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Haroon Moghul: What’s Islamophobia, and Do I Have It?


by Haroon Moghul (Religion Dispatches)

A closed mind is a terrible thing to behold. But it’s a far worse thing to have to engage. And yet we must. This Saturday, the woman who murdered a complete stranger by shoving him into the path of an arriving subway train was arrested. Her name? Erica Menendez. Her target? Hindus and Muslims. Why? Because of 2001.

More than eleven years after the terrorist attacks, and the alleged murderer not only could not distinguish between a Muslim and a Hindu, but held both collectively responsible for the actions of a few—there are 2.5 billion Muslims and Hindus in the world. This is clear, cut-and-dried bigotry, of the typically ignorant kind.

You’d think recent events only further prove Islamophobia’s dangerousness. But on the night of Erica’s arrest, the usual cohort of anti-Muslim voices persisted in their denial of Islamophobia, considering it a “neologism” used by the left to silence their fair criticisms of Islam. Reality, as always, begs to disagree.

Islamophobia is anything but rational, fair, or grounded. Like climate change denial, it masks real threats and makes it harder for us to deal with them. America deserves a better conversation on Islam. One that has the room to acknowledge real threats and challenges,

but also enables us to make smarter choices, and deal with Muslims as we are: Human beings.

I’m not claiming to present a complete cartography. But what I have should help us navigate a far too familiar terrain. After all, why do we have to put up with absurdly ahistorical arguments, such as Pamela Geller’s claim that “jihad” killed 270 million people—fanciful, hyperbolic, and almost endearingly fictitious? Not only is Islamophobia ridiculous, it has violent consequences.


I. It’s (Always) the 1950’s

Islamophobes often argue they’re just criticizing Islam. But simply by prefacing an argument with “I have black friends,” or concluding with it, doesn’t mean you’re not a racist. We have to look deeper to see if “Islamophobia” applies; I’ll use the hijab, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women (for many reasons), to that end.

Through France’s treatment of a Muslim woman’s sartorial choices, we can better understand the transition from mere opinionated disagreement to legally sanctioned discrimination. Because while the former may be unreasonable or unwarranted, the latter is the kind of bigotry I’m most concerned by.

In France, Muslims in public schools are forbidden to wear the hijab—overtly religious symbols are seen as threatening of a uniform French identity that is, by the way, more of a project of flattening France into homogeneity than reflecting France’s demographic reality. Meanwhile all women are forbidden to cover their faces in public spaces. This is so that Islam does not appear in public France.

The state does this to “reclaim” public space for secularity; in France, though, secularism is not neutrality. The culturally secular majority champions a statist secularism the effect of which is to restrict the visibility of a religiously defined minority. This is not racism per se, but I hope you can see the problematic overlap: most French Muslims come from France’s former colonies.

And the colonial mindset continues to pertain. Islamophobia privileges the point of view of the allegedly objective outsider, who believes he knows Muslims better than they themselves do. Whether because of race, or because it’s transcended race; whether because of religion, or because it has transcended religion; in all these scenarios, the West always knows best.

Indeed, the West may know best because the West can change. Islam, on the other hand, is frozen, stuck in what Dipesh Chakrabarty called the “waiting room of history.” This is not, by the way, an exclusively French dynamic—the simple and inaccurate binary of a dynamic West and a static Islam, mired in the seventh century or a “medieval mindset” is stunningly common. And equally inaccurate.

Conclusions: The Islamophobe likes to speak on behalf of Muslims, and appoints himself judge, jury, and even executioner. This may be because while the Islamophobe believes he represents a dynamic civilization, the Islam he speaks for is assumed to represent a static and unchanging force.


II. Don’t Ask, Tell

Addressing a panel at the 2011 American Academy of Religion Conference, Hussein Agrama illuminated the contradiction in the French government’s restrictions on hijab and the niqab,or face-veil. France banned both on the argument that they were either the sartorial embodiment of a politically Islamic identity, the tip of an Islamist iceberg so to speak, or evidence of a gender unequal religious tradition.

Thus the French government assumed all women veil for the same reasons. But in her book,The Politics of the Veil, Joan Scott surveys French Muslim women—what a novel idea—and finds that few of these assumptions hold.  Of course, the emancipation of the Muslim woman cannot be stopped by anything as irrelevant as the Muslim woman’s opinions; to be liberated from objectification, she’s objectified.

Consider the tension Agrama points out. If the veil is a choice (as most French Muslim women say it is) and not a religious obligation, then the French government can restrict it: French Muslims shouldn’t object to not being allowed to practice a choice. But, Agrama went on, if the veil is a religious obligation, it must have been imposed coercively and must be banned by the secular state.

Islamophobes tend to prefer the latter.

They assume that Muslims must do whatever the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad tells them to. Not only have Muslims stopped using their brains, their nervous organs have atrophied from unemployment. Thus if a Muslim woman covers her head, it must be because she was forced to. The rationalists of the West, the free peoples of Middle Earth, must step in to liberate her.


III. If Islam Were a Race, Would Islamophobia Be Racist?

The right question to ask is why Muslims need liberation. Why can’t they (we) liberate ourselves? There is a racist logic within Islamophobia, which presents from time to time in the way Muslims are described and treated. As a single, indivisible whole. And, of course, a miserable one at that. The formula? ‘All Muslims are x,’ where x is bad.

This also means that all Muslims are on the hook for what some Muslims do, and must constantly distance themselves from other Muslims—as if the whole must bear responsibility for the acts and faults of individuals. How does that make any sense, except in a racialized and dehumanizing way?

I’m not arguing that Islamophobia is racist, or that Islamophobes are racists, because that’s not quite what’s happening. For one thing, Islamophobes embrace ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and racists wouldn’t (indeed couldn’t) do the same. But consider the similarities: the Islamophobe must assume Muslims suffer some sort of pre-Islamic inferiority, sufficient to explain how some (largely non-white) people—actually, a lot of people—not only fell for Islam in the first place, but then stayed down. How long do enforced ideologies last? Nazism: twelve years.  Communism: some decades. Islam: Fourteen centuries and counting.

Those are some dumb people.

But regardless of whether certain mental defects incline a person to Islam or whether after adopting Islam parts of your brain shut down—think zombie virus from The Walking Dead’sfirst seasonthe output’s the same. If a Qur’anic verse seems to sanction violence, Muslims have no choice but to act on it. There is just one problem with this way of interpreting all of Islam.

Only a puny minority of Muslims acts in a violent manner, while the huge majority does not, though both are reading the same book. If Muslims don’t act in similar ways, the problem isn’t the Islamophobe’s interpretation of Islam, it’s anything else—perhaps the Muslims are practicing taqiyya! Or, perhaps, the Muslims don’t understand their religion.

Islamophobes resolve the challenges posed by reality by dismissing it. Hence, they’ll say things like “most Muslims don’t understand Islam.” This was the rebuttal Ayaan Hirsi Ali used against Zeba Khan during their Intelligence Squared debate on Islam. In her opening statement, Khan argued that her parents stressed tolerance as an Islamic value; Hirsi Ali responded that while that was very nice, it wasn’t Islam.

Islam has one interpretation: theirs. Which happens to be—by chance, of course—the same interpretation extremists offer. Leave aside for a moment the conclusions and consider the methods by which Islamophobes get there. Were Islamophobes Muslim, they would be the Muslims they warn us about.

Islam can only be understood on their terms, they say. And their terms are violent and intemperate. Their strict literalism, inability to grasp context, gross and frequent generalizations, and mind-blowing ahistoricism make them into radicals, only on the opposite side of a chasm into which both have thrown decency, history, common sense, and reality. In place of analysis, they offer us a Xerox machine.

They reproduce themselves and call it Islam.

Read the rest…

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  • Géji

    “Oh, great, another atheist zealot.”

    Zealotry indeed seem to be the way to go for the “new” atheism militancy. But anyhoo, since monkeys are supposed to be the producers of mankind, or is it just One monkey? I don’t know cause they’re never clear on that, so I can’t tell. But either way, lets say there’s been several monkeys that produced us as humans, then doesn’t that imply that there is something fundamentally wrong with the rest of the monkey community that are left behind and that we can (as humans) witness as them being still monkeys, and not the humans they’re supposed to become, even now that they are live amongst their production? And IF it is just One that is responsible for our human becoming, then isn’t still atheism believing in some sort of monotheistic belief advocating that there only One originator as opposed to the many incapable fake kind that are unable to bring forth as the originators of humans the atheists believe them to be ?

  • I’m an atheist AND a brown person and I am indeed very embarrassed by the actions of our Pat Condell types and resident Uncle Toms.

  • How about people just wear what they want? Even if that means going out on the street butt naked? Stay out of people’s business, and they’ll stay out of yours.

  • I’m an atheist too, but you don’t see ME acting like an Uncle Tom. Perhaps you should focus on disproving the existence of deities, like I do.

  • One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. What constitutes terrorism in the eyes of the west is often just resistance to the status quo. Reporting that would be tantamount to enabling slavery.

    Most of this “kill everything that moves” type terrorism was fostered, fomented, and forged by Western powers that sought to destabilize the governments of certain countries to further their own interests in the region.

  • Just_Stopping_By

    ” I’m surprised just_stopping_by doesn’t correct my grammar the way he corrects solid snake[‘]s. :-)”

    “JSB is out there, [sic] don’t tempt him! “

    Failure to use an apostrophe fixed. Incorrect use of a comma noted. Lack of capitalization ignored. (Incomplete sentences used to tempt eager responders.)

    Grammar jihad forever!

  • MichaelElwood

    “Well, I don’t know how long you’ll last. I’ve seen you come in an out of “semi-retirement,” but it would be a shame if you stopped debating. I confess I’m hoping you don’t stick with your resolution.”

    I’m not going to stop debating. I’m just going to try to stretch out the time between debates over several months. But when an Atheist Ahmed type comes along, I want a piece of the action too. 🙂

  • MichaelElwood

    “Since you are volunteering for the vetting part (you like how I just conscripted you there?), then you can review what I write after the fact after I pull your thoughts and mine together. How does that sound as an alternative?”

    Since I’ve been conscripted, I’ll do it. 🙂 I’ll email you some of my writing on whatever topic you’re currently working on and some suggestions for other topics. Email me the articles you’ve finished so I can get my vet on. 🙂

  • MichaelElwood

    “HEY! Be careful what you wish for! JSB is out there, don’t tempt him!”

    He’s out there, and his red pen is always ready. 🙂

    “Anyway, how are you Micheal? Hope your new year is starting off well, I mean I hope the Bears not making the playoffs doesn’t upset you too much…even after we gave you guys a gift with that last game. Too bad the Vikings played well.”

    You just had to rub it in, eh? 🙂 I feel like crap because I have the flu, not because the Bears didn’t make the playoffs. They beat the Lions. I even hoped the hated Packers would beat the Vikings, but they still didn’t make the playoffs. Oh well, there’s always basketball. The Bulls play the Heat tonight. I’m surprised they aren’t as bad as I thought they’d be without Rose. They’re just inconsistent. They’ll beat good teams like the Celtics and the Knicks, then they’ll to loose to the Wizards.

  • Chameleon_X


    When I saw this “NiqaBitch” protest story yesterday, I couldn’t help but think about this idiotic thread started by Atheist Ahmed. It may not be LW newsworthy, but it is certainly good for a laugh or two.

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize Winner in 2011 Tawakkul Karman* when asked
    about her Hijab By Journalists and how it is not proportionate with her
    level of intellect and education, she replied. “Man in The early times
    was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing
    clothes. What I am today and what I’m wearing represents the highest
    level of thought and civilization that man has achieved, and is not
    regressive. It’s the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to
    ancient TIMES”****

  • Solid Snake

    HEY! Be careful what you wish for! JSB is out there, don’t tempt him!

    Anyway, how are you Micheal? Hope your new year is starting off well, I mean I hope the Bears not making the playoffs doesn’t upset you too much…even after we gave you guys a gift with that last game. Too bad the Vikings played well.

  • Chameleon_X


    Your grammatical modesty notwithstanding, I think just about everyone here would agree how well you write. You said, “It’s not a coincidence that I haven’t written any articles or books. I know my weaknesses. And writing is one of them.” I got quite a chuckle when I read that one, since it couldn’t be further from the truth as I see it. If it is only grammar you are worried about, I can clean that up for you, what little there would be to clean up, in my opinion. Or even easier, just arrange what rough writing you already have according to specific Islamophobia topics (one at a time, based on whatever current one I am working on), and then I can try to pull something together and fill in the gaps myself. What is most valuable of all is the facts and logic that you use, not the grammar! I just don’t want to miss any “thoughts”, and I know you have a lot of good ones. I don’t care about the little details like grammar.

    Since you are volunteering for the vetting part (you like how I just conscripted you there?), then you can review what I write after the fact after I pull your thoughts and mine together. How does that sound as an alternative?

    As for the two papers, yes, one is on the “daraba” issue. It ended up being much longer than I anticipated, as you will see. I also filled in several gaps that I saw after pulling it all together into one document. It is a veritable book chapter, and the other paper is fairly sizable too. I can email it to you – just send me a quick email so that I can reply. I would also be interested in your topical suggestions too.

  • MichaelElwood

    “Of course I’m kidding about cutting him slack, but I do find his arguments simplistic. How many times have we heard the same stuff? Standard fare.”

    He’s a newbie. . . to atheism and LoonWatch. That’s why he doesn’t know that we’ve heard this stuff before. If he sticks around, he’ll learn that the atheist and Muslim regulars here don’t bother each other with these type of polemics.

    “You don’t need to break your resolution for Atheist Ahmed the first week of the new year. There’s always next week.”

    So that’s how long you think I’m gonna last, eh? 🙂

  • MichaelElwood

    “But even better, I (and several others, no doubt) would much rather tempt you into spending your time putting all of your existing writing together into coherent topical articles, each of which answers a single Islamophobic question (e.g., Is unjust violence permitted in Islam? – a topic I know you have extensively written on already, as I have).”

    It’s not a coincidence that I haven’t written any articles or books. I know my weaknesses. And writing is one of them. So I leave it to more capable people like you, Ilisha, Danios, etc. I’m surprised just_stopping_by doesn’t correct my grammar the way he corrects solid snakes. 🙂

    “I will have two of these articles *finally* done by this weekend, and I plan to do more when I have time, which is unfortunately very limited.”

    I hope one of them is your excellent analysis of the way the word daraba is used in the Quran. I was going to use it for future reference, but it looks like it was accidentally deleted when the comments switched to disqus.

    “What would be great is if Loon Watchers like us could put a LW book together, which each chapter addressing one topical Islamophobic claim. After vetting the chapters amongst ourselves and against the Islamophobia crowd to make them even better (we might as well make the latter our conscripted employees by channeling all their hate into a worthy cause!), it would be easy enough to self-publish it on Amazon, Lightning Source or wherever, preferably at cost (i.e., no profit). Contact me directly if you want to discuss it offline (Ilisha can provide you my email if you don’t have it yet).”

    That sounds like a good idea. But for reasons I already gave, I’d probably be better at vetting the chapters than putting it together. 🙂 In addition to the topic that you mentioned, I have some more suggestions. I have your email if you want them.

  • Sam Seed

    So you believe in God then.

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