No, the problem of Islam was not solved by denying it, disguising it, or ignoring it this last year either.
There appear to be three reasons that those-who-otherwise-would do not openly, regularly, publicly, perhaps not even privately, criticise any or all of Islam, or suffer those who do. These reasons are, all three of them, utterly understandable; one of them is even laudable – to a point.
These reasons are, all three of them, rooted firmly in fear.
These three fear-fed reactionary reasons seem to me to be centred on perceived, potential, or demonstrable consequences of critique and mockery, and seem to me to be these: fear over anti-Muslim bigotry, and thus fear for Muslims; fear over social repercussions for oneself, and; fear over retaliation that goes beyond mere social ostracism.
1 – The fear of anti-Muslim bigotry
Utterly understandable. Laudable, needed, and relevant. Disproportionate, reactionary, and intellectually, societally crippling.
Whether it is increasing or just increasingly loud, there is most certainly an issue with anti-Muslim sentiment and bigotry in our West, resulting from a tremendous simplification of the problems of immigration, religion, and terror. Yet more than any far right demagogue, more than any crowd of the excessively parochially-minded, more than any neo-Nazi, that which brings the most suffering upon the most Muslims is Islam. It is no friend of minorities, within or without, and it is a foundational element of most of the Western and Middle-Eastern world’s current terror and suffering. Jumping to the defense of Muslims is no good if you reliably save Islam from fierce and unrelenting scrutiny.
Your concern must be weighted appropriately. When people are murdered for drawing cartoons, your concern ought be weighted for free expression and murdered cartoonists, not a rise in “Islamophobia” (your concern for a rise in “Islamophobia” betraying your awareness of the explicit link of these tragedies with Islam). When people are murdered for leaving the faith, your concern ought be weighted for ex-Muslims rather than Muslims. When Muslims are murdered by other Muslims for merely being gay, your concern ought be for the protection of gay individuals in Islamic communities, not the preservation of ideologies and cultures. When Christians are murdered by Islamists for merely being Christians – a far greater problem of persecution than that facing Muslims living in the West – your concern ought be weighted for Christians, rather than for Muslims. If Western racists decide to taunt and attack every veiled woman they come across, your concern ought be weighted for Muslim women and girls, not for the freedoms of Western racists. When a terrorist makes plain the reason for yet more Islam-inspired atrocity, your concern ought be weighted for relentlessly exploring those repeatedly stated reasons, not for replacing them with your own imagined causes.
The issue and the individuals need your mature heart and your clear mind, not your dishonest obscurantism or your reactionary virtue signalling. Fear for Muslims is laudable, but it must be a constructive and balanced fear that recognises reality. Fear of anti-Muslim bigotry should not prevent your criticism of any or all of Islam, or your suffering of those who do. The reason it most definitely does is simple. It’s because you aren’t calling it anti-Muslim bigotry.
The Selfish Meme: Islamophobia
I have previously written a blog dedicated to this problem, but it bears reiteration.
This is a word crafted perfectly for its purpose. It is a fog machine of the highest quality, a virulent meme capable of laying rapidly down the strongest of roots. A phobia is an extreme fear of or aversion to something. Thus, Islamophobia is an extreme fear of or aversion to Islam. Islamophobia could be (and no doubt often is) entirely born of ones concern for people who happen to be Muslim. Islamophobia might very well increase the more time one spent in the Islamic world or communities, and that increase of Islamophobia may very likely be matched step for step by an increase in compassion for Muslims of all kinds and from all places. My Islamophobia breeds in me no racism or simplistic attitude to the issue and the conversation – it stems directly from and breeds ever further my concern, to the most sincere and deep degree, for children within Islam. Just as with my Creationismophobia.
Where anti-Semitism is a term created to specify bigotry centred on Jews (the ethnic group and not necessarily subscribers to Judaism), Islamophobia is not a term created to specify bigotry centred on Muslims. That would be anti-Muslim bigotry. Or Muslimophobia. The fog and the virus are meant to leave criticism of Islam conflated with and indistinguishable from bigotry against people who are Muslim. It is a thought-policing station people are setting up and cutting the ribbon for in their own minds, and they are always shocked to discover that others either never let the groundwork be laid, or eventually found a way to fire the officers and hang a permanent sign reading “Out Of Business”. A message perhaps approved, via thumbs up, by a life-size Muhammad graffitied beside it on the rotting wall.
And one has to wonder, to turn their own most pernicious label back around to face them: over and upon the thoughts and behaviours of just exactly whom does Islamophobia hold the most sway? Upon the one who sincerely speaks up and out with the intent of the good for all people, within and without the Islamic world – lest we end up with increasingly little of the latter – or upon the one who stays absolutely quiet, and, muzzle pressing the small of their back of the gun gripped and pointed by a crowd of interests under, each, their own Sword of Damocles, strongly suggests that you consider doing the same?
If you’re sincere, call it anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s one syllable longer. If someone has anti-Muslim bigotry, try to make them see why they shouldn’t, and don’t let them get away with acting on it. If someone has Islamophobia, they may well have a bloody good reason.*
2 – The fear of social cost
Utterly understandable. But then cowardice often is.
It is certainly not the case that everyone must flood their social media and suffuse their every conversation with Islam – people have their own focuses and interests. But the overriding feeling I am getting is that people are closing their eyes, plugging their ears, and taping up their mouths until the day comes when they receive the signal that an honest conversation and a critique of Islam is now just as or more likely to carry a social reward as it is to carry a social cost.
Don’t speak til it’s safe. It’s silence or the bandwagon.
I have not done a proper social experiment, but over the last four or five months this feeling has been nurtured and fed. For example, in November I posted on my Facebook a video and accompanying quote from the founder of My Stealthy Freedom, discussing misogyny in Islam and the Islamic world. If I had only shared the quote and not the video, and only shared the second half of what I actually quoted, it would have looked like this:
“I don’t care if this is the time or not: we talk about women’s rights every time, everywhere, and I’m not afraid… we have to be loud enough… Never care about those who say ‘Shh this is not the right time’ – because this is the right time.”
I know damn well that if I had done so the engagement and popularity of that post would have been not just a little more than mediocre. And rightly so: just take a look at the sentiment it espouses, and the values it promotes. I don’t at all post these things for likes and supportive comments, but I certainly noticed that when I posted the video and full quote three separate times over the course of about two weeks, only one of those three posts was liked by only two people. Here’s the full quote:
“There are a lot of people who say ‘Shh! Islamophobia! Donald Trump is around! This is not the right time now to talk about extremism in Islam, or to talk about, you know, the restrictive laws in Sharia’…
I don’t care if this is the time or not: we talk about women’s rights every time, everywhere, and I’m not afraid… we have to be loud enough… Never care about those who say ‘Shh this is not the right time’ – because this is the right time.”
Spot the fucking difference.
The feminist, the vegan, the environmentalist, the denouncer of the worst of Christianity: as much as these can still carry social cost and unpopularity, there was a time when it was far less safe and trendy to speak up in these areas, yet the brave ones rightly did. For all those who daily make the selfless decision to stand up proudly in the centre of their ideological echo chamber and preach heroically to the converted, sticking their tongues out at the opposing team from behind the thickest pane of safety glass, I do hope they realise that, while they might speak up – loudly, proudly, and often – on these kinds of issues now, they are most certainly not showing any true sign of being the kind of person who would have taken a stand in a time or a place when there was a guaranteed dip in popularity were they to do so. Would she who proffers and permits only praise or silence regarding Islam have been the feminist, the vegan, the environmentalist, the denouncer of an intolerant and imperial Christianity when it was needed most, and thus when those positions brought with them the most personal social risk? I am ever more convinced that the answer is no.
Belligerence, truth, and self-reflection
If your values and your propensity to tell your truth go out the window when you sense a potential backlash, when you’d rather not draw the suspecting gaze or provoke the wrath of your usual peers and be sentenced to a time in solitary confinement, when you haven’t sat back and watched others convincingly clear the minefield first, then you are putting your own self and your own comfort before the issue. You are, in that respect, a coward and your values and your truth can be considered, at the very least, diminished. If you go so far as to try to quiet other people down when they don’t give in to fear, or to misrepresent them so as to suffocate their voice of audience, then you are a coward and a liar, and a significant part of the problem for the very people you supposedly care about.
This has been the heartfelt, frustrated message of so many people for so many decades now on the topic of Islam, we shouldn’t now be tasked with rewording it again and again, yet it warrants repetition, since we seem destined to regular bouts of belligerence to the bitter end: wake up to one of the major problems of the century you are actually living in, stop building your rhetoric and your moral and intellectual positions on a foundation of what other people think of you, and start a sincere engagement with the process of finding, and telling, your truth. And if you find yourself at a truth that is different to mine, that is fine, even good, but every step of the way you will have to stop and reflect, as everyone must: if the position I have taken were the less socially acceptable one, would I still be taking it? If I discovered a truth that posed a personal popularity risk or worse, would I refuse to tell it? Would I bring it up only in order to pretend that the opposite was what I believed to be true? Would I only share it with or articulate it to those who had the least pressing need to hear it? If the trench I have chosen to jump in and fight from were to remain the same in fact and value, but to empty of near everybody but me, would I abandon it for safety, or would I, at last, use my human hallmark of belligerence to the bitter end to fight for something good?
3 – The fear of retribution
Utterly understandable. Yet for those to whom that retribution is most likely, most real, most immediate, upon their critique or mockery of Islam, that fear, to their everlasting honour, so rarely holds them back.
We all know the difference in danger between cartooning Muhammad and cartooning Christ. Tiptoeing around Islam and flinching at critique of it betrays the fact that you are perfectly cognizant of the danger of it.
It is remarkable that this, the only truly defensible fear, does not stop ex-Muslims, reformist Muslims, and bloggers in the Islamic world from voicing their truths, and it makes unduly altering your speech and action when personally exposed to the first two fears only more cowardly. Every time any of us not exposed to the risk of real retribution acquiesces to either of the first two fears, we are failing these heroes, betraying these champions.
“In all holy books, in the Bible as well as the Qur’an, you will find passages that sanction intolerance and inequity. But in the case of Christianity, there was change. In that process of change, the people who wanted to uphold the status quo made the same arguments that present-day Muslims are giving: that they were offended, that the new thinking was blasphemy. In effect, it was through a process of repeated blasphemy that Christians and Jews evolved and grew into modernity. That is what art did. That is what science did. And yes, that is what irreverent satire did…
The Muslim Reformation is not going to come from Al-Azhar. It is more likely to come from a relentless campaign of blasphemy… Christians have been through this, Jews have been through it. It’s now time for Muslims to go through it. In that sense – in the sense that I passionately believe in the world-changing power of blasphemy – je suis Charlie.
Yet we need to do more than merely blaspheme. We need to reform…
The dawn of a Muslim Reformation is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.”
“We know not only is reform possible, it is ongoing against insurmountable odds, it has champions that are laying their lives on the line for a better tomorrow. We cannot and must not let the current situation endure where reformists of Islam are standing alone and vulnerable.”
You may not be interested in Islam but it is interested in you, and this is the century you are living in. The worst of Islam and the suffering it holds dear is secured by your fears, and your fears contribute to preventing a reformation toward an Islam that can be tolerated. Coexisted with. Even, maybe, cherished.
For Muslims. Of backlash and social standing. Of more serious retaliation.
I am still afraid, to a greater or lesser degree, every damn time of people’s potential reactions toward me, short and long term, friends and strangers, when posting or writing or speaking thoughts on and concerns over Islam, and, much more than that, afraid that I might get it wrong and instead, through words, do harm, of any kind and of any scale. Yet hesitation hurts worse. Silence is deadly, and the bandwagon is a Trojan Horse.
Don’t try and rid yourself of fear: you shouldn’t, and, more simply, you can’t.
Just stop letting it win.
*Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity for misrepresentation with this sentence, just 12 words strung together, no “…” manipulations required, no one will ever suspect the sentence that preceded it.