Islamophobia: The new tool to silence liberal Muslims

Representational Image. Photo: PTI

Islamophobia has been twisted to be a synonym for blasphemy. It has become a tool in the hands of Islamists who use it to hound liberal and intellectual Muslims. This changes discourse and gullible people are misled into supporting the most conservative and regressive Muslim factions.     

The word ‘Islamophbia’ has become a most contested term in the post 9/11 era. The ambiguous meaning of this word ‘Islamophobia’ and its vague implications have made it rather contentious, which is why many feel wary about normalizing it into the socio-political discourse.

1997 Runnymede Report titled “Islamophobia”: A Challenge for Us All defined the term as—

“The term Islamophobia refers to unfounded hostility towards Islam. It refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities, and the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs.”

The definition given above proved a challenge in relation to delimiting its dynamics. Presumably, the objective in introducing the term was to counter anti-Muslim bigotry.  But it is unclear how far it was supposed to entail other socio-political meanings or unstated assumptions.    

Therefore, it is essential to look at how the semantics of Islamophobia have played out before holding it up as the litmus test to gauge prejudice against Islam and Muslims, especially in an age when hard-earned freedom of speech is frequently trampled in the rush to protect religious sensitivities.

Efforts to make Islamophobia a legitimate term to define anti-Muslim bigotry haven’t stood up to rigorous testing. Yet it took no time before turning the label into a whip with which to strike down dissent, both within and outside Muslim communities.

The Runnymede definition of ‘Islamophobia’ may be sufficiently narrow to exclude disagreement and criticism of Islam and Muslims. But deployment of the term ever since has been vague and this has left interpretation of certain actions and words to the discretion of individuals to decide whether they are being criticised or victimised.

In the respect of ‘hostility towards Islam’ (the religion) it is doubtful whether anyone except the most intolerant religious fundamentalists are being protected by the Runnymede definition.

Few liberals would agree that religions themselves are owed protection against “hostility” since religious belief is not obligatory in modern secular states and freedom of conscience ought to include negative feelings towards ideas and doctrines.

Nevertheless, this term ‘Islamophobia’ has been used sweepingly not only to oppose smears against Muslims in general but also for rejecting all shades of criticism of Islam, or for persecuting and smearing critics of the most ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam. 

People like Irshad Manji, Shireen Qudosi, Usama Hassan, Zuhdi Jassar, Maajid Nawaz, Raheel Raza, Haris Rafeeq, Elham Manea, Qanta Ahmed and many more are calling out the ultra-conservative mores and traditions that have proved to fuel violent tendencies within Muslim communities, yet the term “Islamophobia” has been wielded time and again to silence them. 

Islamists have used the “Islamophobia” trope to intimidate these intellectuals along many others and to assail their integrity vis-à-vis liberal Westerners who have gullibly bought into the discourse and are misled into supporting the most conservative Muslims.   

It is a sad state of affairs that both sides are using the same language to reprimand dissenting voices calling out Islamist ideology that legitimates unequal treatment of women and the indiscriminate killing of innocent people.

This is how constant misuse of Islamophobia has made its authenticity irrelevant while reducing it to a leitmotif playing into the hands of Islamists and their acolytes.

Subsequently, regardless of its supposed functions and implications, Islamophobia has become a synonym for blasphemy by means of which Islamists smear dissent and hound liberal Muslims.

If anything could expose its hollowness, it is the sustained effort to lend Islamophobia legitimacy by implying that it is akin to racism, which not only deploys a flawed conception of what it is to be a Muslim, but also conflates the valid criticism of political Islam with anti-Muslim bigotry.

Muslims do not comprise a homogenous group. Neither have they belonged to a particular race, ethnicity or country.  Whereas race is theoretically constructed around biological markers which are unalterable, Islam is a ‘faith’ system that can be adopted and renounced at any time. Therefore, race and Islam can hardly be seen one and the same thing.

Likening the attributes associated with Muslims to racial characteristics in any way is delusory. It makes the debate around defining Islamophobia in terms of race orthogonal to the issue at hand. 

The language of Islamophobia has tended to persistently overshadow matters concerning prejudice and hatred against Muslims as well as the rampant radicalization within Muslim communities through a politicized version of Islamism.

Given the situation, the recent European Court of Human Rights’ affirmation of the conviction of an Austrian woman who criticized Islamic tradition and its prophet has made the matter more worrying.

Her remarks were considered to have gone “beyond the limits of a critical denial” of religious sanctity. The decision was highly criticized by human rights activists, scholars and victims of Islamic blasphemy laws around the world who described the ruling as infantilizing towards Muslims, while also making Islam immune to criticism.

The ruling marked a conspicuous blow to efforts to decriminalize blasphemy as a ‘crime’ since the decision came down in the midst of ongoing efforts to remove the ‘crime’ of blasphemy from the Irish constitution and the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian embroiled in a false case of blasphemy who remains in hiding because of Islamist threats to her life.

Meanwhile, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) of British Muslims has chosen to retain the term ‘Islamophobia’ in a bid to define prejudice and hatred against Muslims, despite the word’s contentious connotations. There remains a lack of consensus on its definition among different sections of British society, including amongst Muslims.  

The poor selection of terminology has successfully derailed the debate about protecting people of Muslim heritage from bigotry while indulging all stakeholders in a deceptive game of semantics.

The proposed definition has failed to offer any practical measure to counter its misuse and/or to protect those with well-grounded arguments aimed at reformation of extremist political Islam and/or the preservation of human rights. Instead, the term affords their enemies an instrument with which to turn them into social pariahs.

Though APPG have claimed to have consultation with academics, lawyers, activists, victims groups and British Muslim organizations, however, they have virtually excluded from their consultations secular Muslims who consider Islamic jurisdictions and Muslim traditions at odd with liberal values.

As Lead Commissioner for Countering Exteremism Sara Khan explained unequivocally in response to the proposed definition of Islamophobia: “This failure to recognise that Muslims can be abused, attacked, even killed, by other Muslims because of their “Muslimness’ is a blind spot in our public debate and detrimental to the well-being of British Muslims and those of Muslim heritage.”

Therefore, this relentless campaign around defining Islamophobia appears to be an effort to give privilege to a particularly vocal and extremely conservative section of Muslim communities who seek impunity in leveling allegations of “Islamophobia” at dissidents who are liable to be punished either by blatant smears at best or by extrajudicial execution at worst. 

Conspicuously, the proposed definition of Islamophbia would likely increase hostility towards progressive people many folds, especially after they have criticized the term islamophobia for its misuse.    

Many shady Muslim organizations, such asMuslim council of British Muslims CAGE and MEND already resist calls for reformation and foster conservative attitudes and customs among British Muslims, such as imposition of the hijab in British primary schools, disparity and inequality in Islamic jurisdiction and unfair proceedings at sharia councils, by labeling critics ‘Islamophobes’.

Some of them sympathise with radical Islamist movements in the Muslim world. They smear people who have been trying to reconcile Islam and liberal values by questioning Islamic teachings and traditions that are incompatible with human rights.

This regressive attitude is clearly inimical to secularism, tolerance and basic human rights and is in conflict with democratic values aimed to provide equal opportunities to all citizens regardless of their caste, color, and creed.

Religion can be a force for good and evil on personal or highly political level so it is essential to keep the discourse open to critical perspectives and a variety of religious interpretations to draw a distinction between faith and political abuses of religion to impose social mores and fallible creeds on others who do not share the same beliefs.

A clear understanding of what religious freedom means entails the understanding that it should not breach fundamental liberties and must include freedom from religious coercion as well as freedom to practice one’s faith.

Laws in Western democracies already guarantee religious freedom and robustly protect individuals from discrimination based on their religious beliefs. Prominent members of Muslim communities should join in efforts to enforce the existing laws rather than seeking privileges above and beyond the same laws that protect their fellow citizens.

It is time that we move on from deploying contentious terms like Islamophobia to define anti-Muslim bigotry.  Deployment of this disputed term only emboldens Islamists to silence critics of Islam as well as the genuine bigots to continue their vile agenda of demonizing Muslims while painting them with the same brush.

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