Ideologies of all kinds should be open to criticism of all kinds.

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Until a few years ago, Sweden had a national Twitter account. A random citizen would curate the @sweden username for a week before passing it on. The government shut it down in 2018 after its content started leaning to the right.

Inspired by the Swedish model, an @ireland account is still going strong. The Irish government doesn’t own it, but it’s the same idea. In February 2017, they gave the account to me.

One day, I spoke about being an atheist. It’s not so bad in Ireland but in some places, it can get you killed. Then I said that these places are exclusively Muslim-majority countries, and that “Islam is stupid”. If you think this is an exaggeration, follow the news in Pakistan and Jordan and Bangladesh and so on.

These were linked tweets. No one could have seen that tweet in isolation. I made it clear that Muslims need protection from abuse. I also wasn’t interested in trashing Islam in general on that occasion. The context here was perfectly clear. Given the fact that atheism carries the death penalty in many Islamic countries, the tweet was exercising restraint.

The dogpile began almost immediately. A gang of concerned citizens accused me of being “Islamophobic.” The owner of the account called me in a panic that afternoon. He told me to delete the tweet or he would. I deleted it. As you can see, the first tweet in the chain is no longer there.

The “Islamophobia” of Richard Dawkins

In April 2017, Richard Dawkins tweeted this image. It’s a bit clumsy but the intention seems clear. Although, as ever, opinions vary, Islamic scholars generally agree that homosexuality is haram. The countries which carry the death penalty for homosexuality are all Islamic. It would therefore be counterproductive for gay people to defend Islam.

It caused a deluge of tweets calling Dawkins “Islamophobic.” The responses seemed to fall into two groups.

First, some people tweeted that homophobia is unrepresentative of Islam, or that ISIS does not represent Islam.

Homosexuality is punishable by execution in Islamic countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. In others, such as Algeria, Maldives, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia and Syria, it is merely illegal.

In the Islamic republic of Chechnya, home of “the biggest mosque in Europe,” police rounded up gays and killed them. The government denied the massacre. The official position is that “there are no gay people” in Chechnya.

It seems incoherent on the face of it to claim that the “real” Islam is gay-friendly when so many who feel that Islam informs their politics and values are not. Either these brutal homophobic policies are related to the Islamic control of these countries or they are not. If they are not, the fact that only Islamic countries punish homosexuality by execution requires an explanation. Ironically, many critics seem to understand that the homophobia in Christian countries is related to Christianity.

Second, some people tweeted that Dawkins was using Islamic homophobia to advance his “atheist agenda.” In other words, he doesn’t care about gay people at all.

I have no idea what the “atheist agenda” is and apparently neither does anyone else. However, I suspect that it’s similar to the “gay agenda.” It’s what some people call the united efforts of atheists (or gays) to defend against the stupidity and violence they live with. Most just want to be left alone. I don’t know if that counts as an agenda. Maybe dominant cultures are unnerved to see their oppressive values dismantled in front of them.

Either we support freedom of speech and trust our ability to counter racist gibberish or we don’t and we don’t.

Regardless, Dawkins does not have any control over any of us. I have no interest in “defending Richard Dawkins.” I have an interest in attacking stupid arguments. For what it’s worth, his political opinions are freely available. Dawkins has since distanced himself from the term.

Islamophobia in context

Islamophobia means different things to different people in different places. France, for instance, is regularly identified as the most Islamophobic country in Western Europe. There, it’s intimately related to horrific colonial abuse in North Arica. France has made it clear that it will never apologize for its war crimes during its occupation of Algeria. However, Macron has apologized to Algerian traitors and collaborators during their war of independence. Perhaps the old Vichy instincts are still active.

Defining Islamophobia

In November 2018, a British government report on “Islamophobia” recommended adopting the definition below:

Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.

Given the confusion caused by the term “Islamophobia”, the report could have done a better job. Much of the document echoes a similar effort to define the term “antisemitism.” However, that definition does not include criticism of Judaism as a religion. 

Most antisemitism involves harmful stereotypes of Jews—that in the Middle Ages, they drank baby blood, for example, or that they secretly control the world today. However, it has almost nothing to say about the tenets of Judaism itself.

In much the same way that supporters of Israel’s human rights abuses can silence critics by weaponizing “antisemitism,” under this definition, supporters of Islam can silence critics by weaponizing “Islamophobia.”

It is politically illiterate to confuse criticism of Islam for bigotry against Muslims.

There are racists who will jump on criticisms of Israel to trash Jews. There are also racists who will jump on criticism of Islam to trash Arabs. Either we support freedom of speech and trust our ability to counter racist gibberish or we don’t and we don’t.

Words with friends

Maybe we need a new word for the unacceptable racist hate-mongering that Muslims deal within Western countries. This would be different from any word we use for the criticisms of Islam. Given that a Semite is someone who speaks a Semitic language—a group that includes Hebrew and Arabic—the ideal word for describing a hatred of Arabs is “antisemitism.” But others have booked it already.

There is a missed opportunity here. Unfortunately, those who seem most concerned about anti-Semitism seem least concerned about anti-Muslim bigotry and vice versa.

Palestinian academic Edward Said used the word Orientalism to describe Western attitudes to the Middle East. Among the general public, however, I suspect “oriental” is more redolent of “Chinese.”

Maybe we could forget about definitions and try harder to understand what we’re doing. Attacks on ethnicity or the way someone looks is racism. Attacks on ideology or abstract ideas is criticism.

It is politically illiterate to confuse criticism of Islam for bigotry against Muslims. If you can’t tell the difference between an abstract ideology and a human being, maybe you shouldn’t have strong opinions about it.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...