The Huffington Post has an article in the wake of the massacre at a mosque in New Zealand calling Islamophobia a “global crisis.” It looks at anti-Muslim extremism by the far-right, but also briefly mentions Sam Harris, Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins. American Atheists shared the article on their Facebook page and my friend Seth Andrews responded, in part:
I love American Atheists, but they blew this one. As Armin Navabi, Yasmine Mohammed, Ali A. Rizvi, Sarah Haider, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, and others can attest, “Islamophobe” is a term used strategically to insulate Islam from criticism. Most oppressed by Islam are themselves Muslim, whom we advocate & fight for, and the battles to liberate oppressed people from the boot of radical superstitions require us to criticize, neutralize, and ultimately dismantle the superstitions themselves.
I absolutely agree that criticism of Islam is necessary and proper and have done my fair share of it myself. But I cannot agree with this claim that Islamophobia essentially doesn’t exist, that it’s just a made-up term intended to prevent such criticism. Certainly some Muslim apologists do use it that way and we should laugh them off and continue our criticism. But that does not mean that there isn’t real Islamophobia out there that we need to be deeply concerned with and strongly opposed to.
Let’s start by defining our terms. What is Islamophobia? It is the irrational fear and/or hatred of Muslims. Not some Muslims, the most radical kind who commit acts of terrorism, but all Muslims. Does this exist? I think the answer to anyone who pays attention must be an unequivocal yes. Let me offer just a few examples:
People who are always claiming that we are on the verge of being taken over by Muslims, who will impose Sharia law in place of the Constitution. They often also claim that Muslims have already infiltrated our government through people like Barack Obama and former CIA Director John Brennan (who they often claim converted to Islam while serving as CIA Director, with no evidence whatsoever). It’s all part of a grand conspiracy to let Muslims take over the country. This is clearly an irrational fear; there is no plausible path whatsoever to a takeover of the United States by Muslims. To believe this is to be completely looney tunes.
Along that same vein, people like Frank Gaffney, David Yerushalmi and others who claim that American courts are already enforcing Sharia law. They even came up with a fake “study” in which they made this claim, but every single case they cited actually shows the exact opposite, courts refusing to enforce Muslim laws (usually in divorce and custody cases). They are obviously advocating an irrational fear of Muslims.
Gaffney and Yerushalmi are joined by many others, including Bryan Fischer, in arguing that Islam is not a religion at all and therefore is not protected by the First Amendment as other religions are. This is a very common argument on the far right. They hate Muslims so much that they work overtime to justify denying them the right to worship. They file lawsuits to stop the building of mosques and argue that building mosques should be illegal. A good many of them also advocate for rounding up Muslims and kicking them out of the country.
I could go on and on. If these are not examples of a real Islamophobia, I don’t know what else one could reasonably consider them. Yes, that term is sometimes misused to prevent criticism of Islam. No, that does not mean that it isn’t an accurate and necessary term to describe the views and actions of real people — people with influence, for that matter. And yes, that matters. That is why we see so many attacks on mosques and on Muslims in this country. And on falsely-perceived Muslims; several Sikhs have been attacked and at least one Sikh temple was bombed because some Islamophobic moron thinks anyone who wears a turban is a Muslim (in fact, most aren’t).
Yes, we should criticize Islam. It is false, as all religions are. And we should obviously take serious action against those factions of Islam that commit terrorism. But at the same time, we also must oppose this growing and irrational fear of all Muslims. We cannot equate all Muslims with terrorists. It is an insult, at the very least, to the literally thousands of Muslims who work with police departments, the FBI, our intelligence agencies and the military as translators, analysts, undercover agents and such. Without their aid, we would be far less effective in fighting Islamic terrorism.
I have many Muslim friends who agree with all of this, and who fight daily for equality, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. I cannot accept this lazy equivalence between those people and Muslim terrorists. To do so is a betrayal of my humanist values. So let us fight radical Islam and criticize the ideas within Islam, but at the same time fight against this irrational fear and hatred of all Muslims that leads some to commit their own acts of terror against them. Rationality and morality demand nothing less.
I leave open the possibility that Seth and I don’t really disagree as much on this as it appears. It’s possible his Facebook post was just badly worded. Certainly I don’t believe that he supports or ignores the oppression of Muslims in any form. But if he truly thinks there is no such thing as Islamophobia, as his wording here suggests, then we definitely do disagree on this.