…if you didn’t have to kneel down

[Revised 15th April – edits for clarity plus MacTaggart stuff. Apologies to anyone who was halfway through a rebuttal.]

Pearsall has a couple of fascinating posts about ‘Islamophobia’. He’s critical of the outlook represented by sites such as Islamophobia Watch, but for some interesting reasons. He argues that prejudice on the grounds of religion is a real phenomenon – more specifically, that there is such a thing as an irrational fear and hatred of Muslims; it isn’t just a proxy for racism. However, he maintains that religious prejudice is not itself racism, for the simple reason that religion is not race. The language of race refers to ancestry, countries of origin and physical characteristics: attributes which are fixed at birth and have no direct bearing on an individual’s beliefs or practices. They are also attributes which can be grouped and categorised in multiple different ways, to the point where it seems highly unlikely that anything identifiable as a ‘race’ exists: to a large extent, what we think of as ‘race’ is actually the product of racism. None of this is true of religion. Religions are identifiable sets of beliefs, underpinned by cultural practices which accord with them, and supported by loyalty to a community of believers. In short, a religion is a cultural construct, making it at once more definite and more mutable than race. No one would deny that there is such a thing as Islam; equally, no one would deny that people can convert to Islam – or abandon it. In principle, any religion can be adopted or abandoned by any individual – or advocated, or criticised.

So it’s misleading to talk about ‘anti-Muslim racism’. And ‘Islamophobia’? It strikes me that prejudices are held against people, not against religions. You can believe any number of things about the content of a religion: you might believe, for example, that the Old Testament enjoins both Jews and Christians to kill witches but bars them from wearing polyester/cotton blends. If you don’t also believe that followers of those religions put these things into practice, I don’t see any grounds for arguing that you’re prejudiced – and if you do believe that Christians go around killing witches, it’s Christians that you’re prejudiced against, not Christianity. The point here is that a religious affiliation isn’t an all-or-nothing deal: knowing somebody’s religion will never give you a full account of their identity. As this celebrated critique of fundamentalist Christian moralising reminds us, all believers are selective; everyone makes judgment calls.

Equally, we can’t assume that someone who is critical of a religion is prejudiced against its believers. All religions embody some sort of a concept of the good life: they tell their believers how to live and what to do. Some religious people will argue that anyone outside a community of believers simply doesn’t get it and has no right to criticise, but I don’t think we need to spend too much time on this argument; it strikes me as rather a blatant hack for protecting one set of ideas from the kind of criticism other ideas are routinely subjected to. It’s also highly counter-intuitive. If you believe that capital accumulation through interest is a bad thing, for example, you’re likely to look favourably on a religion which bans it. Equally, if you’re a Wiccan with a wardrobe full of polycotton, you’ll probably feel that the Judeo-Christian tradition has some bad ideas. There is such a thing as being prejudiced against a religious group; Fiona MacTaggart is right to say that anti-Muslim prejudice isn’t reducible to racism. (Check out these people, for a start.) But the line has to be drawn at prejudice against people, not criticism of ideas – which means that the line has to be drawn very, very carefully, and erring on the side of caution.

So I have serious problems both with the word ‘Islamophobia’ and with its most widely-used definition, formulated by the Runnymede Trust in 1997. Indeed, the Runnymede definition fails the fundamental test of distinguishing between a religion and its believers, which are referred to interchangeably as ‘Islam’: “Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc”; “Islam is seen as violent”; “Criticisms made of the West by Islam are rejected out of hand”, and so on. I’m also concerned about some of the ways in which the concept has been used, particularly on the Left. Let’s say that you and I are both in a radical group – it could happen – and I’ve suggested working with a Muslim group, or making an appeal to Muslims. You’re not keen. Some possible replies:

  1. Religious radicalism is fine, as long as radicalism is uppermost. If Muslims come to us because their religion is in line with our campaign, great, but we shouldn’t appeal to them as Muslims.
  2. Religious radicalism is fine, as long as it’s genuinely radical. If Muslims come to us, we need to make sure that they personally agree with our campaign and haven’t just come because of Islamic positions aligned with it.
  3. Religious radicalism is fine, but religious conservatism is a danger. If Muslims come to us, we need to make sure that they don’t hold Islamic positions which we strongly disagree with.
  4. Radicalism takes precedence over religion. We shouldn’t work with anyone who identifies as a Muslim, only with political sympathisers who happen to have a Muslim background.
  5. Religion is out. We shouldn’t work with Muslims, or Christians, or Buddhists, ever.

Any one of these replies could be motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice (even the first), but I don’t think any of them is necessarily evidence of prejudice (even the last). The Left is a broad church, if you’ll pardon the expression: the kind of aggressive secularism which underlies the fifth of these positions may be inappropriate in a lot of situations, but there’s nothing right-wing about it. Added to which, different campaigns will suggest different approaches: the Catholic Church’s position on abortion, for example, might be seen as irrelevant to the question of working with Catholic priests in a peace campaign, relevant if the campaign concerned the death penalty and central if the issue were sex education. There’s no single right answer; the point is to ask the questions and have the debate.

What concerns me about ‘Islamophobia’ is that it is being invoked, as a substitute for argument, when any of the positions listed above are advanced. Harry, whoever he is (Tom Watson’s evil twin?), is not somebody I often agree with, but I thought he had some effective arguments here – and that Bob Pitt’s response was alarmingly weak. Bob’s argument was that Harry – like the BNP – set up an unrealistic standard of ‘moderation’ in the Muslim community, allowing him to dismiss Muslims en bloc while purporting to oppose the ‘extremists’. Bob’s exhibit A was Harry’s attempt to sidestep the hackneyed ‘moderate’/’extreme’ dichotomy altogether:

‘Moderate Muslims’ is the wrong phrase – we are talking about democratic Muslims who accept a secular, democratic state regardless of their individual theological beliefs.

To which Bob replied:

apparently to qualify as moderates it is not enough for them to support democracy, human rights and freedom of organisation for other faiths – they also have to support a separation of religion and state along the lines proposed by western secularists. Which of course excludes even the most democratic, reformist tendencies within Islamism.

Even assuming that Bob’s right on this point, something’s gone badly wrong if – as this objection implies – prejudice against Muslims can be inferred from a failure to engage constructively with Islamism. Personally I value the separation of church and state very highly. To say that it’s fundamental to my political identity is an understatement; it’s fundamental to any political position I can imagine entertaining. It follows that I don’t think it’s appropriate for anyone with views like mine to work with anyone who aspires to establish a theocracy (position 3), except for limited goals which are presented in the same way to non-religious people (position 1). I recognise that there is room for debate on this point; what I object to is attempts, like Bob’s, to shut down that debate with accusations of prejudice.

Some specific examples. (Open questions, although I’m personally starting from the answer No in all cases.)

Is it ‘Islamophobic’ to criticise anti-gay statements made by a Muslim cleric?

Is it ‘Islamophobic’ to ask someone advocating a woman’s right to wear the hijab whether their position is based on the liberal principle that women should be able to dress how they like, or on the conservative principle that all Muslim women should wear the hijab? (This is not an academic question or some sort of secular Western totem. The last time I was anywhere near a large group of British Asians, scarved and bareheaded women were fairly evenly balanced. If I’m not in favour of forcing one group to bare their heads, I’m certainly not in favour of forcing the others to cover up.)

Is it ‘Islamophobic’ to criticise a fatwa instructing Muslims to vote as their mosque advises rather than according to individual beliefs? Meaders? Anyone?

One final point on Islamophobia Watch. Paul Anderson has an interesting discussion of these issues, covering some of the same ground as this post, under the heading “Am I an Islamophobe too?” This obviously called for a response from Islamophobia Watch. It would have been appropriate if there’d been a posting on the site acknowledging Paul’s concerns and engaging with his arguments. Perhaps it would have conceded one or two of his points; perhaps it would have resolved any misunderstandings by clarifying the true meaning of Islamophobia. We’ll never know. What we actually got was this: “The jury’s still out on that one, Paul.” And, er, that’s it. Not even an attempt at argument, just a one-line sneer – and a reminder that, true to their name, Islamophobia Watch are watching. Peter Mandelson couldn’t have done it better.


One Comment

  1. Neal
    Posted 30 April 2005 at 17:30 | Permalink | Reply

    You write: None of this is true of religion. Religions are identifiable sets of beliefs, underpinned by cultural practices which accord with them, and supported by loyalty to a community of believers. In short, a religion is a cultural construct, making it at once more definite and more mutable than race. No one would deny that there is such a thing as Islam; equally, no one would deny that people can convert to Islam – or abandon it. In principle, any religion can be adopted or abandoned by any individual – or advocated, or criticised.

    I do not think you are correct (a) about religion generally and (b) more specifically about Islam.

    In the West but not universally, the notion of religion has had a bit of a transformation. When I was educated (and that is many, many ages ago), the label used to identify that transformation was “secularization,” meaning the retreat of religion as a force from those realms of life which religion once dominated. Hence, people in the West tend to speak of religion as “personal” or a matter of “choice.”

    For most of human history, religion was, however, a totality and the Western forms of religion are most particularly totalities. By that I mean, religion played a central role in politics, society and personal matters. Thus, one could previously speak intelligently of Europe as Christiandom.

    That world which once was is almost unimaginable to a person living a secular life style in a basically secular country. Even for secular people observing those parts of the world where religion remains a totality, it is very difficult for them to understand or appreciate the extraordinary power that religion has over people, culture and politics.

    The world you live in defines religion as you define it. But, frankly, that world is not really all that religious – instead, it is mostly secular – as (a) religion is largely prohibited from public policy and the like and (b) science and politics, not religion, play a fairly dominant role in how people examine the world even for people who identify themselves as being religious. Or, to put the matter differently, religion plays at the edges of politics and science but is largely kept away.

    The life regime, however, that exists in many other parts of the world defines religion more traditionally – which is to say, as a totality -. And with specific reference to Islam, it is clearly a totality for the great bulk of its believers.

    You are, by the way, misinformed if you believe that a Muslim is really free to abandon his religion. In the Muslim regions, such is termed “apostasy” and it carries the death penalty. Executions of apostates occur relatively frequently in the Muslim regions.

    Moreover, where Islam has sway, there are substantial consequences on government. Which is to say, an Islamic government is one which follows Shari’a (i.e. Islamic law). Whether or not Islamic law was, when Islam was dominant in the world, once tolerant, it cannot be so described by today’s standards. It is, instead, repressive beyond what you and I would readily understand or even imagine.

    Hence, the execution of homosexuals in the Muslim regions is a commonplace (although, in fact, private homosexual activity is common; only the public affection associated with a love relationship tends to cause homosexuals to be executed). Apostasy, which includes acts and beliefs which, in the West, would be deemed the mere holding of slightly liberal views on religion, is grounds for execution (and such executions are fairly common).

    The treatment of non-Muslims under shari’a is worthy of multi-book treatment. Whether the concessionary pacts extended to conquered nations (or nations which merely surrendered) were, for their time, tolerant in a world which more commonly merely killed off those conquered, by today’s standards, such pacts, called a dhimma, are an outrage. Yet, the rules of the dhimma are applied in places like Iran, Sudan and, formerly, Afghanistan. In other parts of the Muslim regions, such practices are on the rise because Muslim countries have tended of late to look to Islamic law for inspiration for their law (as Islam is reviving as a dominant political force now that the colonial age is over). That means that Copts in Egypt are severely persecuted. In Pakistan, Christians are severely persecuted, accused frequently of blasphemy, which has resulted in numerous executions. Etc., etc.

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