What’s Islamophobia, and Do I Have It?
A closed mind is a terrible thing to behold. But it’s a far worse thing to have to engage. And yet we must. This Saturday, the woman who murdered a complete stranger by shoving him into the path of an arriving subway train was arrested. Her name? Erica Menendez. Her target? Hindus and Muslims.Why? Because of 2001.
More than eleven years after the terrorist attacks, and the alleged murderer not only could not distinguish between a Muslim and a Hindu, but held both collectively responsible for the actions of a few—there are 2.5 billion Muslims and Hindus in the world. This is clear, cut-and-dried bigotry, of the typically ignorant kind.
You’d think recent events only further prove Islamophobia’s dangerousness. But on the night of Erica’s arrest, the usual cohort of anti-Muslim voices persisted in their denial of Islamophobia, considering it a “neologism” used by the left to silence their fair criticisms of Islam. Reality, as always, begs to disagree.
Islamophobia is anything but rational, fair, or grounded. Like climate change denial, it masks real threats and makes it harder for us to deal with them. America deserves a better conversation on Islam. One that has the room to acknowledge real threats and challenges, but also enables us to make smarter choices, and deal with Muslims as we are: Human beings.
I’m not claiming to present a complete cartography. But what I have should help us navigate a far too familiar terrain. After all, why do we have to put up with absurdly ahistorical arguments, such as Pamela Geller’s claim that “jihad” killed 270 million people—fanciful, hyperbolic, and almost endearingly fictitious? Not only is Islamophobia ridiculous, it has violent consequences.
I. It’s (Always) the 1950’s
Islamophobes often argue they’re just criticizing Islam. But simply by prefacing an argument with “I have black friends,” or concluding with it, doesn’t mean you’re not a racist. We have to look deeper to see if “Islamophobia” applies; I’ll use the hijab, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women (for many reasons), to that end.
Through France’s treatment of a Muslim woman’s sartorial choices, we can better understand the transition from mere opinionated disagreement to legally sanctioned discrimination. Because while the former may be unreasonable or unwarranted, the latter is the kind of bigotry I’m most concerned by.
In France, Muslims in public schools are forbidden to wear the hijab—overtly religious symbols are seen as threatening of a uniform French identity that is, by the way, more of a project of flattening France into homogeneity than reflecting France’s demographic reality. Meanwhile all women are forbidden to cover their faces in public spaces. This is so that Islam does not appear in public France.
The state does this to “reclaim” public space for secularity; in France, though, secularism is not neutrality. The culturally secular majority champions a statist secularism the effect of which is to restrict the visibility of a religiously defined minority. This is not racism per se, but I hope you can see the problematic overlap: most French Muslims come from France’s former colonies.
And the colonial mindset continues to pertain. Islamophobia privileges the point of view of the allegedly objective outsider, who believes he knows Muslims better than they themselves do. Whether because of race, or because it’s transcended race; whether because of religion, or because it has transcended religion; in all these scenarios, the West always knows best.
Indeed, the West may know best because the West can change. Islam, on the other hand, is frozen, stuck in what Dipesh Chakrabarty called the “waiting room of history.” This is not, by the way, an exclusively French dynamic—the simple and inaccurate binary of a dynamic West and a static Islam, mired in the seventh century or a “medieval mindset” is stunningly common. And equally inaccurate.
Conclusions: The Islamophobe likes to speak on behalf of Muslims, and appoints himself judge, jury, and even executioner. This may be because while the Islamophobe believes he represents a dynamic civilization, the Islam he speaks for is assumed to represent a static and unchanging force.
II. Don’t Ask, Tell
Addressing a panel at the 2011 American Academy of Religion Conference, Hussein Agrama illuminated the contradiction in the French government’s restrictions on hijab and the niqab,or face-veil. France banned both on the argument that they were either the sartorial embodiment of a politically Islamic identity, the tip of an Islamist iceberg so to speak, or evidence of a gender unequal religious tradition.
Thus the French government assumed all women veil for the same reasons. But in her book,The Politics of the Veil, Joan Scott surveys French Muslim women—what a novel idea—and finds that few of these assumptions hold. Of course, the emancipation of the Muslim woman cannot be stopped by anything as irrelevant as the Muslim woman’s opinions; to be liberated from objectification, she’s objectified.
Consider the tension Agrama points out. If the veil is a choice (as most French Muslim women say it is) and not a religious obligation, then the French government can restrict it: French Muslims shouldn’t object to not being allowed to practice a choice. But, Agrama went on, if the veil is a religious obligation, it must have been imposed coercively and must be banned by the secular state.
Islamophobes tend to prefer the latter.
They assume that Muslims must do whatever the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad tells them to. Not only have Muslims stopped using their brains, their nervous organs have atrophied from unemployment. Thus if a Muslim woman covers her head, it must be because she was forced to. The rationalists of the West, the free peoples of Middle Earth, must step in to liberate her.
III. If Islam Were a Race, Would Islamophobia Be Racist?
The right question to ask is why Muslims need liberation. Why can’t they (we) liberate ourselves? There is a racist logic within Islamophobia, which presents from time to time in the way Muslims are described and treated. As a single, indivisible whole. And, of course, a miserable one at that. The formula? ‘All Muslims are x,’ where x is bad.
This also means that all Muslims are on the hook for what some Muslims do, and must constantly distance themselves from other Muslims—as if the whole must bear responsibility for the acts and faults of individuals. How does that make any sense, except in a racialized and dehumanizing way?
I’m not arguing that Islamophobia is racist, or that Islamophobes are racists, because that’s not quite what’s happening. For one thing, Islamophobes embrace ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and racists wouldn’t (indeed couldn’t) do the same. But consider the similarities: the Islamophobe must assume Muslims suffer some sort of pre-Islamic inferiority, sufficient to explain how some (largely non-white) people—actually, a lot of people—not only fell for Islam in the first place, but then stayed down. How long do enforced ideologies last? Nazism: twelve years. Communism: some decades. Islam: Fourteen centuries and counting.
Those are some dumb people.
But regardless of whether certain mental defects incline a person to Islam or whether after adopting Islam parts of your brain shut down—think zombie virus from The Walking Dead’sfirst season—the output’s the same. If a Qur’anic verse seems to sanction violence, Muslims have no choice but to act on it. There is just one problem with this way of interpreting all of Islam.
Only a puny minority of Muslims acts in a violent manner, while the huge majority does not, though both are reading the same book. If Muslims don’t act in similar ways, the problem isn’t the Islamophobe’s interpretation of Islam, it’s anything else—perhaps the Muslims are practicing taqiyya! Or, perhaps, the Muslims don’t understand their religion.
Islamophobes resolve the challenges posed by reality by dismissing it. Hence, they’ll say things like “most Muslims don’t understand Islam.” This was the rebuttal Ayaan Hirsi Ali used against Zeba Khan during their Intelligence Squared debate on Islam. In her opening statement, Khan argued that her parents stressed tolerance as an Islamic value; Hirsi Ali responded that while that was very nice, it wasn’t Islam.
Islam has one interpretation: theirs. Which happens to be—by chance, of course—the same interpretation extremists offer. Leave aside for a moment the conclusions and consider the methods by which Islamophobes get there. Were Islamophobes Muslim, they would be the Muslims they warn us about.
Islam can only be understood on their terms, they say. And their terms are violent and intemperate. Their strict literalism, inability to grasp context, gross and frequent generalizations, and mind-blowing ahistoricism make them into radicals, only on the opposite side of a chasm into which both have thrown decency, history, common sense, and reality. In place of analysis, they offer us a Xerox machine.
They reproduce themselves and call it Islam.
IV. Haven’t We Seen This Movie Before?
In Hirsi Ali’s conception, no sooner does a Muslim open up the Qur’an than the book starts to smack him around like the fast food in those Tums commercials. Muslims can only do exegesis—we can only read meaning “out of a text.” We cannot practice eisegesis, which is reading “into” a text. Maybe that’s Hirsi Ali’s particular life challenge, but that’s not how the world works.
All of us engage in exegesis and eisegesis; Hans-Georg Gadamer explains how through the simple sentence. You can’t say what a sentence means, he said, unless you know what all the words in the sentence mean, but you can only define these words by the context provided by the sentence as a whole. (At least, I think that’s Gadamer; I beg my advisor’s forgiveness if it is not.)
We read into the text while the author’s writing reaches out at us—it’s like what happens if you take Tums before you eat. (Food is fun again.) The point is, Muslims aren’t “forced” into a reading. The best evidence of this is the most obvious, although to admit it would be to fatally break Islamophobia’s pathetic back: Radical Muslims impose implausible meaningson Muslim scripture.
Radicals twist texts to justify despicable ends. Usually they can do this because, like Islamophobes, they have only a cursory familiarity with Islam.
Within a few decades of Muhammad’s death (in 632 A.D.), Islam’s first extremists emerged: the ‘Khawarij,’ or secessionists. They went to war with Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, the first Shi’a Imam and fourth Sunni Caliph, and eventually assassinated him. An extremism so self-righteousness that it did not stop to wonder what kind of “understanding” of Islam would bring it to war with the Prophet’s flesh and blood.
Before his assassination, Ali and some Khawarij had a debate over his rule as Caliph. The latter demanded that Ali govern as the Qur’an demandedIn response to this, Ali famously opened up the Muslim holy book in response to their demand and asked, ‘What does it say?’ What he was saying, some fourteen centuries ago, is that we read meaning into and out of texts at the same time
This incident demonstrates that the crudeness of Islamic extremism is infidelity to seventh-century (i.e., original) Islam, a profound and ridiculous inversion of how Islam’s earliest and most authoritative interpreters understood the faith. I’m seriously unnerved by the convergences between Islamophobia and the Khawarij, both of whom assume texts have singular, fixed meanings (which may be the reason why both have found scholarship not just unhelpful but irrelevant).
For Islamophobes, Muslims don’t have agency, but the Qur’an does. (This might be why some Islamophobes have proposed banning the Qur’an.) If this discussion is hard to follow because the material is foreign, consider what would happen if we applied Islamophobia’s logic to Western affairs. Imagine how we’d react to the proposition that reading the Bible explains George W.’s war against Iraq?
This would be strange, to say the least, but we could say the same for subway ads that quote Muslim scripture beside scenes of terrible violence, as if all we need to understand the one is the other. One sure sign of an Islamophobe is this: you need only remove a few words here and there and their argument pertains with equal vehemence to the West, or Christianity, or Europe.
‘All Muslims are x,’ they say, ‘because some Muslims do x.’ Surely the stuff Western civilization was built off of.
V. One Of Us Is Rubber And The Other Is Glue
Many Islamophobes desperately want to be engaged, because such engagement promises credibility. But before the debate begins, they dismiss the terms around which it might be structured, and evince little interest in the questions any such debate would require us to ponder:
What is a religion?
Can a religion explain human behavior?
What is history?
What sources count in a respectable history?
How do we weigh different sources against each other?
How can you debate the applicability of history to the present with people who are usually only superficially aware of history, and then really only superficially aware of history in a superficial sense? History is not simply the ability to memorize dates and events; it is an attempt to understand human affairs through theories, methods, and sources that people can have sophisticated conversations over.
Historians don’t make these things up to exclude non-specialists, although sadly sometimes that’s the effect, but present them so that we can have conversations between people who disagree—a conversation, after all, requires common ground. You cannot productively engage someone whose mind is already made up.
Or you could, and it’d be like talking to Mideast Beast: The Scriptural Case for an Islamic Anti-Christ, Joel Richardson’s rather self-explanatory title. Islamophobia, as we will see, has its own histories, its own specialists, and its own echo chamber. Because of course it cannot exist in a world of peer review.
Richardson’s book works like this: he has a conclusion in mind, and then searches, without any consistent methodology or even concern for basic correspondence with reality, for corroborating evidence. It’s a terrible, terrible book, and it’s important to the degree that it’s atrocious. Because it reveals Islamophobia for us.
Richardson’s self-appointed task is to prove that the anti-Christ will be a Muslim, for which reason he apparently needs to do two things: refute other anti-Christologies (I really don’t want to know what to call this genre) and make things up. Sometimes the two go together in wonderful ways.
At one point in this book, Richardson presents his explanation of a certain prophecy—one that contradicts other, established names in his field. I’m not sure what he was talking about, except that he was trying to tell us that the Scythians were not the people foretold in this philosophy.
The Scythians, a nomadic Iranian people, were too diverse and variegated to be the people this prophecy foretold, Richardson argued. This means, of course, that Richardson recognizes that a people can be complicated and dense mass of individuals, with less coherence than “Haroon” or “Joel Richardson”.
Now comes the bigot’s trademark. One can be generous to one’s own side, or generous in the abstract, but utterly incapable of the same when it comes to “the other.” Here’s what I mean: for Richardson, Islam is a single, pseudo-religious, practically Satanic political project, realized through a totalitarian Islamic Caliphate that was birthed in 622 and continues through 1923.
Predictably Richardson never marshals evidence for this absurd claim of historical continuity, because that would be impossible, no matter how many maps he superimposes onto another. For those who may not be familiar with Islamic history, imagine an author arguing that Charlemagne’s empire, the Spanish American empire, NATO, and the Russian Empire were all one thing, and also that it was evil. (This is by the way how al-Qaeda portrays the West.)
In the middle of this exercise in apocalyptic meteorology, Richardson informs us that the Islamic Caliphate was a uniquely aggressive and Arabizing force. As an example of this forced Arabization, he names the Ottoman Empire, which was the “Islamic Caliphate” from 1517 to 1923; reading this, two things happened.
First, I laughed out loud. Second, many of my fellow Barnes and Noble customers looked at me uncomfortably. To #1: I’d laughed because Richardson called the Ottoman Empire an Arabizing agent. To #2: People looked at me with alarm because they wondered: why would this brown man in Arabizing scarf, reading this book about the apocalypse, laugh so hard except that he knows something we do not and should?
The Ottomans, who ruled Eastern Europe and much of the Middle East for hundreds of years, are named for Osman, son of Ertugrul, a Turkic chieftain of western Anatolia. ‘Turkic’ does not mean ‘Arab’. They don’t even have any letters in common. The Ottomans later styled themselves Padishahan-e Rum, which is Persian for ‘Emperors of Rome,’ which meant the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire they claimed to claim; that empire was not Arab because it was Hellenic.
And I don’t want to be standing near you when you confuse Persian for Arab.
If anything, the late Ottomans faced rebellions by Arab nationalists in the 19th and 20thcentury because they stressed Turkish as a vehicle for modern education. How the Ottomans could be fairly characterized a force for Arabization escapes me, reality, history, and peer review. There is so much more such nonsense and it fills up hundreds of pages. If you ever come across this book, take a moment and be silent. Many trees died for this.
(Actual History: (a) Osman’s Dream, by Caroline Finkel; (b) The Ottoman Age of Exploration, by Giancarlo Casale; (c) The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, by Richard Bulliett; (d) Destiny Disrupted, by Tamim Ansary.)
VI. ‘I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam’
Now, you could say, what’s the harm? Well—you present history inaccurately, lie and obfuscate, all to propose the end times can be mapped out today, which is cool, because you’ve already got all these ridiculous maps. So why not, I don’t know, invade a country preemptively? One cannot insist on innocuous analysis when one’s last chapter is ‘yes, Islam is evil, but Muslims are not.’
While Muslims might be too stupid to know Islam is evil—sound familiar?— we can rescue them from their ignorance—sound familiar? This is Richardson’s final argument, and it leaves me very confused. Secular France and Christian Richardson pursue a similar line: Muslims are coerced into their behavior, and must be saved. France looks to itself, in the form of liberating legislation; Richardson asks Christians to do that work, but really leaves it to Jesus.
The difference here is over the West. Which West is Islam’s opposite? Because, of course, it’ll be that West’s opposite no matter how you answer. That’s the first serious problem. All things are created in pairs, so here’s the second serious problem: how can you hate and love what is basically the same thing?
I mean sometimes relationships turn out that way, but I don’t suspect that, at his heart, Joel Richardson is a tortured lover. So I don’t get how you can hate a religion while loving its followers, especially since a religion is in so many ways who its followers are and what they do? I’m not suggesting a religion and its followers are the same, but neither are they wholly separate universes, such that you can plausibly lust for one while treating the other as Satan’s spawn.
When some physicists argue that quantum tunneling produces consciousness from literally nothing, they unwittingly described Richardson’s book. What they may not know, or even care to know, is how ubiquitous the sentiment is.
VII. Newt Gingrich
Islamophobia finds its way into all kinds of places; consider Ian Frazier’s wonderful Travels in Siberia, which does an admirable job of humanizing a part of the world we often associate with misery, death, and authoritarian backwardness. Frazier casually interjects his opinions of Islamic history, playing a hopscotch game with time and space. The effect is not pretty.
Not only is Frazier wrong, he’s got it backwards. He compares Bin Laden to Saladin, whereas by context it was the Crusaders who were the barbarians of that age, and Saladin the magnanimous warrior. Frazier presents a history that assumes a common set of motivations for actors in very different contexts. At the same time, he goes out of his way to try to humanize Russia and Siberia in particular.
Ian Frazier’s book came to my attention when it was excerpted in The New Yorker; as it turns out, The New Yorker funded his expedition. Now, of course, I don’t think his opinions of Islamic history are that magazine’s, and I don’t think Frazier is some kind of bigot. But still, the audience for Richardson’s book would not seem to be the audience for Frazier’s, and yet we spy similarly sloppy claims.
If you pay close attention, Islam and Muslims are frequently dismissed and derided by a range of voices from the left to the right—Bill Maher to Newt Gingrich. We need only look to the 2012 Presidential campaign, especially on the Republican side, to see how terrible this conversation became. To this end: Because Muslims are assumed to be an “other,” they are exempted from Americanness.
How can someone who supposedly stands for not-us also be us?
During the Ground Zero mosque debacle, much of this kind of thinking was revealed. I’ll pick just one example—Newt Gingrich, who suggested during the controversy that there should not be a mosque near Ground Zero unless and until there was a church in Mecca. There’s so much to work with there that I’ve broken it down into three points—that’s as much as you’d want, I think.
First, Gingrich believes that American Muslims, because they are Muslim, are Saudis, and hence we can tell the Saudi government what to do, because of course the Saudi government, which is an absolute monarchy that does not answer to its citizens, would firstly listen to people who are not its citizens and also live on the other side of the planet and secondly had a say in the lower Manhattan mosque project.
Second, Gingrich associates America with a church, as opposed to say democracy; he wants a symbol of Christianity—read, America—in Mecca. But this picture is all wrong. American culture dominates the world, while the Muslim world struggles to produce anything. Indeed, a visitor to Mecca is undoubtedly struck by the degree of its Americanization—there are Burger Kings, KFC, a Starbucks, a Victoria’s Secret, a Sbarro’s, and even a Paris Hilton store.
Third, Gingrich believes Mecca is responsible for Ground Zero. Other Islamophobes have suggested nuking Mecca in response to terrorist attacks; Gingrich’s reasoning mirrors theirs. Islam is, in this worldview, a kind of global conspiracy headquartered in Mecca, which is not even the capital of a country, but is incidentally located in a country that many Muslims openly detest.
The Islamophobe desperately needs us to believe Islam is utterly unlike us, but simultaneously like us. (Islamophobia makes no sense.) Because America is a country, Islam must be a country, too. If “they” attacked our capital on 9/11, we should attack “their” capital, which somehow becomes Mecca. And this takes on more pernicious forms of reasoning.
While condemning Islam for being allergic to secularism (creeping Shari’ah and all that), ostensibly Christian Islamophobes actively work for the Christianization of American politics and law. They see no contradiction in this.
The Islamophobic attempt to portray Islam as a coherent entity (i.e., as in Richardson’s book) suggests the need for Islam to serve as a rival to the West, or specifically America, when there is no such possibility, beginning with the fact that America is a superpower and Islam is a religious tradition (apples and oranges, except this is more like breakfast nooks and mailboxes); even a comparison of America with Muslim countries is on nearly every measure no comparison.
VIII. Having Cake v. Eating Cake
If you have made it this far, then you can guess what comes next and last, because it is worst of all: the actual engagement with the Islamophobe. I offer you snippets from a conversation with a noted voice of the Islamophobic fringe, who I had the opportunity to engage—albeit on Twitter—some weeks ago. The topic was of course Islamophobia.
After a long and meandering conversation, in which anything any reasonable person could say was twisted and repurposed (quite a feat in Twitter’s narrow spaces), we got to the issue of Islamophobia. (For which reason you can read this article.) I offered recent Eastern European affairs as an answer to the question, ‘Is there any such thing as Islamophobia in the real world?’
Specifically, this means Bosnia, where tens of thousands of Muslim women were raped and well over one hundred thousand killed, in an attempt at ethnically cleansing that country to make way for a ‘Greater Serbia’ (there were atrocities committed by all sides, but disproportionately it was a war in which Muslims were the victims and radical Serb nationalists the aggressors).
My interlocutor suggested that the Bosnian genocide might have been a response to the election of Alija Ali Izetbegovic as Bosnia’s President. My interlocutor confused ‘religious’ for ‘Islamist,’ and suggested Izetbegovic’s religiosity had “spooked” the Serbs into committing genocide. And I was like, yeah, totally, I see what you mean, because when I’m scared, I turn on the lights, phone a friend, or commit genocide.
It is true that Izetbegovic was influenced by Islam; but, for him, Islam was no different than Catholicism was for many Poles, who reached out to a religious leader (the Pope) to advance a political agenda of liberation. Izetbegovic went to jail for his religiously-inflected activism, which isn’t surprising considering Yugoslavia was a Communist state at the time.
And what was so inflammatory, that might have provoked genocide? Izetbegovic argued that a healthy model for a Muslim society would be one in which religion was part of government. His example was not Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, but the rogue state we call the United Kingdom. Surely the stuff nightmares are made of.
Yugoslavia started to fall apart in the early 90’s. First Slovenia broke off and then Croatia, leaving Bosnia, only 44% Muslim and nearly 30% Serbian, attached to a federation demographically dominated by Serbia. Izetbegovic moved for independence, and here is the logic of the Islamophobe, revealed in all its ugliness.
Because a country that’s 44% Muslim elects a religious Muslim as its president, after years under an atheist and totalitarian regime, and in fear for their freedom, militarily superior Serbian militias preemptively engage in a mass rape and slaughter. This allegedly constitutes a rebuttal of my point about Islamophobia.
But let’s continue with the argument, no matter how outraged we should be. Bosnian Serbs and Croats could have allied; with 56% of the country’s population, the two could have together demanded a secular constitution. Considering that Bosnian Muslims suffered the worst of the war by far, it’s hard to see what leverage they would’ve had against this commonsense demand.
Indeed, it’s hard to see why the Croats would not want to preempt an “Islamist” agenda with their fellow Christian Serbs, except that there wasn’t any, and the radical Serbs were busy ethnically cleansing many Croat areas of Croatia and Bosnia—for being Catholic and also because these Catholics lived in places those Orthodox Serbs wanted.
It is a mark of how skewed our discourse has become that we do not call these radical Serbs “Christian fundamentalists” or “Christian terrorists,” although they justified much of what they did in the name of Christendom, against a conjured “Turkish” enemy—Bosnians and Serbs are ethnically similar, and the Bosnian Muslims no more Turks than Richardson believes the Ottomans are Arabs.
It’d be irresponsible to argue that religion explains these wars—but religion is doubtless part of the story. You can’t kill tens of thousands and rape thousands on the basis of their religion, and claim religion has nothing to do with it. One does not slaughter a people until one has hated them sufficiently to go from seeing them as individuals to seeing them as a mass to be done away with.
And that hate is Islamophobia.
Fears of “creeping Shari’ah”—the manufactured fear Islamophobes haunt America with, too—was a recurring meme in Bosnia, and equally fictive. In America, it’s used to justify bigoted legislation; in Yugoslavia, it was deployed with other rhetoric and led to genocide. By no means am I arguing the same conditions will pertain here.
But I point to the inconsistency of the Islamophobia industry Wajahat Ali described: they refuse to admit to any kind of bias against Islam or Muslims because that bias is the ground they stand on. And to claim there is no such thing as bias against Islam or Muslims when, in the past decades, such bias has led to the deaths of tens of thousands in Bosnia, Kosovo and the Caucasus, leaves me dumbfounded.
In Conclusion: Looking Forward
I am not so dense as to argue that Muslims have always behaved innocently, and that is not the conclusion I want you to walk away with. We have more than enough examples of heinous acts committed by Muslims, sometimes justified in the name of Islam. In fact the first article I wrote for this magazine condemned the Islamic Republic of Iran for the hijacked 2009 election and subsequent crackdown.
But I’m arguing that Muslims have been targeted in the past and present because they’re Muslim—there is such a thing as anti-Muslim bigotry. Islamophobia is our word for that bigotry, and must be seen and rejected for what it is: ignorance, deliberate or unintentional, used in the past to justify genocide, and used today to bully, circumscribe, panic, or oppress.
Americans deserve better. Certainly bigotry is profoundly contrary to the values we aspire to. More pragmatically, Islamophobia is just plain bad for America. If we want to understand Islam, we should have accurate information—we wouldn’t want those who keep our country safe relying on people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
If we want to know how to navigate a tumultuous Muslim world, we should have real authorities and clear-headed observers, not ideologues and propagandists. Considering how important Islam is in our world—Muslims are the world’s youngest religion (by age), number nearly one-fourth of humanity, and live all over the planet—what good do we imagine Islamophobia will do for America?
Islamophobia claims to tell the truth about Islam, free of bigotry and political correctness, but it does no such thing. Its only real legacy is one of bad foreign policy choices, too many incidents of domestic discord, all kinds of missed opportunities, a growing trust deficit here and abroad, and probably many burned bridges. We don’t know how many, because we’ve no way to count.
Haroon Moghul is associate Editor at Religion Dispatches and a Fellow at ISPU, the New America Foundation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law.
This article was published by Religion Dispatched on January 3, 2013. Read it here.