By Victoria Lang
After the bedlam incited by President Trump’s ill-contrived immigration ban, a word, which I presumed to have withered slowly away, re-entered to my occasional political conversations. I’m speaking of the obtuse construct: Islamophobia. To discuss the word is to discuss an intersection of religion and politics, and sadly, much of this discourse has turned too toxic to even be dialectical. Perhaps this has some correlation with our lexicon that’s grown spectacularly imprecise and euphemistic. Words like post-fact, objectify, social justice, trigger warnings are mostly loaded, nonsensical, and given more credence than they deserve. But my concern, here, is primarily with one word and its politics. Their bloated definitions, and subsequently corrosive culture, have swallowed both the left and right into its mass of confusion and dishonesty.
The implied conflation behind Islamophobia puts its critics closer to the alt-right by the inane left. It’s apparent that a good portion of leftists now stand with Muslim apologists who quite loftily claim representation of the entire Muslim community. Typically, as a non-sequitur, apologists bemoan about Muslims being “offended” individually and as a race, and some even argue boldly that Islam is full of liberties. Oscar Wilde once said in his famously gnomic wit, “A true gentleman is one who is never unintentionally rude”— “gentleman,” here, is of course arbitrary. Likewise, I’ve always preferred upholding dignity for myself and my fellow creatures over compassion and pity. The right kind of people don’t demand apologies or sulk obsessively in their own psyche. And when the worst kind of people demand such things, it’s utterly morally reprehensible.
Islamophobia operates in similar absurdity. It presents a face of kind solidarity when it is in fact an ugly, narcissistic infant who thinks it’s granted special rights. Theocratic mouthpieces use the word to smear advocates for individual freedoms and cover up horrid realities of Muslim societies. Meanwhile, willing liberals suck it up to put themselves on a gallant podium of identity politics. The Southern Poverty Law Center, displaying a wonderful example of this apologetic cant, discredited itself by placing Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz on their list of “anti-Muslim extremists.” Both defend the liberties of other Muslims and their only “crime” is calling out the very religious cruelties stagnating progress. Nawaz cleverly coined the slanderous organization, and those sharing similar sentiments, “regressive leftists.”
Most charges of Islamophobia begin like so: someone excoriate Islam for its doctrines and the violence it inspires, then a stunned listener accuses them of an attack on the whole population of Muslims, as if it were a grand ad hominem. A bizarre passing of short-circuiting in the accuser’s brain and ceases their ability to see difference between ideology and people. Most frustratingly, they want everyone else to believe their irrationalities, too. After all, the turgid slur amasses all Muslims under an umbrella of victimhood and claims to defend all of Islam even from Muslims offending for the sake of reform—who are the ones making grand statements, really?
Here are the two groups of Muslims that must be made distinct and mustn’t be let off as unscathed victims, no matter how appeasers disallow their scathing. Jihad is the use of violence to advance Islam and Islamism is the politicization of Islam. In principle and practice, the Quran defends and orders jihad, and jihadists evoke it as far as interpretation allows it. By definition and inception, Islamism cannot exist without Islam and, in my judgment, is nearly congruent to clerical fascism. On citing incidents of either form of iniquity, there are simply far too many to name in one article.
But just to give a primer for the sake of argument, in the past few years and ongoing, jihadists bombed and beheaded Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt where they comprise about ten percent of the Egyptian population (the CIA Factbook shows this number; some other statistics suggest more). In Iraq, Salafi jihadists like the Islamic State slaughter and enslave Yazidis due to their Yazidi beliefs which the Salafi regard as apostasy. In Indonesia, Islamists from Aceh revolted in numerous attempts to sever their oil-rich, sharia-abiding region from a relatively more pluralist Indonesian body. In Xinjiang, Uyghur jihadists and nationalists, some of whom trained by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, attack not only Han Chinese but also Hui Muslims over historical feuds and their non-Turkic ancestors. These are just a few examples from a plethora of grotesque assaults and factions inspired by Islam and its multifarious mutations. Each case certainly comes from causes unique to their political and historical contingencies but all of them share two essential qualities: (1) they occur independently from Western intervention and (2) Islam justifies, or nominally justifies, their heinous acts.
If the literal fundamentals of a belief are dangerous and peace is only possible through interpretive acrobatics, then its author is a poor communicator and his commands shouldn’t be a manual. A manual with opaque criteria and orders violence on deviants is immediately a temptation for mass slaughter. The false interpretation argument of “real Muslims” being the peaceful ones and “fake Muslims” being the appalling ones strikes me as unimpressive when, clearly, the peaceful ones are less strapped by the exact tenets. There is no “moderate” Islam but only less devout Muslims who cherry-pick beliefs. Personally, I choose to disbelieve any religion entirely because it’s the only ethical choice without cognitive dissonance, and the chances of religion explaining the natural world is effectively zero. But even if one doesn’t completely renounce religion, at least admit that more pious, more “fundamentalist,” and more “into the manual” mean less tolerant of diverging from original dogmas and more open to committing the most explicitly odious kinds.
Therefore, the following maxim has yet to be disproven: all jihadists and Islamists are Muslim. But the misinterpreters (at best) and slanderers (at worst) insist that the declaration is all Muslims are jihadists and Islamists. It’s true that jihadists and Islamists are among the minority of the vast Muslim population. But they possess tremendous political power, some of which rest upon compliant Muslims. The less violent and less reported variant propagandize to willing people to acquiesce and permit the practice of sharia law. One should think earnestly about tolerating the intolerant especially when it demands entitlements. During the 2005 Danish cartoon pandemonium involving a Danish newspaper satirizing the Prophet Muhammad, Islamists denounced what was a valid exercise of free expression. Some Danish liberal politicians welcomed and encouraged prohibition of blasphemy while more pro-Islam appeasers thought publications should be under religious restriction because it would be racist to depict Muhammad.
To say that it’s a matter of censorship would be a bitter pill to swallow in secular democracies where freedom of the press exists, but masquerade it as racism then it can convince a slew of plebeians ready to throw punches at the “offenders.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a rather shady group of Islamic countries officially or covertly, pressured the European Union and the United Nations for more action against Islamophobia in the incident’s chaotic aftermath. These are ambassadors who, in their respective countries and occasions, collude with governments that ignore or encourage killing of Christians, Jews, Hindus, ex-Muslims, Muslim reformers, Muslim women, gay Muslims and mavericks courageous enough to express themselves.
And the Danish paper committed a crime for drawing a sketch? No self-respecting person should capitulate to this kind of hypocrisy, especially when its beliefs were intoned by an illiterate merchant who lived on the edge of the Arabian desert. If the goal is to eliminate offensiveness for mocking an ideology, then the principle should not benefit one and not the others. And if this principle applies to everyone and every belief, then no one would dare to satirize freely or speak candidly, leaving the most boring and obsequious kinds of speech, if any are left by then. What the Islamists preach is not multiculturalism, where every idea can be discussed and debated, but uniculturalism dressed up as diversity.
Moral hypocrisy and moral blackmail can be quite effective on the credulous, and I suspect the Islamist lobbyists want the distortions to persist. Historically, anti-racism movements achieved progress by abolishing, or at least subduing, racial animosity through generations-worth of efforts. But their efforts failed to transfer to an abolition of racialization, if their spectral successors can even tell the difference. If hatred toward a race defines racism, then one must also, being responsible for what’s asserted, contemplate on what race and hatred constitute. The politically correct have only substituted the virulence of hatred with unbridled coddling of some amorphous group they gather as a race. This is patronization rather than empowerment, and ventriloquism rather than representation. The categories of race wouldn’t exist without the racists who created them, so to frame Islam as a race is to commit the same fallacy. Islam is not a united religion and has no ethnic boundaries, let alone be a race.
However, the wish to unite Muslims does form the basis of a caliphate. The so-called “collective voice of Muslims”—literally the OIC’s motto—likes to give the definition of Islamophobia utmost extension, encapsulating anyone who challenges anything Islamic however remote or precise. Most religions make audacious claims like all-knowing, all-seeing and all-creating deities, but institutions like the OIC combines religious audacity with political authority. Just to name a few of their farces: they say Islamophobia is the greatest threat to global peace, refer to Muslims as the “Muslim world” as though all Muslims want to be represented as such, and, most outrageously, have submitted a multitude of U.N. Resolutions attempting to criminalize hate speech against Islam, including censoring reports of Islamic terrorism, while paying lip-service in support of democratic values as if most of their member states had any democratic values to begin with. Inspect carefully at these sorts of rhetoric and evaluate their intentions, those who invoke accusations of hate speech are often those who can’t stand debate. Those who respect the Socratic form needn’t resort to whining about being offended.
For all intents and purposes, Islamophobia is a stupid neologism and propagandist machine that has no place in intellectual conversations. It’s designed to fool people who think Muslims are “brown people” when not all Muslims are brown and not all brown people are Muslims. It deforms the idea of racism and burns the innocents who amplify voices that Islamists try to smother. Those who fall for such chicanery will voluntarily open the gates for barbarians to stride in and siege democratic values. In principle, there is no such thing as medium free speech, partial free speech, or free speech with exemptions in fine print. Pluralism does not privilege one religion over others. Secularism, or the separation of church and state, presupposes freedom of worship, if only privately. Tolerance does not mean cultural and moral relativism. These shouldn’t be partisan issues in liberal democracies unless, those who surrender these principles are sympathetic to theocracies. If this is the case, then it’s not a misunderstanding between leftists and secularists but the cry of a theocratic left. The cultural and intellectual war would hence be between Enlightenment-humanist values and totalitarian-religious values. Liberals should be seeing this conflict more saliently. It’s not enough to understand right from wrong within the confines of race when the world is more than monochrome, as the color of one’s skin is a faulty determinant of ethics and merit.
In the advent of the abolitionist movement in America, the word discrimination took on a pejorative parlance when white racists reviled at the prospect of sharing equal status with blacks. The original definition, which has sadly become secondary in American colloquialism, indicates an ability to make distinctions—a strong mark of critical thinking. The irony never eludes me when I hear the left lambast the alt-right for “discrimination against Muslims” when the reason for prejudice is that the alt-right doesn’t discriminate among Muslims. Milo Yiannopoulos once described his alt-right, shall I say, camp as a defense of Western values and against Islamic encroachment—the most positive description one could possibly give. This rather ridiculous “defense” is mostly composed of Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists, right-wing trolls and a minority but election-swinging cohort of small-town, working class.
During the Obama era, they called themselves the Tea Party, known for its susceptibility to conspiracies like calling Barack Obama a “Kenyan-born, communist Muslim” and charlatans like Sarah Palin. Their patron saints include an eclectic line-up of Donald Trump (who couldn’t stop babbling about Obama’s birth certificate), Stephen Bannon (who shamelessly glorified Palin as a “tough, smart woman” in film), Richard Spencer (an unabashed neo-Nazi) and of course, Milo Yiannopoulos. All of them are rank opportunists of various gradations, but out of these four Bannon is perhaps the most hazardous one. He is a compound of Romantic war fantasies and “Judeo-Christian” values among other things. Being one of Trump’s loyalists, Bannon became a Trump auxiliary without ever having to traipse through legal drudgeries. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to see politicians respect proper avenues of power, because the reptilian opportunists won’t.
Like his political ascent, legality and protocol are more like obstacles than civic obligations to Bannon. Executive Order 13769, or the “Muslim ban,” placed a temporary suspension of all migrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The draconian decree invariably matched some of Bannon’s egregious rhetoric. During his time at Breitbart, Bannon challenged Trump on radio where Trump argued along the typical Republican platform acknowledging the economic vitality of legal immigrants. As a rebuttal, Bannon didn’t simply take issue with illegal immigrants but also legal immigrants, suggesting that America’s problem was immigration, period. Putting words into action, the executive order barred legitimate, visa-holding, green-card travelers—a move that was bereft of most advisers’ knowledge, inadvisable from those who knew, and detained an Iraqi who assisted U.S. military abroad.
But perhaps his impulse is not firstly a raw abhorrence of Islam, and instead a passionate longing for holy wars. “Judeo-Christian forefathers” are his favorite people, namely the Vatican, because military history depicts them as defenders of the West against Muslim empires. But it’s also an ideal he shares with the Islamic fundamentalists. The state and the church are synonymous and the primal forces which give their people vitality. As for Bannon’s conception of war history, the first American encounter with an Islamic state, the Ottoman Empire, was of Thomas Jefferson’s secular-liberal values rather than Christianity. If there’s anything holy about America, then it’s the very loud Christian right that continually tries to distort history and science.
On the lower echelons, the Trump electorate’s opinion of foreigners and the global order is a ghastly creature, a mash of parochial Know-Nothings and mindless militarism. Under their bluffable demeanor is an insecure nostalgia for postwar relics. Now that coal mines are disappearing, borders are porous and queers are walking down the aisle, “Make America Great Again” means making the America they once knew alive again. Trump’s outrageous trumperies and rants (and dubious love of Russians) swapped America’s “beacon of democracy” for a panoply of populism. It’s been said that fascism is the most backward beliefs augmented by the most revolutionary language. With a circus of loyalist humbugs in the White House, I doubt their vogue contains enough luster to carry on for long. Americans can only stomach so many lies and know well enough to not be treated like morons—and maybe some will realize they’re being treated by morons. But the most faithful Trump fans will continue to laud him no matter his ineptitude and their decisive political location, unequal compared to the more cosmopolitan urban burgs, protects their otherwise minority influence.
Fortunately, not all of Trump’s cabinet are sycophantic loons who need to emulate Trumpmania. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, one of the “pragmatists” as the media calls them, made vital visits to South Korea and Japan. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, who also carries quite an outstanding background, was initially flustered by the Muslim Ban (he did not receive prior notice despite lying about it afterward) and reportedly tried to pry Bannon’s influence off Trump. Hopefully, our so-called CEO of USA, Inc. (which sounds horribly authoritarian but it’s how he treats his job) will show some learning curve and know that he can’t make informed decisions without a competent board of advisors. Although, one thing I don’t expect to improve immediately is the American populace’s dialogue, and the Trump offensive against news outlets will likely degenerate it further. Politics is full of half-truths and hyperbole no better reflected than in its catchy soundbites. As imperfect as mainstream media may be, they are only enemies to Trump’s ardent followers.
On the other hand, does the left understand Muslims and foreign policy better than people like Bannon? I suppose the race-card players haven’t rocked our constitutional architecture quite like the nativists have—perhaps only because they aren’t the ones in power. It would be illusory to see Muslim societies as perfectly sensible, requiring mandatory protection and validation. The meme of Islamophobia continually self-replicates its vacuousness and, like an immortal gene, it eschews any who try to stop the spread. Chances are that the memetic ignorance will spread to the vilest and most paranoid ones who truly hold nasty prejudices toward whatever they think is “Muslim.” The shadowy virus of ignorance—the radix malorum—hides itself with vague symptoms, indistinguishable among those who possess the pathogen of prejudice and those who do not.
If the Islamists are harbingers to combat racism and stereotypes as they proclaim, they would allow people to leave Islam without death penalty thereby separating ethnicity from abominable precepts. And the regressive left, for all their ambitions to eradicate racism, frequently speak on the same side out of fear of appearing, but not actually, racist—hence their name denoting retrograde instead of progress. I’ve never considered myself a centrist (and I’m certainly no Democrat or Republican) but under current notions of left and right, I find that the further one moves toward the fringes of the spectrum, the more delusional and fanatical their occupants become.