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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, November 26, 2010

More on the Islamophobia question

I left dangling the claim made by Saba Mahmood (and of course similar claims have been made by many others) that such phenomena as the Danish cartoons involve an element of "racism", and so do not deserve our sympathy.

The thought here is that racism extends beyond dubious biological notions of race to include hostility to groups marked by religious and cultural characteristics. This characterization tends to undermine the value of satire directed at Islam, or at radical forms or manifestations of Islam, associating it with mere racial slurs. Concomitantly, it suggests that we should be unsympathetic to free-speech-based defences of such things as the Danish cartoons, in the face of violence, government condemnation, legislation, etc.

This issue won't go away, and it needs to be addressed with a bit more focus than I've given it so far. Islam is, of course, not a "race," or even an ethnicity. It is a belief system that posits an otherwordly order, with an almighty god (Allah) and numerous other supernatural beings, such as angels, Satan, and demons; a means of spiritual transformation (via submission to Allah); an eschatology (with Hell, Paradise, and a final judgment); and associated rituals and canons of conduct. Nothing in this is confined to any specific "race", and of course Islam has many millions of followers all over the world, the largest number in Indonesia. How, then, is satire directed at Islam, or at its iconic figures and symbols, in any way comparable to racism?

Perhaps the comparison can be made to stick, but Mahmood does little beyond suggesting that religion, like biology or ancestry, is not simply a matter of choice. That is obviously true. Well, it's obvious to me: religion is, in very many cases, a matter of socializsation from parents and other elders in one's community, rather than a matter of individual judgment based on the seemingly superior evidence for one or another set of claims ("Jesus was the Son of God," "Muhammad was God's prophet," etc.).

But what follows? The true contrast with race is not that race is unchosen, whereas religion is unproblematically chosen - clearly it isn't, at least in typical cases. It is that racism is not, generally speaking, based on objections to doctrines, associated practices, and canons of conduct. Even where racism has been fueled by doctrinal disagreements, as with Christian anti-Semitism, it is possible to distinguish between doctrinal disagreement and racial hatred. Admittedly, some dislike of Islam, or impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, may have a quasi-racist character, grounded in parochialism and xenophobia, and perhaps a dislike of Arabs in particular. But Islam also contains ideas, and in a liberal democracy these are fair targets for criticism or repudiation.

Religious doctrines influence the social and political attitudes of their adherents in ways that merit public comment (favorable or otherwise), and many religious leaders and organizations exert vast power. It is in the public interest that all this be subjected to monitoring and criticism. By contrast, nothing like this applies to the category of "race."

Even if some attacks on Islam are motivated by something like racist thinking, which may very well be the case, it doesn't follow that that's the sole motivation. In other cases, it may not figure in the motivation at all, or may play only a negligible part. There are independent and legitimate reasons why some people might wish to criticize Islam, or certain forms of Islam, or to express hostility towards it. These relate to their disapproval of various doctrines, canons of conduct, associated cultural practices, and so on, and to the power wielded by its leaders and organizational structures. Expressions of disapproval cannot simply be dismissed, a priori, with the assumption that they are improperly motivated.

Moreover, opponents of Islam, or some of its forms, cannot reasonably be expected to keep quiet when accused of racism or the quasi-racism of "Islamophobia." Such accusations are likely to inflame passions, even if they intimidate some individuals into silence. Moreover, the state is not well placed to tease apart motivations: since Islam, particularly its more aggressively political forms, attracts hostility because of its ideas and its impact on the world, the state has little choice but to take anti-Islamic critique and satire at face value.

Accusations of racism, or something similar, may have some truth when applied to some of Islam's opponents, but they do not provide a good basis for suppressing, demonising, or marginalising anti-Islamic speech. Indeed, any state policy that equated hostility to Islam with racism, suppressing some speech and demonising the speakers, would tend to add to resentments against Islam in Western socities.

We do well, perhaps, to scrutinize ourselves as individuals, to be alert to possible racism, even unconscious, as part of our motivational set. That, however, is no reason for the state, or for any of us, to treat anti-Islamic satire as an ipso facto worthless form of speech with an improper motive behind it.


Harry said...

Well, Russell, I think it would be enough to invert the situation to perceive how senseless the accusation is. If the cartoons had been deeply offensive to, say, the Christians and had raised protests throughouth the world, and some of us had defended the right to free expression, would we have been accused of racism?

Kenneth Lipp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
That Guy Montag said...

I've found myself faced with a bit of a quandry recently. I accept all of these points and more over developing a bit of a reputation for being unashamed of my atheism in normal conversation which is not to say I've ever needed to insult anyone in conversation.

I recently heard an interview with the founder of the English Defence League and I have to admit it made me uncomfortable. The problem is that given my stated position I can't in good conscience disagree with their reasons. We both believe that Islam is a bronze age superstition and that there is a very real threat posed by Islamists. At the same time I am completely aware that there is a blatant undercurrent of nationalism and racism that underpins a lot of their support; these aren't people I like or want to be associated with.

Can I have my cake and eat it? Can I agree with the EDL's stance against Islamism while standing firm on my passionate liberalism or do I just avoid the association all together?

Kenneth Lipp said...

The term islamaphobia is a complete misnomer. A phobia is an irrational fear.
Your distinction regarding race is a point well taken. To fear those who claim allegiance to the precepts of Islam given the brutality of the Koran would in fact be the most rational disposition.
For example: "Slay them wherever you find them...Idolatry is worse than carnage...Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God's religion reigns supreme." (Surah 2:190-)

"Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it." (Surah 2:216)

"Men are tempted [in this life] by the lure of women...far better is the return of God. Say: 'Shall I tell you of better things than these, with which the righteous shall be rewarded by their Lord? Theirs shall be gardens watered by running streams, where they shall dwell for ever: wives of perfect chastity..." (Surah 3:14, 15)

The argument that the practices of honor killing, death for apostasy, female genital mutilation, and the overall subjugation of women practice where Islamic precepts are jurisprudential is a matter of "cultural" tradition is meaningless. Religious customs help make up the culture. Holy writ that promotes hate will spawn hate in its followers.

Richard Wein said...

I agree with everything you've said here, Russell. I'd just like to put some more emphasis on scrutinising ourselves for possible racist intent, and also encourage sensitivity to the possibility of racist _effect_ even if it's not our intent.

I think that attacking ideas can easily become conflated with attacking groups that hold those ideas. And when those groups have some of the characteristics of racial groups, we may be getting dangerously close to contributing to racism. This is a particular problem with cartoons, because cartoonists draw people rather than ideas. The intention may be to invoke ideas and criticise those, but viewers are liable to be influenced by the pictures in other ways. If they see negative images of people who are identified with a group, they are liable to form negative attitudes towards that group. And religious groups include not just active promoters of religious ideas, but ordinary people too. Religious groups have much in common with racial groups, and the two may also be correlated. Indeed, some of the Danish cartoons show people with sterotypically Middle Eastern features. I'm not saying those cartoonists had any racist intent, but a couple of the cartoons are sailing rather close to the wind in my view. They haven't crossed any border line, but I would call on people to be sensitive in this matter. A lot of ordinary Moslems in the West are suffering from harrassment on the basis of their religion and/or outright racism, and we should be careful not to contribute to that. In the end, I think racism and xenophobia are greater forces for harm than religion.

ColinGavaghan said...

I get suspicious when the attacks on islamic conservatism come from highly conservative sources. Melanie Phillips and the BNP are hardly known for their support for gay equality and abortion rights, for example. When they repeatedly single out muslim lunacy for criticism, while actually supporting the home-grown varieties, it's legitimate to wonder what's going on.

We should not allow our arguments to be silenced by unfair allegations of bigotry. But neither should we allow them to be hijacked by bigots.

DEEN said...

As Colin Gavaghan already mentioned, criticism of Islam in much of Europe very often happens in the context of the immigration debate. Most Muslims are immigrants, or second or third generation descendants of immigrants (Turks and Marroccans mostly, here in the Netherlands). In Europe, criticizing Islam is often (not always, but more often than I would like) just a way of saying they don't want those immigrants here. Islam is merely yet another way those immigrants are "not like us", another reason why they "don't fit into our culture". This context has to be taken into account when discussing Islam.

The term "islamophobia" may be thrown about too loosely, but I think it does apply to those who think that western Europe is in any immediate danger of being taken over by Muslims. That fear has nothing to do with reality. Yes, the Koran has many violent teachings in it that should be harshly criticized (just like the Bible does, BTW). But the idea that a good portion of Muslims in western Europe are ready to apply those teachings any day now is frankly ridiculous. It denies the basic human deceny of most western-European Muslims. In that sense, you might use the term "racist" here, in the sense that it paints an entire group of people as somehow sub-human - even if it's not so much based on skin-color.

The same goes for the fear that "the Muslims will out-breed us". It's just not going to happen. As prosperity and eductation levels go up in the younger generations of immigrants, their family sizes are going down (and so is their religiosity, by the way). The fear of being outbred also seems to have a hint of racism in it, by the way.

These fears go way beyond a reasonable weariness of fundamentalist groups and theocratic regimes. Despite that, the fear that the Muslims will take over Very Soon Now is unfortunately not uncommon, and on top of that, it is continuously being fed. It is also thoroughly exploited by those who wish to close our borders to more "non-Western" (the latest code-word for "Muslim") immigrants.

That said, the Danish cartoons had little to do with any of this. While it may have happened against a background of fear-mongering against Muslims, Islam-inspired terrorists do exist, and we should be able to talk about them, and criticize and even mock them. Also, the idea that there is nothing so sacred that we can't criticize it (or make fun of it) is worth defending. As is the concept of free speech itself, of course.

Unfortunately, given the context, we are going to have to be very clear what we are criticizing, and why, if we don't want to be lumped in with the fear-mongering, anti-immigration crowd. They, on the other hand, will try their hardest to look like they're only giving fair criticism on Islam and defending free speech, making it ever more difficult for us to give our criticism.

Sorry for the long post.

steve oberski said...

From a recent Sam Harris interview on MSNBC, applicable I think to ideological demagogues of any stripe:

O‘DONNELL: Now, someone like Pastor Jones can be, in your view, right about Islam. But what animates him is a defensive competitiveness about his own religion. Mine‘s better than yours. My religion is better than yours. And here‘s how crazy your religion is. That‘s what directs his thinking?

HARRIS: Yes. He‘s right for the wrong reasons. And this is something that should trouble us. I‘m worried about living in a world where the only people who are certain of moral truth are religious demagogues who think the universe is 6,000 years old, and we‘ll have faith playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game.

March Hare said...

That Guy Montag - I quite like it when I find myself agreeing with idiots and/or undesirables, it makes me double check my thinking regarding how I took up that position.

What you should say when aligning yourself with the EDL and their like is to distance yourself from their group and then mention that on this issue they happen to be correct. After all, saying Mussolini made the trains run on time doesn't make you a Fascist.

LibertyPhile said...

Yes, there is a lot of “Islamophobia” about, and the reasons, 200 in just the last few months alone, are documented here

Not particularly deep or intellectual but real nevertheless.

DEEN said...

Huh, no idea why my post got submitted 3 times. Could you please remove the redundant ones? Thanks :)

Shatterface said...

Humour is inherently polysemic: it depends on expressing at least two conflicting meanings simultaneously. Even its most simple written form - the pun - depends upon double meanings.

This is the problem you have: that expressing a joke means creating overlapping semantic fields which shade into areas you don't want to go - and you can't control what parts of those semantic fields other readers/listeners attend to.

There's no real way to stop satire on Islam being *read* as Islamophobic without overdetermining or qualifying the meaning to the extent that the joke is totally neutered.

Best say fuck it and trust that the majority of the audience are with you.

ColinGavaghan said...

In case anyone is interested, Scotland's head of football refereeing has now been sacked for emailing a joke about the Pope, after pressure from the RC Church. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/scot_prem/9230531.stm

This, IMO, is a new level of religious censorship, and very sinister development indeed.

Kirth Gersen said...

If any criticism of Islam is "racist," then by the same token any criticism of Jerry Coyne's atheism (or mine, for that matter) should be prohibited on the same grounds -- we both have Jewish last names, so any criticism of any beliefs we hold is very clearly a case of anti-Semitism, n'est pas?

The above is hyperbole, of course, and I don't personally believe it to be the case -- rather, criticism of a person's beliefs or ideas, logically speaking, should never be conflated as criticism of that person's race or personhood.

ColinGavaghan said...

@Shatterface: another problem is the extent of identification between the target of the humour/criticism and the unintended victims? According the the RC Church, an attack on The Pope is an attack on all Catholics. According to some supporters of Israel, an attack on that state's actions is an attack on Jews everywhere. And according to some proponents of the 'islamophobia' thesis, an attack on some elements of Islamic theology (or some interpretations of it) is an attack on all muslims.

As I said above, I think it's incumbent on atheists to make clear who are our targets actually are and are not, but where that degree of identification exists, I fear that collateral damage is inevitable.

March Hare said...

ColinGavaghan, there is a whole lot of other stuff going on in Scottish football that you are ignoring to make your point. Hugh Dallas also instigated a cover up of a referee lying to an official and a manager regarding a decision in a game and was accused of bullying by a former member of his staff. To say he was sacked for criticising the pope is possibly true but you have to realise it was an excuse rather than a reason.

ColinGavaghan said...

@March Hare: I'm well aware of the context in which this wretched saga played out. Had Dallas been sacked for helping MacDonald lie about the 'penalty that never was', then I;'d hardly be posting about that here. However, the press at least are not depicting it that way. See, for example, http://bit.ly/fpNDKq

'But it is the email-which the Catholic church denounced as offensive- that finished Dallas not his attempts to shield McDonald’s lie. It was an email that would have been equally offensive to followers of Islam, Judaism or even the Church of Scotland if their leaders had been insulted in the same way'

In short, ridiculing religion - or the hierarchy of a particular religion - is now a sacking offence in Scotland.