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. 

Views: 3294

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I have offered one explanation for the silence in terms of the status quo.

You're right, of course. Nazi Germany showed us that decent people can be persuaded to fight for something that individually would probably repel them. I suppose it's not about whether individuals are innately violent but whether you can persuade them that they have divine right on their side. 

One thing that always worried me about our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was that he always acted as though he knew he had right on his side. It is always wise to be wary of those who's justifications are infallible and unquestionable.

It begs the question, "Why is it the staus quo?"  Slavery was the status quo because one group considered itself elevated above others.  Religion is very good at that but it's not the only ideology that does that.  In the US it was the bible.  I don't know if the romans had slaves by divine right, by the fact they were romans and therefore superior, or just because they were strong enough to enforce it and didn't need justification. 

I can see why denouncing violence is just not done; it would be speaking out against the explicit instructions of the koran.  Makes sense:  you can't speak out about the contradiction of the religion of peace espousing so much violence for fear that devout followers of the religion of peace will do violence against you.

As Boghossian pointed out, we have to distinguish between religion and faith. Religion is a social support structure, if you attack religion it is inferred that you are attacking the community. I think as atheists it is all to easy for us to miss this point, to us religion is just an ideology, to believers it is much more, and hence the need to view the religion in its cultural context.

As for "Begs the question" I don't see where the logical fallacy would be relevant in this context.

You are maybe mixing up two different kinds of decent.

Decent 1: Nice to your neighbours, help someone who falls over on the street, pleasant at work (as staff or a boss), patient with younger people, generous with your friends.

Decent 2: Loathes violent punishment for any offence, against unequal treatment of anyone per race class and gender, total religious tollerance.

Decent number 1 is common everywhere I've ever been. It might take time to see it's expression in local flavours but at least in my experience decent number 1 exists in any society amongst equals.

Decent number 2 has never existed before en masse in the history of humanity. We enjoy this (mostly) in the West. It is rather absent in the Muslim world. If you had truly open elections tomorrow in most Muslim countries and a party ran under the guise of total equality, religious freedom and non-violent punishment...they would be lucky to get one seat in the parliament (even in countries where women are allowed to vote).

I think you're onto something there, Davis. I was indeed talking about Decent number 1. I think what bakes my noodle is that it seems obvious to me that Decent number 2 should follow from Decent number 1 but history, as you say, tells us otherwise. I admit that living in a Western country my whole life is probably a blinker for me.

I'm never ceased to be amazed by people's capacity for cognitive dissonance. Experience tells us it is quite possible (and probably common) for someone to be Decent 1 and not Decent 2 simultaneously. Human psychology is very complex.


I think both sides of this issue are relevant; what people feel on a personal level about violence committed in the name of their religion, AND their public reaction to it. We all seem to agree that a mainstream or moderate Muslim or Christian is likely to be inwardly saddened or abhorred by violence even when it is committed as per their own doctrines (i.e. killing of infidels, murder of abortion doctors, etc.).  This certainly matters; however, it cannot matter in a way that makes a tangible difference in the world unless such inward disapproval is translated into some sort of outward condemnation.  I tend to agree that most Muslims are likely decent, level-headed people who don't condone violence, but if enough of them are scared enough to publicly espouse doctrines like beheading and violent jihad, their personal feelings aren't worth anything, certainly not to the next victim of religious violence. 

I certainly can't speak to the exact number or proportion of 'average' Muslims who are or aren't willing to speak out against interpretations of their faith which they find repugnant, but it certainly seems that there aren't enough of them. 

Brian you are trampling all over the reality of this situation trying to get a tingle.  You have a delusion going on that made you write "Mainstream or moderate Muslims" Like we're talking about Red or green apples. 

For the time being -- until AFTER a war is over -- don't even fantasize that "moderate Muslims" exist.  They can't exist.  WHY?  Because the friggin "mainstream majority" of Muslims call moderates heretic and either imprison or kill them. For the purposes of survival under islam moderates CANNOT LET ANYONE EVEN SUSPECT THEY ARE MODERATES.  They have to act as mainstream as the rest of the people who think Big Mo was the perfect man who wrote all the perfect writings that you can be killed for even doubting or not following.


Then you sad this....  I wanted to cry when I read it. 


"I tend to agree that most Muslims are likely decent, level-headed people who don't condone violence, but if enough of them are scared enough to publicly espouse doctrines like beheading and violent jihad, their personal feelings aren't worth anything, certainly not to the next victim of religious violence."


What you tend to agree with doesn't matter. Try to wrap your head around the reality that the Islamic definitions of "decent" "level-headed" "non-violent" "love" "peace" "honor" "justice" "virtue" AND MORE are not the same definitions you have for those words.  For instance to people who believe Islam, the notorious "religion of peace" -- the peace they believe in will only come after  islam has converted or killed all infidels and their long lost Mahdi finally crawls up out of the well he's been hiding in for 900 years to rule the world.


Please avoid the temptation to try to interpret Islam through your western mentality and stop thinking they think the same way we do. THEY DONT. ASK any secular Muslim who has escaped from an Islamic nation. Read the Quran Hadiths and Sura, look at some of the video links given on this thread, study up on the history of Sunnis, Shia, Whahhabs, Salafis, Islam... Let the facts lead the way to what you believe,

Yes, thank you! A comparison to Homophobia now appears conspicuously absent to me, and I feel it further illustrates the point, since the word homophobia often seems slightly more suited to the visceral revulsion some people seem to feel (or feign!) at the idea of homosexuality. 

You're also right about there being a fine line between criticizing people and their beliefs. The problem that outspoken critics like Harris often encounter is that they want to hold people accountable for their stated beliefs-- even when those beliefs don't necessarily accord with the ways in which people live their lives (i.e. the real-world 'manifestation' of doctrine, culture), whereas most critics of religion will draw the line at criticizing just the belief in the abstract.  

To this point, I think the Harris/Dawkins/Maher crowd is on to something when they hold the 'mainstream' of Islam partially accountable for violence committed by the fringe. Whether or not moderate Muslims are supportive of or horrified by ISIS beheadings, for example, their refusal to say outright that the value of human life outweighs the religious reasoning for such acts has the real-world consequence of giving them widespread tacit approval.

"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."

Now consider that it is quite evident that religion is used as a political tool. What better way to control a person's actions than controlling their beliefs, if they believe that god is watching, they will in many ways police their own actions.

When you say 'what better way', what you really mean is 'what more effective way' to control a person's actions, and I agree: fear of supernatural reprisal can be a powerful motivator.  'Better', though, is a value judgement, and neither you nor I can claim to be any sort of legitimate arbiter of objective 'values'; however, I think most people would agree that small-D democratic persuasion is an inherently more 'moral' system of controlling behaviour than the gimmickry and threats of religion.  

That said, I'm not sure whether your point here is a defense or further critique of religion as a political tool...

Could I suggest that another way of viewing the use on statistics would be to discern how effective the religion has been in shaping opinions in the respective countries rather than saying its a direct criticism of people. For the sake of discussion, let us pick an arbitrary number of 10% of a population of an arbitrary 200 million people who might believe that stoning for adultery is an appropriate punishment. That would be 20 million people who have been effectively convinced.


© 2023   Created by Rebel.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service