19 July 2012

How to write an Islamophobia test

The Nation magazine is going to get flamed as if its film critic had panned The Dark Knight Rises for running an advertisement bought by Lorna Salzman, an environmental activist and sometime Green Party political candidate, in its July 30 issue. Running alongside the journal's letters page, Salzman's ad is a "simple test" to determine whether readers are Islamophobes. The point of the piece, it becomes apparent, is that "Islamophobe," in Salzman's view, is a slur aimed at people who only want to uphold liberal values. The test invites you to check off the statements the reader agrees with. The statements include "I oppose stoning of women accused of adultery," "I favor mandatory education of girls everywhere," "I support complete freedom of expression and the press," "I oppose 'honor' killings," and so on. According to Salzman's scoring system, if you checked off your agreement with all her propositions, "you are a vile Islamophobe and deserve to be beheaded as the qu-ran [sic?] instructs." Anything less than complete agreement, or more than zero checkoffs, puts the test-taker on the path to "dhimmitude," the reputed submissive condition of non-Muslims in an Islamic state? "If you checked NONE of these, Congratulations!" Salzman jokes in closing, "you are a worthy observant Muslim and have a bright future vilifying Jews, torturing women or inshallah, becoming a suicide bomber."

When I say The Nation will be flamed, I don't mean to predict that fatwa-authorized nuts will firebomb its offices. I mean that the magazine will get the same volume of enraged letters it gets whenever it sells space to hard-line Zionist organizations. For this issue, The Nation will probably get hit in two directions, since its back cover sports an ad from The Center for Union Facts, a group promoting an "Employee Rights Act" that would allow union members to withhold dues that would be spent on political advertising the member disagrees with. This group tries to appeal to Nation readers by asking how they'd feel if they were forced to give money to Mitt Romney's campaign, then asking them to empathize with union members coerced into supporting "politicians they don't like." For now, however, let's return to Salzman. Her ad argues that you should not be called an Islamophobe simply for opposing atrocities like stoning or clitoridectomies. Taken that far, she's right. However, if I just happened to opine one day that female genital mutilation is a bad thing, would anyone automatically call me an Islamophobe? Probably not. If there is such a thing as Islamophobia -- The Nation recently devoted an issue to proving its existence -- it has to be a matter of context. It's an attitude rather than an assertion, and Salzman's questionnaire fails to isolate the true Islamophobe. A few editorial changes would fix that. Instead of inviting readers to endorse the statement, "I oppose stoning of women accused of adultery," she should have written, "Muslims as a whole condone the stoning of women accused of adultery." Make similar changes down the line and you get the idea. Salzman's point may have been that upholding liberal values is not bigotry -- and the sad fact is that some people on the left probably would disagree with her -- but if Islamophobia means anything it refers not to your own beliefs but your beliefs about Muslims. It isn't unreasonable to infer from Salzman's test an assumption that Muslims in general agree with all the evil practices and attitudes she expects test-takers to oppose. Her jokey scoring system is more persuasive proof of Islamophobia in The Nation's sense of the word, i.e. a bigoted attitude toward Muslim people rather than a critical stance toward the religion of Islam, than the test itself. It's a nice piece of work when an ad designed to exculpate or vindicate you turns into an admission of guilt. If people complain about The Nation taking the ad, the publisher should dismiss it as a parody for entertainment purposes only.

1 comment:

Calmoderate said...

Is it just me or are politics and religion becoming more and more alike over time? I know, demographers say that the influence of religion in the U.S. is slowly fading, but it sure doesn't seem that way when it comes to politics, or much else for that matter. If anything, politics is becoming more like religion, e.g., my ideology is sacred and right, yours is evil and wrong and don't you dare ask me to question anything I believe in - I won't let facts get in the way of my faith. Sheesh. What a mess.