Islamophobia: this term has been cropping up a lot recently, particularly in the wake of Murtaza Hussain’s article in which he labelled prominent atheist Sam Harris an Islamophobe (which I discuss here). While the dust seems to have settled after that particular spat, we are left with a serious question: is focusing on Islam above other major faiths of the world intellectually dishonest and does that focus stem from other, more unsavory traits like racism? I think that the answer has two parts: (a) no, it is not intellectually dishonest, provided that (b) it is not motivated by something akin to racism.
Islam’s Public Image Problem
There is no doubt that there is a tendency within the West to view Islam through tinted lenses. Most of us did not give much thought to the religion or its adherents until September 11th, when we were awoken sharply to the religious, political, and cultural differences of a small, religiously-motivated group of terrorists who hate Western civilization. As far as introductions go, Islam and the West were off to a bad start, and a decade of wars, terror plots, and cultural distrust has done little to help heal the wounds opened up over the last 12 or so years.
In light of this, I understand fully why Muslims or those who sympathize with them in this current geopolitical climate would be sensitive to the unfavorable attention Islam has received from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and many others. I have heard enough heinous things said about Muslims and Islam to last me a lifetime, but I cannot say that it’s the intellectuals who criticize Islam who stand out in my mind. Rather, it’s the misinformed assaults of unscrupulous politicians arguing against Sharia law and people espousing hate speech that come to mind instead. These sorts of "arguments" should be decried and labelled for what they are: opportunistic, ignorant, ill-informed, and backward attacks on an enemy whose image has largely been cultivated in the minds of angry Westerners in the wake of September 11th. One need only look at the Quran burning by infamous pastor Terry Jones or vitriol surrounding the construction of the "Ground Zero" mosque to see how bigotry can piggyback on valid intellectual discourse.
I fully support efforts to drown out these sorts of ignorant arguments, but my motivation is not wholly innocent. It is partially motivated by the argumentative practice wherein you give your opponent’s argument the best possible interpretation. It is only after you have spackled over the cracks in the argumentative structure with reasonable assumptions on your opponent’s behalf that you then try and bring the entire building down. The reasoning behind this is simple: if the best possible interpretation is open to a structurally devastating attack, then the idea you were criticizing can reasonably be tossed out. It is deficient in at least one major way and as such cannot stand on its own. I think Islam is as open to this honest form of criticism as any other faith and I support intellectually honest critiques of Islam as a result.
The Potential Danger of Religion
My opinion is that all religion that is based on the idea of god(s) are inherently, foundationally flawed. I think that battle against religion and theism is ultimately an attempt to show and then exploit those weaknesses within that foundation so as to bring religion - as a cultural and societal norm around the world - to an end. The reason that I believe religion needs to end, for the sake of humanity, is that religion provides an understanding of the world that can foster decidedly unhumanistic behavior. I am someone who firmly believes that this is the only life that I have and the same goes for every one of my fellow humans. The thought that people waste their lives by dedicating them to a future life I believe they will never enjoy is a painful and degrading thing, whether the person who is so dedicated believes so or not.
This is to say nothing of the atrocities committed across the world in the name of faith. I am not speaking exclusively about violence, though enough of that occurs to justify my concern with religion. I am also talking about the persecution and subjugation of women; denials of basic human rights, such as freedom of speech; political and cultural oppression of religious dissenters; educational deficiencies fostered by religious conservatism; and the list goes on.
Islam is not alone in fostering these problems, nor is religion is alone in propagating dangerously deluded worldviews. One need only look at North Korea for a modern day example of a people completely deluded about how the world actually is. However, the fact that religion has such a pervasive presence throughout the world makes it decidedly more dangerous. The way that children are generally indoctrinated from birth, virtually guaranteeing the beliefs will be accepted before critical thought can be brought to bear on these belief systems, is especially insidious. I also suspect it is a huge reason religion has held out so long against the modernization of Western culture over the last two hundred years.
Islam and Its Global Impact
All of this brings me back to the beginning of this article: Islamophobia. Given that I find all religion intellectually dangerous, what reason should there be to single out Islam for emphasis? In light of the current state of the world, Islam seems ripe for intellectual dissection. While international events may be a consequence of the long-ago-sown seeds of Western imperialism, Western capitalism, or the creeping encroachment of Western cultural norms into new areas, the nations of the world that are predominantly Muslim are also those that are undergoing the most profound changes. The Arab Spring, worldwide jihadi military networks, Islamic terrorism: these are all things that are heavily influenced and informed by Islamic beliefs and teachings. To deny this would be to deny the history and cultures of these nations. I can attest to how fervently many Christians in America value and espouse their religious ideology. What reason would I have to say Islam elsewhere is not as motivating as Christianity here at home? With well over a billion adherents, it seems Islam is doing something right in terms of gaining and keeping members. If Muslims truly hold to the tenets of Islam, then it seems that they would be influenced by its teachings.
So far, I think I have not said anything that unfairly singles out Islam, or which can be said to be racist (or something akin to it). If this is the case – if we admit that Islam is relevant to the world today on a global, regional, and personal level – and if Islam seems more likely to negatively impact the lives of people around the world, then I think it deserves special attention. Note that this is not a claim that Islam must be, but rather it is the claim that there exists a state of affairs where it may be given certain conditions. Consider:
- If belief systems that harm human well-being should be confronted;
- if I have limited resources and must allocate them in such a way as to maximize their efficacy;
- if one of these belief systems is particularly harmful; then,
- it makes sense to attack that belief system more intensely than other, similar belief systems.
On top of this, we already admit of degrees of acceptability for religious belief. After all, we all admit cults are worse than religions, but this seems to only be a matter of degree of belief, not a matter of type. If this is the case, then I think it is reasonable to pick out a religion for special attention in principle.
Attacking Islam ≠ Islamophobia
In light of this, I think Islam deserves more attention based on problems that are demonstrably large and particularly relevant in the world as it is today. One cannot argue that many of the great conflicts, political upheavals, and cultural clashes are taking place in countries that are heavily dominated by Islam. Every day brings news of sectarian clashes in Iraq, protests against the Islamist regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, Taliban attacks on school children in Afghanistan, and so on. While there are certainly many factors that feed into these events, you cannot deny that Islam and its teachings are playing an important role.
The plus side for Muslims is that whether Islam should be singled out is effectively an empirical question. If it's shown Islam isn't especially harmful, or that another religion is a greater threat to human well-being, then it makes sense not to single out Islam after this has been brought to light. Islam-apologists have the capability to defend their faith against intellectual criticisms, but I believe that the onus is on them to do so given the current state of our world. If this is the case, Islamophobia is a meaningless charge unless it can be demonstrated that the assault is driven by intellectually dishonest motives, such as racism, Western imperialism, ethnicism, and the like. For those who decry the negative impact religion has on the world, Islam seems to be a particularly large and pertinent target and I suspect our focus on it will continue for some time.