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’ 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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
If fear of Islam (Islamophobia) is false or wrong, then ipso facto there is nothing to fear in Islam.
I don't think you really addressed that argument. Let me rephrase it in the obverse: If there is a factual basis for fear of Islam, then Islamophobia is justified.
Is Islam basically anti-democratic? Yes, because, as has oft been said, it is really a way of life as much as a religion. A true Islamic society is based around religious principles and is overseen/managed/rules by clerics.
Is Islam fundamentally misogynistic? It would seem so.
I think a distinct wariness of Islam is fully justified. I think many would call that Islamophobia.
According to a couple online dictionary sites, a phobia is "an extreme OR irrational fear" (emphasis mine). Note that "extreme" and based on facts rather than "irrational" and baseless.
the intent of the term is to make the fearful person appear silly or hysterical or bigoted
The lexicographers haven't caught up with your interpretation yet, it seems. At any rate, the key word there is "appear." Appearance is not the same thing as reality.
I'm sure lexicographers know that, but "love" may be in the etymology even if it isn't in the actual definition.
"Ginormous" IS a word. You can spell it, pronounce it, and define it as synonymous with "enormous." How is it not a word?
When I was living in Canada in High School (18 years ago) my friends and I used that word all the time. When I talk with them now we still use it (they are economists, lawyers, professors, clerks, secretaries, weapons consultants etc.).
To me, "a real word" is one more than one person understands. The purpose of language is communication, so it's not a word if only one person understands it. The miracle of "wordness" happens when two people start using it in a way that makes sense between them.
Are those irrational fears? Are those things not to be fought against?
If we would consider them rational fears...what term would we use to describe these fears collectively?