The agony and the ecstasy of Islamophobia

Why the political left and right both get it wrong

Rookie UN chief Antonio Guterres recently suggested that Islamophobia is a principal driver of terrorism during a visit to Saudi Arabia, pointing to the propaganda value that anti-Islamic speech and policies give to ISIS.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this. If it is the mission of the apocalyptic death cult that is ISIS to affect a total war between Islam and the West, then any indiscriminate actions taken by Western governments that target people of faith helps to feed that narrative. But to anyone logged on to Twitter, it is clear that there is legitimate criticism that often underpins Islamophobic statements, as opposed to baseless stereotyping.

Taking the above tweet, for example, it is difficult to reconcile the passages of the Quran, Hadith literature and the life of Muhammed with a peaceful, non-violent religion. While we may agree that this tweet is crowded with Islamophobic sentiment, Islamic law does proscribe killing apostates, adulterers and homosexuals, mutilation is variously promoted or condoned in the form of male and female circumcision, and child abuse is witnessed with Muhammed’s consummation of marriage with his child bride, Aisha. Both the political left and right in America are blind in different respects on this issue, with one side ignoring the unethical nature of many Islamic teachings, while the other forcefully attaches these problematic views to 1.6 billion people. As with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The oppressive nature of Islam cannot be denied. In multiple countries from Brunei and Malaysia to the United Arab Emirates and Sudan, the people live under the truncheon of Islamic law, threatened with execution for a belief in science, imprisonment for any sexual activity outside of marriage, and women have their “modesty” strictly policed, leading to enforced dress codes, legalized domestic violence and death by stoning. Looking at the pervasiveness of this oppression in Muslim-majority countries, it is clear that extremism and human rights abuses are not limited to ISIS controlled territory – it is endemic to the religion. But in all of these countries and in the West there are reformers looking to teach a brand of Islam that is compatible with human rights, peace and secular democratic governance. These include Maajid Nawaz and Asra Nomani, and they should be supported and celebrated on this arduous march.

A progressive interpretation of Islamophobia needs to separate the people affected from the Islamic doctrine that prevails in too much of the world. Attempting to defend Islam does not change social attitudes or aid Syrian refugees; on the contrary, it is hypocritical to complain about the gender wage gap on one hand, while the other shields a religion preaching permanent subjugation of women. We ought to allow Muslim immigration, not because Islam is a peaceful and liberating religion but because it isn’t. Most people seeking refuge in the West are trying to flee Islamic oppression rather than export it.

The tragedy of anti-Muslim bigotry is that it ignores nuance and differences among those of Middle Eastern descent and brown skin, including those who consider themselves progressive, Christian, Sikh, homosexual, or atheist. The victims of Trump’s travel bans are not the Islamists but, rather, those most negatively affected by conservative Islam in the many countries where women are subjugated, genitals mutilated and dress regulated, where atheism is punishable by execution via stoning and homosexuality is met with lashings. By lumping the victims of religious oppression together with the perpetrators, indiscriminate prejudices against Muslims is both a social and ethical injustice.

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