Sunday, February 7, 2016

Love the Atheist, hate the Islamophobia?

This time last year, LGBT people in Ireland were fighting with a conservative Catholic think tank, and courtesy-fetishizing journalists, over the right to define and use the word homophobia.

Eventually, it seems to have dawned on most people that those who are frequently accused of homophobia are probably not in the best position to define it. It also became apparent why opponents of equal rights for LGBT people needed to control the definition of homophobia: to concede that your view is homophobic is to lose the debate, at least in the minds of most reasonable people. If you hold homophobic views, therefore, only two options are available: Change your views, or change the definition of homophobic. Unsurprisingly, opponents of marriage equality opted for the latter strategy.

This year, Muslim people in Ireland are facing calls to do away with the term “Islamophobia”, from non-Muslims who sometimes find themselves accused of Islamophobia. Atheist Ireland’s Michael Nugent, for example, suggests that we distinguish between “Anti-Islam” attitudes (which he thinks are generally justified) and “Anti-Muslim” attitudes (which are not). It is possible, so Nugent and his followers claim, to criticize Islam, without criticizing Muslims themselves. It is Islam, they insist, that is the target of their ire, not Muslim people themselves. Those who continue to use the word “Islamophobia”, so the story goes, are simply trying to shut down debate.

If this sounds familiar, that may be because it is almost word-for-word the argument made by the Iona Institute in the face of accusations of homophobia during last year’s referendum campaign. Or it may be because some American Christians have been using a version of it to try to justify their contempt for “the sin” of homosexuality, but not the sinner (who they love, of course). Or it may remind you of those who declare that First Wave or Second Wave feminists fought against real sexism in society, and that modern definitions are so broad that they have become meaningless. Or it may remind you of those commentators on online articles who talk about “wacism”, in an attempt to imply that those who resort to accusations of racism are simply opting for a childish, emotional reaction to people who are just trying to make a reasonable case for letting refugees drown in the Mediterranean.

For a group of people who seem positively allergic to metaphysics, ideologies seem to hold a peculiar ontological status for the “Anti-Islam but not Anti-Muslim” atheists. Islam, we are told, is a powerful force, capable of brainwashing billions of adherents and motivating them to perform some of the most morally repugnant acts imaginable (not that this sort of atheist would be comfortable labelling something “immoral).

And yet, a criticism of Islam, these atheists insist, is not a criticism of Muslims.

So, a claim that a particular system of beliefs is vile and abhorrent need not imply anything about the person who endorses them. Or, perhaps a person might endorse such a belief system in a way that they don’t really understand what it is that they are getting themselves into.

Neither possibility bodes well for the critic-of-Islam-but-not-Muslims. If we go with the first option, then we must believe, for example, that it is coherent to say “Bob endorses X, X is a racist belief, but pointing that out does not entail a criticism of Bob”. But of course it does: Bob is the sort of person who endorses racist beliefs – that’s a pretty strong indictment of Bob.

If we go with the second option, then Bob is simply mistaken – he *thinks* that he endorses X, but actually we know better. If we go with this option,  not only should people like Michael Nugent get to determine whether something counts as Islamophobic or not – they should get to determine whether someone counts as a Muslim.

Here is my proposed solution for the mess that the critics-of-Islam-but-not-the-people-who-endorse-Islam have gotten themselves into: let victims of prejudice define that prejudice. They probably have a better experience of it than you do. Let members of minorities define their status as minorities. They probably have a better understanding of their religion, or their culture, or their gender identity, or their sexual orientation, than you do. If you do all of that, and express your views, and still get called Islamophobic, that’s not a reason to challenge the meaning of the word – it’s a reason to change your views.

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