September 18, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Islamophobia and Intellectual Honesty

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As someone who spent four years in the Cornell Democrats and found myself positioned contrary to Julius Kairey ’15 on multiple occasions for debates, I am quite astounded to find myself feeling compelled to come to his defense. In the recent column “Rejecting Islamophobia, Rejecting Racism,” Kairey was subjected to a critique of his column “Islamophobia and Racism” which clearly made little if any attempt to engage with the actual content of his column. Instead, the authors seemed content to exaggerate and mischaracterize his work, accusing him of holding racist and bigoted views that he clearly repudiates, and moreover accusing him of being a bigot himself.

In his work, Kairey gives multiple definitions of Islamophobia, and argues that one such definition, “well-grounded criticism of Islam as a religious ideology,” is unreasonable. That is it. Kairey does not argue that Islamophobia, understood to mean “prejudice, hatred and fear of not only Muslims, but those who are radicalized as ‘Muslim’ in a post 9/11 world” is reasonable or desirable. He does not argue that “Islam itself is the root cause of terrorism, the oppression of women or irreconcilable cultural differences.” He does not argue that Muslims are “inherently anti-woman.” He does not enjoin young Muslims to “prove themselves to be ‘good Muslims.’” And he does not in any way argue or even imply that “students of color should feel silenced when a white man tailors the definition of racism to suite his own hateful ideology.” All of these critiques are leveled at Kairey, and yet it should be clear to anyone who actually read his column that none of these critiques are appropriate responses to what he said.

In his column, Kairey argues that traditional notions of Islamophobia ought not to apply to instances of “well-grounded criticism of Islam as a religious ideology.” It is true that in his column he could have done more to make clear that there are other contributing factors to the systematic violence and oppression that characterizes life in many Muslim countries, much of which the U.S. bears a great deal of responsibility for. However, to recognize that religious ideology is a significant contributing factor to the behavior of the people who follow that ideology, and to reject cultural relativism, is a far cry from endorsing bigotry as a valid and viable worldview.

There is little doubt in my mind that the authors of “Rejecting Islamophobia, Rejecting Racism” would agree with much of what Kairey has argued had he argued the same views and applied them against the religious ideologies present among many “white males” such as the authors so derisively refer to. That is, I have no doubt that should any white, Christian male come up to the authors and argue that ‘homosexuality is immoral’ (Leviticus 20:13) or that ‘women should be submissive to their husbands’ (Colossians 13:8) because The Bible says so, that they would treat such a person with the exact same contempt and derisiveness with which they regard Kairey. I have no doubt that they would say to that person, “homosexuality is not wrong, and if The Bible says that, The Bible is wrong.” I have no doubt that they would not feel compelled to temper their criticism of such a view for fear of persecuting female Christians, Christians of color or for fear of making young Christian students feel that they are pressured to make clear that they are “Good Christians.” Clearly the authors would reject a cultural relativist framework which said “it may seem that these white males are homophobic and misogynist because their religion enjoins them to be so, but there are also a variety of other factors which contribute heavily to their homophobia and misogyny. As such, and it would be bigoted and racist, or to treat Christians as a Monolith, or to be a cultural supremacist, to tell them otherwise.”

There is room to disagree with Kairey. Perhaps it might actually be the case that the content of the Quran or the fact that many people believe the content of the Quran is the literal word of God actually has absolutely nothing to do with the misogyny, homophobia, etc. that can be found in the Muslim world. It could very well be the case that most of these problems are not the result of what people believe and why they believe it, but rather mostly the fault of ‘the west’ or ‘the white man.’ However, I think it is reasonable, or at the very least not bigoted or racist, to conclude otherwise. As homophobia and misogyny at home can be explained in part by the homophobic and misogynistic content of the Christian religion, among others, I think it is reasonable to conclude that homophobia and misogyny abroad in Muslim countries can be explained in part by the homophobic (7:80-81) and misogynistic (2:222) content of the Quran. Clearly we ought to be careful in the criticism we lay towards foreign cultures and ideologies; it is far too easy to fall into the trap of “inherent cultural superiority” and bigotry. The authors of “Rejecting Racism, Rejecting Islamophobia” are certainly motivated by a genuine desire to protect others from such bigotry. Their hearts are in the right place, but this does not excuse blatant intellectual dishonesty, nor is it compassion to ignore the plight of oppressed people abroad out of guilt for the actions of one’s home country.

Dalton Vieira graduated in 2014 from the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

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