Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Islamophobia, the concept and the polemic

The attack against criticism of the Islamic religion continues. Like the Soviet Union of yore, the West along with the Islamic world treats critics of the privileged ideology as madmen suffering from a mental disease, an irrational fear, in this case a new-fangled disorder called Islamophobia. This is modeled on xenophobia, “fear of strangers”, and ultimately on genuine diseases like agoraphobia, “fear of public places”, and arachnophobia, “fear of spiders”. The crusaders (or rather the muhajedin) against this disease are not missionaries who claim to love the people they accuse of being devil-worshippers, they are simpler and more straightforward: they just hate these dissenters. They do not wonder why the “Islamophobes” disagree with the official appreciation, they have no time for such luxuries. They simply try to impose their own hatred on public opinion and on lawmakers, for, like Islam itself, they would like to institute laws everywhere prohibiting criticism of Islam.



Now, the Islamophobia-hunters dispose of a blacklist detailing who exactly the enemy is: Nathan Lean’s book The Islamophobia Industry. How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, Pluto Press, London 2012 (distributed in the US by Palgrave/MacMillan). It is endorsed by the usual suspects: Mark Juergensmeyer, Karen Armstrong, Tariq Ramadan. Reza Aslan, author of No God but God, speaks of “the multi-million-dollar Islamophobia industry”. These Islamophiles seem obsessed with money, real or imaginary, whereas the real stakes of the Islam debate consist of ideas, so painfully absent from the case they are building, and at any rate from this book.

In the foreword, Prof. John Esposito pontificates about how powerful and rich the “Islamophobes” are.  This he does to conceal the simple fact that the Islamophiles enjoy government and establishment patronage, while “Islamophobes” are marginal and have to set up their own institutions. I, for one, who started publishing critiques of Islam during the Satanic Verses affair back in 1989, have not seen these flows of money in more than 23 years. I can only testify that criticism of Islam brings a writer nothing but ostracism and poverty (unless he is also a well-connected leftist, like Salman Rushdie). This is a struggle of rich against poor, and to make sure nobody misunderstands it: the Islamophiles are the rich, the well-rewarded loudspeakers of the system. This book itself relates without protest how a number of Islam critics lost their jobs because of their stand, while no Islam defender is similarly harassed.

The author himself and some people quoted all make the same point. It starts with the title: “the Islamophobia industry” conjures up a powerful network. In reality, there are a handful of bloggers, of whom some correspond with each other while some are really isolated. There are a few retired professors of Islamic studies, from the days when you could get into those departments without first giving proof of your Islamophilia, like the Dutchman Prof. Hans Jansen and the Belgian Prof. Urbain Vermeulen, who was given a reprimand by his university (subsequently withdrawn) after a media campaign against him. So yes, there are a handful of people, and they manage to convince their handful of readers (still too many for Lean) because their theses are so factual, so rooted in primary material. But in terms of power, they are nothing compared to the establishment of Islam apologists, from policy-makers down to the level of “community organizers” whose job consists in combating the “prejudices” pertaining to the Muslim minority.



Then the subtitle:  How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims. It has oddly fallen to the Right to defend the West against Islam. In the past, the struggle against religion would have been deemed naturally Leftist. In the Spanish Civil War, Dolores Ibarruri a.k.a. la pasionaria eloquently condemned Islam and the Muslim soldiers fighting on the nationalist side for Christ King. In the Muslim world, the critique of Islam has mostly been voiced by declared Marxists, e.g. the late Aziz Nesin in Turkey and Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh. But in the contemporary West, the Left has chosen to abandon Karl Marx’s dictum that “all criticism starts with criticism of religion”, so we have only the Right to count on.

It is not so sure that the “Islamophobes” really are Rightists, though. They are against hate, therefore against an ideology of hate; and they are for multiculturalism, therefore against an ideology that is the enemy of multicultural societies. Thus, in 1947, South-Asian Muslims forced the Partition of India on the Hindus, Sikhs and Christians (killing a million and forcing some fifteen million to flee) because they did not want to live in a multicultural society with these others. As his life’s mission, Mohammed himself changed Arabia from a vibrant multicultural society into a monolithic Islamic one. I leave it to the reader to make up his mind whether favouring multiculturalism and opposing hate really constitutes “Rightism”.

Fortunately, that Right doesn’t have to “manufacture” fear of Muslims. The whole establishment including Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama may say all they want about Islam being a “religion of peace”, but the public also gets the news items that philter through. These factual reports recount day after day how Muslims commit violence here and then there. The media try to put a harmless spin on it, but the viewers and readers retain the hard facts about Islam. And these facts have been taking place ever since the Prophet Mohammed made a living by attacking caravans, raping and ransoming the women, killing the men and selling the children into slavery. The Right doesn’t have to say this, all it has to do is to quote from Islamic scripture.

                Lean cites film character Prof. John Falconer (A single man, 2009) approvingly: “Fear, after all, is our real enemy. Fear is taking over our world. Fear is being used as a tool of manipulation in our society,” etc., then adds: “But this is about something else. This is about a concerted effort on the part of a small cabal of xenophobes to manufacture fear for personal gain.” (p.14) This reviewer really wonders what personal gain could offset his very tangible losses, but Lean tells him where to look: “Hardline supporters of Israel’s quest to extend its reach into Palestinian territories are often major backers of the pseudo-intellectual pugilism that the Islamophobia industry deploys (… ) Their money – and lots of it – has subsidized massive propaganda campaigns against Islam and bankrolled the work of anti-Muslim naysayers (…) Regardless of their religious or political beliefs, their wallets benefit from such discourses.” (p.11) Well, enough said about the unseen but apparently huge “personal gain” to be made from Islam criticism. But at least we might be told just who the “Islamophobes” are.


The faces of “Islamophobia”

                We get to learn their names and some details about their careers and affiliation, e.g. Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. (Conservative columnist Don Feder said of the latter’s book Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t: “If there were a Nobel prize for demolishing inanities, I’d give it to Robert Spencer”, p.207.) Most of the discussion is about their motives, and clairvoyant Lean decides it must be their frustrated need for attention which saw its chance after 11 September 2001. But we get to know nothing about their arguments against Islam. Thus, Dr. Daniel Pipes, a prominent Islam scholar and critic, is alleged to have given and received some money (from the inevitable Zionist money-bags), but his scholarship is not addressed at all.

Indeed, the chief concern of the people concerned, viz. Islam, is simply not discussed. Islam is just a black box, and if ever a statement about it finds any mention, it is without going into the truth of that statement, which would require an analysis of Islam itself. That is a strict no-no to the author, so the reader is required to laugh every possible statement of the “Islamophobes” off as obviously ridiculous.

                On Europe, say on Gates of Vienna or the Brussels Journal, the author is silent, preferring only the more sensational cases of resistance to Islam. Some attention is paid to Geert Wilders, though not to his arguments (and to his trial for racial insults but not to its outcome: full acquittal), plenty to the English Defence League, and to the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. Of course there would have been no Breivik without Islam and the problems it poses; but there is no doubt that he was received by Islam apologists as a god-send. They have all been hiding behind the Norwegian’s broad shoulders, a safe point from which to shoot their arrows at Islam critics. But a year and some months down the line, we can safely say that the hoped-for effect of the Breivik episode failed to materialize. By the Islamic warriors’ endless and newsworthy attacks, killing hundreds in Afghanistan or Iraq, by the degeneration of the “Arab spring” into an “Islamic winter”, by the blasphemy persecutions in Pakistan and stonings in Mali, the population has again replaced Breivik as a bogeyman with the archetypal mujahid, the Islamic holy warrior against the infidels. Unfortunately for the Islam apologists, reality is more persistent than the Breivik blip.

But we appreciate Lean’s testimony to the violence which Islam critics have to face. Thus: “Staging a demonstration against plans for a mosque in Harrow, England, SIOE [Stop Islamization of Europe] activists clashed with brick-wielding counter-protesters. In a storm of fury, the rectangular blocks, along with glass bottles and firecrackers, were hurled airborne.” (p.53) And look at his language on Wilders’ film Fitna: “His flick was chockablock with horrifying images and hateful juxtapositions. Bloodied bodies, dismembered by terrorists, and references to female genital mutilation ran alongside handpicked verses of the Quran. So provocative were some scenes that the ambassadors of 26 Muslim-majority countries called for it to be banned.” (p.175) The author really makes no effort to sound neutral, as a real scholar would, and gives the impression that the call for a ban carries his approval.



                In America, the strong Evangelical movement also opposes Islam, and the author spends many pages on painting it in the worst light. In 2010, “Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer triggered lurking anti-Muslim sentiment within the crowd. ‘We believe that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator – and by the way, folks, that’s not Allah – with certain unalienable rights’, he roared as the room of white, middle-aged evangelicals erupted in agreement.” (p.97) The partisan doings of the Christian general William Boykin in Iraq in 2003, of course not supported in this by the Government, are discussed at some length. (p.113-115) The Christian subjugation of the American natives with reference to God-given rights to the land as per the Old Testament gets mentioned as proving that Christians are every bit as bad as they themselves allege of Muslims. (p.98)

Well, Christianity has a lot to answer for, but at least it is preferable to Islam in some important respects. As a doctrine, it is a lot more broad-based than Islam, taking in elements from Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture, the Jewish tradition, Hellenistic philosophy and Roman law, and this through many erudite writers who thought twice about the book they contributed to Holy Scripture. That is, for instance, why the Crusades, the limiting Just War Theory, and radical pacifism could all be rooted in Christianity. By contrast, Islam is based on the brief and unconsidered utterances of one half-literate businessman, Mohammed.

Moreover, Christianity’s first three centuries were spent as a marginal religion in the mighty Roman empire, so that a doctrine of the separation of Church and State and of obedience to the prevailing law system soon developed. It was not always abided by, but one can always fall back on it, and it has become a cornerstone of modern secular culture. By contrast, Mohammed’s aim was from the beginning to institute a state, governed by Islamic law, and his victories made Islam’s supremacy a matter of course. So, Islam has always been a political religion, seeing State power and Shari’a as one.



Typically, the author tries to expand American racism to include criticism of Islam: “The spheres of Islamophobia and racism overlap greatly. In the last 60 years, in particular, racist language has shifted away from overtly biological prejudices to include a strong cultural component.” (p.96) Even if this opposition to certain cultural traits can be shown to be a prejudice, it is by definition not racism. Islam is not a race, and since the beginning, it was criticized by Mohammed’s fellow tribesmen, who of course shared their race with him. Nowadays, their torch is taken over by numerous people of colour, such as the late Hindu historians Ram Swarup, Harsh Narain, Sita Ram Goel and K.S. Lal, the African novelist Maryse Condé, and most notably by ex-Muslims like the Pakistani-born philologist Ibn Warraq, the Iranian-born law scholar Afshin Ellian and the Somali-born political scientist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Of course, none of them finds mention in this book, which pictures only white Americans so that it can lament how only white Americans are in the picture.

According to the author, “Islamophobes” make a distinction “between ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ cultures, the latter of which are marginalized not only because of their ethnic background, but also because of their traditions, beliefs and cultural practices, often described by racists as ‘uncivilized’, ‘backwards’, ‘primitive’ or ‘barbarian’.” (p.97) The words “superior” in “inferior” are meant to make the link with pre-war racism, but are in fact not much in use now. But alright, by definition Christians consider Christianity as superior to Islam, not of course because of the latter’s “ethnic” background, but purely because both the belief system and the ethics of Islam are deemed wanting when compared to Christianity. Human beings have a freedom to choose their religion, and thus the freedom to compare the religions on offer. Of course they will judge the one as unequal to the other, whether superior or inferior, just as a math teacher will see an inequality between “2 + 2 = 4” and “2 + 2 = 5”. That perfectly normal exercise of the power of discrimination has nothing to do with racism, and has been a problem for Islam ever since Mohammed’s fellow townspeople in Mecca rejected Islam. But Lean would like “Islamophobes” to be racist, because he hopes to score with anti-racist language whereas he knows he cannot win against them if the debate is about Islam as a doctrine.

By the way, American conservatives are right when they call their presidential candidate Herman Cain “a real black as compared to Obama”. (p.99) Obama is what Brazilians would call a mulatto, half-white on his white mother’s side, also the only side on which he has American slaves in his ancestry. Cain, by contrast, is a real descendant of African-American slaves. Obama’s father’s tribe, the Luo, missed the history of Transatlantic slavery, but they may have had something to do with the Arab slave-raids, which used some African tribes to enslave others.

Much is made here, as by Evangelicals, of the question to what extent Obama is a Muslim. No doubt he was first brought up in the religion of his Muslim father and stepfather, and during his primary school days in Indonesia he was registered as a Muslim. Upon returning to America, he lived with his white grandparents and was resocialized as a Christian. Later, in Chicago, he started attending a black church. I for one think he is one of the many ex-Muslims who were roped in by the Protestant churches. For in spite of the Islamic prohibition on conversion out of Islam, Muslims in peripheral zones with limited social control by other Muslims do manage to become Christians. In Indonesia this would probably not have succeeded (and in Pakistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia only at the risk of his life),  but in the US, he could easily get away with it. But I cannot look in his head and have to believe him on faith when he calls himself a Christian. At any rate, it is not “Islamophobia” to have a different opinion on this.


Moderate Muslims

 The author, obeying Godwin’s law, brings in Adolf Hitler early on. He shouldn’t have, for “Islamophobic” readers by now all know that the Nazis liked Islam a great deal, that they had Muslim regiments in the Waffen-SS, that the collaborationist Ustasha government of Croatia built a mosque for them in Zagreb (which the subsequent Communist government turned into a pigsty), that the multiculturalist Hitler himself ordered deceased Muslim soldiers to be buried according to Islamic rites, etc. Today, Muslim youngsters in European schools don’t tolerate lessons about the Holocaust or even applaud Hitler for waging the good war against the Jews. By contrast, it was the anti-Nazi war leader Winston Churchill who likened Hitler Mein Kampf to Mohammed’s Quran, a stand later taken over by the author’s bête noire Geert Wilders. If anyone should be called a Nazi (and Lean clearly thinks there should), it is Lean himself.

Then, there is the usual wailing that a minority of extremists spoils the image of a large majority of moderate Muslims. To be sure, they exist, such as the Muslims who alerted the police to prevent cases of terrorism (p.148-149), but they do not prove Lean’s point. First of all, they have this in common with the terrorists, that they all swear by Islam. The much-maligned Islamophobes keep this fact in mind, and Lean holds this against them:  “—the Quran found in Mohammed Atta’s bag contained the same verses that would be preached to Muslims attending worship in the building’s mosque, they believed.” (p.40). Well, of course. From Mohammed Atta (of 9/11 fame) and Mohammed Bouyeri (the murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh) to the Palestinian, Afghan and other suicide terrorists, we have literally hundreds of testimonies, in written or videotaped form, of contemporary Muslims stating that Islam and nothing but Islam was their motivation. We have it from many Muslims, including Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, that the Western establishment is wrong in making a distinction between radical and moderate Muslims. And we take these Muslims at their word, while Lean pretends to know it all better than they themselves.

Secondly, even those moderates applaud and quietly help the extremists in actions they themselves don’t have the mettle for, but approve of. Thirdly, in those cases where they really think the extremists have gone too far, they may be guided by a strategy that seems more promising than confrontation, but that has the same Islamic goal nonetheless (e.g. because they count on demography to make a purely democratic transition to an Islamic order possible). And fourthly, where they really abide by policies such as full integration and acceptance of the law of the land, rather than Shari’a, they obey either the influence of modernity or a deeper, more universally human, pre-Islamic layer in themselves. For Muslims are just human beings who have, after all, had to learn Islam; they were not born as Muslims. Indeed, there is nothing about this mistaken belief system that cannot be washed off. As an ex-Catholic myself, I can testify that there is life after apostasy.



Mr. Lean, whose world consists of haters everywhere, would like us to hate his book: “I expect that those who view the world in ways that are diametrically opposed to my own will take great issue with what follows. I delight in their protestations. For were they to find my narrative pleasing, I would feel as if I had done a great injustice.” (p.15) Alas, we have every reason to like this book. It proves our point completely. One, the defenders of Islam have to leave the contents of Islam unmentioned, because any serious analysis of the religion would prove the points made by the “Islamophobes”. Two, they have to pick on vulnerable targets, like shrill Evangelicals and narrow-minded military men, but leave the really knowledgeable critics of Islam outside their readers’ horizon. Thus, ex-Muslim critics are not mentioned at all. This slanted presentation is just what we are used to from our debates with Islam defenders in our own daily lives.

                We also have to compliment Lean on letting out truths of which he doesn’t realize the depth. Thus, he writes that one Imam Ossama “Bahloul was skeptical that the political and economic climates of an election year were the only instigating factors for the sudden surge in anti-Muslim hate.” (p.182) And the same thing counts for Islam itself: the surge in Islamic terrorism was not the result of economic factors, and elections don’t even exists in some of the terrorists’ home countries.
Disregarding for now that the author is a hater himself (which is but his freedom of opinion), we must appreciate that here, he hits the nail on the head. No matter that so many apologists of Islam mouth the Marxist platitude of the “real” reason being economic (yes, the poverty of that billionaire Osama bin Laden), or that the media blame the electoral fever, here we have an educated Muslim rejecting  these facile explanations. Anti-Islamism is not the result of political and economic circumstances, but of an increasing awareness of Islam’s doctrine and history. This awareness is forced on us by Islam itself, which impresses its presence upon our societies.

Finally, this book should serve as a call to Islam critics to improve their performance. Shrill and panicky warnings against an Islamic take-over are not what the world needs. The degree to which Islam itself is threatened by modernity and by the West should also be considered. Confusion between Islamic doctrine, which is indeed the germ of some dangerous developments, and the mass of Muslims, who are as much the prisoners as the carriers of Islam, is to be avoided. Muslims can’t help it that they were born into Muslim families, and that they associate the natural respect for their parents with a belief in the religion they received from their parents. If we had been born in their societies, maybe we too would have been Muslims. So we should empathize with them and their difficult situation of having believed in a deluded Prophet for decades. After all, we expect of them that they outgrow their religion, which is possible yet fairly hard to do. We should not so much focus on symptoms, such as the veil or the minarets or the “Ground Zero mosque”, but on the Islamic belief system itself. Our attitude to Muslims should be to say: “Know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The rest, from their stopping the slaughter of sheep in their bath-tubs to their abandoning of jihad, will then follow from itself.



Anonymous said...

Muslims are very sensitive people as far as Muhammad is concerned. For them any criticism of Islam has to be irrational and hateful.

Karthikrajan said...

Going by the saying that one can wake up a sleeping person, but it is not possible to wake up a person who pretends to sleep , it is impossible to make muslims see the truth. The only way is to talk about the results of this untruth: lack of democracy and freedom of speech in islamic nations to the west of india, lack of scientific temper in them, suppression of women (veil, etc), their domineering nature (minaret, mosque)etc. Encounter is the only way out, like sita ram goel's book "history of hindu christian encounters"

pro_scribe said...

Dear Dr. Elst,

There are two books on Islam that greatly interest me. Patricia Crone's Hagarism: The making of the Islamic World and Christoph Luxenberg's The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. What do you make of them?


pro_scribe said...

Dear Dr. Elst,

There are two books on Islam that greatly interest me. Patricia Crone's Hagarism: The making of the Islamic World and Christoph Luxenberg's The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. What do you make of them?