Andrew Cummins once said, in a quote often misattributed to Christopher Hitchens, that Islamophobia is “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”
It can be that word—we’ve certainly seen the word used as a conversation-stopper in any and all discussions about Islamic theology, and we’ve seen it used as a protective linguistic shield wielded by those who view honest criticism as inflammatory and religion as something untouchable or by various leftist intelligentsia in defense of a community who they implicitly believe are unable to defend themselves. We’ve also seen it used by Muslim communities who desperately want to protect their faith from the piercing gaze of rationalism. The fascists are those religious and political leaders who wish to impose a kind of intellectual tyranny where certain ideas are immune from criticism; those cowards are the privileged few who would restrain free speech and withhold inquiry for fear of backlash or causing offense; and those morons—well, I’ll leave that one alone, for now.
But there is something to be said about punching down. Anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes against Muslims are now, in the US, at the highest they’ve ever been, surging past even their immediate post-9/11 numbers—no doubt the result of a decade’s worth of wartime propaganda and the demonizing, xenophobic sentiments espoused by right-wing pundits daily.
And as I’ve contended before, language is not innocuous. Rhetoric can, and often does, manifest itself as action—this is particularly true when it comes to marginalized groups and the hegemonic discourse that can come to define them. The language of hate has once again morphed into the action of hate, and structurally oppressed minority communities are again suffering as a result. Examples of this have been cropping up in the news with frequency. It’s not by accident that Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, the man behind the recent shooting in Chattanooga, was almost immediately considered a possible terrorist—meanwhile, the word terrorist has not been once used, in any official context, to describe Dylann Roof, the ideologically motived shooter of nine African-American churchgoers. White-conservative-as-terrorist does not fit into our currently thriving political narrative—an unfortunate fact, considering that right-wing groups and individuals are responsible, by a wide-margin, for most of the terrorist attacks that occur in the United States.
We have a responsibility to combat this bigotry wherever we may find it, recognizing that even diplomatic and academic criticisms of Islam have been perverted—adopted by the ignorant and employed to more malicious ends. But we also have a responsibility to protect and promote freedom of speech absolute. At a recent briefing on anti-Muslim bigotry I posed the question (though without receiving a sufficient answer): how do we maintain the right to criticize ideas openly and freely without also perpetuating bigotry against people? Is there a divide between the two?
There is a divide, but I also believe there needs to be. Ideas are not people—criticizing the former does not by default imply a criticism of the latter. That Charles Darwin discovered biological evolution does not mean he’s accountable for the social Darwinists who later looked to his ideas for inspiration. Likewise, critical, respectful, and academic critiques of Islamic ideologies shouldn’t be censored just because others pervert that criticism for a more insidious purpose.
But we can also be honest about Islamophobia. I don’t think religion has much to do with the prejudice. The kinds of Americans who’ve been pushing for discrimination against Muslims aren’t necessarily known for their nuanced worldviews. Islamophobia is just racism. It’s bigotry against Arabs and Indians. It’s unlikely that someone who thinks “all Muslims should be deported” could tell you the difference between Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, let alone their adherents; they just know that some people are brown, and brown people are bad. When US General Wesley Clark recently suggested that we throw all “radicalized” Muslims into internment camps, I don’t think he meant White Muslims, or Black Muslims, or Asian Muslims—he meant Arabs. When we see “No Muslims Allowed” signs pop up in storefronts and gun ranges across the South, I doubt that the proprietors mean to interrogate each customer on their religious beliefs—what they mean is no people who look like Muslims allowed; in other words, the imagined Arab-Muslim caricature that they warn their children about. I dare say that an Arab-Christian with a Middle-Eastern name would face as much discrimination in America as any Muslim would. Is it Islamophobia if the anti-Muslim bigot can’t tell you—or doesn’t care to know—the first thing about Islam? Or is it just good, old-fashioned, American racism?
The phenomena transcends political divisions—it’s a racism that the left has, in their insistence on tying ideology to race in this one instance, also been complicit in perpetuating. When Sam Harris calls Islam the “mother lode of bad ideas,” is he being Islamophobic? Perhaps—but it’s a curious thing that I’ve yet to see that damning suffix attached to any other faith name: that critics of Christianity (of which there are many on the left) are not ever called Christophobic, that Jewish critics are not called Judaiphobes, that Karl Marx, hero of the left, has never been called a capitalistophobe. Submit your ideology of choice and we could play this game forever.
So how do we navigate this? How do we maintain the right to criticize ideas while avoiding the negative affects of doing so? We’ve got to first separate ideas from people—ideologies do not constitute race. This must be done by people across the political spectrum. A liberal who suggests that criticism of Islam is racist does much to solidify the bond between Islam and people who look like Muslims in the mind of a conservative. We also have to identify American Islamophobia for what it is—racism—and use the appropriate rhetorical tools to fight it. Religious and racial discourses are not the same.
But above all, we must continue to forcefully condemn and excoriate bigotry in all of its forms. We can critique religion while also acknowledging that other critiques are ignorant, harmful, or unfounded. We can acknowledge that the Texans of Collins County, who recently expressed their fears at the prospect of having a Muslim cemetary in their town, are maybe not the morons of Cummins’ statement, but are morons nonetheless.