The repudiation of bigotry in the same breath as its rabid espousal — “ I’m not racist, but…” — is a mainstay of human discourse. “No one could call me antisemitic,” George Orwell quoted a ‘middle-class woman’ saying in 1945, "but I do think the way these Jews behave is too absolutely stinking.” In his essay, Antisemitism in Britain, Orwell notes that the tendency to consider ourselves immune makes it harder to grasp prejudice:
“Since I know that antisemitism is irrational,” [the intellectual] argues, “it follows that I do not share it.” He thus fails to start his investigation in the one place where he could get hold of some reliable evidence — that is, in his own mind.
Orwell’s essay prompted me to consider whether my exasperation with the term Islamophobia, and with its constant deployment by people who seem to want other people to shut up, has distracted me from examining whether or not hostility towards Islam and its adherents has infected me. Have I fallen into the “I’m not a bigot but...” trap? Am I — a liberal, progressive, secular, humanist, card-carrying leftie — an Islamophobe?
First, my objections to the term itself.
‘Islamophobia' seems to conflate two distinct concepts: the rejection, or criticism, of Islam as a religion; and animosity towards Muslims themselves. While Neo-Nazi thugs and god-fearing Christian ignoramuses probably hold both views at once, most people have no trouble grasping the distinction: we can reject Islam – in the same way I do all the Abrahamic faiths – without having the slightest problem with Muslim believers. In the same light, I consider Joseph Smith a stupendous fraud, and his made-up religion laughable, but I cannot think of a single Mormon whose company I didn’t enjoy. If there are adherents of Islam (or Mormonism, for that matter) who choose to take personal umbrage at my rejection of their belief system, it is a topsy-turvy moral universe that casts me, and not them, as the bigot of the piece. Iranian feminist and ex-Muslim activist Maryam Namazie seems to have a point when she argues that accusations of Islamophobia often appear designed to “silence dissenters and defend Islamism as a defence of ‘Muslims’”.
The term ‘Islamophobia' troubles me for yet another reason: because all criticism of Islam is construed as an attack on Muslims themselves, and because most Muslims are people of colour, critics are quickly deemed racist. This blurring of religious with ethnic identity is the elegant sophistry that bamboozles large sections of the Left because we live in a society, as John McWhorter wrote in The Daily Beast, “where racism is treated as morally equivalent to pedophilia”. By adopting an anti- Islamophobia posture (even if it entails finding excuses for, if not ignoring entirely, the subjugation of women and girls, the persecution of gays and lesbians, and the beheading of nonbelievers), self-identified progressives earn a double-whammy: they avoid dreaded accusations of racism, while accruing the prized right to make the accusation of others.
All that said, and for all I continue to find the term 'Islamophobia' jarring and imprecise, it shouldn’t prevent me from conducting an honest appraisal of my own prejudices.
To that end, this is the thought experiment I conducted.
Imagine a street in a Western city lined with places of worship representing every conceivable denomination. Say I was to wander down this street, pausing outside every church, synagogue, shrine, temple and mosque as smatterings of the faithful gather to worship.
Now consider the fact I am gay, and imagine I am not undertaking this unlikely stroll alone — but arm in arm with my boyfriend (who does not exist, but hypothetically might).
Here is my confession: in such a scenario, it is only at the Mosque, instinctively, irrationally perhaps, that I would fear for my safety — and these feelings would strike well before I could summon the intellectual wherewithal to berate myself for religious bigotry. However retrograde or hostile their respective teachings on human sexuality, a Catholic Church, a Jewish synagogue or a Buddhist temple would trigger no such response. I would more likely experience some amalgam of defiance, amusement and smug superiority. I might even blow a facetious kiss — at least to the Catholics.
The best course of action might be to banish these visceral intuitions and adopt the more rational-seeming, certainly politer, belief that the average Muslim is no more likely than people of other faiths to wish or inflict harm on me for my sexuality. And yet I cannot escape the feeling that Islam and its believers present the greater threat. This is a discomfiting realisation for an otherwise fairly orthodox liberal.
Are there grounds for my phobia?
A University of Amsterdam study found that two thirds of the assailants in gay bashing cases in that city are Muslim immigrants, despite making up less than fifteen percent of the population. According to Pew Research in 2013, only two percent of Pakistani Muslims, and three percent of supposedly moderate Indonesians, support gay rights. When Gallup surveyed 500 British Muslims in 2009, not a single respondent agreed that homosexuality is morally acceptable. Of the ten countries where, in 2015, being gay remains a crime punishable by death, all are majority Muslim. ISIS fighters cite Sharia law before hurling allegedly gay men off buildings and stoning them when they fail to die. Aside from images of Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo, eleven of whose employees were slaughtered by Islamists in January, it was that of a cartoonist and an Imam locked in a same sex embrace that most alarmed the faithful.
The preferred path for many on the Left is to look past such travesties and imbibe the dictum that “Islam is a religion of peace”; that atrocities against gays, women and non-believers are caused by geopolitics, socioeconomic deprivation and oil; that Islamist views, however vile to our tender ears, are sincerely held and “deserve respect”. Addressing the rising tide of Muslim violence in Europe, one American journalist and author, Sarah Wildman, asked, “can’t economic disparity, lack of citizenship, astronomical unemployment, and public transportation that cuts them off at 8 p.m. from the cities they see, but don’t live in, make radical Islam attractive?” To Wildman’s credit, it demonstrates impressive dedication to the liberal cause, not to mention eye-popping rhetorical dexterity, to discern triggers for religious extremism in oppressive bus timetables.
The price of disavowing such arguments is to risk shaming as an ‘Islamophobe', a cultural imperialist and, god forbid, a neoconservative.
Guilty as charged, I guess — at least on the first count.
It is true that I am fearful of what Islam’s true believers appear to have in mind for people like me; and, yes, I’m prepared to concede — if we’re going to insist on the word — that this qualifies as a kind of ‘Islamophobia'.
What I cannot fathom is how turning a blind eye to atrocities against the very groups whose right to a dignified existence has been the abiding cause of the Left for centuries fits any conceivable definition of “progressive”.