Recent events have generated a lot of debate about Islam, Muslims, free speech and Islamophobia. Unfortunately, much of that debate has fallen back upon rather tired arguments about not only what “Muslims are like” but also how those who oppose Islamophobia are somehow defending repression or appeasing extremists. In this short piece I would like to boil these lines of thinking down into five basic arguments, and offer my counter-response.
#1: Islamophobia is an irrational fear of Islam, but radical Islam is, for example, anti-feminism and anti-gay. So, to fear the spread is not irrational, and, thus, not Islamophobic.
I’ve heard this one a lot. The problem is that this statement takes as a point of departure that Islamophobia is all about an opposition to radical, fundamentalist Islam. It isn’t. If fear of radical Islam were the same as “Islamophobia” then a lot of secular Muslims in Turkey could (ironically) be classified as Islamophobic. They are not, however, because Islamophobia is an irrational fear of Islam and Muslims in general, not just extremists, and rooted in crude stereotypes by which all Muslims are lumped together as some kind of uniform mass. There are plenty of anti-feminist, anti-gay elements within Christianity, for example, but those elements are rarely portrayed as representative of Christians as a whole. The problem is that it is the radical fundamentalist image of the Muslim which is usually used as the “default” image for all Muslims. This is what I have called the “hegemony of Islam” perspective whereby, in terms of identity, being a Muslim is seen as trumping all other factors: be they economics, education, gender, family history, and so on. In other words, in this stereotypical view, if you are a Muslim, your identity is subservient to your religious identification, with all other influencing factors a distant second. This faulty logic is applied to all Muslims, whether fundamentalist or not. That’s Islamophobia.
#2: Criticizing the very making of “Innocence of Muslims” and/or the Muhammad cartoons has a chilling effect on free speech, and is a form of soft censorship.
According to this line of thinking, “Innocence of Muslims” and the Muhammad cartoons are protected by free speech, but to criticize their making and/or content is somehow borderline censorship. No. To critique the manner in which free speech is exercised is in no way the same thing as saying that the right should be revoked or the speech banned. To use another example: I am opposed to the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. I am also opposed to any bans on protesting against these occupations. If, however, anti-war protesters decided to stage a protest at the funeral of a soldier killed in the war, and did so with placards saying that the solder deserved to die, then I would question both the mode and content of their free speech. That does not mean I would want to ban either their right to gather or their right to speech. It just means that I am exercising my right to free speech to question how others have exercised that same right. That’s how, not if. The interplay is actually the crystallization of free speech in action. The same goes for the anti-Islam film and cartoons. If you want to make an inflammatory film/carton during a time of crisis: fine. But don’t then be surprised if others exercise their rights in response.
#3: Muslim fundamentalists do not respect the values of free speech: look at what happened to Theo Van Gogh and Salman Rushdie. Why should we worry about their being offended?
This goes back to the point I made earlier: no-one who opposes Islamophobia is worried about the feelings of small numbers of unrepresentative, violent extremists. To bring up Theo Van Gogh or Salman Rushdie is to suggest that most Muslims were/are somehow in favor of Van Gogh’s murder, or the fatwah against Rushdie. If anyone has any solid evidence to support those extremely broad suggestions, I have yet to see it. It is also a very convenient strategy: to bring up Van Gogh when discussing Islamophobia as it is so emotive. Is the suggestion that the vast majority Muslims are simply unable of being offended without an accompanying desire to kill the person(s) who offended them? Yes, his murder was a terrible crime, but who has ever said that murder is an acceptable by-product of opposing Islamophobic words and pictures? Few, if any.
#4: Free speech is part of democratic society, and so these riots proved that many predominantly Muslim countries are not ready for democracy.
This would be a great argument were not so utterly de-contextualized. The basis of this line of reasoning is that free speech is a beloved component of European and North American socio-political reality. People in these regions can speak their minds without fear of reprisal, unlike countries in, for example, the “Middle East” where religious dissent is met with violence or death. Let’s not be naïve here: many regimes in predominantly Muslim nations are incredibly violent and repressive, and their commitment to freedom of speech (as well as freedom of assembly and fundamental human rights) is close to zero. But if you think that this type of repression is relegated to the “Muslim world” then I would suggest brushing up on post-war South American dictatorships (start with Chile); or the recent history of the Balkans. And, closer to home (for me, at least), it would be worth having a chat about actual tolerance for freedom of speech in the United States with Americans who dared to utter some uncomfortable truths about US geo-politics on September 12, 2001. Saudi Arabia is often held up as the poster-child for free speech repression in the name of Islam. Is that the same Sharia-loving, free-speech hating Saudi Arabia, staunch US and UK ally, who in 2010 purchased $60 billion in US arms and whose leader was warmly welcomed by the Queen at Buckingham palace in 2007? The one and same.
#5: Why should progressives spend time defending a religious group when there are far more pressing issues (such as poverty, gender inequality, etc.)?
I don’t think of opposing Islamophobia as defending Islam any more that I consider opposing anti-Semitism as some kind of de facto support for Judaism. Opposing Islamophobia is about opposing knee-jerk discrimination and xenophobia, dressed up as concern for “rights” (rights I rarely see addressed in other contexts) using vulgar stereotypes and crude generalizations. Finally, it is worth considering more precisely the role that poverty and inequality have played in the current unrest. While films, cartoons and religious fervor are held up as the main causes of the riots, I would suspect that a number of other factors have played into these events. If, however, we ignore these other factors in favor of the simple answer — “Muslim Rage” — then we contribute to an environment in which Islamophiobia, and thus discrimination, will thrive.
Christian Christensen is Professor of Media & Communication Studies at the Department of Informatics and Media, Uppsala University, Sweden.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.