial element of Islamic practice)

    There are some important theological differences that could contribute to this difference but the heart of it seems to be (IMO), that Islam not only has a book that advocates some terrible ideals, but it also has more people who believe it whole-heartedly and are willing to act on that belief.

    The key question is how to we address this distinction without giving fodder to the myriad of racists waiting in the wings. What would be the best strategy in terms of politics and social conscience?

    One tricky aspect of this problem that has occurred to me is: Given that Islam is not a monolith, in my experience and observation, is that some Muslims may see an attack on any aspect of Islam as an attack on all of it and them. So how does one try to address particular schools or interpretations without running the risk of being taken for attack all of it?

  36. jesse says

    There are some important theological differences that could contribute to this difference but the heart of it seems to be (IMO), that Islam not only has a book that advocates some terrible ideals, but it also has more people who believe it whole-heartedly and are willing to act on that belief.

    This is the problem – your premise is that more Muslims are willing to act on it than Christians are. There isn’t any evidence for this, once you control for some other pretty huge factors.

    For instance, if Iraqi troops came to Washington DC and burned the city down, bombed the rest of our major metropolitan areas, killed on the order of 10 million people, and then left a puppet government in place along with occupying troops, would you say that Christianity was the reason many people were willing to act on their beliefs, or something else, maybe?

    So let’s look at it this way: how about, rather than jumping to Islam as the problem — and BTW I am not saying it isn’t a problem, per se — but strike the word Islam from the vocabulary and ask yourself what it might be like if you analyzed countries with largely Islamic populations the way you would, say, Russia or China.

    You’ll find, I think, that using Islam as the convenient “reason” for problems becomes as non-informative as using atheism for it when talking about China. I mean, suicide bombing was invented by Hindus and Buddhists for christs sake.

    And of COURSE many Muslims might see attacks on their religion as attacks on them. Holy hell, if you said something like “well, Judaism has some really reprehensible beliefs, so we’d better think about how we could curb them in the public sphere” what do you think the reaction would be from say, the ADL? Do you understand why this Jew would be awfully upset?

    This isn’t hard. When you are dealing with a group of people that is an oppressed minority in your area, then you address religious issues accordingly. You have to look at it in terms of what that oppression means to people.

    If I were discussing the negative aspects of the black churches in the US, I would not say “Southern Baptist African American Christians do X” or worse yet, “black folks…” I would say, “There’s some negative consequences for X behavior by churches in Y context, and here are the kinds of problems… ” Go look at the racialicious.com blog for some good examples of how to talk about it.

    Sorry, I am not trying to shout you down, but I keep seeing this again and again. It’s an essentializing view of what Islam is. It’s Star Trek cultural analysis. (And BTW Star Trek may have made some efforts to be inclusive, but gaawd would some of the Trek writers could hit some epic fail). And it is ahistorical. And ignorant of the facts. And ignoring the way cultures work.

    Does this mean Islam has nothing to do with anything? Of course not. But look at the language you use, look at the basic premises from which you start.

    If you’re talking about the situation in Saudi Arabia, for instance, you’d say that look, we have a monarchy (imposed by the West, BTW) that operates as a semi-theocracy (though it isn’t, really, in the sense the Catholic Church was). There’s all kinds of reasons why it looks the way it does. Islam is only a minor part of it when you think about how that government might look without half a billion in military aid and a single family in control of the richest resource in the neighborhood.

    Again, the problem isn’t that Islam is better than Christianity or worse. The issue is that it isn’t uniquely so, and frankly I get irritated at all this “old Oriental hand” kind of analysis. It reminds me of the bullshit I hear in movies like “Rising Sun.” (“Japanese people are wary of big arm movements.” was my particularly favorite eye-roller form that film).

    Culture matters. But so does getting invaded, bombed, occupied and colonized.

  37. Adam says

    @jesse

    I mostly agree with your points. I forgot to add a couple of qualifiers in what I wrote specifically I should have written

    “…Islam not only has a book that advocates some terrible ideals, but it also [b]appears[/b] has more people who believe it whole-heartedly and are willing to act on that belief.”

    I should have mentioned the effects of invasion and violence etc. That is definitely a huge element behind the sort of violence and extremism we have seen in the name of Islam. However, I think the concern of some in the “Islamophobia” debates is the term restricts the discussion only to the influence of invasion and occupation and not to the cultural and religious factors.

    I’m somewhat reminded of the accommodationists who claim that Creationism does not stem from the religion itself but from other factors.

    Invasion and colonization doesn’t explain the actions of Muslim immigrants to Western nations who decide to commit acts of violence. Nor does it explain violent actions against other Muslims sects who suffer just as much as they do under occupation.

    There is a common factor to these events, a certain batch of writings and a certain group of teachings and interpretations.

    We need to acknowledge the culpability of our oppressive foreign policy in this but we also have to address the ideals behind them and the justification for it. I think the challenge is: Can this be done in a manner sensitive to the racial and post-colonial factors?

  38. great1american1satan says

    EEB & others –

    Interesting takes on the issue, and informative. Elsewhere, I’ve tried to start this discussion a few times, to no avail, because I don’t feel settled in my own mind about the issues. This sort of thing helps.

    Jesse@25, I don’t think Setar would ever deny that the West is ten kinds of horrible. They were just making the point that Turkey sucks, lest anyone get too happy about them. I sometimes wonder if there’s anywhere in the world I could live and feel proud of.

    I think I’m finally done waffling about the “Does Islamophobia exist?” question. So, to the cool peeps I respect who deny that it does, eh, I must downgrade you in my esteem a notch. Sorry about that. As someone mentioned, context matters. For creepy islamists in Bangladesh to cry Islamophobia is laughable (and a very dark laugh it is), but in the USA, it’s extremely fucking legit.

  39. great1american1satan says

    Holy crap, a lot of large posts went up in the time it took me to write that. XD
    This joint is hoppin’.

  40. great1american1satan says

    Reading the more recent posts brings me to asking the same follow-up question I did on another site: If I remove the word Islam from the discussion to control for my Islamophobia, I’m left wondering this about all religions: I firmly believe they are wrong, hold progress back, and lead to evil. How do I maintain that without ending up a total asshat like Harris? Most discussion of getting along in a pluralistic society comes back to interfaith love, and I’ve been the odd man out in that discussion IRL. It was hella awkward.

  41. says

    How do I maintain that without ending up a total asshat like Harris?

    First, I would say that if one can find meaningful ways in which Islam is unique and distinct from Christianity/Judaism (and I’m sure they exist), and criticize those specific beliefs, that’s a rational and fact-based critique. Second, I would imagine that if you take the time to define what you specifically mean by ‘Islam’ (if, for example, you are talking about contemporary theocratic hegemony under the banner of ‘Islam’), then you’re making a specific, pointed critique.

    Ultimately though, your critiques have to remained focussed on the ideas. My problem with the little bit of Harris’ arguments I’m familiar with is when he says “these beliefs are bad, and therefore we must do X to the believers”. I find that line of reasoning problematic whether you are talking about Muslims or conservatives or white supremacists or whichever group you want to substitute in there.

  42. great1american1satan says

    Yeah… I’m considering how that would play out in future meatspace conversations I have about the subject. I like being confident in my position and normally I am, but religion can get me a bit hot under the collar. I feel like the best way to keep myself cool is to remind myself and possibly the other person right at the beginning that my position is about the ideas, not the people.

    Example: “I have no problem with you and I’m sure you’re a good person, but your belief system is fundamentally flawed…” I don’t tend to win hearts and minds, but I do get people thinking, at least for a few minutes. It’s weird how often I used to get stuck in conversations like that. A semi-homeless guy asked me advice on fixing his TV, and the next minute he was saying how he was afraid of the NWO putting an RFID chip in his arm. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t even schizophrenic. Later that day, I met a guy distributing the Chick tract that he got that from.

  43. jesse says

    Invasion and colonization doesn’t explain the actions of Muslim immigrants to Western nations who decide to commit acts of violence. Nor does it explain violent actions against other Muslims sects who suffer just as much as they do under occupation.

    Holy historically unaware, batman!

    Malcolm X was born and raised in the US. You think he didn’t have a point about the way black folks are treated? What would you do if your family had just been bombed by an occupying power? Sing hosannahs?

    And jesus tap-dancing christ, you’ve never read even a basic history of WW II? What happened to the collaborators in France once the Resistance got a hold of them? I guarantee you it wasn’t pretty. And I suggest a bit of cursory research into the violence that has swept over the Balkans occasionally.

    This is the problem. You keep on going off about how there’s some super-secret weirdness about Islam. And there isn’t — those folks are behaving exactly the way you or I probably would.

    Let me explain to you the premise you are starting from: it’s that there is no rational reason for violence against various first-world nations. Because we’re the good guys, and our governments and governance are wonderful.

    So you immediately pose violence (that comes from our very own actions) as some kind of insanity — it must all be religiously driven by some strange impulse. This from a person in the US or Canada where in the former we extol the violence we engaged in over taxes.

    Here’s another exercise: pretend it’s 1995 and we’re discussing Timothy McVeigh. Besides 9/11, his attack was the deadliest ever in the US. Now insert the word “Christian” here, and ask yourself why talking bout McVeigh’s religious motivation in isolation is simply silly.

    History? Pshaw. It must be magical qualities of Christianity that make people more prone to violence, right?

    The average Native has every reason — and justification — for mounting a serious military resistance against colonizers (us). Even now. Are you going to tell me that the anger is motivated by some weird religious thing that comes from animistic religions? The people who followed Red Cloud and later the Ghost Dancers were the religious extremists of their day, too.

  44. Adam says

    @45 (Jesse)

    No. That is not my premise. I believe I have stated (or at least tried to) that there are very important and very rational reasons for violence against first-world nations. I definitely do not believe we are the good guys and think our whole approach to the middle-east and many places in the world needs a radical overhaul, to say the least.

    My point is that it is more complicated than that and that their religion: (i.e. what is said in the Qu’ran and the Hadith and centuries of Islamic jurisprudence) is a non-trivial factor in the equation.

    My basic starting points (open debate and correction, that’s sort of why I’m here).

    a) The relative abundance of Islam-justified terror/violence. Not that no one commits acts of violence in the name of other religions, you can add Anders Breivik to Timothy McVeigh on that score and the Witch-hunts in Uganda. However, in 2013, there appears to be a numerical discrepancy in the number of murders carried out in the name of Islam.

    b) There are Christians living in some of these occupied countries and suffering as much under our colonial heel, yet they do not seem to responding the same way.

    c) Several attacks have been attempted/carried out by citizens of Western nations who have not suffered this occupation. This includes white, western converts to Islam, the key common factor here appears to their religion.

    (For the sake of attempted intellectual honesty, I should note that the Wests’ violent foreign policy is a contributing factor here, as illustrated by the statements of the Woolwich murderers. However, it appears, even from the actions of non-violent Muslims, that attacks on one group of Muslims is often considered an attack on all. This is divisive sectarianism)

    d) The people who suffer the most from Islam-justified violence are Muslims themselves. This violence is not limited to “collaborators,’ but to those who challenge the misogynistic culture in many Islamic countries and also those who simply don’t worship Allah the right way.

    (Again, I’m not saying Islam has a monopoly on sectarian violence. The history of Europe, even just the UK, is replete with violence and bigotry between Christian denominations. My point is that this sectarian violence suggests more at work that rebellion against oppressive invasions.)

    e) Despite having every reason and justification for military resistance, I am not aware of any recent attempts by Native Americans or Canadians to bomb office buildings (I may be wrong).

    It simply seems that in the current Geopolitical climate there is a special concerns with political Islam that is not the shared by political Christianity or other extreme views. There are several ways to try and explain this, and I agree a key element is:

    1) Many majority Islamic countries are in a regions with long history of suffering oppression and violence from Western nations.

    Other possibilities include:

    2) There is a definite theological element to Islam that can lead to acts of terrorism against civilians, other sects and violent oppression of women, homosexuals and free speech rights.

    3) There is a definite cultural element the region where Islam developed that can lead to interpretations of the faith that acts of terrorism against civilians, other sects and violent oppression of women, homosexuals and free speech rights.

    4) It’s just Islam’s “time.” Like a great deal of violence in Europe came as Christianity went through “growing pains” in the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Islam is doing the same in the early 21st century.

    5) Something happened in history to temper the majority of Christian and Jewish countries so that acts of religiously-motivated violence are less common.

    6) All of the above (from 1-5).

    My personal suspicion is 6. I’m happy to adjust and reassess that based on compelling arguments and new evidence. In the end I just think it’s a false equivalency that whenever we discuss Islam-justifed violence or misogynist/homophobic attitudes, we feel the need to rush to say “Christianity/Judaism..etc are just as bad.” Maybe they were once, maybe the books are just as bad, but I don’t think you can say that as an assessment of current world events.

    However, after writing all of this, it seems largely beside the point. If we can agree that there is a problem with many Islamic belief (even as we say the same about other religions) and the actions they lead to, the question becomes “What can we do about it?”

    More specifically, what can we do about it that is sensitive the history of colonisation and occupation and that does not conflate Muslim with a racial stereotype, or judge every Muslim by the actions of a few.

    Honestly, I don’t know. The reason I read this article and joined in the comments is to try and work it out for myself and how to square some of the thoughts I list above with my developing ideas on race, culture, post-colonialism and how the interact with religious beliefs.

    3)

  45. anne mariehovgaard says

    Jesse@36:

    Do you understand why your points sound an awful lot like “those brown people in X place couldn’t possibly operate by governing themselves, which is why we are justified in doing so, because (insert some piece of Islam here).” or “There are fundamental reasons why Japanese people are not to be trusted, because (insert cultural trait here).”

    WTF??? No, absolutely not, unless you really really want them to for some odd reason. I was just talking about a difference between Muslims and Christians in attitudes towards their (equally horrible) holy texts, and possible effects of that difference. Christians appear to be more free to interpret the Bible to fit their conscience (resulting in a myriad of “Christianities”); I would expect that not having that freedom might make it more difficult to change attitudes/society in a socially liberal direction. And you’d get a pattern where more liberal = more secular, which seems to be the case (at least here – Norway – but then they’re almost all immigrants or the children of immigrants, so maybe not typical).

    I don’t know enough about Judaism to compare, sorry. Did you mean to use Israel as a positive example?

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