The Real Meaning of Islamophobia

I don’t usually say these sorts of things about Republicans, but good for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is defending his pick of a Muslim for a state judgeship, saying critics of a lawyer who represented suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are “ignorant” and “crazies”.

…”This Shariah law business is crap,” said Christie, 48. “It’s just crazy and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.”

Gov. Christie appointed Sohail Mohammed, who represented Muslims swept up in indiscriminate FBI dragnets after 9/11, to a seat on the Superior Court of Passaic County. Many of Mohammed’s clients were American citizens, and none of them were convicted or even charged with terrorism, but that naturally doesn’t matter to the raving, insane Christianist right:

Some political columnists and bloggers have accused Mohammed of having links to terrorism and said he’ll be more likely to follow Shariah law, religious standards based on the Koran, instead of state or federal statutes….

Mohammed was nominated by Christie in January. That month, Debbie Schlussel, a columnist for publications including the New York Post and Jerusalem Post, wrote: “Chris Christie rewarded those Muslim mobs who cheered on U.S. soil for the mass murder of 3,000 Americans with a judgeship.”

I wanted to mention this because, especially in the aftermath of the horrifying rampage in Norway last month, “Islamophobia” is a word that too often gets applied to every critic of Islam. I want to make the difference clear – if there’s such a thing as Islamophobia, this is it: treating all Muslims as collectively guilty of the 9/11 attacks or other crimes of terrorism, making no distinction between those who supported those acts and those who didn’t. To right-wing crazies like Schlussel, Muslims are an undifferentiated mob who all think and believe exactly the same things and who are all equally evil (see also this article, with some equally demented quotes from other right-wingers). It shouldn’t escape notice that this is exactly the same way the Jewish people were often caricatured by anti-Semites.

The atheist critique of Islam, however, should be better aimed than this clumsy and belligerent racism. (Yes, Islam is a religion, not a race, but let’s not pretend that Sohail Mohammed’s being a brown person – he’s actually Indian – isn’t a factor in this.) We can and should point out the the violent, disturbing or otherwise immoral verses in the Qur’an without thereby accusing every Muslim of complicity in those deeds, just as we can point out the huge number of atrocious and violent verses in the Bible without calling every Christian or Jew a supporter of genocide. And we can and should criticize the evils that have been committed in the name of Islam, not to imply that every Muslim is guilty of them – in fact, other Muslims are more often the victims of these crimes than Westerners – but to encourage people of good will to see the harm done by religion and take a stand against it.

As Sam Harris has said, all major religious texts are “engines of extremism”: they all teach primitive, irrational and long-outdated moral standards, and they all condone acts of evil and bloodshed against those who are declared to be enemies of God. When people believe in these texts and take them literally, then we know the result: acid attacks, honor killings, forced veilings of women, mutilation and stoning as punishments, censorship of free speech, oppression of religious minorities, all of which are endemic in Islamic theocracies. The fact that some Western fundamentalists respond with crazed violence of their own doesn’t mean that the original acts should escape condemnation. There’s a difference between irrational, unjustified fear of all the 1.5 billion people in the world who practice a particular religion, and rational, justified fear of the subset of that larger group who use their faith as an excuse to commit violence and attempt to force medieval moral norms on all of us.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd

    Excellent post. It’s cheering to know that some politicians – even Republicans – are capable of standing against the demands of the nastier elements of their base.

  • Charles Black

    You’re absolutely right that there is a difference between hatred of Muslims for being guilty by association with 9/11 & hatred of the extremists who would want to have women stoned to death for adultery just like the Jews did in the past.

  • keddaw

    To right-wing crazies like Schlussel, Muslims are an undifferentiated mob who all think and believe exactly the same things

    Which explains a lot about the reaction in Iraq that seemed so surprising to them post-liberation. “Sunni vs. Shia? Wahhabi? They’re all just Muslims.” The real world turns out not to be quite so simple…

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    I want to make the difference clear – if there’s such a thing as Islamophobia, this is it: treating all Muslims as collectively guilty of the 9/11 attacks or other crimes of terrorism, making no distinction between those who supported those acts and those who didn’t. To right-wing crazies like Schlussel, Muslims are an undifferentiated mob who all think and believe exactly the same things and who are all equally evil (see also this article, with some equally demented quotes from other right-wingers). It shouldn’t escape notice that this is exactly the same way the Jewish people were often caricatured by anti-Semites.

    The atheist critique of Islam, however, should be better aimed than this clumsy and belligerent racism. (Yes, Islam is a religion, not a race, but let’s not pretend that Sohail Mohammed’s being a brown person – he’s actually Indian – isn’t a factor in this.) We can and should point out the the violent, disturbing or otherwise immoral verses in the Qur’an without thereby accusing every Muslim of complicity in those deeds, just as we can point out the huge number of atrocious and violent verses in the Bible without calling every Christian or Jew a supporter of genocide. And we can and should criticize the evils that have been committed in the name of Islam, not to imply that every Muslim is guilty of them – in fact, other Muslims are more often the victims of these crimes than Westerners – but to encourage people of good will to see the harm done by religion and take a stand against it.

    I cannot thank you enough for writing this. I think the words Islamophobia and Islamofascism are sometimes overused, but there are some concrete examples of each, and this would be a definite example of the former. I live in NJ, and I don’t often agree with Christie, but I was happily surprised by this.

    -Ani Sharmin

  • http://betterthanesdras.wordpress.com Abbie

    The NYT magazine recently did a nice expose on one of the primary Sharia Law hysteria-makers… who is himself a Hasidic Jew. Pot, kettle, etc.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/us/31shariah.html

    I really believe that the diversity within religions (including Islam) dictates that we can’t whitewash any faith as homogenous just because they happen to share the same holy book. No religion (despite what they say) is actually based solely on its text. This should be obvious- every denomination of Christianity finds justification in the Bible, but you can’t “reverse engineer” any modern faith (even any Judaism) from the text of the Bible. It’s simply not in there. The substance of all faiths is built over time via cultural evolution.

    So looking at the Qur’an, seeing horrible shit, and saying “This is what Muslims believe!!!” is completely wrong-headed. (And astonishingly hypocritical when done by other theists.) Muslims do and believe a wide variety of things; I think Islamic countries are a lot more varied than you make out. For instance, only in Saudia Arabia (which holds to Wahabism) is the full face-veil mandated and are women unable to drive. There isn’t an “Islamic Theocracy” mold that every country with an islamic majority fits into.

    I’m probably sounding like an apologist for Islam and I don’t mean to be; its pretty horrible, in most of its incarnations. But I think its capable of reform.

  • Vin720

    I couldn’t disagree with you more about the arresting of Muslims after 9/11 and blaming it on the Christian right. As one who lived in the NYC metro area during 9/11, people in the entire area in the days after the attack were filled with fear and hysteria. The ’rounding up’ was popularly approved as we didn’t know what to expect next. In retropect, it was a wrong thing to do, but you had to live here to understand the reasoning behind it. I would compare it to the interment of the Japanese after Pearl Harbour. I’m sure the people of that era felt the same way. It wasn’t a religious issue.

  • Lagerbaer

    @Abbie
    I agree. In the same way that 17th- and 18th-century enlightenment dragged Christianity kicking and screaming into a modern age, an act of enlightenment has to happen in the Islamic world.

    When a good ol’ Christian accuses Islam of being misogynistic, they somehow seem to forget that if Christianity had always had its way, women in the West wouldn’t be off any better.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    [Vin720]: I would compare it to the interment of the Japanese after Pearl Harbour. I’m sure the people of that era felt the same way. It wasn’t a religious issue.

    Naturally it was racism in that case. Our modern bouts of xenophobia have a great deal to do with race, too. That doesn’t mean the religious difference is meaningless. Bigots will stack as many distinctions as they can collect into one pile; they’re very good at that.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @Comment #5:

    The NYT magazine recently did a nice expose on one of the primary Sharia Law hysteria-makers… who is himself a Hasidic Jew. Pot, kettle, etc.

    Yeah, but don’t you see, it’s the wrong religious law. I am always struck by how close Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism are to Islam actually. Sharia is clearly influenced by the Halacka (some would say ripped off). In fact, there’s a movie about a Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women meeting and finding out how much they have in common (both have arranged marriages, not to mention covering their hair). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0848542/

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    As one who lived in the NYC metro area during 9/11, people in the entire area in the days after the attack were filled with fear and hysteria. The ’rounding up’ was popularly approved as we didn’t know what to expect next. In retropect, it was a wrong thing to do, but you had to live here to understand the reasoning behind it.

    For the record, I live and work in New York City. I was away at college on 9/11, but I was born and raised here, and I have family and close friends who’ve lived in the NYC metro area their whole lives, including a friend whose father worked in the World Trade Center (he got out okay) and a relative who was a firefighter and spent the days afterward pulling bodies out of the rubble. I do not, nor have I ever, condoned the indiscriminate rounding up of Muslims, much less the flagrant abuse of laws like the material witness statute to detain people who were never charged with any crime.

  • Zachary Smith

    It’s amazing how quickly the Christian right discovers that wall of separation between church & state (or should I say mosque & state?) when Islam enters the equation.

  • Valhar2000

    Vin720:

    people in the entire area in the days after the attack were filled with fear and hysteria. The ’rounding up’ was popularly approved as we didn’t know what to expect next. In retropect, it was a wrong thing to do, but you had to live here to understand the reasoning behind it.

    You said it yourself, there was no reasoning behind it, it was all fear and hysteria. Now, if what you mean is that such fear is normal under the circumstances…

  • Vin720

    Yes, Valhar, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m not condoning it. But it’s kind of easy now, 10 years after the fact, to play Monday Morning Quarterback. At that time, who the heck knew what to expect and if another attack was emenent(hope that’s spelled right).

  • Niklaus Pfirsig

    Let’s break sown the terms Islamophobia and Islamofascism. The two terms are politically charged creations of the media A phobia is an irrational fear of something, denoted the Latin term to which the suffix “phobia” is appended. In psychology acrophobia is the irrational fear of high places, claustrophobia is the irrational fear of enclosed spaces, agoraphobia is the irrational fear public places and so forth. The list of phobias is a large one, but it doesn’t include “Islamophobia”. So this pseudo pop psychiatric term implies an irrational fear if Islam. I think a more accurate term would be Islam-antigonist denoting a true hatred of Islam.

    Like wise “Islamofascism” is ridiculous. There is a minority among Moslems that follow Islamist ideology. Islamism is a political neo-fascist movement that is equally copycatted in the American Christian Fundamentalist movement, also a neo-fascist movement. Both seek to create a government ruled by high-ranking church members. Both movements believe that ordinary people are unable to govern themselves through a democratic process, both movements promote means both legal and extralegal to achieve their goals. There are two major differences. One difference is the choice of religious dogma they would force on their nations, and the other is a bit more complicated.

    From what I can determine, the Islamists are true to their ideology. The Christian Fundamentalists are however, corrupted and used almost as a duplicitous army of the plutocracy. They are being used to attack the democracies worldwide that stand in the way of world dominance by the ultra wealthy,

    So the people who are Islamophobic are most likely phronemophobic, those of us who dislike the idea of religious governments are not afraid of the ideology, we fear the rise of neo-fascist states based on intolerance of all but a ruling religious elite.

  • http://darkenedstumbling.blogspot.com/ Leum

    Let’s break sown the terms Islamophobia and Islamofascism. The two terms are politically charged creations of the media A phobia is an irrational fear of something, denoted the Latin term to which the suffix “phobia” is appended. In psychology acrophobia is the irrational fear of high places, claustrophobia is the irrational fear of enclosed spaces, agoraphobia is the irrational fear public places and so forth. The list of phobias is a large one, but it doesn’t include “Islamophobia”. So this pseudo pop psychiatric term implies an irrational fear if Islam. I think a more accurate term would be Islam-antigonist denoting a true hatred of Islam.

    *sigh* It’s just like when people argue that “homophobia” should mean fear of gays, not hatred. You may not like the way the word has fallen into common parlance, but the original meanings of words do not prescribe their usage.

  • BG

    I’m not defending Niklaus, but it is really alienating to people with life-altering phobias to be associated with hatred and bigotry, especially in activist spaces that make a point of being welcoming. I can’t just leave the original meaning behind, because it’s one I need and use every day. I also don’t want to avoid the sites where it’s a problem, because that would include excellent sites like this one–it’s incredibly common and most people haven’t thought about it. I can live with it, I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to change their language because of this one comment on the internet, but I do want y’all to be aware that there are good reasons why it bothers people.

  • Hibernia86

    Since the rounding up of the Japanese in America was mentioned above, I would like to chip in to agree that racism did have something to do with it. You’ll notice that while we were at war with all of the Axis powers, only the Japanese got rounded up, not the Italians or the Germans. I’ve seen films from World War II where they go out of their way to point out that the Generals in our army of German ancestory were good Germans fighting against the evil Nazi Germans. I have never seen any government defense from the 40s of the Japanese citizens living in America. (Though I have seen Dr Suess cartoons from World War II which promote the idea that the Japanese-American citizens were just waiting to attack)

    http://www.google.com/imgres?q=dr+seuss+wwII+japanese&hl=en&sa=X&rlz=1T4GGHP_enUS437US437&biw=1600&bih=773&tbm=isch&prmd=ivns&tbnid=ikisPTjf1wHIqM:&imgrefurl=http://blog.chron.com/artsinhouston/2009/07/whats-missing-from-dr-seuss-wants-you/&docid=OwJgICiLIpJQOM&w=550&h=463&ei=zZ1JTr-xO6ri0QGTo7DrBw&zoom=1


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