Ideasroom

Challenging Islamophobia no threat to free speech

Challenging Islamophobia is not a 'free speech' issue, just a request for that speech to be informed, argues the University of Auckland's Dr Neal Curtis

The terrorist murder of 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch has been met with an outpouring of love and solidarity, a celebration of our diversity, and a recommitment to our multicultural society.

Unsurprisingly, there have also been calls to reflect upon how our media environment - from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, to mainstream newspapers and TV shows, to online blogs and commentary - might have played a part in normalising the far-right, white supremacist views held by the terrorist.

However, almost as soon as this very reasonable request for reflection began, largely identified as coming from some ill-defined and generic position on the political left, a counter-charge sprang up claiming that “leftists” wanted everyone to think like them, and it was an opportunist attempt to homogenise opinion.

In particular, this has crystallised around a claim that challenging Islamophobia prevents us from criticising Islamist terrorism. This is absurd and only goes to show how our opposition to Islamist terror, and our general relation to Islam has been so infused with Islamophobia that we can’t separate the two.

We can stop the Western-centric view that we are the primary targets or victims of Islamist terror. By far the greatest number of deaths from Islamist terror are other Muslims.

Like all terrorism, we can condemn Islamist terror for it barbarity, cruelty, and indiscriminate nature. We can also say Islamist terrorism stems from a way of thinking that is quasi-fascist in its use of violence, its authoritarianism and hostility towards anything not in keeping with its dogmatic sense of identity. We can condemn Islamist terror for looking to sow division and disharmony in communities who believe their strength lies in diversity, but this is nothing we haven’t said about the terrorist in Christchurch.

So, we can and should continue to condemn and reject all forms of terror and we should remain vigilant against potential terrorist activity and any means for disseminating the ideologies linked to it. But this is where we can start uncoupling Islamophobia from that vigilance.

The first thing to do is to remember that Islamophobia is a very old discourse and crucial to the age of empire. It therefore pre-dates “9/11” by centuries, so we need to stop thinking it is a legitimate reaction to a terrible event. It isn’t.

Secondly, Islam is a religion of 1.8 billion people living in widely diverse cultures. The religion itself is split most notably between Sunni and Shia, but there are also Alawites and Sufis, within these. There are also numerous different schools of Islamic theology and within all of these there are wide-ranging debates about Islamic practice and the interpretation of the Quran. As a consequence, Islam is incredibly varied in belief and practice. The second element of Islamophobia we must therefore remove is the ignorant lumping of all these people and cultures into one anonymous “blob”.

Our Islamophobia is so strong, our racism so entrenched, that against all the evidence showing how much white supremacist terror is on the rise, our Islamophobia meant we weren’t looking.

Thirdly, we can stop claiming everyone we say belongs to this fictitious “blob” is violent or a threat. The vast majority of Muslims (and that really is vast) are not violent nor do they espouse violence. In fact, they condemn it, and they will show you the parts of the Quran that confirm their beliefs. 

As for ourselves, what really perplexes me is how we so easily accept that people who hate the poor, covet wealth, hate foreigners, advocate violence and celebrate empire can be called Christian, when all of this runs counter to the teachings of Jesus. Yet in the US, this is a fairly accurate description of the Evangelicals who support the white nationalist administration of President Trump.

I should say, of course, this is the exception to majority Christian belief, but if there is such wild divergence in one faith why can’t there be in another? Islamophobia is not extending that awareness to Muslims.

Fourthly, we can also separate vigilance with regard to Islamist terror from a generalised Islamophobia that talks about their migration in terms of pests, plagues, floods and deluges. We can refuse this apocalyptic rhetoric through which we get some perverse pleasure from the conjuring of monsters. We can also stop talking about Islam and Muslims as some form of pathogen that will spread, contaminate or take over our culture, as if they are the parasite to our host. This is superfluous to any genuine concern about Islamist terror. It is simply racism.

Finally, we can also stop the Western-centric view that we are the primary targets or victims of Islamist terror. By far the greatest number of deaths from Islamist terror are other Muslims. This is an undeniable fact, and yet actively denying this—because it really does take concerted effort—is another crucial component in our Islamophobia.

All of the above applies to criticising Islam as a religion. It is perfectly possible to engage in theological debate about Islam and philosophical debate about religion more broadly without employing all of the racist baggage above. Challenging Islamophobia is, then, not a “free speech” issue, just a request for that speech to be informed.

Ultimately, the utterly brutal and tragic irony of all this, of course, is that our Islamophobia is so strong, our racism so entrenched, that against all the evidence showing how much white supremacist terror is on the rise, our Islamophobia meant we weren’t looking.

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