The many shades of Islamophobia

By Simon Brown / Columnist

Voltaire, it turns out, never said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The famous phrase actually sprang from the pen of a much later biographer of the French wit and philosophe, who used it as a summary of Voltaire’s liberal political views. It’s an appropriate summary, since it ignores all the questionable instances that our principle of free speech has trouble adjudicating. Now, in the wake of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, it is precisely those questionable instances that have captured public interest. 

When the world learned that two terrorists had murdered several writers, editors and cartoonists in a planned assault on the controversial French magazine, most everyone invoked the sanctity of ‘freedom of speech’ to defend ‘Charlie.’ The enemy, in almost every case, was the face of ‘Radical Islam,’ which drove the two perpetrators to take vengeance on a magazine that published several irreverent cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. 

Many writers reacted to the immediate rush of international support for the magazine and its content. David Brooks and Ross Douthat, both of The New York Times, not only upheld the rights of satirists to mock Islamic figures without the threat of bodily harm but also insisted that such mockery proved particularly valuable to the public sphere.

It became uncomfortably apparent, however, that freedom of speech in the United States is not the same as freedom of speech in France, where public denial of the Holocaust is punishable by a prison sentence. None of the defenders of Charlie and its blasphemous images extended their arguments to defend the right to Holocaust denial, let alone praise it as anything but hateful vitriol. If Jewish minorities deserve protection against hate-mongering speech on account of present and historic atrocities, then writers and public figures should be equally wary of speech that can justify the violence that Muslim minorities face on a regular basis

When talking about speech that individuals use to justify violence against Muslims, I don’t mean pictures of Muhammad or anything ‘blasphemous’ according to Islamic doctrine. What I mean are statements by would-be Quranic scholars such as comedian and political commentator Bill Maher and intellectuals like author and neuroscientist Sam Harris who speak of Islam as the “motherlode of bad ideas,” and others who talk of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and “the West.”

Unfortunately, we do not have an appropriate language to condemn these statements. The term ‘Islamophobic’ does not capture their violent and often racist implications. ‘Islamophobia’ as a word accepts the implication that the phobia only surrounds Islamic theology and doctrine and not the people who practice it. In many European countries in particular, however, the distinction is not so clear. Group that deploy ugly racial nationalism, such as the National Front party in France and the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West in Germany, both feed off of fears of ‘Sharia Law’ to advance an implicitly racist anti-immigration policy.

I highly doubt that Bill Maher and other prominent critics of Islam, such as biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins and Somali-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, want anything to do with the racial politics intertwined in European Islamophobia. 

They must realize, however, that their avowed distrust of Islam fuels a very real and very dangerous hatred against both Muslims and immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East that has increasingly spiraled into physical violence in Europe and the United States. A spate of bombings against French mosques in the wake of the massacre has only topped a trend of increasing violence against Muslims in France, Sweden and Finland. This hatred seems to target Muslims specifically, considering that similar incidents against Jews declined in the same countries. 

It’s not easy for non-Muslims to notice this proliferating violence — much less the subtle distrust that European and American Muslims experience on a daily basis. Therefore, public figures ought to consider whether they condone the distrust and marginalization of Muslims that is often a consequence. It’s hard to equate Islam with religious violence and in the same breath reassure listeners that they need not fear women wearing hijabs when they encounter them on the street, or that they shouldn’t vote for lower immigration quotas from Muslim countries. 

To avoid these implications, public critics of Islam have to articulate their specific reservations with the religion responsibly, without recourse to generalization. I’m sure those critics wouldn’t want to be lumped in with a group of violent extremists who share their viewpoints in name only. No group of people should face this. 

Simon Brown primarily writes about education and public policy for The Pitt News.

Write to Simon at [email protected]