And there are more other critics of the word “Islamophobia”

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.



  1. LeftSidePositive says

    The thing that really bugs me, though, is that there actually IS Islamophobia–that is, it is a real thing in the world–remember the whole thing about the Park 51 debacle? There’s nothing necessarily offensive about a community center, gym, and restaurant! Yes, a different culture, but all (apparently) aesthetic differences that harm no one. And the people who were flipping out about “All American Muslim” were sniping about people’s choice of clothing (which is a personal choice–in the US at least–that has cultural and aesthetic roots and harms no one) with derogatory terms and acting like all these boring people in suburban USA were terrorists, even though they were about as connected to terrorism as any garden-variety Christian is likely to be an Inquisitor.

    And, let’s not get me started about all the Religious Right politicians who shriek about “sharia law this” and “sharia law that” who openly state that they want their Biblical beliefs to be instrumental in policy-making: their objection to sharia is NOT that it is a human rights violation to enforce religious doctrine as law, but rather that they want only THEIR religious doctrine to be enforced as law.

    Even in Europe I get so sick of hearing (esp. from right-wing pols) about concerns over Islam being presented as issues of “National Character” rather than, hey, some of these here groups are seeming to advocate some human rights violations!!

    Against this very real backdrop of irrational hate, it’s way too easy to conflate legitimate critique of theology, politics, and harmful actions perpetrated in the world as “Oh, but you just don’t like/respect my culture!!” How do we shut up actual Islamophobes while still focusing on issues that ARE germane–namely attitudes and practices of Islamic sects that stifle equality, free expression, and individuals’ safety and self-determination?

    Btw, it drives me bonkers when Catholics do this too–you say something very pertinent about the fact that their organization enables and covers up for child rapists, and they whine that you have “an anti-Catholic bias”!! Okay, so the KKK and others hate Catholics just for being Catholic, but, actually, I’m legitimately annoyed about the children who were raped! Same thing with neocons and Jews who flip out when you criticize Israel bombing the shit out of civilian neighborhoods or Orthodox Jews spitting on schoolgirls, and then say you’re anti-Semitic–yes, anti-Semitism exists in the world and it’s very very bad, but there are actual problems with killing civilians and harassing young women and girls that you ought to address!!!

  2. Irene Delse says

    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?

    Could it be both? I certainly see two parallel trends: on the one hand, the political Islamists and their allies who scream “Islamophobia!” each time they are even slightly criticised. On the other hand, it does seem that a number of right-wing politicos have (at least in Europe) more or less evolved from a traditional anti-Semitic and broadly xenophobic stance to focus more and more on Islam, and only on Islam.

    Think about the Front National here in France: up to the 1990s, they were against Blacks, Arabs, Jews, Asians and all foreigners in general. They also traded in misogyny, homophobia and were anti-democracy. Nowadays, they try to paint themselves as pro-women by selectively bashing Muslims without saying a word about the misogyny in the Vatican, among Orthodox Jews or in the Hindu and Chinese culture. They also claim to defend the “values of democracy” against Islamists while supporting very repressive policies themselves.

    These are the kind of behaviours that could be genuinely called “Islamophobia”, at least if the word hadn’t already been subjected to so much use and abuse. There is a specific kind of bigotry directed against Muslims, even though the Islamists who appoint themselves as spokesmen for Islam make it harder to counter by using the word as a tool to disqualify criticism.

    (Similarly, we know that anti-Semitism does exist, even though accusations of “anti-Semitism” are often too quickly levelled at anyone who critics the policies of the Israeli government.)

    I’m afraid that even if we tried to stop using the word and go back to say “racism” or “bigotry” instead, the Islamists would simply jump on those words too and cry “Racist!” every time someone said or done something they don’t like.

  3. Irene Delse says

    @ LeftSidePositive:

    Exactly. You said if first and better.

    Basically, what I’m thinking is: the question shouldn’t be whether Islamophobia exists (it does), but how do we counter intolerance without falling either into a leftist or a rightist trap. It’s easy to be seen as an objective ally of Christian Conservatives when you criticise Islam; it’s easy also to be branded a cultural relativist when you point out that Muslims are not the only bigots in the world.

  4. says

    Yes but even though there is such a thing as stupid blanket hatred of a meaningless collective noun called “Muslims,” it still shouldn’t be called “Islamophobia.”

  5. LeftSidePositive says

    What, then, should we call it? Muslimophobia? (clunky!) Anti-Muslimism? (ack!) Mismuslimy? (blegh!)

  6. LeftSidePositive says

    Ophelia, I will concede the point that Islam is an idea, so it has to be open to criticism and scrutiny like any other, while Muslims are people, and therefore are deserving of the usual human rights (not, of course, including the “right” to infringe on others’ human rights) and equality (meaning, of course, that if you commit a crime like stoning someone or stabbing a director you should be equally punished as any other perpetrator of an equivalent hate crime). So that does make “Islamophobia” problematic, but I still don’t have a term…

  7. says

    Or if you want to make it specific to Mulsims, then anti-Muslim bigotry. There’s no law that says there has to be a single word for it, and there isn’t for followers of other religions.

  8. simonsays says

    @Ophelia,#8: Anti-semitism is fairly specific to a single religion.

    Also, I call BS on being unable to compile reliable stats on hate crimes. FBI has done it for years.

  9. Fin says

    Anti-semitism is bigotry aimed at ethnicity more than anything else. Note that it is not “judeophobia” or “anti-judaism”, which would specifically refer to the religion. Also of note, there are semitic peoples who are not Jewish, which the term also covers.

  10. says

    Simon – not really, because “semitic” is racial or ethnic (if it’s anything – it’s a bit meaningless in fact). But that’s “literal” again, so ok, it sort of is. Sort of is but sort of isn’t. To the extent that it is it’s the wrong word. “Semitism” certainly isn’t a religion.

    I don’t think I said anything about stats on hate crimes.

  11. simonsays says

    @Ophelia: per Malik:

    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.

  12. says

    Ah. But that’s not about reliable stats – it’s about how to sort them in the first place. Surely his questions are perfectly reasonable. Sometimes it’s obvious that a crime is racist or religionist or whatever, but not always.

  13. says

    Here is a well-referenced post (by a Muslim convert) that deals with this topic: Defining Islamophobia today: the state of the art. The meat of the post starts in the third paragraph:

    Some people see “Islam” plus “phobia” and define the term “Islamophobia” as the sum of its parts. They object to the idea that a religion can’t be criticised without accusations of racism or that their well-founded rational objections should be recast as irrational or phobic. Some critics therefore argue that “anti-Muslim prejudice” serves as a less contentious and clearer alternative than “Islamophobia” because essentially it’s people not ideas that need defending.

    Maleiha Malik is one of those people:

    Malik’s preference for “anti-Muslim prejudice” is rather predicated on the argument that a focus on “prejudice”, which is at least subject to rational analysis, has more utility than a concentration on “phobia”, which is less amenable to such analysis and refers instead to deeper psychological roots and to the irrational.

    As opposed to those who think Islamophobia is better:

    The other strategy is to recognise that “Islamophobia” itself, as Sayyid argues, can no longer be simply defined as “fear of Islam (and its cognates)”, and so, as it has wide currency, it should be made a sharper and more wide-ranging analytical tool.

    One of the reasons Islamophobia might be preferred, according to the author, is because it suggests culture rather than race:

    This [use of anti-Muslim prejudice instead of Islamophobia] would seem to ignore the findings of critical race theory which has charted the shift in emphasis from classical biological racism to cultural racism, including in Britain.

    Since it is usually not OK any more to be seen as racist, racist bigots try to get around it these days by turning to hatred of cultural traditions (which manifest in such things as the English-only state documents laws we see being shoved in our faces across the USA that target Native Americans and Mexican immigrants and Asian Americans and their descendants).

    I started out reading the arguments on this topic here being mostly against the term Islamophobia, but I do think now that it has value if we see it as reflecting aversion to the cultural practices associated with Islam rather than the religious tenets of Islam. The misuse of it meant to protect Islam from criticism is something that we’ll all have to argue against as atheists anyway no matter which side we are on regarding this term.

  14. says

    I think this and the ‘Are you or have you ever been…’ thread have established that ‘Islamophobia’ is a word to be avoided when one is a speaker and questioned (severely) when a listener.

    But words in use have a way of straying from their literal meanings.

    Antisemitism: Some (?) Jews and all Arabs are classified as Semites. Yet ‘antisemitism’ has lost its ethnic reference and now means hostility to Jews as a religious and social division of humanity.

    Racism is a charge of discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, based largely on the 19th C anthropologists subdivision of humanity into four major racial groups: the Caucasoids, Negroids, Mongoloids and Australoids. As ‘racism’ as a concept arises out of those divisions, it is hard to see how one Caucasoid (eg a native Norwegian) who discriminates against another Caucasoid (eg an Indian from Delhi) is being ‘racist’. It is often a charge levelled by those who deny that ‘race’ has any validity in the first place as a concept.

    In practice, such terms mean what the user wants them to mean.

  15. says

    As I said in the last thread, you could call it xenophobia or racism, as appropriate.

    and what do you do when it’s not quite either?

    Know those famous CV studies about names and prejudice? Well, France did one of those, to suss out what exactly it is that the French are being bigoted about. They sent CV’s with three kinds of names: a French secular name, a Middle Eastern Christian name, and a Middle Eastern Muslim name. the secular and christian names received almost the same number of responses; it was specifically the middle-easern muslim name that was being discriminated against. That’s what people mean when they say “Islamophobia”, the same way they called it “misogyny” when it was about female names, and “racism” when it was about black vs white names.

    And it should be noted that, for better or worse, the terms “anti-women bigotry”, and “anti-black bigotry” are not generally used in these contexts. A bit inconsistent, to demand that change/that degree of linguistic precision for one but not for all forms of prejudice/discrimination.

  16. dirigible says

    “There’s nothing necessarily offensive about a community center, gym, and restaurant”

    There may however be an obvious and poorly judged power play behind them.

  17. Jurjen S. says

    Re: Fin’s claims at #10: no, “antisemitism” applies specifically to Jews. The term was coined specifically as a more socially acceptable (salonfähig, if you prefer) way of saying Judenhaß. Yes, there have been people who have tried to deflect accusations of antisemitism by saying “Nonsense, I get along fine with Arabs,” but this is disingenuous at best. Antisemitism isn’t about Middle Eastern people, it’s about Jews, including Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews who are genetically not or barely Middle Eastern.

  18. Torquil Macneil says

    “Also of note, there are semitic peoples who are not Jewish, which the term also covers.”

    Sort of. ‘Semitic’ rely just refers to a group of languages and only by a later extension via pseudo-science came to refer to the ‘racial’ characteristics of the people who spoke them. Jurjen and others are right when they say that ‘anti-Semitism’ has always and only er referred to hatred of the Jews an whether that is based on the religion or ‘race’ is rely beside the point, because it is the anti_Semite who always draws the boundaries.

  19. Chris Lawson says

    I don’t think we can fix the problem of “Islamophobia” being applied to any criticism of Islam. It will happen no matter how clearly we define the term, and no matter what alternative words we choose. In the unlikely event that “Islamophobia” fell out of favour and “anti-Muslim bias” became the accepted term to describe bigotry against Muslims, then people would still take perfectly credible criticism and try to deflect it by equating it to bigotry. The best we can do is to make a case-by-case defence of specific criticisms of Islam.

    As for anti-Semitism only applying to Jews, I can still remember when Yasser Arafat argued that he could not be an anti-Semite as he was an Arab and therefore a Semite. (This from the man who once said, “We will not bend or fail until the blood of every last Jew from the youngest child to the oldest elder is spilt to redeem our land!”)

  20. CharlesB says

    “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.”

    In a democracy we would still retain the right to regard religion as retrograde and deceptive even if it were disproved that it is retrograde and deceptive; the right to dislike religion would remain as well. To continue believing against disproof is a common fault, but in a totalitarian theocracy it is a crime.

  21. says

    Interesting (and perhaps surprising) little datum – I saw part of the US tv drama “The Good Wife” last night: it’s based in a law firm and the issue in this one was what was twice called “anti-Muslim bigotry” – not “Islamophobia.” The character raising the issue was Muslim. I got bored and turned it off about 20 minutes in, but for what it’s worth, there were two uses of “anti-Muslim bigotry” and none of “Islamophobia.”

    Maybe that’s a mass audience thing, or maybe it’s a lawyer thing, or maybe both. Anyway I think it’s interesting.

  22. says

    Ian MacDougall. You say:

    Antisemitism: Some (?) Jews and all Arabs are classified as Semites. Yet ‘antisemitism’ has lost its ethnic reference and now means hostility to Jews as a religious and social division of humanity.

    Aside from a few exceptions, the term anti-Semitism (or antisemitism) has been used almost exclusively, from the start, to refer to prejudice against the Jews. Willhelm Marr is often thought to have been the first to have used the term (in his Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthums, 1880), but he was anticipated by someone in 1860, but who used it with the same meaning. And while crackpot racial theorists like Ernest Renan used semitism in constrast to (the superior) aryan, there is no clearly accepted use of the word which applies to Semitic people generally. It was used, and still is only correctly used, as (as Jergen S. says) a salonfähig way of saying Jew hatred.

    Islamophobia is a completely manufacture concept that refers, so far as I can make out, to anyone who dares to criticise Islam, and the supposition that such criticism is offensive to Muslims (which it probably is), which is not something that liberal values protect or should strive to protect (that is, the aggrieved feelings of religionists), and if the criticism of Islam inevitably leads to violence, then Islam itself is a danger to us, and should be recognised as such.

  23. Dave says

    Antisemites generally regard the Jews as a race, not a religion, of course. Indeed, one might argue that seeing Jews as a race is a precondition for being antisemitic. If there were a ‘thing’ that was an irrational fear of Jewish religious practice, it would be, I suppose, Judaeophobia.

    Which reminds me, since when did ‘-phobia’ mean ‘hatred’? What kind of crap dictionary are these people using?

    Meanwhile, to amplify Eric’s point just above, being able to be offended while unable to do anything about it is symptomatic of living in a free, pluralist society. People who cannot accept that can just, frankly, fuck off. Especially when I have to put up with being offended by their mind-numbing stupidity, staggeringly misogynist bigotry, banal gauchiste platitudes, and insufficiently muted earphones all the goddam time!

    And get off my lawn!

  24. grumpy1942 says

    Lemme throw this out for shits & giggles.

    There is no way one can claim racism in the case of an African-American Christian exhibiting all the features commonly called Islamophobia, and applies them to Nation of Islam and its followers, who are all African-Americans.

  25. says

    Eric @ #27:
    Jugen S @ #22:

    Thanks to both of you for those informative posts.

    On ‘antisemitism’, what intrigues me is the question as to why W. Marr and others felt a need to avoid a more specific term. Why was a formulation like say ‘antijudaic’ not arrived at? Why did they feel it necessary to cloud the issue?

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the book title ‘Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthums’ does not strike me as suggesting the book had a Jewish author. Nor would I guess from his name that Willhelm Marr was Jewish. I could understand why a besieged people would cast around for allies, and coin a term for hostility to themselves that automatically included as many potential allies as possible. But why would their enemies do it?

    They would have the opposite interest, effectively proclaiming ‘we are not against any of you nice other people; just those demonic Jews over there.’

    Similarly, Muslims mysteriously do not seek to draft the Islamists out of their midst and get them into a separate yard in the public mind, even though Islamism has created an enormous state and public reaction against itself, and a bit of hostility to Muslims in general in the process. Apart from the foreign wars 9/11 helped generate, all the world’s air travellers are reminded of Islamist lunacy every time they try to board a commercial airline flight.

    I think it is fair to say that Islamism has brought Islam into the public consciousness in a very negative way. It has reminded people as nothing else could that Islam is a repressive and intolerant religion, rivalled only by outfits like Scientology and the more extreme sects of Christianity. Islamism presents as merely its most extreme form. (Frederick Forsyth, whose best-selling thriller ‘The Afghan’ I happen to be reading at the moment, makes sure that the reader gets the message that Islam and Islamism are two different categories.)

    Thus it appears to me that the Islamists would have a big stake in the generalising word ‘Islamophobia’, while ordinary Muslims, who on average just visit their mosque a few times a year, would appear to have every reason to say “not Islamophobia’, ‘ISLAMIST-phobia'”. Or something like that. But for some reason, they don’t.

    My recollection of western survey results indicates that while a substantial minority of Mulims support Islamism, the majority do not. So it’s a bit of a puzzle.

  26. Tim Harris says

    There is surely also the fact that ‘phobia’ generally means an irrational and deep-seated terror and hatred of something, so that it is dangerously wrong to characterise a reasoned and critical approach to Islam as being ‘Islamophobic’. Ophelia is absolutely right in what she says, and I find her critics are really being rather ridiculously pedantic.

  27. Jurjen S. says

    Dave at #28 says:

    Which reminds me, since when did ‘-phobia’ mean ‘hatred’? What kind of crap dictionary are these people using?

    Probably an Ancient Greek to English one. Φοβος can mean fear, hatred, or both; the two tend to go hand in hand in practice anyway.

  28. Chris says

    I’m a bit late as I couldn’t find the quote I was looking for in the paper copy of the book, but thanks to the wonders of the internet…

    From People like us, by Waleed Aly, a local (Melbourne, Australia) author:

    ‘As American scholar Hamza Yusuf told a London Muslim audience in September 2005: “I don’t like the term Islamophobia, because a phobia is an irrational fear. I think many people have instead a rational fear of Islam and Muslims in that they have valid reasons to be worried.” It is difficult to disagree.’ (pp. 29-30)

    That’s a Muslim quoting a Muslim, BTW, which is a good reminder that when discussion around Islam is silenced, it affects reasonable Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

    In the end, though, the problem isn’t the word, it’s the attitude that anyone who disagrees with hardline Islamists is ignorant/prejudiced/not entitled to speak on the matter.


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