Well-Founded Fear of Islamism is No Phobia

(Göteborgs-Posten, January 31, 2015)

Swedish minister of culture Alice Bah Kuhnke has invited a highly selective group of Muslim representatives to discuss the problem of Islamophobia and ways to fight it.

What then is Islamophobia? It is usually described as unwarranted fear of Islam, but this has a tendency to get confused with well-founded concern about Islamist theories and practices.

Who came up with the term Islamophobia? It has often been attributed to the left-leaning British think tank Runnymede Trust, which in 1997 published a report titled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All in which the phobia was defined as groundless aversion towards Muslims leading to discrimination. In an article the other year in the French newspaper Libération, Pascal Bruckner linked the origin of the popular use of the term to the Iranian Islamic Republic, whose reactionary revolutionaries started using Islamophobia in their agitation in the late 1970s as a politicized version of xenophobia.

The aim, Bruckner wrote, was to decare Islam inviolate.

Since then there has been a major Muslim immigration to Europe and a subsequent growing opinion hostile to Islam. Nobody would deny that there are ignorance, distrust and negative expectations among both believers and non-believers. But does this, apart from extreme cases, really amount to phobia? Is Bruckner not right when he views the term as mainly a weapon of propaganda to beat opponents and dissidents over their heads with?

In 1990 the foreign ministers from 57 countries calling themselves Muslim signed a joint document, the Cairo Declaration, according to which a divine law, the sharia, takes precedence over the legislation of individual nations. Through the United Nations, these states have ever since tried to convince the rest of the world to install blasphemy laws that would make any form av discussion, criticism or satire impossble. It is from within this circle that today’s Islamists and jihadists get their financial, ideological and military support.

With the machtübernahme of the ayatollahs in Iran in 1979, the logic of world politics was thrown off balance. A revivalist movement went on an ideological offensive with the objective of changing society in such profound ways that people in the western world have seemed able to react only with varying degrees of confusion. Described as Islamophobia misgivings have been suppressed, hidden away in drawers.

Perhaps it is now time, after the attacks in Paris, to instead speak of anti-Islamism. The term Islamophobia makes all sensible conversations impossible, turning them into something slithery and obscene, but with an anti-Islamist approach a line is drawn between democrats and anti-democrats, thus making it necessary to discuss politics and values.

In his What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way the British writer Nick Cohen describes how many supposedly enlightened people now seem to have forgotten what the men and women of the Enlightenment knew: ”All faiths in their extreme form carry the possibilty of tyranny.” Michael Walzer brings up the subject of left-wing troubles with Islamism in the most recent issue of the American Dissident magazine: ”Here is something new: many leftists are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots.”

The Islamophobia discourse is partly based on the same mistaken assumptions as the Swedish debate on integration policies, where a political and cultural establishment has long denied existing problems, rejected relevant concerns and regarded the public – more educated, better informed and, according to international polls, more tolerant than most – as prejudiced.

Here, Islamophobia becomes a dirty word to throw in people’s faces, an invective describing secularism as a kind of fundamentalism; as in ”free speech fundamentalist”. Among those who frequently use the term there has been an obvious ambition to equalize Islamophobia with antisemitism. Since there is a de facto scepticism about Islam, the treatment of Muslims in Europe has been compared to the persecutions during Nazism; Muslims as the new Jews. One object of this faltering comparison has been to relativize the Holocaust.

Another serious consequence of Islamophobism is that oppositional voices in Muslim environments have even greater difficulties getting heard. Self-censorship in the western world as a result of consideration for religious feelings does not encourage the democratization of countries where religious laws violate the right to speak freely.

Those who label anyone wanting to discuss the claims and values of religion an Islamophobe, play into the hands of the totalitarians. The vacuum of silence grows, trains of thought are criminalized. In Sweden, talk of Islamophobia has surely also contributed to alienating and isolating Muslim immigrants by giving their difficulties, if any, a simplified explanation.

The term remains slippery, shapelessly amoeba-like, flexibly commodious, Kafkaesquely destructive. It is imprecise – is it about faith, race (which one?), people, a poltical system? – and thus filled with propagandistic opportunities. It disregards the ideological contents of the Islamist utopia, a set of ideas there is every reason to distance oneself from. We have no difficulty identifying a Swedish right-wing populism and describe it as hostile to foreigners, but it appears to be less easy to see how two reactionary world-views actually reflect one another with a common purpose of sorting out and separating people. When Omar Mustafa of Islamiska förbundet (the Swedish Islamic Association) and Swedish minister of housing, Mehmet Kaplan, speak of a separate Muslim civil society, they emphasize that this is not really a part of Sweden.

The aim, as Pascal Bruckner writes, is to exempt Islam – in contrast to other religions and ideologies – from an open, intellectual and constructive discussion. We are now living with an implicit, and after each act of terror enhanced, feeling of moral extortion; it may cost a lot to write or draw or ask questions.

The minister of culture is also the former head of a government body, which has given financial support to Islamist youth organizations. Now she wants to intensify the fight against Islamophobia. How will she do this? How does she define the term? Who will she listen to? The list of invitations to her first meeting with Muslim representatives was truly worrying since it favored fringe groups with a separatist agenda.