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On the Honest Use of Language, Part 2

by Carlos

October 22, 2010 - This article comes with a BLACK BOX WARNING: Contains criticism of Islam. Do not use as justification for hating Muslims. If you do, you will have completely misunderstood the message. That would not be a good thing. So shake well before using and read very carefully and through to the end.

Our first look at the use of slogans to distort reality concerned the term judenrein. The present article examines another even more popular slogan.

Perhaps no other term in common use today better exemplifies the deceptive use of language than "Islamophobia." Whoever coined it was a genius. In just six syllables it succeeds in tarring with the taint of racism anyone with a legitimate objection to a religious and political ideology.

The word creates confusion on two levels. First, "Islamophobia" should literally mean fear of Islam. "Islam" means Islam and "phobia" means fear. But in psychology, "phobia" refers to an irrational or neurotic fear. Thus the word "Islamophobia" implies that all fear of Islam is irrational.

This would be bad enough, since not all fear of Islam is irrational, as we will discuss. But it gets worse. The word is also used to mean hatred of Muslims (just as "homophobia" is used to refer to hatred and violence towards homosexuals). Hatred of Muslims is not the same as fear of Islam, yet nobody talks about "Muslimophobia" when referring to anti-Muslim sentiment or behavior. Because of this double meaning, the very word "Islamophbia" implies that one cannot criticize Islam without being accused of hating and persecuting Muslims. The same word is used to mean both, making Islam itself immune from any critical examination. Rational criticism of Islam is equated with the irrational hatred of Muslims; the two are forever linked by the word "Islamophobe."

It may be too late to eradicate this linguistic weed. Nevertheless, it is essential to distinguish between criticism of Islam and hatred of Muslims, and to make sure that when we do legitimately engage in the former we do not slip into the latter.

The thoughtless hatred of Muslims is as unacceptable as the thoughtless hatred of anyone else. Each person must be considered as an individual. Some people hate Muslims only because they are Muslims, without knowing anything else about them, and that is wrong and it must be condemned.

Nevertheless, the criticism of Islam as a religion is not necessarily irrational. Not all Muslims are terrorists; yet a very disproportionate number of terrorists are Muslims, and that is not simply by chance. Some Muslims have said that terror is non-Islamic, and they are to be praised (that is, unless they make exceptions for terrorism against Israelis, as a great many do). Yet even when Islam does not push people to commit actual acts of terror, it still may influence them towards intolerance. Many adherents of the religion do not actively support terrorism, yet say nothing when Islam is used to justify it - though they may protest vociferously when Islam is criticized.

Expressions of intolerance in basic Islamic sources are too frequent to be dismissed as an aberration. The Qur'an states repeatedly Allah's hatred of the unbeliever. It contains not only explicitly anti-Jewish passages but anti-Christian ones as well. Muhammad's teachings in the Hadith glorify death in jihad, war for the sake of Islam. The Sharia, Islamic law, makes jihad a communal obligation. The few passages from the Qur'an that some use to support religious tolerance actually mean something strikingly different when taken in context. One famous example is " This is all easy to substantiate, but it cannot be done briefly. There is no space to do it here, but see these numerous references to Islamic sources. There the reader will find extensive citations not only to the Qur'an but to other principal sources as well, showing that intolerance is rooted in the religion itself.

Terrorism and terrorist acts are therefore not isolated phenomena. They draw support from the intolerance that is intrinsically part of Islam. If the great Prophet, the one whom we all should emulate, taught that Allah hates nonbelievers (and indeed the Qur'an tells us repeatedly that Allah watches them closely and sends them to hell), then at least one valid interpretation of this tradition is that it's OK for us to hate nonbelievers too. Not all Muslims subscribe to this interpretation; nevertheless the interpretation itself is not non-Islamic. We must maintain awareness of both sides of this dialectical statement at all times.

We cannot say that something is non-Islamic just because we don't like it. Throughout the Muslim world atrocities are committed in Islam's name and for Islam's sake. It is supremely arrogant of non-Muslim Westerners to tell Muslims what Islam is. This includes telling the leaders of Saudi Arabia the capital of Sunni Islam, which exports religious hatred throughout the world, and the leaders of Iran the capital of Shiite Islam, which threatens the West with death and is bent on acquiring the means to achieve it, that they don't know their own religion. It is similarly presumptuous to accuse radicalized masses in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, Yemen, Turkey, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudan of "hijacking" or "perverting" Islam, as if people who never picked up a Qur'an in their lives know Islam better than they do. Lately I have heard many Americans pontificate about Islam; yet such people would be hard put to quote a single verse from the Qur'an, let alone cite or even know about any other written Islamic source. Islam is what Muslims believe and practice. If many people practice a religion we find intolerant and distasteful it is absurd to tell them, "You're not practicing Islam. You 'hijacked' the 'real' Islam. I know what Islam is and you don't." Would you tolerate any outsider telling you they know your religion better than you do?

Islam is often compared to Christianity, which also practiced much brutality in its history. However, we are still waiting for reforms to take place within Islam similar to those that Christianity experienced. The two religions cannot be equated, and not simply because Islam is younger. It is not inaccurate to say that Islam is a religion that glorifies and idealizes a mass murderer. This is not a slander. It comes right out of the earliest Arabic biographies of Muhammad, where it is a point of pride. Muhammad was a holy warrior who slaughtered an entire tribe of people who resisted his word. The fact that it was a Jewish tribe, the Banu Quraiza, surely had some impact on Muslim-Jewish relations throughout history and still has even today. And Jews were not his only victims. Muhammad's intolerance was absolute. "Two religions shall not coexist in the land of the Arabs," he swore (Hadith, Malik's Muwatta, 45:5:17).

Islam dearly needs to reexamine and reassess its most basic scriptures and sources. That has not happened. If you say a critical word about Muhammad in the wrong place and at the wrong time, you risk setting off a worldwide conflagration (ask Salman Rushdie or Molly Norris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Theo van Gogh - oops, not Theo, he's dead). Something in the religion must encourage that.

The Enigma of "Islamism"

Another nonsense word, born of intellectual cowardice, is "Islamism." What on earth does it mean? The suffix "-ism" comes from the Greek and is used to indicate a doctrine or a practice. "Islamism" then should mean the doctrine or practice of Islam. Yet people who say "Islamism" want to avoid placing any responsibility for religiously inspired bad behavior on Islam itself. What is going on here?

"Islamism" is a curious word. Some claim that Islamism is not a religion but a political ideology, and that while it may exploit Islam, it is not Islam. However, those who practice "Islamism" never call it that. They say they are practicing Islam. And in truth the two cannot be separated. They both share a common foundation of intolerance, based on scripture and a history of religious conquest. "Islamism" refers to one way of applying Islam in the political sphere.

Yet the word "Islamism" is often used to suggest some foreign invader that, like a parasite, latched onto Islam and perverted it for its own use. A strong motive for using the word this way must be a fear of criticizing Islam itself. This eliminates a great threat, the threat of having to criticize another's religion and all that that entails, and the possible threat of a confrontation with the religion itself. So religious extremists are supposedly not practicing Islam, even though they say they are. They are practicing "Islamism." Never mind that this neologism has no referent. Never mind that religious terrorists insist they are Muslims practicing Islam while we stubbornly refuse to hear them. The term "Islamism" conveniently protects us from confronting a truth that may be too frightening for many of us to face.

Islam and Islamism cannot be separated. "Islamist" preachers proclaim the famous words of Muhammad himself: "You will fight against the Jews and you will kill them until even a stone would say: Come here, Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me; kill him." (Hadith, Sahih Muslim, 41:6981). This teaching is often used today to incite hatred against Jews, in numerous Friday sermons and in the Hamas charter. "Islamist" terrorists and terrorist sympathizers still shout the ancient battle cry: "Remember Khaybar, Khaybar, Jews! Muhammad's army will return!" Now Hezbollah, the "Party of God," deploys "Khaybar" missles, which it has used to attack Israel's northern cities. Khaybar was the last Jewish settlement in Arabia that Muhammad destroyed. Was Muhammad practicing "Islamism," or Islam? When he beheaded his enemies, was Muhammad practicing "Islamism," or Islam? Did Muhammad "hijack" his own religion? Or was he actually practicing it? He was, after all, its founder. More than that, Muhammad was not just a religious leader; he was an accomplished statesman and he unified a nation. Islam cannot be separated from politics.

A Fair Question

At this point one might ask a fair question: Why make a fuss about this now?

The politically correct climate under which one is not allowed to voice any concerns about Islam is not healthy. There is an ongoing attempt to shame people from expressing any criticism at all. This comes precisely at a time when we need to allow open discussion. Even if some people's views are erroneous, they cannot be corrected if they are not aired. Shaming people into silence does not make their feelings go away. Those feelings will only explode once the final boundary is crossed and people feel they cannot take it anymore. The New York Mosque controversy is an example.

Some fears of Islam may be irrational, but certainly not all. Extreme religious intolerance has been part of Islam's history ever since the early Arab conquests. Some rationalize this by saying that at least Muslims didn't burn Jews at the stake the way Christians did. This is hardly a reason for gratitude. The Qur'an states how non-Muslims living under Muslim rule are to be treated, with special taxes and restrictive regulations to keep them in their place. The root issue is not the overt acts of terrorism but the intolerance on which they feed. The Qur'an does not prescribe suicide bombing, but it does encourage the belief that God hates those who get bombed. Couple this with Muhammad's sayings in the Hadith that glorify death in jihad, and you have an explosive mix ready to go off when conditions are ripe.

People's fears of Islam will therefore not go away. They are a response to reality, and if some people don't like that response, then they need to show a better one. We will not get anywhere by trying to shut people up. Just this week news broke that National Public Radio has fired reporter Juan Williams for admitting he feels nervous when on a plane with passengers in Muslim garb. How ridiculous is that? Williams is no bigot, and he is on record saying that all Muslims should not be blamed for the actions of extremists. But if even Juan Williams harbors such fears, isn't it a safe bet that many others do too, and wouldn't we all benefit by discussing them instead of imposing a taboo against even talking about them? Such a taboo only makes certain those fears will remain in hiding, where they cannot be challenged. This climate of denial is insane and will not lead to the mutual tolerance people say they want. I have been hesitant to bring this all out into the open, but I do so now to encourage precisely the kind of discussion our society has been trying to avoid. We cannot wish reality away. We have to discuss it openly and rationally, or else there will be no hope of ever achieving the American ideal of diverse groups living together in harmony.

An Important Caution

What I have said so far can be summarized as follows: The religious intolerance that finds its most violent expression in what is now called "Islamism" has been present in Islam since its inception. That, however, is only half the story. Ignoring the other half produces a dangerous distortion of reality. Hence the warning at the very beginning of this article.

Not all Muslims are extremists, and not all forms of Islam are equally extreme. There is a spectrum of belief and practice within Islam. Most Muslims do not engage in violent acts, nor do they threaten the safety of airline passengers. There are difficulties within Islam, but also a variety of ways in which individual Muslims respond to those difficulties. People are always more varied and complex than their systems of belief.

We do not need made-up words like "Islamism" to describe the most dangerous factions within Islam. We can talk about "extremist elements within Islam," or more simply, "Islamic extremism" or "radical Islam." This is fair, rational language that accurately describes reality and that allows for differences in belief and practice. Using such language instead of artificial political slogan words allows us to discuss objectively the problems within Islam as well as the fact that neither Islam nor Muslims are homogeneous, that there are varieties of expression within Islam, and that many Muslims are wonderful people with good hearts against whom we commit a terrible injustice if we allow ourselves to generalize too easily.

Instead of using an intentionally confusing word like "Islamophobia" to denote hatred or violence toward Muslims, we can speak of "anti-Muslim prejudice." This too is a reality, and we already have words for it. We should use them. Questioning the use of "Islamophobia" does not mean denying that such prejudice exists. Rather, it should be a call to examine such prejudice openly and honestly, and with words that describe it accurately.

Becoming aware of subtle but important distinctions requires a great deal more effort than making easy generalizations. We must be able to distinguish ethnic prejudice from the criticism of religion. It takes hard work and intellectual maturity (what some liberals love to call "nuance") to separate these issues and to deal with each in its own right, instead of attempting to deny unpleasant realties or, what is even worse, making the critique of religion an excuse for hating people. Nevertheless, the challenge of the task is no reason to refrain from undertaking it. If we insist on conflating the rational criticism of religion with the irrational hatred of people, we are not promoting tolerance. We are only making certain that eventually we will witness an intense resurgence of legitimate but suppressed concerns.

Recognizing problems within Islam does not mean we must hate Muslims. Committing such an error would make us like the very thing we condemn. A great many Muslims do not adhere to the more extreme forms of their religion. Some have even risked their lives speaking out for tolerance. People must be seen as individuals. We can never know what is in a person's heart before we know that person, and often not even then. Ignoring the individual, sweeping entire groups of people away with simple snap judgments, is a form of intellectual laziness we cannot afford and that threatens the peace of us all.

So we establish very clearly a distinction between a system of ideas, even a very influential one, and the way people respond to it. Islam has an innate tendency towards intolerance. That is enough to arouse legitimate concern, but by no means enough to start judging individuals. No religion is perfect, and none should be above criticism. Judaism and Christianity have also had their intolerant expressions, and at certain times Christianity was every bit as brutal as Islam still can be today. Nevertheless, the problems within these religions are not identical. Islam has not experienced the reforms these other religions have, and there are valid reasons for believing that Islam is intrinsically more resistant to reform. A discussion of this issue would take us way beyond our present scope, into textual criticism, theology, and especially history. But just for starters one might simply contrast the careers of Muhammad and Jesus and how each treated outsiders. In examining the Bible one must also consider the universalism of the later Jewish prophets and not stop the narrative with the book of Joshua. Religions are what they are, but people can and often do transcend them.

The dishonest use of language prevents an open discussion of ideas, and in an age of growing mutual distrust we vitally need this discussion. Misgivings about Islam will not disappear just because we invent a word to stigmatize them. If we try to repress people's doubts they will only erupt later in truly irrational and destructive ways, because reason's clarity has been barred from touching them. We would all benefit from dropping deceptions like "Islamophobia" and instead saying exactly what we mean.

Additional Source:

(1) Folkenflik, David. "NPR Ends Williams' Contract After Muslim Remarks.", October 21, 2010.

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