My Muslim readers are, no doubt, shaking their heads at such an obvious title–and it’s an understandable reaction.
Many of my secular readers seem to be another matter.
Over the course of my engagement with the organized secularist movement in the US, I’ve seen a popular refusal to believe that a phenomenon called Islamophobia exists. While I don’t mean to set myself up as the Grand Arbiter of All Things Social Justice, I don’t think my claim to be an activist would mean very much if I didn’t address this. Let me be clear about a few things: I approach this subject from a postcolonial perspective. I’m not a secularist, as I’ve already said. And from a postcolonial perspective I think it is clear that not only does Islamophobia exists, it’s rooted in racism. Further, I want to argue that if you’re an atheist, you should not only acknowledge Islamophobia’s existence, you should combat it. Unless, of course, you’re not concerned when a minority belief community is attacked by other, more mainstream communities–and if that’s true, I invite you to engage in some self-reflection.
I’ve heard, repeatedly, that it’s acceptable to criticize Islam because it’s a religion, not a race. On the surface of things this is technically true. But dig deeper and you’ll find the issue is far more complex than many secularist soundbites allow. Islamic belief and practice is tied to ethnic identity. It’s no coincidence that far-right groups like the English Defence League mix a fair bit of racism in with their Islam-bashing. Islamophobia is at its root a fear of the Other, a reaction to minority, typically migrant communities. When you campaign to ban the hijab from public spaces, as the Parti Quebecois has proposed, you are further alienating an already marginalized community. This isn’t made less racist simply by claiming the hijab is oppressive-over the protestations of the women who wear it, women directly affected by it in ways that secularists are not.
This approach to secularism very clearly prioritizes one set of cultural values over another. But wait! secularists cry, we should do this or else we’re cultural relativists who can’t condemn stoning or blasphemy laws or female genital mutilation.
That’s not true either. Sharia, and the broader field of Islamic jurisprudence, is a complex thing. It’s not static. It can be interpreted in egalitarian ways as well as regressive ways. You can oppose stoning, or blasphemy laws, or female genital mutilation without condemning Islam because these practices are not necessarily Islamic practices.
For years, I’ve volunteered with a group called Femin Ijtihad. FI uses Islamic law in defence of women’s rights, relying on the concept of ijtihad or innovative legal reasoning to argue against patriarchal abuses of the faith. To some, this might be accomodationism. To me, it’s a pragmatic approach to one of the most pressing development issues of our era: gender inequality. In 2012, I organized a research project with two of my colleagues from Femin Ijtihad. Our purpose was to examine the affects of revolution on women’s political participation in Libya. When we asked them about the challenges they faced campaigning for women’s rights in the new, allegedly democratic Libya our sources were very clear: the secularists were often just as sexist as the Islamists, and as a result, women’s issues received short shrift.
Across the Arab world, women, including observant women, have been at the forefront of revolutionary change. It’s absurd, I think, to look at this and then attempt to argue that Islam itself is what holds women back, or that women couldn’t possibly interpret their faith in a way that would actually encourage them to participate in the political process.
And yet, we hear that Islam oppresses women.
People oppress women.
Atheist people oppress women. Christian people oppress women. Jewish people oppress women. No one has a monopoly on sexism. This fact is so obvious that to me that I believe it’s unquestionable that opposition to Islam is rooted in bigotry.
Take the outcry over Universities UK’s alleged support for gender segregation, after it published a report that stated universities hosting religious speakers could separate men and women to suit the speaker’s beliefs. The report used the example of an Ultra-Orthodox speaker, but from what I have seen, secularist critics looked past this to their favorite scapegoat, Islam–not that I think anti-Semitism would be a preferable alternative.
Before anyone asks: I don’t think religious speakers should be able to force men and women to sit separately. At the same time, I do think that religious students should have the option to sit separately if they choose. And yet we have secularist figures like Maryam Namazie organizing literal posses to force ‘segregated’ students apart. If students have been forcibly segregated, she might have a point, but I am concerned that students who voluntarily separate will also be targeted. In fact, this has already happened, and it has not been condemned by secularists.
And that’s mild stuff compared to Islamophobic hate crimes, in the UK and the US, too. From mosque vandalization to a shooting rampage at a Sikh gurdwara (Sikhs are often mistakenly targeted as Muslims because they wear turbans), it’s obvious that Islamophobia exists and can have deadly consequences. The Southern Poverty Law Center has speculated that rates of these crimes remain high due to anti-sharia rhetoric. Unfortunately, that rhetoric is produced by the left as well as the right.
In the UK, the murder of a soldier by an Islamist extremist provoked mass demonstrations by the English Defence League and a rash of mosque vandalizations–even the racially motivated murder of an elderly Muslim man.
Words have power. And it’s disingenuous to pretend that they cannot convey bigotry if they’re targeted at a religion. We don’t privilege all religions equally in the West; it’s a lasting legacy of colonialism. You cannot reasonably claim that attacking Islam is the same as attacking Christianity, because attacks on Islam occur within a specific social and historical context that cannot be extended to Christianity.
Around the world, atheists face severe consequences for their beliefs. We can all agree that’s injustice. But we should also be able to agree that it’s an injustice when anyone is persecuted for their beliefs.
For these reasons, I think it’s time more secularists acknowledge the existence of Islamophobia, and address it in their own communities.