This Week in Islamophobia

by Yasin Bangee

Another bout of specific assaults against Muslims has gone virtually unreported by mass media. We have had threats, a bizarre incident of bacon throwing,pornography and a racist attack.

Indeed the other week the mosque I attend was targeted by fools throwing eggs. It had an air of inevitability about it. Despite convincing myself that the area I’m from is beyond such knuckle dragging behaviour why would we be treated any differently? Anti-Muslim sentiment is at an all time high.

In America, post 9/11 all Mosques have been listed as potential terrorist organisations. That again, surprises me but only because I was surprised. It should be expected, shouldn’t it? Mosques are central gathering locations for Muslims, and Muslims are a dangerous backward lot hell bent on bringing down the western sinful utopia, right?

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This week saw Stephen Fry engage in bigotry to help out that old friend of his, Richard Dawkins. On twitter scores of people brought up the age old “he can’t be racist, Islam isn’t a race”. The language used by Stephen Fry, specifically “they/them” pointed to a savage brown race of people populating the middle east. To deny that is preposterous. Does Mr Fry not know that Chinese Muslims are greater in number than the total Muslim population of Europe.

There’s no one Muslim type, there’s no “they” or “them”. There’s groups of bigots who act out under the guise of Islam, or who use Islam to feed their bigotry but that’s true for almost any group in the world. Bigots exist in every shape, colour, creed and class and use whatever material or belief they can to legitimatise their bigotry.

A lot of people seem to *think* they know Islam, or what a Muslim is, and what a Muslim thinks. Even Muslims buy into this homogeneous one world idea and spend their days telling other Muslims what they must and must not think.

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It’s nonsense. You don’t know me, or my reasons for following Islam or why I find faith to be such a personal issue that it doesn’t warrant discussion with those playing devil’s advocate.

The worst part of religion is how so many people will invent misconceptions and attach them to you, because you choose to follow a certain faith. If we widen that approach and attach it to those people who dress or talk a certain way we’d call it bigotry or ignorance.

Even still I find that Islam within the religion sphere faces a higher level of scrutiny. How many think the Middle East is populated by Muslims solely? When a random Middle Eastern country does something awful and strange Muslims all over the world are made to answer. But does the same apply to other faiths prominent in that region of the world?

Islamophobia is the new kid on the block and it’s easy to get away with. It exists from those articles I linked up above, to intellectual debates within the white community of “them”.

But they don’t know me.

Yasin Bangee is a writer based in the North West. He writes about his main passions, football, social justice and inequality, and offers thoughts on all things political. As a a British Muslim he has first hand experience of the rise and impact of Islamophobia. Archive of his column This Week in IslamophobiaFind his writing at False7andahalf

Editors note: Stephen Fry replied to accusations of Islamophobia in his own words on 30/08/12: Am I an Islamophobe?

10 thoughts on “You don’t know me. #Islamophobia

  1. It’s amazing how ignorant people are of Hinduism, Jainism, and every other religion they weren’t born into by accident of birth. The more interesting question may be – why are Muslims so ignorant of Islam?
    “Islam within the religion sphere faces a higher level of scrutiny” – by who? Much atheist writing tackles Christianity and we constantly get accused of being only Christian-focussed and ‘too scared’ to tackle Islam.

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    1. Indeed, Islam itself is rarely engaged with seriously by any of its critics – they usually restrict their remarks to attacks on Muslims generally or “Islamic fundamentalists”. I can’t think of a single occasion when I’ve seen a sceptic so much as mention a single doctrinal issue in Islam. The ‘scrutiny’ of ‘Islam’ seems largely to consist, as Bangee suggests, of crude orientalist generalisations: everything a Muslim or Middle-Eastern (or just Middle Eastern looking) person does is ascribed to their religion. In the prevailing Islamophobic ideology Muslims are not considered as fully human – they are the Other. White Christians in white Christian cultures, on the other hand, are Us, seen as fully human, and their Christianity is only considered to be a factor in their behaviour when they actually mention it!

      Atheists are able to criticise and debate Christianity in Christian or post-Christian societies without harming anyone because Christians are a privileged group. That’s not the case for Muslims in those societies or globally, and it’s hardly surprising, after centuries of crusades, colonialism, orientalism and hegemonic interference from Christian countries, that Muslims aren’t keen to hear criticism from folk outside of Islam in largely Christian nations, even if such criticism takes a respectful form. The fact that it usually takes the form of insults, ignorant assumptions, personal attacks and racist violence makes it pretty easy to understand the feelings Bangee expresses.

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      1. To present scrutiny of Islam as gazing at the ‘other’ presumes criticism is only coming from ‘white’ people or those outside of Islamic cultures. Some of the harshest criticisms and recommendations are coming from ex-Muslims, often non-believers. It’s more convenient to ignore their voices because the academic elite needs to maintain a theoretical narrative.
        When we are only presented with white academic society then those are the only voices that can be heard and the media also has to be held to account for this. There are many ‘Middle-Eastern’ and African voices against Islam. These are rather the voices we need to be promoting for a critique of the doctrinal issues in Islam and also to hear about the lives of those Africans who experience it as another religion of their colonisation. Often these people do not, and cannot have, such high profiles, and sometimes have to use pseudonyms. But those of us who do have access to power can promote their voices to educate and inform those who live in predominantly non-Muslim societies. Hopefully, in this process, those with non-belief will also be able to educate those religious cultures they may find themselves in to be less intolerant, threatening and bigoted towards them.

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        1. Good comment, I agree: criticism of Islam from Muslims, ex-Muslims and non-Muslims in Muslim societies should be protected by freedom of speech and those who make it should enjoy the respect and recognition of their rights as sceptics in Christian/post-Christian societies usually do to a greater extent. We in positions of power need to listen to those voices and be guided by them…

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      2. Rose-Anna, your general point that Muslims are subject to the most disgusting forms of prejudice, misunderstandings and downright abuse across British society is well made and beyond dispute. The demonisation and simplistic portrayal of Muslims in western media is a disgrace. However there seems to be serious flaws in your attitude to the criticism of Islam (articulated here but also elsewhere: http://roseannastar.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/racism-islamophobia/). Graham has put it very nicely. But further to that (and your reply to him) I’d add that protecting freedom of speech has to apply across the board. Your logic seems to be that since Muslims are subject to hate crime therefore Islam should be placed beyond criticism because it might embolden Islamophobes and racists. This is wrong because any limit to free speech must be resisted and besides it wouldn’t achieve the results you think it will and is actually completely counterproductive. For example; gay people are subject to hate crime, yet, following your reasoning, would you accept limiting many religions (including Islam) the freedom to criticise homosexuality? If so, you would be endorsing censoring key religious texts and limiting the expression of many religions including the one you seek to defend. As much as I despise homophobia (and particularly religiously sanctified homophobia) the famous phrase applies: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

        It seems to me that many of the prominent atheists you’ve criticised in other posts are far too quickly labeled racist or bigots. Although I agree that some of their tweets have been ill phrased (to put it mildly), I’d still suggest that the clear overriding motivation for Dawkins, Grayling, Fry etc is not hatred of a “savage brown race” but rather disdain for the delusional thinking that leads people to believe in the the supernatural and superstition, however deeply felt and personal those beliefs are. And they apply that disdain to all religions. Quoting a few ill chosen tweets should not override whole books that are somewhat more nuanced in their exposition of religion’s flaws. To group Dawkins, Fry etc with the worst idiocy and violence of the EDL is to over simplify the debate that does nobody any credit.

        Banjee outlines some grotesque attacks on Muslims at the top of the piece. He and all Muslims have my complete solidarity in the face of the appalling violence, intolerance, ignorance, prejudice and racism that is a daily experience for many Muslims in this country. It is shameful and must be tackled. However, these moronic acts should not prevent legitimate intellectual debate on the merits of religious ideas. Banjee may see his “faith” as a “personal issue…that doesn’t warrant discussion” but the fact remains that religions carry huge weight in public debate and institutions and therefore the ideas those religions are founded on must be open to scrutiny and criticism. Religious ideas are just like any philosophical idea and should be open to the full spectrum of informed debate. Frankly, its patronising and disempowering to Muslims to suggest they should be protected from such debate. Unfortunately intelligent ideas have always been appropriated and distorted by idiots to nefarious ends (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influence_and_reception_of_Friedrich_Nietzsche#Nietzsche_and_fascism), this shouldn’t prevent their initial expression. We all lose if we allow free thought and debate to be limited and defined by the ignorant and prejudiced.

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        1. Hello Ant,

          Many thanks for your thoughtful reply = )

          I do not agree with this free speech argument at all, and I’m sure lots of social justice campaigners have experienced it again and again and can explain my position better than I, but I will have a go.

          I really have not suggested that Muslims should be ‘placed above criticism’

          I have only criticised the criticism!

          (In fact, I have only supported those who criticised the criticism, as I am trying at all times to avoid speaking for Muslims or any other oppressed group – rather to support from the back.)

          In the case of the original tweet by Dawkins, which was about Muslims not Islam, as I have pointed out several times; he was called racist; one of his supporters said ‘Islam isn’t a race’ and I engaged with that person. (I then spent the whole day trying to explain to this person and people with similar positions that reverse racism is not a thing. This suggests to me that rationalists need to educate themselves about race and social justice by open-mindedly reading the material of and engaging with racialised-as-minority communities.)

          So, at what point was Dawkins’ freedom of speech under threat? To my knowledge nobody told him to delete his tweet, no one threatened him – and if they did the latter then they would be breaking the law etc. I don’t like what he said; I will defend his right to say it, AND I WILL DEFEND THE RIGHT OF HIS CRITICS TO ANSWER HIM. If someone says some horrific thing, let’s say someone says ‘gay people are useless. We ought to give them psychotherapy’, would you not defend my right to tell that person their statement was bigoted (even if you think I’m wrong)? To tell them that as a lesbian I felt threatened by their statement? Surely you would defend MY free speech as vigorously as the bigot’s?

          Freedom of speech legally stops at incitement – the stuff of ‘knuckle-dragging racists’. Dawkins’ tweet was not incitement, and the response to him was not incitement, so no freedom of speech was violated or threatened. The tweet was incendiary, and the response to it was an effort to make it safe, to put up signs around it saying ‘this is harmful and racially inflammatory and not a wise thing to say’. These are a legitimate responses, acts of free speech. Some of the responses were unpleasant and probably counterproductive, others cogent and apt. In any case, others responded to them, and for some at least, a whole day of discussion went on. Isn’t that exactly what rationalists want? Open, free discussion?

          There is a history of some Muslims violently attacking, threatening, prosecuting or silencing people who ‘blaspheme’, which is obviously something I would always fight against passionately. But some atheists seem to feel that history too strongly, and cry out that any Muslim who simply SPEAKS OUT against anti-Muslim or anti-Islam rhetoric is attacking freedom of speech. My answer to them is ‘if YOUR free speech sacred, why isn’t THEIRS?’

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      3. Hi Rose-Anna,
        Thanks for your reply.

        I have not stated that Dawkins’ free speech was under threat. And I have not suggested criticism should be silenced from either side, but rather that it should be accurate. I have suggested that the logic of your arguments, if followed to their logical conclusion, would limit discussion.

        You say “I really have not suggested that Muslims should be ‘placed above criticism’”

        However, previously you have stated:

        “Atheists are able to criticise and debate Christianity in Christian or post-Christian societies without harming anyone because Christians are a privileged group. That’s not the case for Muslims.” (above)

        And that “religion isn’t a choice…” and that “the whole ‘it’s not racist to ridicule Islam’…it’s not going to fly” (your blog)

        And that a comment may not be “…racist in intent but it is in effect since it is a negative comment about a racialised group of people.” (comments on your blog)

        It seems to me that the upshot of these comments is to link criticsm of Islam with racism and violence and thus render it taboo. If you contend that Muslim’s are a racialised group, and that negative comments about this group are therefore racist then you implicitly suggest criticising Islam is racist. Racism is rightly taboo (at least amongst most well meaning people) so the the effect of your argments would be to silence the debate. But I contend that criticising religion is legitimate and not necessarily racist. Your stated views above seem to preclude this (but perhaps they don’t give a rounded account of your views; just as a single quoted tweet tends to distort the wider picture of your atheist antagonists). Nevertheless you have identified as an atheist so implicitly you are critical, or at least skeptical, of religion so you seem somewhat inconsistent on this.

        Furthermore, I in no way claimed that freedom of speech should be applied in a one sided way. Of course, the debate can and should rage back and forth freely. I don’t want to silence the critics. I just feel you are lowering the bar of what is defined as racist (“criticising a racialised group” even when the target is actually the group’s shared belief system) in a way that would render legitimate theological and philosophical criticism out of bounds.

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        1. Ah thanks for replying again. I feel I’m repeating myself but I’m not finding my views changing… you said that I wanted to limit free speech. I disagreed. I said I would support Dawkins’ right to say what he says.

          We seem to disagree on two things

          1 – whether or not Dawkins should say disagreeable things about Muslims

          I defend his right to say unpleasant things and I wouldn’t try to prevent him (unless he was a friend of mine), but I still think he *shouldn’t* say them, for the reasons I’ve spoken about. I think it is damaging for him to say the things he says in the way he says them. I don’t think that’s contradictory and I don’t think it’s shutting down debate to say ‘you shouldn’t say this’ – the state of Islamophobia is such that the debate needs to be about WHY he shouldn’t say those things in those contexts. You probably disagree with me on that, but I don’t think it’s a very serious disagreement. I think we draw our lines in similar places. Anyway, That is the debate which ensued. Dawkins replied in the obvious manner, saying that he can say what he likes because free speech and also race isn’t religion (as if everyone with two neurons’ worth of knowledge about social justice hadn’t noticed) etc etc. If he actually said something about Islam as a religion instead of about Muslims as a group, then I would likely have taken a different position. Dawkins would presumably have preferred a less emotionally charged discussion about Islamic doctrine and its modern interpretations, but he did not do a good job of inviting one. There are plenty of people having such debates – and if he’s really interested, I can recommend some twitter accounts for him to follow.

          2 – whether or not criticism of Islam is racism

          My position on this is that it depends, not on the rational difference between race and religion, which I have tried to explain is leaky in practice, but on what is said, by whom and in what context, because racism is structural oppression against people of colour and whatever reinforces it. You’ve said “Racism is rightly taboo” but this only applies to racism in the narrow (knuckle-dragger) sense of hate speech against people of colour – like white people using ‘the n word’. If a white footballer loses his or her job for shouting a racial slur, then we’d probably agree that was just, and part of the worthy fight against racism in sport, right? I don’t think Dawkins was being racist in this intentional sense, and so he shouldn’t be punished in law, or by the removal of his platform (I won’t be weeping if fewer people buy his books though!)

          But more broadly, racism is definitely not taboo and it’s something that needs a lot of talking about. All day every day on the internet, people are saying more subtly racist things, things that devalue the humanity of people of colour in less overt ways. It’s hard to see racism if you’re white and most of us have been guilty of it, despite our best intentions (I know I have been guilty of it). We’re all learners, and we learn through discussion. If I say something racist, I hope someone will tell me that it’s racist, so that I can understand why. If I learn, then I won’t say it again, because it’s a damaging racist thing to say. If such discussion were prohibited, then learning would just not happen. Do we not agree here? Is there not a valid distinction between saying ‘people shouldn’t say this’ and ‘people shouldn’t be allowed to say this?’

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  2. Stephen Fry: another seemingly intelligent/educated/tolerant famous figure being infected by this toxic Islamophobic rhetoric, and seems to get away with it? Great article, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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