For nine years in a row a controversial resolution on, "Combating Defamation of Religions," described by some as an, "international blasphemy law," has been consistently losing support in the United Nations General Assembly. Until 2010, the only religion mentioned in the legislation was Islam, when the authors of the legislation, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, invented the terms; "Judeophobia and Christianophobia," too quell criticism. Domestically too, the term Islamophobia has come under intense scrutiny, just this week. Opinion is sharply divided.
The discourse here in the UK often mirrors the international debate. In one camp, the appropriateness of the terms very existence is questioned; critics lambast the fact that in reality there is no equivalent terminology in existence to describe those who critique other ideologies and religions (other than Anti-Semitism, of course). They say it is telling of the particular defensiveness and privilege that Islam demonstrates and is often afforded. Others, however, maintain that the phenomena is one of the most concerning and potentially dangerous of our age. They contend that the recent increase in Islamophobia is akin to the rise of Anti-Semitism in the last century and portray Islamophobia as a current of hate, engulfing Europe and risking unrest, conflict even.
There is truth on both ends of this dialectic. Islamophobia clearly exists. It is a genuine phenomenon. A 'phobia' is an irrational fear or hatred of something - one need only browse the Internet momentarily before confronting a plethora of overtly irrational, hateful and inflammatory views directed towards Muslims. On the other hand, the term is very commonly misappropriated to deflect genuine and much needed criticism of Islam. And it is grossly misappropriated when used to scare and accuse those interested in discussing theology, ethics and progress of racism and bigotry.
Academics, agencies and organisations around the world recognise Islamophobia today is the Antisemitism of the 30s. #BoycottFHM
-- Mohammed Ansar (@MoAnsar) September 8, 2012
-- Mohammed Ansar (@MoAnsar) September 11, 2012
The comparison between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism can be useful. Both are genuine and both are often misappropriated. (Israel frequently claims Anti-Semitism is at work when policies of the apartheid state are subject to criticism.) Mohammad Ansar explains here the increasingly worrying similarity between Islamophobia today and Anti-Semitism of the previous century,
However, misappropriation of the term is so common, and confusion so easy, because alongside the rising tide of irrational Islamophobia described by Ansar, there is an increasing need for a rational critique Islam (a process Ansar is deeply involved in himself).
Religions are not static or homogeneous. They change / evolve over time and at any one time there is often a plurality of voices within any religion advocating differing interpretations. Rigorous and continuous criticism is an important catalyst for this ongoing process. Denying the need for such a critique, and assuming Islam is static and unchanging, is as crude and misleading as islamophobia itself.
Religion is a historical process of change and modernization. Many early religions described man's relationship with nature. There were Gods of sun, thunder and earth. Later, religions are often seen to embody man's relationship with the state. The god of Athena, say, represented to the Greeks their relationship with the polis. Later, the great monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity began to function as the Polis itself. Church and state became one; it was the fear of God, rather that the Police, that kept citizens in line and it was parish / sharia courts who made judicial rulings.
After coming to dominate politics in Europe, Christianity did not give up its political power lightly. From Galileo to Copernicus, for centuries, owners of any voice of decent were persecuted. It was a long and bloody battle before Christianity began to communicate with post enlightenment thought. Christianity was battered and berated into submission by a reformation, enlightenment and a well-established tradition of biblical criticism. The result was the subdued and less political Christianity we know today (maybe not so in America). The simple fact is that Islam is not as far through this stage of its historical development, through which it will be brought to communicate with post enlightenment thought and secular politics, as Christianity, which began it in the 17th century.
Comparatively, very little is know about the true origins of the Koran. Historians such as Patria Crone and Tom Holland have only recently begun this mammoth task. Historical and Archeological examinations of the Bible helped Christians a great deal in reconciling their views with the realities of the modern world. Hopefully the same can be true for Islam.
As I've said, Islam is far from monolithic; Muslim feminists and gay rights activists are a historical fact. But today, particularly since the Islamic resurgence, Islam is dominated by conservative, and primarily male, voices. Such voices have been politicizing the religion and pushing an oppressive, conservative social agenda. This has resulted in the social regression we see in Iran and more recently, Turkey and Egypt. Critiquing the authoritarian, misogynistic and homophobic values of these interpretations of Islam is of pivotal importance for the survival and wellbeing of millions of people worldwide.
Another issue at hand is the confluence of Islamic culture with Islamic faith. If such a critique is to be as successful as it has been for Christianity then it is likely that many Muslims, especially those living in the west, will come to reject the dogmatism of religion and embrace Agnosticism and Atheism. It is critical that Apostates of Islam can hold on to their cultural identity despite losing their faith. It's been decades since people, un-ironically, discussed 'Christendom' or 'Christian culture' instead of 'western culture,' and it's time Islamic culture was more commonly afforded such respect, as something quite distinct from mere faith.
As conservative Muslim populations living inside western liberal democracies become more vocal and politicized, it must be remembered that a central condition of freedom of religion is the freedom of others to criticize your religion. New Atheism and 'Dawkinism' are consistently more abrasive and less patient with conservative religious views. If every time the two groups come into conflict commentators call it Islamophobia, the true meaning and importance of the word will very soon be lost.
I must stress, none of what is said above is written to suggest that the majority of Muslims today are not already moderate and do not accept post-enlightenment thought. Rather, if we are to begin to see the end of political Islam and the small but significant strains of radical Islam that western media is so obsessed with, then a vigorous and open discussion must be had about Islam. At a time when genuinely Islamophobic views are on the rise, keeping such a rational discussion distinct from genuinely Islamophobic, irrational prejudice will be increasingly difficult.
1) I tweeted the article to Tom Holland (one of the historians mentioned above), and very kindly he replied,
-- Tom Holland (@holland_tom) December 26, 2013
The essay he sent brings out a far more nuanced distinction between Christianity and Islam than i am able to describe in this article. As he explains in the essay, with a full examination of scripture and historical context, that the holism and doctrinairism present in Islamic scripture is likely to distinguish Islam's own idiosyncratic evolution from Christianity's journey. It's well worth a read.
2) You many noticed that i omit to define either, or draw a clear line between, Islamophobia and legitimate criticism. I merely describe one as rational and the other irrational or prejudice. Unfortunately this was simply not within the scope of the article. Kenan Malik draws such a distinction, quite excellently, here,