The recent terrorist attack in Paris reignited the debate about the problem of radical Islam. This is an ongoing conversation that mainstream Western culture has been having at least since September 11, 2001, although incidents of Islamic terrorism go back further than that and hate crimes against Muslims (or people who fit a very general profile) go back further still. In the fourteen years since the 9/11 attack the conversation hasn’t gotten very far. With each new terrorist incident the debate becomes louder but it’s really just a reiteration of the same talking points: this is a war of civilizations (or it isn’t), groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS are fighting a contemporary religious crusade (or they aren’t), Islam is a religion of peace being perverted by radicals for their own agenda (or it’s an expression of the religion’s true values unencumbered by modernity). Out of this debate has come the term “Islamophobia” and it’s been used interchangeably with the word “racist” as a way to marginalize and dismiss critiques of the religion.
There are several problems with the term “Islamophobia” but the main problem is semantic. A phobia is “an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear.” It isn’t just to be afraid; to be a phobia, the fear must be inflated and irrational. Fear of religion in general and Islam in particular is not a phobia, not when it occurs in the context of terrorist attacks and beheadings as well as a cottage industry that exploits religious violence for the sake of television ratings and book sales.
Consider this example: a family from an unfamiliar subculture—let’s say they wear bathrobes all day, every day—moves into your neighborhood. You’ve never met anyone who dresses like this before and you don’t know anything about their background. The only media depictions you’ve seen of this subculture is in the weekly action-adventure television series in which the hero must foil the terroristic plots of bathrobe-dressed people. Shortly thereafter authority figures, such as a friend who is not prone to gossip and a reliable newscaster, tell you that people who wear bathrobes are a threat to you and your family. Then you discover that there are incidents of bathrobed people murdering those who don’t wear them; in fact, they video record themselves cutting off the victim’s head and upload these videos to the internet.
In light of this information you are afraid of the new neighbors. But this is not a phobia. If it turns out that the claims of your friend and the newscaster are wrong and the new neighbors are peaceable and friendly, your initial fear is not a phobia. And even if only a small percentage of the bathrobe-wearing believers are violent and this sect justifies their actions based on an arcane reading of ancient texts, your fear is still not a phobia. This is a rational reaction based on the information you have.
But the problem with “Islamophobia” goes beyond semantics. It isolates Islam and its beliefs, values, and practices from any discourse. The term preemptively shuts down discussion. But Islam—and for that matter any religious system—should be subject to analysis and critique. After all, religions are ideologies. Islam and Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism and Scientology and Satanism are each competing world views that offer distinct and, in many respects, irreconcilable dogmas. Imagine someone suggesting that we cannot debate the merits and defects of capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, or democracy. That would be absurd and we’d all call it that. But this is exactly what the “Islamophobia” defense claims.
In the long term the Islamophobia defense actually does more damage. Islam, like any other religion, is host to a range of opinions. For instance, there are Muslims (men and women) who believe that females should be covered from head to toe but there are also Muslims who don’t even think women are compelled to wear a hijab. The cries of Islamophobia shut down the discussion and prevent these groups from airing their differences. This ultimately silences the moderates and enables the radicals.
Let’s also do away with this nonsense that all religions are inherently nonviolent and harmless. This assertion, which is made by leaders from the President of the United States on down, is plainly untrue. Many sacred texts do provide contradictory instructions about violence, especially those of the Abrahamic faiths, but the histories of Christianity and Islam (to name two) are rife with examples of religion inspired violence. The root of human destructiveness may ultimately be biological but religion has a unique way of marshalling our destructive tendencies. Ignoring this doesn’t make it go away and pretending it isn’t so is just ignorant.
While I encourage intra and inter-faith criticism, I do so with some caution. Religion and culture in general are not so precious that they shouldn’t be critiqued. But just as religious debate tends to stir our violent passions it also tends to steer us toward stupid and irrational thinking. If the goal is to actually communicate and interrogate each other’s ideas (as opposed to self-righteously wagging our finger), then shouting down people from another culture and labeling all of them terrorists isn’t constructive. No one likes to be condescended to and religious critics have an obligation to do their homework and learn a little something about Islam’s history and beliefs before we start talking.
There is another concern. The so-called New Atheists, which is a proselytizing anti-theist movement, has made opposition to Islam a major priority. In the face of Boko Haram and ISIS, that makes sense. That’s where the most urgent fight is. But the movement spearheaded by figures like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is at risk of creating shelter for the Donald Trumps and Pam Gellers of the world. The latter aren’t really afraid of Islam. They are afraid of brown skinned people. That isn’t a fight about religion and ideology. It’s racism and should be called as such.
Therein lies the irony of the Islamophobia defense. The word is hurled at anti-theists and used interchangeably with “racism” when in fact racists have much more in common with religious fundamentalists than they do with anti-theists and other critics of religion. At their best, the anti-theists critique religious ideology by contrasting it against the tenants and values of classical liberalism, the foundation upon which all modern societies are built. Both racists and religious fundamentalists pursue a pipe dream of ideological purity that is antithetical to classical liberalism. The proof is found wherever they gain control of the levers of power. Invariably, racists and religious fundamentalists create remarkably similar nightmare scenarios.
Given what has happened in Paris and around the world, from Brussels to Chibok to New York to Nairobi to Sydney, we have to confront the problem of Islamic terrorism. But we first have to admit that there is a problem. Critiquing religion is tricky and doing so in a way that is honest and rigorous is going to be uncomfortable both for Muslims and for those who want to build an inclusive community. And as we have this debate it’s equally important that we not create a pedestal for racist stupidity. But we cannot shut down the debate for the sake of comfort or to entertain the illusion that all religious ideas are valid and benign. The Islamophobia defense, although well intended, is counterproductive and dishonest and must be abandoned.