First, the dictionary: "Islamophobia, n.: Extreme or irrational fear of all Islamic persons."
Anyone paying attention will notice that this definition is accurate, seems to apply, and yet isn't exactly how the term seems to be used, given that it's applied equally to a number of different targets, some of whom quite clearly do not exhibit such a fear. Further, the fear is hardly the problem, even if it gives rise to the problem. The problem is bigotry, when it arises, which is actually a hatred, not a fear, of Islamic persons for the reason that they are Islamic persons. For that phenomenon, I suggest the term Islamomisia, which actually means hate... maybe.
The problem even here is that Islamomisia could easily be taken to mean a hatred of Islam, which raises a distinction that is critical. Islam is a religion. Religions, though believed, espoused, and practiced by people, are not people; they are sets of ideas and behaviors that arise thereof. It is perfectly possible to be Islamophobic or Islamomisic in the sense of hating the ideas without hating, fearing, or prejudging a single person or group of people. Still, following the dictionary definition of Islamophobia (taken from Google here), I'll let Islamomisia define the prejudicial hatred of all Islamic persons. Note, please, as was unfortunately highlighted by the recent bombing in Boston, that this implies nothing about race. This point will also be important later. Islam is, of course, a religion, not a race.
The three faces of Islamophobia, or Islamomisia
To cut straight to it, I'll enumerate three phenomena here wherein the term "Islamophobia," often meaning Islamomisa, gets used:
- There is a genuine prejudice against Islamic people held by many people, notably in my experience in the United States, that genuinely could fit the definitions of Islamophobia and Islamomisia. It is worth noting that most of the people who present this genuine prejudice are right-wing Christians, often fundamentalists, and their hate is often inappropriately tied to race, with horrible and tragic consequences. As sad as it is to say, this behavior from that group is entirely to be expected, however deplorable it is. They tend to hate everyone that isn't them, if we haven't noticed. To be thorough, this phenomenon occurs in people outside of the right-wing Christian demographic as well.
- There is a misapplication, usually opportunistic, of the term "Islamophobia" from Islamic apologists and some too-relativistic leftists onto (usually scholarly) critics of Islam--a set of ideas they don't want examined. The opportunism contained in this misuse of the term intentionally takes advantage of the too-easy tie in the minds of liberals to racism or bigotry, with copious examples of this behavior ready from group 1 (above), even though they don't apply to critics of the religion of Islam, including the Qur'an or the Hadith or the specific behaviors of any of its members. This misapplication is used to shut down criticism and is the primary meaning of the term that (usually scholarly) critics of Islam have in mind when they say that Islamophobia is a made-up term used to give undeserved protection to the tenets of Islam.
- There is a misapplication, sometimes opportunistic, of the term "Islamophobia" used by Westerners far on the Left. While I think this usage is sometimes opportunistic, I think it is appears more often as a conflation of the ideas expressed in groups 1 and 2 (above). When opportunistic, the conflation is intentional. Though I intend to lay no indictment of intentions on anyone, this usage of the term is flying heavily from the far Left lately and has reached enough prominence to have been published in Salon, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera, in pieces that, so far as I can tell, border on libel in their unfounded accusations of bigotry.
Speaking of group three, they've become quite the witch hunters lately too. It's well known that something appears to crop up an awful lot when we're looking for evidence to confirm that which we want to believe (Cf. Jesus on grilled cheese), and lo and behold, these folks are finding more and more "evidence" for it everywhere they look! The analogy to witch hunting hardly ends here. Witches at one time were guilty, once named, until proved innocent. We see that going on here. A monetary or social reward for finding witches helped to find an awful lot of them. What a way to get a viral piece written or get some notoriety in the "atheist community" it is to take on one of the big "New Atheist" "leaders" with a heavy accusation that would marginalize them. Of course, there are no witches. Making this situation all the more ugly is the fact that there are Islamophobes--who surprisingly enough appear to be beneath much significant commentary on the attack circuit (see social reward suggestion in previous sentence).
Is there an Islamophobia problem?
Yes, rather unequivocally. Some prominent folks have said that the term is made-up, and in its origins it may very well have been. I don't know, and I'm not concerned to find out just now (but would be interested). Certainly, though, it applies to group 1, mostly made up of "right-wing nutjobs." These people, some of whom hold positions in the United States government (probably in other governments as well), are actually prejudiced against Muslims--they are Islamomisic and possibly Islamophobic as well.
It does no one any good, so far as I can tell, to try to deny that this problem exists--as it clearly does. Unwarranted anti-Muslim (and anti-Sikh, and anti-"brown people") prejudice, discrimination, and violence have occurred, are still occurring, and will continue to occur. Those, like Dawkins and Harris, who have argued that Islamophobia is a made-up term fell afoul of this error and were raked over more coals than they deserved for making the mistake. Those who raked them might note that outrage, name-calling, and potentially libelous publications are a very, very bad way to
That real Islamophobia exists is not acceptable, and it is a significant social equality problem that will require quite a lot of work and time to change. Living down South, I can note that it is a very real problem, very common in some areas, and sadly unlikely to change anytime soon. This seems like a good time to remind everyone that this year, in 2013, a high school in Georgia is having it's first (racially) integrated prom, and there is significant resistance to that! It doesn't make it okay; it's just a statement of how it is, a note of how much work remains to be done. Doing that work poorly by accusing the wrong targets of crimes they didn't commit doesn't help at all.
Are the "New Atheists" Islamophobes?
I see no evidence to apply this term to these people, specifically meaning the big names lately accused (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and a handful of others (Salman Rushdie, anyone?)). As the term "Islamophobe" carries a charge of bigotry, which is intensely damaging to someone's reputation, personal and professional, I feel that significant and clear evidence needs to be produced to make such a pronouncement. Indeed, this is rather the basis of the modern legal system in the West which has set a model for justice to aspire to: innocence until proven guilt.
These "New Atheists" are famous for writing criticisms of religions, sometimes scathing ones. Those criticisms are of ideas or, at times, of individuals whose guilt is proven. I have read a great deal of their work, some of it that challenged my thinking significantly, and not a single piece ever gave me the impression that they were making bigoted statements against entire demographics of people. As to race, Hitchens frequently even argued that there is no such thing!
Sam Harris's discussion of profiling, which is becoming something of an icon in this shitstorm, was mostly a discussion of statistics and limited attentional resources, along with the sheer ridiculousness of seeing whether certain people might be terrorists (e.g. a three-year-old child and an infirm couple far advanced in years). A key thrust of his argument was that it does no one any real favors to weaken security so that a standard of extreme(ly ridiculous) equality is conveyed. In fact, it's dangerous. Importantly to my discussion, that essay does not contain or constitute significant or clear evidence of anything remotely close to a charge of bigotry. To levy that charge without sufficient evidence is irresponsible and potentially libelous--which is rightly illegal. Please note well: If people are actually bigots, they should be noted as such, but the burden of proof lies on the accuser. Do not forget that. Ever. It is important.
Now, there are people who would very much like for the "New Atheists" to be Islamophobes--but an accusation of any individual without evidence would not be appropriate. A list of general categories from which we might expect them would certainly include many if not most Islamic apologists (particularly fundamentalists), their Christian detractors, some on the far-left who believe in extreme(ly dangerous) cultural relativism, and left-wing writers--including atheists--who want the reputation that would come from tackling a great. Let them produce real evidence, then, and let them beware pareidolia--and libel suits.
It bears noting here that however much someone may disagree with Sam Harris's profiling piece or his other thoughts, there is not sufficient evidence at all to jump to any indictment on his part of "brown people" or even of Muslims in general. It disgusts me to even have to have typed that. Again, though, if someone wants to prove it, let them prove it. And if someone wants to believe it, let them remember the burden of proof, presumption of innocence, and their commitment to evidence-based thinking. We can't expect so much out of opportunistic Islamic apologists, but we can expect more out of freethinking writers in the West.
Do the "New Atheists" contribute to real Islamophobia?
This is far harder to say. The answer is, however, very probably not--at least not much. As noted previously, it is probably uncontroversial to point out that a majority of true Islamophobes, especially in the U.S., are right-wing Christians. It's probably equally uncontroversial to point out that that faction of these people aren't likely to be reading Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. These people are in an ugly quandary, even if they're practiced at cherry picking, if they are reading Harris or Hitchens, etc.: to use them as anti-Islamic sources they have to agree openly with noted atheists who also levy heavy criticisms of Christianity. In my personal experience, which is anecdotal, of course, most are not reading anything like Harris or Hitchens, however, and are simply content in their bigotry.
There are a lot of people yelling about Islamophobia. There's a lot of confusion about it. There are a lot of accusations flying about that border on (or are) libel for the purpose of character assassination. I'd urge people to commit to a higher standard before being so careless with such things. At least, for goodness's sake, aim it at those who are actually doing it, using evidence to establish the fact and only accusing people whose guilt can actually be demonstrated! There are more than enough examples to go around without having to resort to wanton accusations laid because of a disagreement of opinions that have nothing to do with actual bigotry.
Do remember, though, if yelling about Islamophobia is the narrative someone needs to maintain their sense of the world: no amount of yelling about Islamophobia, warranted or otherwise, will make Islam a true set of ideas.
Edit (5-21-2013): A commenter pointed out that the term "islamomisia" has been in use for some time now, perhaps since 2001. A quick search of the term uncovers a discussion about it from 2007, at least, so please don't make the mistake of believing that this term originated with me, and pardon that I didn't look to see if my suggestion on terminology had already been employed.