September 3, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: Islamophobia and Racism

Print More

By JULIUS KAIREY

In the United States, to be termed a racist is to be shunned from the arena of respectable debate, and for good reason. History has repeatedly shown the dangers of racist argumentation, and few of us wish to entertain the types of arguments that have proven so harmful in the past.

Yet, some groups have become quite aggressive in branding critics of Muslims and Islam as racists. Organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations seek to name and shame these “Islamophobes” and limit their access to the public airwaves.

But is Islamophobia truly racism? The answer depends on how the term is defined. If it is defined narrowly as degrading and hateful attacks on Muslims, it is. But when the term is used to cover well-grounded criticism of Islam as a religious ideology simply because such criticism seems to portray Islam in a negative light, it ceases to describe racist behavior.

Indeed, the term “Islamophobia” in the latter sense seems to demand that Islam not be critically examined like other value systems. We rarely use terms like “conservative-phobia” or “liberal-phobia” to describe aggressive criticism of conservatism and liberalism, respectively, and we never consider such criticism to be the equivalent of racism. Why? Because we believe that critical examination of ideas is essential in a free and democratic society. We should not pretend that all values — including values associated with religion — are created equal. If they were, we would never have a basis for preferring any one value to any other. We could not prefer democracy to autocracy, or freedom to slavery.

As it happens, there is a lot to legitimately criticize about the goings-on in the Islamic world today, and I do not just refer to the actions of fringe groups like ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram. Mainstream values in Muslim countries are in sharp contrast with those in the West on some very important issues.

Consider polling data from organizations like the Pew Research Center and the Anti-Defamation League. When it comes to women’s rights and status, more than 85 percent of Muslims in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia believe that a woman “must always obey her husband.” The percentage of Muslims who view homosexuality as morally acceptable is below 15 percent in nearly every major Muslim country. Support for the implementation of sharia — or Islamic law — as official law is often above 70 percent.

Additionally, the data shows that age-old religious intolerance is alive and well in the Muslim world. Less than 20 percent of Egyptian, Jordanian, Pakistani, Indonesian and Turkish Muslims view Jews favorably. In countries from Iran and Iraq to Malaysia and Kuwait, Holocaust denial is widespread, and most agree that “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.”

From harmful beliefs flow harmful practices. In Iran, women can legally be stoned to death for adultery and other “crimes against chastity.” In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and a number of other Islamic countries, converting from Islam is punishable by death and “blasphemers” can be killed for religious insult. Most Muslim-majority countries prescribe a penalty of imprisonment or death for homosexuality. Under Islamic rule, granting only limited exceptions, freedom of thought and expression is stifled, sexual freedom is restricted and democracy is non-existent. We should stop pretending that our notions of fundamental human rights do not conflict with the beliefs and practices of much of the Islamic world. The deplorable views and practices I described above are not limited to a few extremists with radical interpretations of Islam.

Let me be clear that I am not in any way suggesting that all Muslims believe in such values and practices (many risk their lives to oppose them), or that all Muslims should be held responsible for the behavior of Muslim countries or that Islam is an essentially bad religion. I would similarly not suggest that we hold all Christians responsible for the actions of Christian countries or all Jews responsible for the behavior of Israel. There are over one billion Muslims in the world, and they do not all believe exactly the same things.

That being said, I believe the frequent use of the term “Islamophobia” is symptomatic of a more fundamental problem: We have become much too apologetic about our own culture, and far too willing to adopt a relativistic framework when comparing ourselves to others. I do not consider the West’s core values — consisting of things like freedom of speech, frequent elections, equality of rights, rule of law, pluralism and secular government — to be merely different from the authoritarianism and theocracy that predominates in the Muslim world. I consider our values to be better.

Is that a form of Islamophobia? If it is, then we are all Islamophobes. I suspect that few of you would want to spend the rest of your lives in most of the world’s Muslim countries. Is it because you hate Muslims? Or is it because you appreciate the range of freedoms available in the West but not in Islamic countries?

Even those Westerners who aggressively criticize their own civilization (but, tellingly, seldom leave it) can do so only because the West permits criticism of itself. Living in the West, you are free to doubt the value of freedom and democracy. Living in an Islamic country, you could face severe punished for questioning fundamental Islamic tenets. Even the West’s staunchest self-critics, therefore, implicitly demonstrate what is so great about our civilization.

To call critics of Islam racists is to strip the term “racism” of its true meaning and limit the term’s ability to properly shame despicable behavior. It is a mistake to confuse criticism of ideas with demeaning the people who hold those ideas. We should either shelve the term “Islamophobia” or restore its proper, narrower meaning so that we can have an open debate about what values our society ought to hold most dear.

Julius Kairey is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jkairey@cornellsun.com. Always Right appears alternate Thursdays this semester.