Depending on who you read or listen to, either Islamophobia simply isn’t real, or it’s not as pervasive as people think it is, or sometimes it’s a legitimate criticism, but it’s often used incorrectly to shut down someone legitimately criticising Islam, or else it’s just some word (without any legitimate meaning) that people use to shut down conversations. To which I say: bullshit. I have to grant, of course, that there is possibly some people out there do these things, but I have to admit that I haven’t actually seen any of them. Even in articles where these claims are made, no evidence is provided.
Most often, people who haven’t ‘picked sides’ in this particular debate are left wondering what this term means, exactly. So I’m going to sketch out what I think it means, and how I see it used (which are, oddly enough, the same thing). Note that ‘what the term means’ isn’t the same as ‘what the word is defined as’.
The term is primarily used to call out bigoted behaviour, and not necessarily restricted to bigotry against Muslims: there is splash damage that goes beyond the targeted group. For example, the murder of Sunando Sen (an Indian, who was targeted because his murderer believed him to be either “a Muslim or a Hindu”) is a clear cut case of Islamophobia Here is a guy who wasn’t a Muslim, and shared no characteristics with the majority of Muslims, and yet was killed because… He was brown.
And that’s really the crux of it. When you ask people to describe “a Muslim”, they’ll typically give you a description of someone who is either Arab or Persian (or, more vaguely, brown), male, bearded, and speaks Arabic. If they get past their gender-bias, they might describe a woman covered from head to toe in cloth showing only their eyes. And straight off, this image is generally false. Why? Because the largest single ethnic/nationality of Muslims don’t live in the Middle East: they live in Indonesia (13% of all Muslims). Yet, in Europe and North America, “Muslim” and “brown person” have become somewhat synonymous, such that even when people are making an effort to be as politically correct and dress up bigoted statements in vague and non-specific language, their policy ideas invariably target brown people.
So the problem here is that when one makes claims about “Muslims”, 1) those claims aren’t necessarily true about Muslims (generally), and 2) there’s a whole bunch of non-Muslims being caught up in this.
Exhibit A is, of course, Sam Harris. I don’t want to make this about Harris; I’m just using his comments as exemplars, so I’m not interested in rehashing ‘what he really meant’ in the comments.
I do also realise that Harris is low-hanging fruit, but he illustrates my point and yet he (along with many others) is often defended as simply being anti-Islam, and not Islamophobic, Allow me to disabuse you of that notion. Harris says
“We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.”
And attempts to clarify that with
“When I speak of profiling “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,” I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin. In fact, I included myself in the description of the type of person I think should be profiled (twice).”
So in that case, who exactly does Harris think “looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim”? By including himself, he’s essentially arguing that ‘anyone’ could “look Muslim”, which largely defeats the argument he was attempting to make. Which is unsurprising, given that it’s Harris, but it’s hard to say that “he’s lying” is a more charitable interpretation. I’ll leave that to ye to judge. Moreover: where in these statements is he being “anti-Islam”? I can see where he’s being anti-Muslim, but the anti-Islam part eludes me (and no, these are not the same thing).
The bottom line here is, to take data from the recent Pew survey, that Muslims span the globe. Pew interviewed people from 39 different countries, and had to run interviews in 80 different languages. “What’s that?” I hear ye say, “Couldn’t they just interview everyone in Arabic?” And thus does the spectre of Islamophobia raise its head.
Islamophobia is bigotry, and bigotry is (at its root) the application of blanket beliefs about what kind of a person is represented by a certain word, and how we believe that kind of person to be. Nevermind the fact that Farsi is the primary language in Iran, or that Pakistan is home to 60 languages (and Arabic is far from the dominant language), we make the (completely wrong) connections between “Arabic” and “Muslim” that make only slightly more sense than connecting “Latin” with “Catholic”. Yet if we go back a generation: my father learned Latin in high school in Ireland, and found as much use for it as (I suspect) the majority of Muslims find for Arabic. Getting people kicked off of an airplane because you don’t understand what they are saying…? Yeah, that’d be Islamophobia too.
In the Middle East, alone, the generalisations about Muslims don’t hold even for Middle-Eastern Muslims. This is a many and varied group.
So I think (and hope) that these should be somewhat obvious cases of Islamaphobia. I’m going to move into one that’s likely to be a little more contentious: a response to the Pew Survey. Please note that I’m not generalising this on to ‘atheists in general’; I’m not attributing this response to any particular group of people, I’m saying that this particular response is an expression of Islamaphobia. Of course, the person I’m going to quote on this is Harris. On May 1st, Harris tweeted (and was retweeted into my timeline):
“85 percent of Egyptians support capital punishment for those who leave the faith: http://econ.st/ZSxbYl Must be the fault of the West.”
Now given that this was retweeted 165 times, and favourited 65 times (at the time of this writing), he’s not alone in thinking this.
“But Brian,” I hear ye ask, “This is a factually correct statement. What’s the problem? And please get to the point without this ridiculous 3rd person crap.”
Geez, you guys are pushy… Anyway, the point here is the immediate leap to the stats for Egypt. The Economist has a good graphical breakdown of these stats and it can be seen that 1) Egypt is clearly the worst-case scenario, and 2) there is a massive variation in what percentage of Muslims believe that apostasy (leaving the faith) is a crime deserving of execution. So taking the stats for Egypt to make proclamations is just off-base. Bigotry? Perhaps. Harris’s tweet, in fairness, is too short and thus too vague for me to start making claims about what he was thinking.
Also, factually correct? In Egypt, the sample size was 2000 people, of whom 1,798 were Muslim (from page 39 of the Pew study). Bearing in mind that Egypt has a population of over 79 million people, a sample of 2,000 people is a tiny drop in that ocean. The margins for error, in any case, are given on page 150.
But let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that this survey is represents the populations surveyed extremely well. Then you must take seriously the other claims presented, such as (from page 68):
“In nearly every country surveyed in these regions, at least half of Muslims say they are very concerned or somewhat concerned about extremist groups. In Indonesia, nearly eight-in-ten Muslims say they are worried about religious extremism (78%), including more than half (53%) who are worried about Islamic extremists.”
From the graphic on that page, 67% of Egyptians surveyed are somewhat or very concerned about religious extremism (Christian, or Muslim, or both). Are there contradictions here, where clearly many of that group don’t see ‘execute people for apostasy’ as ‘religious extremism’? Absolutely. And many American Christians are in favour of the death penalty. People be complicated, and hold inconsistent beliefs simultaneously. Also this just in: water is wet.
Ultimately, what’s Harris’s point? What did 165 people think was so insightful that it deserved retweeting? Sure, I fully agree that apostasy should not be considered a capital crime. Just as I believe that owning a bible written in the vernacular shouldn’t be considered a capital crime either. This does not appear to me to be an issue with Islam, per se, but how various religions attempt social control. Additionally, Harris is (again) not being “Anti-Islam”; in this particular case, he’s being anti-Egyptian.
Let’s look at this another way: blasphemy laws. I think that the odds are that the vast majority of readers of this blog are anti-[blasphemy laws]. Yet look at how these one issue is dealt with: when people talk about blasphemy laws in Ireland, it’s an Irish thing (even though the country is over-overwhelmingly Catholic). When people talk about blasphemy laws in Pakistan, it’s suddenly a Muslim thing. Why the double-standard?
(Sidenote: I find this switch to be quite bizarre. Whenever a bomb goes off, news articles from North America can’t emphasize the [non-existent] religious affiliations of the IRA and the UVF enough. Talking about blasphemy laws (something clearly fucking religious)? It’s like Ireland was always a secular state. I am confused by your inconsistencies, North America)
The bottom line is that once you start taking the actions and/or attributes of a few members of a particular group and start making claims about the group as a whole (or even generally) based on those few, you’ve wandered into Doing Bigotry territory.
When you criticise the position that these particular Muslims hold you are not criticising Islam, you are criticising these particular Muslims. When you then generalise the beliefs of these particular Muslims and criticise Muslims-in-general… Well, like the song almost says: that’s Islamophobia.
The standard pushback here is to proclaim that “we should be free to criticise Islam without being called racist“: by all means, please criticise Islam (and Armin’s post does exactly that, while completely missing the boat when it comes to the Islamophobia criticism). But the moment you start holding up individual Muslims for what they have done, and then going “See? Freaking Islam!”, then all you have done is is cherry-pick a particular Muslim acting badly, and claim that that one individual is (somehow) representative of Muslims generally. Yet the bulk of the Muslim population *wasn’t* doing what that individual did.
Is Islam homophobic? Sure. Does it advocate the abuse of women? Without a doubt. Is it hypocritical and self-contradictory? Of course it bloody well is.
Is homophobia interwoven throughout Muslim communities? Sure. More than Christian communities? I have no idea (and I don’t know how we’d even begin to quantify that). Are Muslim communities very anti-woman? Sure. More than Christian communities? I’m not sure (I’m inclined to say ‘yes’, but I’m just working off of my media-infused prejudices here).
Are “Muslim communities” and “Islam” synonymous? Fuck no. Take a look at Christianity: it hasn’t changed a whit in the last thousand years, but how the adherents interpret it and implement it into law has.
To claim that Islam is worse than Christianity, or the greatest force for evil today… I mean, *really*? There’s quite a lot of ‘awful’ out there, and I really have no idea how one quantifies Islam as worse than the institutionalized rape of children. Seriously, Dawkins, this shit is embarrassing.
Anywho. This is how I see Islamophobia being used: to call out people who imprecisely generalise traits-specific-to-cultural-subgroups-that-have-Muslim-members to Muslims-in-general, and reading non-Muslims-who-are-part-of-cultural-subgroups-that-have-Muslim-members as Muslims.
This be Islamophobia.
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[This was originally posted on The Crommunist Manifesto]