Debate on Islam

Myth and reality

Print edition : October 30, 2015

Michel Houellebecq. His novel "Soumission" (Submission) has prompted accusations of Islamophobia. Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP

The debate on Islam has been reduced to carping about Islamophobia. This not only alienates people whose support Muslims need to fight real Islamophobia but also creates a situation where genuine incidents of Islamophobia are dismissed as cases of Muslims crying wolf once too often.

The mind boggles at the thought, but go on and try and imagine this: it is year 2022 and France has come under strict Sharia rule after the leader of a radical Islamist group is accidentally elected President. Overnight, the country slips into a harsh Islamic regime complete with compulsory burqa, polygamy, stoning, flogging and the rest of it.

This is the plot of the controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission (Submission), just out in an English translation in Britain, prompting accusations of Islamophobia. Regarded as one of France’s most provocative writers, Houellebecq revels in mocking Islam, which he once described as “the stupidest religion”—a remark for which he was sued but let off by courts. His persistent sniping at Islam has made him a hate figure for Muslims.

The theme of his novel feeds off the post-9/11 apocalyptic narrative about an imminent Islamic “takeover” or “Arabisation” of Europe, which has been fuelled in recent weeks by the tide of Muslim asylum-seekers heading for Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was echoing a wider if unstated sentiment when he said he did not want too many Muslims in a Christian country.

But it is interesting to hear Houellebecq explain his anti-Islamic prejudices. He makes an intriguing distinction between phobia and hatred: fearing something is not the same as hating it, according to him. He fears Islam, but he does not hate it, he says. Is he Islamophobic? He was asked the question by The Observer in an interview. “Yes, probably… but the word phobia means fear rather than hatred,” he replied.

Fear, he insisted, could not be equated with racism; and his acquittal by French judges in 2002 corroborated that position. He suggested that he might have changed his mind about Islam after reading the Quran. But he still feared Muslims because he was not sure how many of them had read the Quran themselves and had, instead, been brainwashed into accepting its extremist interpretations. And, if so, they posed a threat.

“It’s true that reading the Quran is rather reassuring…. That said, maybe I hadn’t thought it through enough before saying that, because objectively, there’s just as little chance of Muslims reading the Quran as Christians reading the Bible. So what really counts in both cases is who is the clergy, or middleman, or interpreter. And in the case of Islam, that’s very open.”

Whatever one might make of his self-serving explanation, is it not worth pondering, though, that rather too frequently we are too quick to apply the term “Islamophobia” to any criticism of Islam even if it is legitimate criticism? Much like many Jews who are quick to denounce as anti-Semitism any disapproval of Israel or particular Jews.

Arguably, it is one of the most bandied-about terms of our times. Think of one English word without which no debate on Islam is complete and you will be an exception if you do not come up with “Islamophobia”, loosely defined as an irrational fear/hatred of Islam inspired by bigotry. Muslims tend to invoke it at the drop of a hat to denounce their critics, while the latter dismiss it as a figment of a paranoid community’s imagination. Many commentators insist on putting it in inverted commas to underline their claims that there is no such thing as “Islamophobia”.

So, what is it?

Islamophobia has somewhat obscure origins. One theory, popular with the American Right, is that it was “deliberately invented” by a United States-based Muslim Brotherhood front organisation, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), North Virginia, in the 1990s to shut down criticism of Islam by portraying Muslims as victims of bigotry and irrational prejudice. A former disgruntled IIIT employee Abdur-Rahman Muhammad has claimed that he was present at the meeting at which the phrase was coined and the decision was taken to popularise it.

“This loathsome term is nothing more than a thought-terminating cliche conceived in the bowels of Muslim think tanks for the purpose of beating down critics,” Muhammad wrote in NY Daily News in 2010 at the height of the row over plans to build a mosque near “Ground Zero” amid Muslim denunciation of the plan's opponents as “Islamophobes”.

But Muhammad’s claim, especially about the term’s origins, is widely contested not only by partisan Muslims but independent non-Muslim Western scholars. They believe the usage is much older and goes back to, at least, the 1980s, if not further back. Its first recorded usage is attributed to Edward Said, who mentioned it in an article, “Orientalism Reconsidered”, in 1985.

The next recorded use was in an American journal in February 1991, in reference to the anti-Muslim hostility in the Soviet Union, according to Professor Robin Richardson of Birmingham University. In Britain, he claims, it was first used in 1995 by Tariq Modood, a noted academic, without feeling the need to explain it, which suggests that the term was already in currency and was commonly understood. Richardson reckons that it originated in France, where it was first used way back in 1916 by the painter Alphonse Etienne Dinet, a convert to Islam. “The word Islamophobia was presumably coined on an analogy with xenophobia, but exactly when and where and by whom, and with what particular purposes and concerns and subject-matter in mind, is not certain.”

This debate on the origins of the word may sound like unnecessary hair-splitting, but it establishes one important fact—it was not minted as a reaction to the post-9/11 anti-Muslim mood, as is commonly believed. But 9/11 gave it common currency in reaction to the intensely toxic anti-Islamic climate, particularly in the West. It has since come to be used too casually and become a shorthand to describe even legitimate criticism of Islam. Mohammed, the IIIT whistle-blower, may be wrong in claiming that the phrase was invented by the Muslim Brotherhood, but he is right when he says it is intended to shut down debate on Islam by portraying it as an insult and incitement to hatred.

And therein lies the problem. For, unlike Indian secularism, Western secularism does not regard religion as sacred and, therefore, entitled to exemption from criticism. Questioning a religion, so long as it is done without attempting to incite hate against its followers, is accepted as part of the right to free speech; this includes the “right to offend”. Western secularism does not acknowledge the so-called “right” to be offended.

Writing in The Guardian, Polly Toynbee, one of Britain’s best-known Left liberal commentators, said: “Fear of offending the religious is gathering ground on all sides. It is getting harder to argue against the hijab and the Koran’s edict that a woman’s place is one step behind. It is beginning to be racist for teachers or social workers to object to autocratic patriarchy and submission of women within many Muslim communities. Islamic ideas that find the very notion of democracy incompatible with faith are beginning to be taken seriously by those who should defend liberal democracy.”

And she is right.

What has happened over the years is that the entire debate on Islam has been reduced to carping about Islamophobia. This is not only alienating people like Polly Toynbee, whose support Muslims need to fight real Islamophobia, but also creating a situation where genuine incidents of Islamophobia are dismissed as cases of Muslims crying wolf once too often.

Yet, the fact is that Islamophobia is real; it is not anybody’s figment of imagination. Anecdotal evidence suggests a significant spike in Islamophobic incidents, especially after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In Britain, “Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks)”, which monitors anti-Muslim sentiments, has reported a marked increase in Islamophobic incidents such as bullying of veiled women, abuse of worshippers and attacks on mosques and Muslim property.

To put it in perspective, however, it is also true that thousands of Muslim asylum-seekers have been welcomed warmly by ordinary people, many of whom have invited them to live in their own homes. And, it is possible that among them are people who have uncomfortable questions to ask about Islam. But that does not mean that they are Islamophobic.

Meanwhile, Muslims must learn to live with the fact that so long as their co-religionists go around doing terrible things and claiming that Islam tells them to do it, Islamophobia will not go away.