Islamophobia: Orwellian 'Doublespeak' ?

The struggle against islamophobia is the struggle for a nuanced and contextualised appraisal of events involving Muslims, a refusal to accept that everything can be explained away through a facile reference to 'Islam' and a defence of a European minority group. There is nothing Orwellian about that.

Earlier this month, James Bloodworth wrote a blog for the Independent comparing Islamophobia to a type of Orwellian doublespeak, designed to shut down public debate. He joins a chorus of voices on the Left who reject the term on grounds of the 'freedom to criticise' Islam.

Some on the Left have gone further still, joining voices on the Right in denouncing Islam on the grounds of its alleged anti-liberal tenets. British novelist and former New Statesman editor Martin Amis has previously stated Muslims should be deprived of their civil liberties and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee frequently regurgitates the most odious and decontextualized translations of the Quran as if they were, well - Gospel. Paul Hockenos argues that "the left and liberals have largely capitulated, unable to address the issue of Islam and the Muslims among us in a constructive way."

Despite the frequently erected straw-man of stifling free speech, countering islamophobia is not about limiting discussion of the faith itself. It is about ensuring a largely socially, economically and politically disenfranchised minority is not stigmatised, stereotyped, further marginalised and consequently left open to hate crimes.

A personal bugbear is the suggestion that Islam or the Quran 'says' - Islam doesn't speak - people speak in the name of Islam, filtering the texts through their experiences and drawing on interpretive traditions. Islamophobia is when influential figures like Toynbee define Islam in a public sphere where Muslims struggle to make themselves heard, over and above how Muslims themselves understand their faith. In other words, it is to ascribe meaning to Islam which most Muslims do not. This reification of faith assumes that, unlike other religious traditions, Islam is monolithic and can be gleaned from a brief perusal of sacred texts. It can't. To do so is to misrepresent Islam, the faith of over 1.3 billion people in the world, and to leave its practitioners open to the accusation of complicity in a depraved hate cult.

What's more, despite a clear ontological distinction between race and religion, it cannot be ignored that Islam is associated with racialized minorities - South Asians in the UK, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany. When critique of religion overlaps so significantly with a particular racial group within society, and is often used as short-hand for that racial group, the line between religion and race becomes obscured. The Daily Mail's choice to use the term "muslim gang" to refer to rapists, is one such example. The recent case in Rochdale further illustrated this confusion. While Chief Crown Prosecutor in the case Nazir Afzal blamed "imported cultural baggage", commentators such as David Aaronovitch promptly interpreted that to mean Islam.

Although Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, to assume Islam is the central motivating factor in the behaviour of all Pakistanis, is a form of cultural racism.

Islamophobia, as a term, is required to refer to precisely these cases where the focus of abuse is a projected understanding of what someone stands for based on their being identified as Muslim. New forms of discrimination avoid the crude biological markers of racial stereotyping and have been replaced with a focus on cultural differences, real or imagined, to rationalize the unequal status and treatment of different racial groups.

The assumptions is that honour killings and forced marriages are reflections of a backward 'islamic' culture, which through the presence of Muslims in Europe, poses a threat to our identity and values. Despite Muslim objections to these practise, such assumptions are then reflected in people's attitudes and behaviour towards Muslims.

The topic of Islam has had a uniquely harmonising effect on Left and Right, uniting unlikely pundits in a shared concern that Islam - assumed to be a hegemonic influence on people's behaviour- is responsible for virtually all social ills, from sex trafficking to benefit fraud. Perceived ethnic uniformity is taken to mirror a uniformity of belief and outlooks, despite the fact, all religions have plural expressions.

The concern is that the racist essentializing of "Muslimhood" is ignored on the grounds that the term 'islamophobia' isn't clear enough. I would wager the term is crystal clear for those on the receiving end - such as when Muslim columnist Mehdi Hasan was described by one blogger as a "moderate cockroach". Or when the American writer Laila Lalami 's husband was asked by an immigration officer "So, how many camels did you have to trade for her?"

Islamophobia is only unclear to those who seek to obfuscate its meaning. It is the tendency to reify Islam - that is to assume the behaviour of given individuals (typically extremists) reflects an accurate concretisation of the principles of the faith itself, and it is the tendency to view its practitioners, Muslims, as a monolithic block, whose every behaviour is a consequence of that essentialised identity.

Rather than investigating and investing in countering rape culture, we claim the 'muslimhood' of particular rapists is to blame, absolving popular culture when the men themselves refer to the victims using the popular playground put down "slags". We regularly see 'Islam' used as a catch-all phrase to explain complex phenomena, distracting us from the real issues.

Islamophobia is rejecting the ease with which dejecting stereotypes are accepted as normal, such as the recent claim, popularised by the Daily Mirror, that Zain Malik of boyband One Direction, was "pimping Islam" on young girls through "boyband jihad". Or the use of imagery to fan the flames of fear, as the Sun on Sunday did by superimposing the image of a woman in a burka against a caustic anti-immigration article.

Raising awareness of islamophobia is also about recognising that far from being a lone sociopath, Breivik's actions were grounded in an all too common view of Islam and Muslims as a fifth column and a threat to Western values. A consequence of this 'theoretical' islamophobia, the intellectual jousting over the place of Islam in Europe, is that Muslims in Europe are facing increasingly tough conditions.

According to a report from Amnesty International, "European Muslims are regularly denied employment and educational opportunities because of widespread cultural and religious stereotypes that lead to discrimination against them."

Just as minarets or or face veils have become imbued with a significance beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, in a way people don't choose their ethnicity. We don't choose the significance people attribute to our symbols - especially when we have so little access to defining them ourselves. We have no choice in the stereotypes and assumptions people make on the basis of our skin colour, nor do we have a choice in those stereotypes concerning the symbols which people interpret according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural incompatibility.

John Mullen of France's radical left-wing Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has argued that "opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism." It is time the Left take a stronger and clearer stance against islamophobia and stop giving the Right free rein to dictate the terms of European interaction with Muslims based on misplaced and ill-informed assumptions about Islam and Muslims.

The struggle against islamophobia is the struggle for a nuanced and contextualised appraisal of events involving Muslims, a refusal to accept that everything can be explained away through a facile reference to 'Islam' and a defence of a European minority group. There is nothing Orwellian about that.


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