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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Somebody please provide me with a list of these so-called Muslim countries where each one completely fits the stereotype in toto. By that I mean:
Theocratic government, zero tolerance for other religions, atheists, gays, democracy, westerners. Women treated as chattel property. enforced female genital mutilation. law breakers punished by amputation and execution and the general consensus among the country's population that all these thigs are justified by religion.

So if they don't do every single one of the things on your list then they are being misjudged?  If they only do a few of them, then they are ok, and the stereotype is unfair?  Can you name countries where those things go on that are NOT muslim majority?  Or third-world xian majority countries for that matter because the bible condones slavery, women as chattel, execution for crimes, anti-gay, anti-atheist, etc.

Over the past couple hundred years we have been systematically removing those things from western society.  Now we focus on islam because it is stuck in the stone-age and still practices those things with impunity.

If they are guilty on only 1 of these things, we are expected to believe they are guilty  of all. That is the problem in a nutshell.

  The reason we focus on Islam is simply because the corporate controlled media portrays Islam as an evil violent religion and all Muslims are depicted as terrorist. Since, in the US Muslims are half of a percent of the population, they are perfect as scapegoats which we can blame our problems while the financial sector imagines and realize new and more profitable ways to screw us behind our backs.

The reason we focus on Islam is simply because the corporate controlled media portrays Islam as an evil violent religion and all Muslims are depicted as terrorist.

It simply IS NOT SO that American media "portrays Islam as an evil violent religion and all Muslims are depicted as terrorist." I work much of the time with CNN running and not only do they seem to bend over backwards to to make clear that there are peaceful Muslims but they also frequently interview nonradical Muslims. During the little war between Hamas Palestinians and Israel, I would say they sided with the Palestinians to the detriment of Israel.

Since, in the US Muslims are half of a percent of the population, they are perfect as scapegoats which we can blame our problems while the financial sector imagines and realize new and more profitable ways to screw us behind our backs.

You're making some interesting connections there. And I don't mean that in a nonhilarious way.

BTW, it's still true that huge percentages of Muslims hold horrifying views on terrorism, religious violence, and the subjugation of women. No comment on the poll stats I gave above. Or will you ignore them because they are dictated by our evil corporate overlords who decide what we get to read and see?

@Gary Clouse.  Don't move the goalpost.  You said "in toto" meaning if they only did some or one of those things on your list they were being unfairly stereotyped.  I'm not saying if they do one they are guilty of all.  I'm saying if they do one, that's bad enough. 

You tell me which one of those from your list is ok and should just be excused as an acceptable part of their culture. 

The reason we focus on islam is they are the most prominent example of bass-ackwards stone-age beliefs and practices that have been abandoned by every modern moral civilized society.

Islam is the wurst of a bad lot.

Gary you are totally lost in a false-liberal haze. There's an impasse in this conversation and it won't go anywhere and you seem set on going as far as necessary to condone horrific behaviour, claim it doesn't actually exist or blame it on anything or anyone other than those who are doing it.

A humanist-liberal (as opposed to a false liberal) will see gross human suffering where it is, criticise that suffering regardless of cultural or religious excuses, recognise that it happens and in some cultures to a horrendous extreme and not give into exaggerated apologetics. Take away the media, oil, western geo-politics and mass mistreatment of women, homosexuals and religious minorities STILL exist (and existed way before oil, mass media and geo-western politics were ever born). I don't know why you are so set on denying it. I'm not sure just how many statistics, how much field research and how many endless stories of barbaric suffering occur (systematically throughout the muslim world) it would take to convince you otherwise.

If we accept that all religions are equally false but not equally flawed then it seems to me that the following excerpt from Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All’ published in 1997 by the Runnymede Trust in England sums it up very well:

It is not intrinsically phobic or prejudiced, of course, to disagree with or to disapprove of Muslim beliefs, laws or practices. Adherents of other world faiths disagree with Muslims on points of theology and religious practice. By the same token agnostics and secular humanists disagree with Muslims, as with all religious believers, on basic issues.

In a liberal democracy it is inevitable and healthy that people will criticise and oppose, sometimes robustly, opinions and practices with which they disagree.

It can be legitimate to criticise policies and practices of Muslim states and regimes, for example, especially when their governments do not subscribe to internationally recognised human rights, freedoms and democratic procedures, or to criticise and condemn terrorist movements which claim to be motivated by Islamic values.

Similarly, it can be legitimate to criticise the treatment of women in some Muslim countries, or the views and attitudes which some Muslims have towards ‘the West’, or towards other world faiths. Debates, arguments and disagreements on all these issues take place just as much amongst Muslims, it is important to recognise, as between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Recently I've been finding myself justifying prejudice against Islam above all other religions. For a more rational perspective, I can only back out to assess a bigger picture.

As atheists, it's rational to point to Islam as today's best example of what's wrong with religion. The problem I see is that it's too easy for many people (even if only a few of us) to feel that most Muslims are culpable, and should be shunned and marginalized by the world if not exterminated. My problem, somewhat informed by the history of human nature, is that it's just too easy to condemn a significantly large portion of the world's population, even if most of us are not the ones pushing the actual buttons that kill them.

Maybe it's not a bad thing, having various perspectives regarding what the core problems are and what should be done about them. The nature of human society is to polarize perspectives and solutions and then act mostly unified toward whatever viewpoint wins the critical mass. This is what happened to Iraq. Once war starts, many barriers to unethical behavior weaken or become invisible.

While we're here discussing semantics of a word and able to some extent to impose our will, Muslims are by and large the ones dying. Why don't moderates speak out more? Because fear and tyranny silence them. Blame this on Islam if you will, but despotic governments and extractive (e.g. oil) economies make the tryrannies affordable and powerful.

I.e., yeah, Islam is part of the problem, but it's not the only cause, and therefore there are other causes that also deserve consideration and action, even among atheists (if not in an atheist forum).

Actually Pope Beanie,

   They do speak out, but we turn a deaf ear.

Try this on youtube search for 

Muslims against isis

Obviously most muslims are peaceful. Arguably the reason for this, it seems, is that they do not follow the quran literally. Ordinary muslims may hold the quran sacred, but their understanding of what Islam demands is cultural.

The same could be said of catholics and transubstantiation. Very view people believe that a wafer is the actual body of christ. They understand it is symbolic although it is in fact meant to literally be the body of jesus. Correct me if I am wrong.

As such, cultural muslims can happily separate their dogma from the acts of extremists. They do not directly criticize these terrorist acts because they would be outcast or even physically threatened. The best you will ever get from a cultural muslim is a generic condemnation of violence or a claim that these acts were not done in the name of islam.

Both of these are useless as the extremists who commit these acts know they are the real muslims.

Obviously most muslims are peaceful. Arguably the reason for this, it seems, is that they do not follow the quran literally. Ordinary muslims may hold the quran sacred, but their understanding of what Islam demands is cultural.

The same could be said of catholics and transubstantiation. Very view people believe that a wafer is the actual body of christ. They understand it is symbolic although it is in fact meant to literally be the body of jesus. Correct me if I am wrong.

The same is true of most Christians, not just Catholics, who either are unaware of or disavow almost all of the most extreme aspects of The Bible.

No. You cannot blame muslims being silenced from speaking out on Oil and on Tyrannical governments. Yemen, Jordan and the Phillipines have next to no oil or resources that the West has any desire to exploit and yet there are still significant radical groups inside and a propensity for cruel treatment of women and children within Muslim communities. The Phillipines, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Mauritious are democratic countries. They vote in their Islamic favouring governments (or regional governments) and dissenters who are silenced are silenced by the status quo...not Tyranical governments imposed by the west or oil or dictators but governments voted in by the general population.

Further more in countries with smaller Muslim populations the governments actively work to stop radicalisation however muslims who speak out are still silenced by threats of violence not from outside forces, not from governments or oil companies but from groups within the Islamic minority community.

Mulim's mistreatments of other muslims in muslim communities comes down to muslims behaviour and cannot be reduced to problems with colonialism, oil, the U.S. and McDonalds. These factors may exagerate the problems to some extent in some communities but it is post-modernesque to claim that Islam and Muslims are not at fault for appalling mistreatment of one another. The only common thread, the only thing that gives them impunity is the tennants, holy rules and voice of Islam.

Islam cannot be defined as some ideal and humane version that a scattering of minority muslims claim should exist but by the rules of the Koran which most muslims follow and by the state of Muslims society in general in muslim communities which when evaluated objectively show a fairly miserable picture for women, children and especially little girls.


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