25 June 2012

Who's afraid of Islamophobia?

The Nation has devoted a special issue to the subject of Islamophobia, first affirming that such a thing exists and then denouncing it. The affirmation is necessary, as Laila Lalami notes in the main article, because many critics of Islam strongly deny that their criticisms amount to a "phobia," much less bigotry. This blog has taken a similar position to the one Lalami challenges. To the extent that Islam is a value system, criticism or outright opposition to Islam isn't equivalent to the really mindless "ick factor" reactions we identify with bigotry. Lalami's attempt to equate Islamophobia with homophobia, for instance, won't work. She argues that homophobia could be seen, as some do see it, as a similar sort of fraud designed to deligitimize criticism, but finds the claim as self-evidently false as the argument against using "islamophobia" to describe a genuine, deplorable phenomenon. Her answer to writers like me seems to be that no criticism of specific precepts or practices justifies a blanket condemnation of Islam itself.

None of this is to suggest that ideas should not be debated, still less ideas about Islam. But if you are opposed to specific religious edicts—retrograde blasphemy laws, say, or unfair divorce laws—then why not say you oppose them? Folding distinct issues under the banner term “Islam”—a term that covers an entire religion, a geographical region and countless individual cultures—is imprecise and maybe even useless. By all means, denounce fatwas on free speech, speak out against misogyny, criticize hateful practices. But don’t deny that Muslims, too, defend free speech; that they, too, fight for equality; and that they, too, can be victims of hate.

As Lalami acknowledges, Muslims get it from all directions these days, both from Christians who have no ground to stand on but their resentment of Islam's refusal to recognize Jesus as Son of God and from "new atheists" who unsurprisingly see Muslims as the current worst case of threatening religious fanaticism. I don't know if Cathy Young is an atheist, but she represents a similar secular libertarian perspective on a Reason magazine blog criticizing the Nation project.

Of course all religions have fringe groups and ideas. But for complex historical and cultural reasons, radicalism in Islam is far closer to the mainstream than in other major religions right now. There is no country today where a Christian government executes people for blasphemy, apostasy or illicit sex; several Muslim states do, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Some supposedly moderate Muslim clerics, such as Qatar-born Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, defend executions of gays, sanction "light" wife-beating and peddle hatred of Jews.

Insisting on a contemporary perspective contributes strongly to transmuting a principled general critique of religion and its extreme monotheist form into particular Islamophobia. The problem with Islam as a religion remains the problem with monotheism: the insistence on a Creator as the absolute ruler of the universe and postmortem judge of humanity who also authorizes agents to enforce his will, or at least his worship, among the living. For centuries, critics have tried to account for a perception that Islam is the worst of the monotheisms, but the circumstances generating Islamic virulence today probably have less to do with some decisive flaw in the Qur'an, as compared to other monotheist scriptures, than with the historic circumstances of Muslim peoples around the world. The Nation heavily underscores this point, several authors emphasizing the dark skin of many Muslims as an implicit underlying factor in American Islamophobia. If religion makes Arabs today, for example, more violent than their often more secular parents or grandparents, my hunch is that religion itself, not Islam in particular, is to blame. Were the nations of the Middle East, or the people of Pakistan, Christians rather than Muslims, with all else being equal, we might well see the Christian terror whose absence Young finds telling.

Permit me to claim the middle ground. I'll concede that "Islamophobia" may describe a state of ignorance, either of actual Muslim belief or of the lives of actual Muslims. However, I can't agree with Lalami's proposition that Islam as a whole is off limits for critics. Absolutist monotheism is a poison -- I don't mean to say that polytheism is preferable intellectually -- and as such a thing Islam as a whole may well deserve condemnation. That doesn't mean that every Muslim is a benighted potential menace; the practice of Islam must provide some sort of fulfillment to people or else they wouldn't defend it against alleged bigots and extremist co-religionists. But secular and atheist people have the prerogative to challenge anyone who cites an unverifiable being as their authority on anything. Is atheism Islamophobia? No more or less than Christophobia would be -- and the equation should remind us to be consistent. Principled critics need to remember, despite present appearances, that monotheism is the problem. Christians and Jews have had their violent days before, and nothing prevents another in either case. There is no phobia involved in saying that there is no god -- though some believers might claim otherwise. Nor should anyone be afraid of saying so, even if it gets them accused of being afraid, or worse. Someday The Nation should do an issue about the fear of atheism -- but someone will have to coin a cool word for it first.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"deiphobia"? "monophobia"? How about "clodophobia"?