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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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