The “creation” of Islamophobia and the challenge to free speech

Earlier this month the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a registered British charity, announced its annual award for ‘the world’s most Islamophobic person or publication’ in 2015. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US president Barack Obama and American television host Bill Maher were among the candidates vying for the title. However, the winner was the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Staff at the publication were unable to accept the award as many of them had been murdered for mocking Mohammed. The IHRC says their award is tongue in cheek. Bullet in the head is perhaps a better description.

According to the Muslim website 5Pillars, the award was given to Charlie Hebdo because of its “continual stoking of Islamophobic sentiment by caricaturing Muslims as terrorists and ridiculing their beliefs. …Charlie Hebdo’s repeated mocking of Muslims is part of a culture of hate that is intended to marginalise, further alienate and further endanger a community that has effectively been “otherised” in much the same way that Jews were in Nazi Germany.”

Whenever people invoke the Nazis, alarm bells go off for me. To maintain the fiction that Muslims in Europe are being “otherised” in the manner of Jews in Nazi Germany is outrageous. And as far as I know there are no plans to build extermination camps. What’s more Muslims in Europe enjoy full rights – far more so than in any Islamic country in the world today or ever.

Islamophobia seems to be the creation of political elites rather than being a grassroots campaign to win equality or liberty for a particular minority. It entered into common English usage in 1997 with the publication of a report by the Runnymede Trust condemning negative emotions such as fear, hatred, and dread directed at Islam or Muslims. ‘Islamophobia is the new racism’ has become the new orthodoxy. But are we conflating the normal prejudice that is part of the human condition with a national epidemic of irrational hatred against Muslims?  Brendan O’Neil is scathing about the introduction of this term:

Islamophobia is in essence a multicultural conceit, the invention of infinitesimally small, aloof, crisis-ridden elites keen to clamp down on any heated or overly judgmental discussion of non-Western values.”

My difficulties with this word are not because hatred of, or discrimination against, Muslims does not exist. Clearly they do. There is no doubt that Islam is seen by some as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change. When someone calls for a ban on building mosques that is clearly bigotry. I think that is a link between Islam and violence, but that this is hardly unique to Islam. Anyone looking at the Bible will find lots of references to violence. There is a well established history of religious violence throughout history. And even if I could abolish religion tomorrow, I would not eradicate violence. This, like prejudice, is part of the human condition. We cannot blame Muslims for the two world wars, the Holocaust or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? There is plenty of violence from all corners of the globe for which blame can be apportioned.

However, invoking Islamophobia blurs the line between legitimate criticism and hatred. Any attack on Islamic doctrine can be construed as hatred. As I pointed out in a previous post about free speech, Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity, but a set of beliefs and customs. Criticising these ideas does not mean we are suffering from a mental disorder. The conflation of criticism and hatred makes it impossible to have a rational discussion.

I do feel that Islam as a whole needs to a better job of self-criticism and modernisation. Like American fundamentalist Christians with the Bible, many seem to believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God. I find this kind of certainty extremely dangerous. There is no truck with doubt.  Rather than engage in the soul-searching that the state of the Muslim world they prefer to blame all problems on the West. Now I do think we need to re-evaluate our role in the Islamic world. Our support of Saudi Arabia, which promotes Wahhabism, a retrograde form of Islam, cannot be justified. How apostates are treated is a litmus test. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who writes and lectures about the status of women in much of the Muslim world, and is incidentally a former recipient if the IHRC Islamophobe of the Year, travels with bodyguards and has to live in hiding. There can be no possible justification for this state of affairs. And to argue that Islam has nothing to do with the oppression of women in the Islamic world strikes me as perverse.

So once again I want to defend free speech. This applies to Islamophobic speech and to awards like the Islamophobe of the Year. Banning speech is counter-productive. Free speech laws are not about the right to express inoffensive ideas. It is about those ideas which cause offence which need to be permitted.

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One Response to The “creation” of Islamophobia and the challenge to free speech

  1. Nicholas says:

    To paraphrase Beatrice Evelyn Hall – we both feel “I don’t agree with what you say but I defend your right to say it”. It’s that simple!

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