There have been a lot of articles recently which take people like R. Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bill Maher and Sam Harris to task for being intolerant, hateful etc.  The tortured logic and subtle misrepresentations of these people's positions is often all the more hair-raising because it is usually couched in the 'I'm a liberal secularist, but...' vein. A recent one was a New Republic review of Dawkins' autobiography:

and the latest is from Salon:

After writing basically the same long-winded response in comment sections several times, I decided to turn this into a short essay, and I would like to hear any feedback this community has. Or, when you all tell me that it's perfect, I would love any suggestions on where I could post this in order to perhaps deter the next half-assed apologist from writing the next such article. Also, anyone who knows of concurring/contrasting diatribes on the same subject is invited to share.

In Defense of ‘Islamophobia’


In the wake of a recent rash of criticism of ‘strong secular’[1] condemnations of Islam, it seems necessary to elucidate a few lines of reasoning that are often too easily obscured by broad language and fallacious arguments.  Many exchanges over what level of criticism of Islam is appropriate from Westerners tend to be completely unproductive for such reasons, falling prey especially to ad hominem accusations of bigotry and racism. This essay attempts to explain the strong secular critique of Islam as a particular species of the secular critique of all religion, and to demonstrate that particularly strong criticism of Islam, in specific, is a justified response to particularly strong currents of violence in that religion.


The word ‘Islamophobia’ is completely unlike any other in our language.  A quick inspection of English vocabulary reveals that there has never been a comparable usage of the suffix ‘–phobia’, which connotes an irrational fear.  To place a person’s expressed reaction to a religion and culture on the same semantic level as such knee-jerk responses as recoiling from a spider or feeling vertigo is a subtle but meaningful distortion; to call a person ‘Islamophobic’ immediately discredits their views, however rationally supported, as having their basis in fear and misunderstanding. 

It is particularly ironic that most of those branded ‘Islamophobic’ are those who are critical of religion in general. Unlike partisans in a religious conflict, for example, these persons typically arrive at their strong condemnations of Islam after studying it closer, not as a result of irrational fear, personal hatred or ignorance.  While it cannot be conclusively proven that any particular person is or is not irrationally biased, it should be recognized that the conflation of criticizing Islam with the irrational fear implied by the designation ‘phobia’ is itself irrational.  In fact, the reactions of strong secularists to Islam can be described as something quite the opposite of a phobia, i.e. a rationally-based condemnation, hardly deserving to be placed in the same category as gut-clenching fear. Whether or not one agrees with their reasons for singling Islam out, one has at least to recognize that such reason-based criticism is a far cry from cringing at the sight of a crescent and star.


What, then, are the reasons the strong secularists give for the special attention they devote to criticizing Islam?  The most common impression seems to be that their argument amounts to a simple statement: ‘Islam is a violent religion’.  While this certainly expresses some of the spirit of their reasoning, it glosses over the important points that distinguish their position from one of simple out-of-hand condemnation. 

The most important omission from this simplified expression is the fact that true strong secularists are consistently critical of all religions and ideologies.  Many of those tarred as ‘Islamophobes’ are people who have devoted significant creative energies to critiquing religion in general, as well as specific religions other than Islam[2].  One will certainly never hear a secularist say that Christianity is a non-violent religion; the fact that there is less explicitly Christian violence today is mostly a result of social, political and economic factors, and it is easy enough to point to the historical record as a demonstration that Christianity has at least the potential for violence that Islam does.  Rather than categorizing religions as violent or non-violent, a strong secularist recognizes that most religions, certainly the all three Abrahamic ones, are vast and nebulous bodies of advice, prescriptions, proscriptions, philosophy and wisdom; it would be impossible to nail any one of them down to a particular point on a ‘violence spectrum’. We can see from historical example that the cherry-picking afforded by such a wide body of often contradictory scripture and tradition allows a wide leeway for ‘interpreting’ doctrine to suite one’s own ends.  A common reaction to strong secular criticisms of Islam is to say that it unfairly judges the essence of the religion based on those most extreme and violent manifestations of it.  While this is certainly something that should be guarded against, the opposite extreme is equally illogical; one should not assume, either, that Islam (or any other religion) has a noble, non-violent essence which violence is merely a perversion of.  An impartial observer cannot assign either expression of Islam validity or invalidity; he can only remark that both expressions are possible outcomes from the same source text and culture.

To elucidate why secularists single out Islam, however, two distinct points must be understood.  The first, simple point is that, of all the major religions today, Islam is the one most often and pervasively associated with violence.  The second, more abstract, is that religions can, in fact, have a differing levels of inherent violence or peacefulness. Christianity makes a poor point of comparison here, having in its history demonstrated a comparable potential for violence; instead, we will take the example of one of the world’s oldest religions, Jainism.

Jainism, briefly, is oriented around three major principles: Non-Violence, Non-Possession and Non-Absolutism.  In addition, they place a strong emphasis on historical awareness, culture and lifelong learning. Needless to say, not much violence comes out of the Jain community.  That which does has a much harder time excusing itself because the cultural backdrop against which it occurs is distinctly condemnatory of violence.  Contrast this to almost any other socio-religious setting, in which almost any violent act can be ascribed to (not to say excused by) religious motivations, owing to the extreme latitude for interpretation afforded by other religious cultures. 

The simplicity and clarity of Jainism’s attitude towards violence ensures that such violence as occurs will never excuse itself as ‘justified’.  Violence of any sort is always a human-scale phenomenon; only the culture in which it takes place can determine whether it will be discouraged or Magnified and Sanctified. The fact that violence perpetrated by Muslim ideologues is likely often based on political, economic or personal factors does nothing to erase the fact that their religion has elevated violence into a legitimate vehicle for expression. 

The Jains believe plenty of crazy things, as any strong secularist will say, and in an ideal world we would be rid of their superstitions as well as all others.  It is, after all, nothing more than a ‘cosmic accident’ that Jainism universally condemns violence rather than, for example, universally encouraging it.[3] However, reality demands priorities, and it should be clear that Jainism has a far lower inherent propensity for causing human suffering than Islam (and many other religions and ideologies).  A Jain facing the temptation to confront violence must choose it without the possibility of blaming it on ideology, which the Christian or Muslim who acts violently has as many religious justifications open to him as his fellows may have religious-based condemnations. 



An actual investigation of why contemporary Islam is the strongest force for explicit religious violence is beyond the scope of this essay.  It is hoped that the foregoing discussion should highlight the fact that strong secular critiques of violence are entirely conscious of socio-cultural, economic and political factors, and that seeking to paint the strong secular position as dismissing these factors in order to blame all religious violence on the religion itself is misrepresentation. The strong secularist makes no claims about the inherent violence of people (which could rightly be labeled bigotry or racism) but of religions themselves. 


[1] This term is used herein to denote criticisms of religion in toto that attempt to explain religious phenomena in rational and secular terms, and to answer religious claims with naturalistic explanations. Its use is intended to draw a contrast with ‘soft secularists’ who, while non-religious themselves, stop short of condemning others’ religious beliefs.

[2] It is instructive that many of those secularists most often accused of Islamophobia actually first gained notoriety as secularists for books critical of Christianity—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are notable examples.

[3] The author knows of no such religion per se, but one need imagine nothing more exotic than movements in Christianity or Islam based on those verses which promote religious hegemony. 

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I think this is a good essay. I would pick up a couple of points. You say there is no use of the suffix -phobia, but don't forget about homophobia. I always find it interesting how these buzzwords come about. For example, if you were to follow the syntax for a lot of these words, e.g. sexist, racist, mysogynist you would think that the term should be Islamist not Islamophobe. Obviously that doesn't work in this case. And then you have anti-semitic, not Jewist. Maybe Jewist is too close to Jewish.

I agree that Harris et al are misrepresented despite their continued attempts in vain to clarify their views. However, it's important to note that while Harris often defends himself by saying he is criticising the ideology of Islam and not the people (a good defence), there is a fine line. He and Maher continually cite polls indicating that "most" Muslims (particularly in certain countries like Saudi Arabia) verbally support things like death for apostasy. I confess I do not know anything about how most Muslims think or about any countries in the Middle East having never been there but as soon as Harris switches to this tactic he is down the road of criticising people and not ideas.

It may well be true that this is what most Muslims say in response to a poll. What does this actually tell us about those people? That they would behead someone themselves? I imagine not. You cannot move from ideas to people as smoothly as Harris and Maher try to do. People are far more complex than a poll about whether one of their canonical texts should be supported can indicate. If Harris really wants to maintain his defence that he attacks ideas only then he has to be more careful to make sure all his writings stick rigidly to this. He is dealing with the hottest of hot potatoes and as a public figure he unfortunately has to take extra care.

Incidentally I have never understood people who accuse Harris of racism for criticising Muslims. People of all races can be Muslim as Islam is an ideology anyone can subscribe to. I simply cannot understand how this continues to be an issue and it can only be because his critics do actually think he's a racist (for some other reason) and therefore just throw that in as part of the smear campaign. I've never seen anything in his writings to suggest he is racist.

I think the point is not whether the individual would actually behead someone themselves. It is that most moderates at least look the other way from extremism. Most mainstream muslims probably wouldn't have the stomach for a beheading just like most mainstream xians wouldn't have the stomach to murder an abortion doctor. But for every one that does have the stomach for it there are many more who say to themselves "Yes! Score one for the good guys."

I take the point about not having the stomach for it.

However, the following is a genuine question because I do not know the answer: Do you think most Muslims do inwardly celebrate when someone is beheaded? Take the Xians you mentioned. I'm sure most mainstream Xians are against abortion. But would most of them actually think the murder of an abortion doctor was a good thing? 

As I say, I don't know the answer but to me it seems extreme that most Muslims would think to themselves that bloody violence was a positive thing, even those that have to publicly state their absolute allegiance to the Quran.

My question is whether it is more nuanced than this. Imagine a peaceful Muslim just trying to live his/her life, who interacts with "infidels" on a day to day basis. When questioned about the Quran are they going to publicly declare they disagree with it even though their everyday actions are at odds with the text? You don't find many Xians willing to publicly declare the Bible is not the word of God despite it's horrific ethics. Or are there no such Muslims? I don't know the answer.

But would most of them actually think the murder of an abortion doctor was a good thing?

No.  Most would likely see it as a horrible, distasteful, ugly, but necessary thing.  It wouldn't BE necessary, they'd say, if those doctors would just stop murdering babies.  Beheadings wouldn't BE necessary if everyone were muslim.

When questioned about the Quran are they going to publicly declare they disagree with it even though their everyday actions are at odds with the text? You don't find many Xians willing to publicly declare the Bible is not the word of God despite it's horrific ethics. Or are there no such Muslims?

I think there are those who just pay lip service to religion in order to fit in with (or they fear reprisals from) the community.  They are not likely to rock the boat by taking a vocal stand against extremism.  I think there are those who secretly revere/admire extremists for having the courage of their shared convictions, even if they don't themselves have the stomach for the acts.  They wouldn't take a vocal stand against extremism.  I think there are those who are devout and openly support/condone extremism but would not commit the acts themselves.  I think there are those who are devout and have no problem committing the acts.  And last, and least, I think there are those who are devout and committed to peace.  They are the ones most likely to take a vocal stand against extremism.

Judging by the weak (if it shows up at all) outcry and denouncement of extremist violence, I'd say the last group is the smallest.

I don't know whether your summary is correct but I'd be sad if it was. I like to think that most people, religious or irreligious, are decent enough that they would not condone (secretly or otherwise) killing someone for holding different views to them. Maybe I'm just naive on this point.

Maybe you are naive on this point. Maybe.

Case in point: About a month ago in Australia police had gotten word that some local IS converts were planning a public beheading. They conducted an extensive search of the muslim neighborhoods looking for the terror suspects. To be fair, I don't know if the police were heavy-handed in their search or if civil rights were violated. I do know that muslims turned out in droves to protest the search, saying it was unfair that peaceful religious people were profiled in this way. How many of those "peaceful" people turned out to help the police search for the extremely rare, "not REAL muslim", psychotic murderers among them? I for one would be out there telling the police "There they are! There are the crazy fuckers pretending to be part of our group! They don't belong with us! Arrest them!"

The outcry from muslims against the violence is consistently weak, if at all. Their outrage at even the tiniest offense consistently comes through loud and clear, often with violent protests and threats of violence.

I find the "Not in my name" campaign fails because it is clearly not in your name, its in the name of an ideology. It also commits a no true Scotsman fallacy because it is inferred that Isis are not real Muslims. 

it is inferred that Isis are not real Muslims.

That's an inference I hope that "real" Muslims could take to heart. What gives ISIS the right to declare what's true? Barbarism?

No true Scots-man by the looks of it.

Its Sunni vs Shiite. The division happened at the death of Mohammed, some wanted to keep the leadership in his family(Shiite) and some wanted to elect a leader(Sunni)

The one does not recognize the other.

I think the protest against the police action was wrong. What I have a hard time understanding is that this translates as most Muslims secretly condoning the beheadings. Again, I have never lived in a Muslim country or community so I don't know.

I agree it would be better if Muslims would come out publicly and denounce the violence - hopefully one day we will reach that point. In the meantime, I find it hard to consider their silence the same as tacit approval.

For me, I always try and compare it to the days where slavery was an accepted practice. There were some individuals who fought the practice (all credit to them). Some individuals would have been cruel and treated their slaves appallingly. Then there would have been vast swathes of generally decent people who owned slaves (because it was the done thing) but treated them well and were no different from decent people today. However, they didn't organise protests and speak out against slavery. If you had interrogated these decent people on a one to one basis they probably would have told you owning people was wrong. They simply lived their lives within the status quo (what most people do).

Now, if it is true that the status quo in Muslim communities is the tacit support of violent acts towards infidels that is a big problem and it seems likely that the ideology of Islam has been the cause. But I find it difficult to believe that there are less fundamentally decent people in Muslim communities than there are in any other community because underneath it all people are all the same, made of the same stuff. 

For me, an ideology does not change an individual's own capacity for cruelty or kindness (although it may focus those characteristics in a different way) but it can change a society's norms (as slavery did) and that can cause problems.

More than denounce the violence after the fact, they could take action to prevent the violence.  Muslim communities in non-muslim countries seem pretty close-knit.  Do they not recognize when a young recent convert is spouting dangerous rhetoric about evil infidels, espousing violence, making threats, taking a vacation in Pakistan for a month, and even trying to garner support for some extreme act?  Do they really not see it?  Do they just not say it?  Or do they, on some level, agree with it? 

I admit it is a small leap from silence to tacit approval.  How would you explain the silence?  Either they can't speak out or they won't speak out.  Do you think the vast majority of peaceful muslims are being held hostage by fear of reprisals from a relative handful of nutbars? 

I think any individual would be surprised by their own capacity for cruelty given the proper stimulus.  Religious ideology has shown itself to be an effective stimulus.


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