It’s time to stop using the term ‘Islamophobia’
Anyone who has ever had dealings with a marketing or PR department will probably have experienced at the time feelings similar to when they first encountered a foreign language. “Our new line of streamlined products will enhance our client-focused approach”, was how it was put to me a few days ago by a particularly polished “blue skies thinking” sort of person. What was being conveyed to me I have no idea; but I do know that impenetrable phrases were unloaded on me like machine gun fire with the intention of bamboozling me into parting with either my cash or my judgement. Fortunately I managed to excuse myself before the scheduled afternoon session on “thinking outside the matrix” began. But it was a close call.
It’s not hard to discern why large corporations talk like this. They are often either trying to conceal something from their workers or trying to sell something to the rest of us. The easiest way to fool a person is, after all, by making it impossible to grasp what on earth it is you are talking about. As George Orwell put it many years before the advent of the modern PR department, “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink”.
Political language too contains its fair share of semantic bucklers. Almost every politician today is in some sense an advocate of the mysterious “progressive consensus”. And a large number of our representatives are quite keen to stress their party’s courageous plan to “modernise” British institutions – what modernisation means, however, is never quite made clear. Nothing perhaps epitomises the entrance of jargon into the political vernacular, however, as much as the term “Islamophobia”, which has become a standard rebuttal in the armoury of the anti-racist movement in the last decade.
The description of a person or an opinion as “Islamophobic” has gained popularity in the last 10 years or so for understandable reasons. In the hope of capitalising on a widespread fear of Islamist terror on the back of 9/11, propagandists of the far-right sought to foster the impression that all Muslims were potential terrorists who constituted a threat to the survival of British society. Encouragingly, the progress made in this country in terms of race relations forced the hand of the far-right to some degree. Today it is overwhelmingly frowned upon to be openly racist or antisemitic, and therefore extremist groups looking to build a following must drop talk of the “inequality of the races” and adopt more subtle language that stresses the supposed incompatibility of foreign and native cultures. Any goose-stepping and talk of racial purity must be saved strictly for the backrooms of pubs on dodgy estates.
There has, however, been an unfortunate consequence of all of this. It is now possible to shut down almost any contemporary political debate by blurring the distinction between legitimate criticism of Islam and the anti-Muslim prejudice of the far-right. This is perhaps best expressed by the appearance on the scene of terms like “islamophobic racism” – a further extension of the concept of islamophobia -, which conflate the idea of “race” (the way a person is born) with religion (a set of ideas passed on in the home, the school and the community).
Interestingly, the French feminist writer Caroline Fourest makes the claim that the word Islamophobia was originally popularised by the Mullahs during the Iranian revolution, where the term was employed to describe those women who bravely refused to wear the hijab. Also telling is the fact that in 2006 a motion was introduced at the United Nations by the organisation of the Islamic conference which sought to prohibit the defaming of prophets and freedom of expression in the area of religious symbols under the guise of “anti-islamophobia”.
Something more appears to be going on here that straightforward anti-racism.
For those of us who are averse to religion and abhor prejudice (it is possible, I assure you), it is both insulting as well as dishonest to have it implied that our criticism of monotheism is the equivalent of colour prejudice. As Pascal Bruckner puts it in his book The Tyranny of Guilt, “To speak of islamophobia is to maintain the crudest confusion between a religion, a specific system of belief, and the faithful who adhere to it…Must we then speak of anticapitalist, antiliberal, antisocialist, and anti-Marxist racism?”.
The correct definition for the bigotry of the far-right (although I’m open to snappier alternatives) is anti-Muslim bigotry. This will not of course be satisfactory to those who wish to introduce blasphemy laws by the back door, but trying to please such people should never be a major concern for those who value free enquiry anyway. What a change in the terminology would do, however, is provide a clearer distinction between legitimate criticism of so-called revealed truths and the crude prejudices of the far-right. No idea should be off limits when it comes to criticism, and real prejudice should not be confused with the perfectly legitimate examination of doctrine. It would be far better, I think, to leave the abuse of language to big capital and its political representatives.
Follow James on Twitter: @ObligedtooffendTagged in: 9/11, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-racist, Caroline Fourest, Islamophobia, muslim, political jargon, race relations, racism, semantics, terrorism, The Tyranny of Guilt
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