Saturday, April 20, 2013

The three faces of Islamophobia

Islamophobia is a term that's flying around a lot lately. Some of this is warranted. Some of this is not. Unsurprisingly, it seems that those throwing it around--or brandishing it--the most are not taking the time to distinguish between the variety of meanings locked up in that word. It has a few of them, and from within that lack of clarity come at least three faces that are rather mashed together and yet really shouldn't be. I write this to hopefully offer some clarity on the matter to spur better thinking, better use, and proper direction of the term.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
These are the three faces of Islamophobia. The first group here is unable it seems, for whatever reasons, to distinguish between race and religion, and so real problems associated with racism arise. The second group is happy to blur the distinction between race and religion because, at least in the West, to be branded a racist is an ad hominem that effectively renders someone's opinions irrelevant, and the opportunists know it. The third group is varied, but it seems populated with many people who, for whatever reasons, appear all too ready to jump from religion of Islam to Muslim to "brown people" (their term, as I've run into it several times). The key thing to notice about these three faces is that they're all using the same word (or have it applied to them, as with group 1), but it doesn't mean the same thing in all three cases.

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 capitalize upon point out an error that may have been nothing more than oversight or cognitive capture.

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.


  1. I appreciate that you acknowledge the existence of Islamophobia and criticise Dawkins and Harris for their failure to acknowledge this. However there are serious problems with this article.

    You say people should present evidence before making serious allegations. True but there was rather a lot of evidence offered by people criticsisng Dawkins and Harris (they quoted and linked to source) and you discuss just one thing and without reference (or even a link) to source. You throw out the accusation of libel, without actually naming the people you are making an insinuation about. We all know from your list of the publications that you talking about nathan lean, murtaza hussain and glen greenwald. what evidence do you offer for this serious allegation?

    You also speculate without evidence about what groups might be more islamophobic. I suspect it might be true that there is a lot of islamophobia in the religious right in the US, but just because Dawkins disagrees with them intensely on christianity doesn't mean they won't snap at things he says that they like or that others won't be influenced by both to make islamophobia increasingly mainstream and acceptable. it is also naive to think atheists are free from bigotry or that it is only from christians. The English Defense League are not specifically christian or of any particular religion and they are clear islamophobes.

    Indeed the EDL site is filled with videos of Pat Condell (a lower brow anti-theist who makes up 'facts' about islam), someone who has be praised by Dawkins. The EDL leader follows Dawkins on twitter, which is not say that Dawkins is responsible for him, but clearly these Islamophobes are interested in what Dawkins has to say. Dawkins and Harris live in a world where islamophobia is a growing problem and has a level of acceptablity which simply doesn't exist for other forms of bigotry. To assume they have no influence on this is a very big assumption. In this background they should be careful how they speak and not make generalisations or use hyperbole to exaggerate the threat posed.

    1. Did you read the part where I specifically said that I would not accuse anyone of libel because it's too serious to do so on such speculative evidence, or did you just ignore that part because it's convenient to your point? I didn't name any people because I didn't want angry folks like yourself to believe that I'm engaging in accusing someone of libel when I have not done so. I offer no evidence because I'm not making that serious allegation here.

      I don't know if you live around a lot of the people on the American religious right, but as a Southerner in the US, I do. They don't even know who Dawkins is, or at least the vast, vast majority of them that I know, work with, and speak with. I mentioned to some people today who aren't even part of the religious right, identify as atheists, but are Southerners here in the US that Dawkins mentioned this piece, and they said, "Who's that?"

      I'm glad you're trying to make the world a better place by noting where criticism of Islam--a religion, not people--can be taken out of context and into bigotry, but you might check your targets a bit more carefully before getting into your "rants" about them. Oh, and since you almost definitely don't live in Pakistan, perhaps "check your privilege" as well. It's cute what you said, but it might be nice knowing no one would ever consider putting a knife in your chest for it.

  2. "Did you read the part where I specifically said that I would not accuse anyone of libel because it's too serious to do so on such speculative evidence, or did you just ignore that part because it's convenient to your point?"

    Sorry you may have meant this, though it wasn't obvious in my reading of your blog. But listing those three publications you make it very easy to identify who you are talking about for anyone who has followed recent events, so maybe you shouldn't have done that? Regardless without reference to a specific criticisms your argument is empty. You claim 'these people' do 'this' and 'that' and that you "see no evidence". Well lots of people have made specific criticism of both Dawkins and Harris so either you address them or you contribute nothing to the discussion.

    As for suggesting that I didn't check my targets carefully, another accusation without citation from you, yes I wrote about Dawkins and Harris too and I have many long and careful citations to what they have written. You might want to actually read them instead of making jokes about the blog title. I have no idea what you mean about Pakistan or the "check you privilege" quote which didn't come from me and I don't know who. Presumably you are implying that you have lived there? I have friends who grew up there and agree with me on this, but that doesn't make us right.

    Why not actually engage with the arguments instead of this empty rhetoric?

    1. You're totally right. My speaking-in-tne-general-on-purpose post, designed specifically to add clarity and to reduce the number of inappropriate direct indictments (since, indeed, while some pieces may have motivated me, the chatter on Twitter did moreso), doesn't involve specific indictments. Thanks for that observation. I'll make a mental note of it for next time I intend not to make specific indictments: "people who seem not to be able to understand what Harris and Dawkins, et al., have written will also misunderstand this," check.

      Why don't I engage in your arguments? Because you're not even creating clear or coherent ones to engage in. Your reading of Harris, judging by your blog, is as piss-poor as other people's, and your abundantly ready attitude to ignore certain aspects of reality--that many (though not all, or perhaps even a majority, but when 1% is still tens of millions, I mean, come on, "many" applies) Muslims, motivated by their religion, have a rather uncomfortable habit of attempting to murder people who criticize their religion, which is not criticizing them directly except by a misappropriation of what their religious beliefs are (conflating ideas and ideologies held for identity).

      That's what I'm meaning by saying "check your privilege." Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, me, etc., are not likely at any point to stick a knife in your chest for criticizing them, even if your criticism includes strong elements of character assassination based upon a cherry-picked reading of their essays. Were you to blog as vociferously against the tenets (not specific adherents, even) of Islam and lived in a place like Bangladesh or Pakistan, there's a reasonable chance that you'd be murdered for it. So, your privilege is that you're criticizing the very people whom you do not have to fear specifically because criticisms like theirs have rendered that kind of behavior rare in places around where you most likely live.

      Do not tell me what does and doesn't contribute to the discussion, please. You are not the arbiter of that, nor do you know. In fact, you know about this piece in high likelihood specifically because Richard Dawkins himself happened to think it does contribute to the discussion. I'm not saying he's more right than you are, but I'm saying he's got a hell of a lot more clout than an anonymous blogger who doesn't bother to share his real name. What was that they just called him... oh, yes, "world's top thinker." Granted, it was a small-ish poll, but let's not ride your high horse too high and believe your opinion necessarily compares to his on what does and doesn't contribute to a conversation in which he has literally become the world's most recognizable figure.

  3. James,

    whilst agreeing with your general position I think you got off to a bad start by accepting a dictionary definition that belies the 2 words of which it is constructed.

    "Islamophobia, n.: Extreme or irrational fear of all Islamic persons."

    This of course should say: Extreme or irrational fear of all the creed and practices of the Islamic faith.

    Fear Of Islam (it's written doctrines and those expounded by its strictest followers) is a perfectly reasonable position which one can adopt without abusing any person or group of persons.

    You coined a new word 'Islamomisia' but what we actually require is the word 'Muslimophobia' which is often what Dawkins et al. are being accused of (plus racism and xenophobia) when the term Islamophobe is thrown at them.

    1. Hmm, yes. I see your points.

      I'm a mathematician by training, so I usually start with definitions and proceed. I don't think there's much argument out there from the Dawkins/Harris, etc., camp (and especially not from me) that the word "Islamophobia" is highly problematic, hardly describing what it's intended to describe. In fact, I suspect that's why folks like Dawkins and Harris have, in the past, said that it's a "made-up term." I don't know the origins of it, but if it started with reactionary Imams, then I would agree with their assessment in that context.

      Living in the Southeastern US, I definitely see a lot of real "Muslimophobia" (and "Muslimomisia," if we want, and straight-up racism), so I appreciate your application of this term. I had started to use it myself, but I thought it might be mixing up roots or some other stupid linguistic point.

      I quite agree, though, with the point you're making. Thanks for your comment and the time you invested in this essay.

    2. The term 'islamomisia' was coined just after 9-11-2001 by the proprietor of or .net. However, I'm sure the mathematician/elitist/pseudo-intellectual/egoist will happily accept your incorrect attribution. Have a nice gay.

    3. Oh, I wasn't aware that a term that I had never read before was already in use when I decided to suggest it. I'll gladly give credit where it's due, your rather worthless insults aside.

    4. Your thoroughly worthless attempt at intellectual integrity aside, the website was Foehammer's Anvil.

    5. Looks like you might be right. Good enough. Thanks. That really tackled the substance of my commentary.

    6. Might be? So much for a possible trend toward intellectual integrity. Fine. Surround yourself with the ONE other visitor to your biased opinion page. Have a nice gay.

    7. Thanks for yet another insightful comment! Have you noticed that I've published every one of them? I'm not sure I'll continue with yours, though. As to my "might be right," I took the time to investigate a little, since I'm busy and since you didn't provide evidence of your claim. What I found was references to the source you mention, from 2005, but that the original source is no longer available. So, "looks like you might be right" is pretty generous given the evidence. You're welcome to take it or leave it.

      My thanks to your commentary is genuine, though. Through it, I learned a new word that I'm quite happy about: bumptious. Check it out.