Saturday, 20 July 2013

Why Islamphobia is not a phobia of Islam

This blog post has moved here

Quite frankly I am sick of the word "Islamophobia".  The reason is that it is completely the wrong term.  Burning down mosques, pulling off hijabs and indecent graffiti are not forms of Islamophobia but anti-Muslim.  It seems that users of the word "Islamophobia" think that an irrational fear is when you are able to put the words "irrational" and "fear" into a single sentence about a specific subject, but this is simply not the case.

An irrational fear (or phobia) is when the fear itself is irrational, not the process which leads to deciding if something is dangerous or not.  Given accurate and sufficient data to show that something is harmless, one may still fear that thing if they use an irrational or illogical process to evaluate the data and therefore incorrectly conclude that thing presents a sufficient risk.  This is not a phobia, this is and misconception, an erroneous conclusion, irrational thinking.

For something to be a phobia it is the fear itself which must be irrational, i.e. there is no way for the person experiencing the fear to justify the level of fear they experience.  For example, given the data that a plastic doll has never attacked anyone and reaching the logical conclusion that dolls are therefore harmless, it is still possible for someone to fear plastic dolls whilst at the same time knowing there is nothing to fear.  Knowing there is nothing to fear and yet fearing it anyway is what makes the fear itself irrational and therefore a phobia.

For Islamophobia to be a phobia of Islam one must genuinely believe that there is very little or no threat at all, whether or not this opinion is well informed, ill informed, or completely uninformed is irrelevant, the important factor is that despite concluding there is no threat the person continues to fear Islam (or disproportionately fear Islam if one decides it poses a small threat).

  1. A fear of dolls is a phobia if you know that dolls cannot willfully harm you.
  2. If a person knows that most spiders are not poisonous then fearing all spiders is a phobia.
  3. If a person knows that few spiders are poisonous then a small amount of fear is warranted, but a high level of terror of all spiders is a phobia - because the fear is known by the phobic person to be disproportionately high for the threat.
  4. If a person believes that all spiders are poisonous then fearing all spiders is not a phobia, it is an irrational/erroneous conclusion, possibly based on little or incorrect data.  If it is proven to the person that most spiders are not poisonous it should change their level of fear of spiders, if they remain desperately fearsome of all spiders then it becomes a phobia.
People who have a phobia tend to avoid exposure to that which they fear, or when forced to be exposed to the thing they fear they are uncomfortable and wish to leave.  People who have a spider phobia tend to run away from spiders rather than seek them out to kill them.  People who have a clown phobia tend to run away from clowns rather than to seek them out and attack them.

One cannot say that Muslims pose no risk at all, but only in the same way that one cannot say strangers pose no risk at all; but fear of what Muslims might do is related to how they look (visually identifiable as a Muslim) or when they are in a social situation which identifies them as a Muslim.  The risk of being killed or harmed by a Muslim is probably less statistically likely than being killed by a non-Muslim, a complete stranger, or even someone you know.  It seems that the level of risk of harm from Muslims is what is actually being discussed when people argue as to whether or not Islamophobia is a real phenomenon.  This however distracts from the fact that the conclusion one reaches is nothing to do with whether or not fearing a belief or believer is a phobia.

So what are we really dealing with if not a phobia of Islam?  First there is the case of people being anti-Muslim.  This is a case of guilt by association, blaming the whole for actions of a few or of bigotry towards those deemed to be the "most different".  In many cases it is racism towards non-white people which is openly displayed because racists somehow feel it is more socially acceptable to hate Muslims (claiming they deserve it) than it is to admit they hate Pakistanis, and by extension hating anyone who seems to sympathise with them by dressing as them.

This is particularly highlighted by the accusations made against Muslims.
  1. Rape gangs: The circumstances of these actions were not permitted by Islamic laws.
  2. Female genital mutilation: As far as I can tell this is a social phenomenon rather than an Islamic one.
  3. Forced marriages: Although the female's consent is assumed she is permitted to object.
Regarding Islamophobia what can we conclude?
  1. Whether the person has accurate, inaccurate or no information is not a factor.
  2. Whether the person is rational or irrational in reaching their risk assessment conclusion is not a factor.
  3. Whether or not Islam is in reality a threat is surprisingly also not a factor.
  4. Only if the person fears Islam whilst believing that it is harmless or disproportionately fears Islam whilst believing it is of little risk makes their condition a phobia.
Racists and anti-Muslims might use Islam and Muhammad as topics of insult because they know it will emotionally hurt Muslims, but they're attacks are against the Muslims themselves.  The term Islamophobia is not only an incorrect description of hatred towards Muslims and/or the resulting attacks against them, it is also such a vague term them any valid criticism of Islam can easily end up with one being accused as Islamophobic, and thus by extension someone filled with hatred and a possible violent attacker.  One can be outright anti-Islamic yet at the same time believe Muslims to be equals worthy of the same rights as themselves.

Islam is an idea, disliking Islam means only that you dislike an idea.  The term "Islamophobia" is a strong tool for silencing criticism of a specific idea.  Not only does this word make criticism of Islam difficult it also serves as a gross injustice to the crimes being committed against Muslims today.  To attribute crimes of hate as an irrational fear / phobia of a specific idea belittles the severity of what is actually happening.  People are being attacked because they are Muslims.  The people being attacked are not collateral damage of people attacking their common idea, they are a social group that is being alienated and attacked and that is much worse than any attack against their beliefs.

Most Muslims you meet are more likely to offer you a free dinner than blow you up on a bus.  We must make sure we protect these Muslims rather than their beliefs.


  1. Hi - I just want to add to what I said on twitter, about words being decoupled from their etymological roots. Although you make a rational case for the term 'Islamophobia' trivialising anti-Muslim bigotry, the use of the word has acquired, I think, a quite different significance. Because it is viewed askance (and not without some reason) by people who fear it is going to be used to silence or censor valid debate about Islam, it can operate as a sign that the person using the word is sympathetic to Muslims. I would suggest that the use of 'phobia', because of the way both homophobia and Islamophobia, perhaps also xenophobia, are used, means that the meaning of the suffix has shifted to take in a new range of meanings.

  2. You are still incorrect. Homophobia is an irrational fear of homosexuals despite knowing that whenever you walk down the road you are not attacked by homosexuals, and likewise xenophobia for people who appear to be "different". In both cases the person knows that the fear is unwarranted, if they don't then it is not a phobia but a fear.

    The use of correct words is important, especially when discussing sensitive subjects. For example, the term "Terrorist" these days in the UK is somewhat synonymous with "Muslim" but I would strongly oppose this use.

    Islam itself is an ideology. There is nothing wrong with saying harsh things about an ideology you disagree with (Marxism, Communism, Capitalism, etc) or individual ideas (Theism, String Theory, etc) - Your use of this vague and seemingly all-encompassing word blurs the line between criticism (harsh or not) and hatred of Muslims and makes any serious dialogue between people of opposing ideas very difficult. In addition it belittles the suffering of people attacked by anti-Muslim bigots by grouping them with people who have been a little upset by something someone said about their idea of reality (e.g. Dawkins vs Mehdi Hassan and the winged horse).

    There are many reasons to use the term "anti-Muslim" instead of the logically incorrect "Islamophobia", I sincerely hope you use the correct term and encourage others to do so too.

  3. I do not agree, at least not fully. I think the word homophobia is used, for better or worse, to describe people who might approve of homosexuality being punished severely by law, or who might beat up homosexuals - but also to describe people who would not wish to hurt or (in regard to most issues) discriminate against homosexuals, but who think homosexuality is a sin, or who perhaps just oppose gay marriage. I don't think most homophobes actually *fear* homosexuals - perhaps your point is more that the word is used inaccurately, but language does change.

    I agree that Islam is an ideology and that we should be allowed to critique or mock it. But I also think that there is a point (exactly when is clearly open to debate) when such critique or mockery *might* be described as Islamophobic. We need to resist, strongly, tough, challenging analysis being conflated with racism, just as we need to be sure firm criticism of Israel isn't conflated with antisemitism, of course, and there will be grey areas. I don't really think it's a problem that the same word describes the Dawkins/Mehdi spat and actual violence. We do (usefully) have the choice between 'sexism' and 'misogyny' but antisemitism is used to describe both genocide and mild bigotry.

  4. I am happy to include antipathy into the use of the word homophobia, there are indeed people who hate homosexuals without fearing them. Although this strictly isn't a phobia of homosexuals, and the use of the "phobia" suffix is incorrect, it has a meaning misunderstood by many for enough decades to warrant the incorrect use and use it to imply hatred. I do think in this case however there is a difference.

    In the case of homophobia and xenophobia including antipathy it is still the individual that is seen negatively. In the case of xenophobia antipathy is often based in racism and/or a tendency to believe that a limited set of resources are being consumed by "others". In the case of homosexuals it is often either a self-hatred for secretly being a homosexual themself or a revulsion at the idea of what they do "to" each other behind closed doors, or how they act in public. In both cases however it is the person themself, the stranger or the homosexual, towards whom the antipathy is felt.

    These so called "Islamophobic" people don't experience fear/hatred whenever they think about the details of a specific religion, they feel it whenever they think of Muslims. What do they typically hate? The clothing, the beards, the lower rates of spoken English; and on the more extreme end where anti-Muslim starts to mix with racism, the "taking of our women and jobs", how "they" all know the tricks of claiming benefits they don't deserve, how "they" own lots of properties because they give each other interest free loans, and so on. Talk about Islam to one of these people in private and you will find that the subject quickly turns into a discussion of why they hate Muslims (and in addition usually Pakistanis in particular).

    The most negative affect of using the word Islamophobia is that it introduces an additional theological subject into the mix that is very complex to understand and very varied. With so much of an intellectual obstacle to overcome before being able to understand the subject fully it is easy to see why most people form their conclusions on the actions of those who claim to be its adherents rather than the actual details of the religion (have you read the Quran/tafsirs/hadiths yourself?) The inclusion of the word Islam ensures that Islam judged and as a consequence all Muslims guilty to the extent that they adhere to their religion.


  5. 2/2
    Use of the phrases "Anti-Muslim" or perhaps even the less accurate "Muslimophobia" points the finger directly as the dislike of Muslims themselves. Instead of judging the entire religion (and therefore its entire followers) it is easier to show that it is individual Muslims that are the problem, from there it is much easier for people to see through the error.

    Most people don't realise there are different sects within Islam, and within those sects there are different schools of thought, and within those schools of thought there is variation between individuals' beliefs, but most people know that all people don't act the same just because they call themself a Muslim. To them "Islam is Islam". Remove the complex issue of Islam from the equation and it is easier to remove the their ignorance based fear that all Muslims are dangerous depending on how serious they are about their religion. As a consequence instead of believing that Islam is a problem that needs to be dealt with in the UK, they will focus on the individuals and hopefully conclude that it is extremists that need dealing with (which would also include the EDL).

    Show that this is an issue with individual people rather than the complex subject of Islam and it will be far easier to get on side those undecided people who join the EDL. Many of these people see what they feel are valid criticisms of a religion being labelled "Islamophobia" and it simply reinforces their position that accusations of Islamophobia are unfounded and nothing more than a way of getting them to keep quiet about the threat they perceive.

  6. I haven't read the Qur'an, no. I still think that in fact the idea of Islam is very important within anti-Muslim bigotry. Many bigots use something to do with the religion as a starting point (and such a point might be true, half true, or mostly false) for their attacks on Muslims. And I think this can sometimes be dealt with through a discussion about religion - pointing out that, say, FGM may be widespread in many Muslim countries but is not really Islamic, that Muslims disagree over issues such as penalties for apostasy, that the meaning and significance of Shariah is contested. A lot of bigotry uses Muhammed as a starting point - of course people should be able to say exactly what they want about Muhammed, but facts or beliefs about him are used to smear Muslims - for example I've seen in the space of a tweet someone go from a reference to Muhammed to suggesting that a particular Muslim is probably a paedophile. There are certainly Muslim preachers who condone under age marriage (under age in UK terms) and people who will invoke the example of Muhammed to justify this - but both practice and beliefs amongst Muslims will vary greatly, and it's useful to air these differences within Islam (as it is practiced) - rather than 'remove the complex issue of Islam from the equation'.

  7. You seem to be switching slightly to "Should we be able to discuss Islam?", which is good, and the answer of course is "Yes".

    I am saying that the added complexity of Islam should be removed only from the definition of the acts we see bigoted people perpetrating against Muslims. People discussing the meaning of the Quran is a separate issue and is made easier by the fact that criticising the religion/Quran is not easily confused as being the same as hating Muslims.

    I want people to be able to discuss Islam and the Quran freely with Muslims as I do, but this is becoming more and more difficult as hatred towards Muslims is parceled up with criticism of the Quran. This is why I would like people to stop using the term Islamophobia (which is factually incorrect anyway) and use the correct term "Anti-Muslim". Not only is it a completely accurate term but it is more exposing of the bigotry that fuels it and also makes open discussion less of a taboo.

  8. Yep, I approve of this message. Complete and to the point.

  9. I agree that the present use of the term Islamophobia is (etymologically) incorrect, but language is very rarely accurate or static. Over the decade or so, the term Islamophobia has evolved and is now used as an umbrella term to describe anything from mild prejudice against individual Muslims to persistent attacks against the collective. But i don't necessarily object to words deviating from their etymological roots and picking up new meanings.

    I also agree that the term Islamophobia conflates the issue when it comes to violent attacks against Muslims, since it groups "anti-Muslim" bigotry and “phobic” behaviour together. However, I do acknowledge that there have been efforts to undermine Islam, presently via propaganda, misinformation, as well as in the past by early orientalists and arabists. Colin Turner (The Quran: A New Interpretation, p. xii) commented on a 1698 translation of Quran by Ludovicus Marracci stating that it was “carefully juxtaposed and sufficiently garbled so as to portray Islam in the worst possible light”. This type of systematic misportrayal of Islam in the West, even by renowned academics and pseudo-intellectuals (not to mention the media) is the epitome of Islamophobia - and is undoubtedly in full force today (ie. Dawkins, Harris, Geller, Spencer, etc).

    I infer from your statement “One can be outright anti-Islamic yet at the same time believe Muslims to be equals worthy of the same rights as themselves.” that your real concern is the way in which the term Islamophobia has recently been used to silence criticism of Islam. I recognise that this is happening and should stop. However, I can also rationalise why some might brand any criticism of Islam as Islamophobia; because bad things usually follow. Criticism of Jewry throughout Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century led to a nearly successful attempt at exterminating the Jewish people. I really respect that you have been able to separate your attitude towards the ideology that is Islam from your perception of Muslims (even though i don’t fully understand it), but i’m afraid most people simply cannot. This often leads to the differential treatment of one group of people (Muslims in this case), the infringement of the rights of that group, and ultimately inequality in society.

    Though i agree with you in principle, a discourse on the word “Islamophobia” does nothing but detract from the real issue; the gradual degradation of the right of Muslims in the West to be treated equally, without prejudice or discrimination. In a perfect world, we could criticise any ideology (Islam, Communism, Judaism, etc) while continuing to protect (and not persecute) the followers of that ideology. In the real world, we have a stellar record of doing the exact opposite.

  10. Come to think of it I did actually meet a genuine homophobic once. It was new year's eve 1991 and my family had booked places in a B&B hotel run by a homosexual couple. For the celebrations they dressed as women and did cabaret + had a transvestite homosexual guy also doing some singing etc too.

    The guy was there as a guest. He was absolutely terrified of these guys because they were homosexuals. He was a nice guy and interacted with them in a friendly way etc but only from a distance and only when talked to.

    His name was Bobby, he had a hell of a time when the song "I want to be Bobby's girl" came on. I remember him whimpering with fear and slipping under the table to run away from three femininely dressed men who were fighting to sit on his lap and be "Bobby's girl". He took it in good humour, but he was terrified because (in his own words) "I don't dislike homosexuals. I don't know why but I am just really scared of them and have to run away"

    To call this guy a homophobic would be 100% accurate, but would now also be seen as an insult to him, an accusation of bigotry or hatred.

    I think we really need to stop redefining the word Phobia, it's a disservice.

  11. Hamza capitulates. Congrats :-)!

  12. This article has its worth, though a little short on detail as to whether fear of Islam is irrational.

    It seems looking at some replies that those of left and/or liberal leanings assume that fear of any group or idea is "a priori" irrational - which is strange given that they wouls probably fear a Nazi government greatly.

    I have known Muslims, and in some ways I would trust them greatly with things such as money and truthfulness. However, it is worth noting the following things:

    1. If you create a cartoon, flim, or a play satirising the Quran in Britain, you will be in fear of your life.

    2. If you go into districts such as Tower Hamlets in London and calmly proselytize the merits of atheism, you run the risk of being attacked.

    3. The hopes for freedom and an open liberal society in the Arab spring have been dashed by the Islamists. It seems that people in Islamic countries consistently oscillate between electing Islamic parties, then regretting that they have done so.

    4. The levels of individual freedom in Islamic countries is low compared to the west - for example, in Sauid Arabia people are imprisoned or sentenced to death merely for changing their beliefs.

    5. If Britain ever becomes a majority Muslim country, it is likely that many of the hard fought for freedoms we enjoy now will vanish.

    It is not the individuals I fear, but the combined effect of the many. Without any centralised plan - just the unifying, persistent force of their holy books - they might change our society in a way we would abhor.


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