Sunday, July 06, 2008

On Islamophobia

First off, it really is a terrible neologism, isn't it? The people who are described as "Islamophobes" generally have less a problem with the religion than with its practitioners: Muslimphobes perhaps? And "phobia" suggests an exaggerated or irrational fear. Admittedly, the chances of them being killed by adherents of the Islamic faith are pretty slim; but it's certainly not as if it's unheard of in this day and age.

Besides, most "Islamophobes" don't seem particularly afraid. I think the term is used generally to poke fun at bigots and bullies: none of them like being called chicken. But, it suggests that there should be some sort of psychological condition, akin to homophobia, a term that is also often misued- a homophobe is so terrified by their own homosexual feelings that they violently attack homosexuals- think Jeffrey Dahlmer. Therefore, by these standards, very few people would actually be homophobes or Islamophobes. Thank God.

We could say that, all of this aside, we all know what makes for an Islamophobe, but the problem is that we have no idea. Clearly, the lunatic who tries to burn down the local mosque would seem to count; but what about the law-abiding and courteous grandmother who is afraid of being killed by the Islamic radicals that she's heard about on the news? Is it really productive to try to shame these people for their somewhat misguided perceptions by calling them bigots?

On the other hand, many Islamophobes clearly are bigots. I've cringed to encounter some of the "outrage" expressed on the Internet and call-in radio programs. The things about the "cult of death", how they "just don't belong in the West", and how we need to "nuke them" and "round them all up", make me as nervous as the missives from actual terrorist groups. Even worse, I hear a lot of people talking about this "justified hate" in a way that reminds me of people who say the same things about terrorists. Fundamentally, I believe that civilization is a flimsy facade that is nevertheless worth maintaining, and therefore that we have to resist the forces of darkness and the perennial allure of psychopathology.

It's also worth remembering that certain Europeans were saying all of the same things about Muslims hundreds of years ago: that they were clannish and kept to themselves, that they are taught to lie by their faith, that they cannot assimilate, and want to destroy the west; the thing is that the people saying this back then were saying it about all Semitic peoples, including (and especially) Jews. At some point, these people have to explain why it is that this devious fifth column of Muslims and Jews, and all of those "Orientals", never seems to overturn the west, since they've been scheming to for so long.

Moreover, all of the western monotheisms: that is Judaism, Christianity and Islam: have an uneasy relationship with modernity that is perhaps not solvable. Every believer has to live between various islands of identity, and every non-believer as well. None of us are purely devout in any of our identities, and I imagine that we would go insane trying to be. And so, every theist has to navigate between these islands however they see fit. A true Muslim? There's no such thing. Hypocrisy? It's called living.

I don't know what the solution is. Characterizing all questions about the Islamic religion as "Islamophobic" won't make anything easier for believers or nonbelievers; nor is it really fair. Seriously, there are some believers who are terrifying. On the other hand, the constant calls for Muslims to pledge loyalty to the west (and then accusing them of lying!) is becoming wearying even for an atheist like myself. No, the silence is not "deafening"; there are just a lot of deaf people these days. And, yes, there are anti-Muslims who are terrifying as well. To be honest, I'd rather steer clear of all of the ranters.

What I think makes it easier for us children of the Enlightenment to deal with monotheists is simply to understand this: there are countless people who believe that they have had the experience of talking with God. I personally cannot understand this experience in any real way; however, I do recognize that it is so far outside of my realm of experience that I am not really qualified to judge it either. I don't live in the same mental world as these people- what Robt. Anton Wilson called their "reality tunnel", and so on some level I am separated from them. However, this also means that I can't tell what "they're really thinking" either. Maybe they see me as a potential angel in disguise.

The Buddhist image of looking at the sky through a straw applies here: we're all looking at the same sky through different straws and seeing different bits. For me, understanding that makes other people a lot less terrifying to be around. But, I do not think it's too much to ask religious believers to learn to look at us nonbelievers in a similar way.


Holly said...

But, I do not think it's too much to ask religious believers to learn to look at us nonbelievers in a similar way.

But they can't. That's the crux of it all, isn't it? Non-belief leaves so much more room than belief--it doesn't have to be defended. Believers cease to regard their belief as belief, but as fact.

And, yes, there are lots of "facts" that we believe in, many untrue-but-useful (hello, money..?!) but ultimately, belief demands an aggressive defense, or perhaps offense.

Christians have, by an large, adopted the attitude that everyone is a christian, even if they don't know it yet. This is useful, because it means that believers and non-believers can function in society together with relatively minimal friction. Muslims have not taken this position, and I suspect part of the phobia here is that the complacency of the Christianity is being confronted by the non-complacent nature of Islam.

(I'm leaving Judaism out of that metric, because in my opinion, they take something closer to the ideal believer's road: They don't try to convert or pretend anyone into their religion, and mostly seem to want to be left alone in their beliefs.)

But, hey. As a non-believer, how could I possibly bring anything relevant to the discussion... ?

Rufus said...

It's interesting that you mention that non-compacency- what actually prompted this post was my realization that the men at the local halal place where I buy my kebabs really do not like me after a very mild confrontation there recently. (Mostly just me trying to buy dinner and the young man who works there asking me "Do you like Bush? Do you like the war?" and a number of other similar questions in a very angry voice.)

Anyway, what I realized was that, while I couldn't care less about most other people, and am not particularly "phobic" about any specific group of people, I do know enough to keep one eye on the door in most public situations.

I guess that relates to "Islamophobia" because, while I wasn't really scared by the hostility that I've recieved there- and I've actually gotten worse from a few other devout Muslims in France!*- I definitely don't think that a little apprehension around devout members of any faith is abnormal. They are, after all, opposed to people like me.

*(Oh, and for the record, I knew them by the clothes)