lunes, julio 02, 2012

Islamophobia in the Times of Breivik

If we button our lips to avoid offending the moderates, declining to draw attention to the utter irresponsibility of the fanatics, we become complicit in perpetuating the myth that there's really nothing to criticize in religious convictions.
Daniel Dennet 

Eden in Her Eyes
Photography by Osvaldo Eaf

Text originally written for Gen-C Magazine

This is a tricky time for defending secular values. It turns out that the ones who seem most concerned about an apparent surge of religious fundamentalism tend to be extremists and lunatics of their own sort. Secularization has suddenly found new unpleasant allies especially in the Euro-zone, where the economic turmoil has triggered a renaissance of conservative and xenophobic populism that tends to blame the decline of the socio-economic welfare of the region on the attempts of multiculturalism and, of course, on foreigners. Muslim Immigrants in Europe are arguably the community most troubled by the reinvention of right-wing populism. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book: the easiest and cheapest way to explain the rise of unemployment, for example, is the old fashioned "The filthy foreigners took your job".

The effectiveness of this type of xenophobic rhetoric is particularly alarming and surprising in countries with a strong liberal constitutional tradition like France, where Marine Le Pen manages to obtain a near 20% of all votes while saying on the BBC that the Muslims praying in public places are carrying out  “an occupation with no tanks and no soldiers, but an occupation after all”[1], and where Nicolas Sarkozy gets away with saying in public that “French people don’t like to see people praying on the streets”, making the issue sound like a sort of esthetic problem that would only concern his glamorous wife.

But Sarko and Le Pen are not the worst interlocutors in this discussion. They are opportunistic, populist and shallow, but those are illnesses found in many other politicians. Being opportunistic, populist and shallow, some say, is a pre-condition for becoming one. The worst participants in these debates are by far criminal lunatics like Anders Breivik, who tend to suggest that cultural conflicts caused by globalization should be solved by surrendering some of the most important and hard-fought achievements of humanity: The recognition that life is paramount, the recognition that a freedom to think and speak is inalienable and yes: the recognition of the freedom of members of our species to worship deities and images.

Besides the terrible pain caused to Norway, the atrocities of Breivik have made the task of promoting and protecting secular values, what Max Weber once called the disenchantment of the world, a much harder task to accomplish. Breivik’s cruelty has given new rhetoric tools to those who pretend that religion and superstition must remain uncriticized, unchallenged and unquestioned, lest we offend the people of faith. He gave them new excuses for imposing comfortable political correctness to a world that is urging for more and more critical inquiry.

And catering to that call for acritical correctness are the contemporary uses of the word islamophobia and the epithet islamophobe, constantly brought up to point fingers at people who raise legitimate critical voices about Islam, portraying them as racist and xenophobe. Regarding this issue, Dennis Prager suggested some years ago in the conservative Townhall Magazine that fear of Islam is not the same as hatred of all Muslims. That “one can rightly or wrongly fear Islam, or more usually, aspects of Islam, and have absolutely no bias against all Muslims, let alone be a racist”[2]. Roger Kimball, on the other hand, suggested that Islamophobia is a misnomer in the sense that the word phobia mainly refers to irrational fears[3]. The question is, of course: How irrational is it to fear Islam? 

But before answering such an important question, please note once again that my last two quotes come from and Roger Kimball (a conservative magazine and a renowned conservative commentator) and that it seems at least counterintuitive that someone posing as a fierce promoter of secularization relies so heavily on the say of conservative pundits. Such is the ludicrous political landscape in the times of Breivik: it seems to make atheists and conservatives come together in very unusual ways and, as Sam Harris asserted some years ago in the Daily Beast, it creates a very inconvenient dynamic in which well-intentioned liberals who question Islam are easily dismissed as intolerant or racist because their criticism resonates with the bigotry of not-so-well intentioned conservatives.[4] That is not to say that all conservatives are bigots, but to point out the fact that defenders of secularization are in a very tight spot: On the one hand there seems to be a new wave of activist fundamentalism both among Christians and Muslims, and on the other they are at risk of finding themselves in tacit alliances with people like Nicolas Sarkozy, who claimed while still in office that “France cannot welcome face veils”[5].

That is perhaps the biggest challenge: If our generation wishes to take up the task of defending secular values nowadays, it has to be careful enough to take a prudent distance from the discourse and actions of opportunistic bigots like Sarkozy and criminals like Anders Breivik. While carrying the banner of the emancipation of women (a cause that religious dogma impedes in so many ways) we must not forget the values we stand upon. Going back to the times when the state dictated what citizens were allowed to wear would be a betrayal of those principles. What would be the next step? Would we endorse the banning of Mohawks, tattoos and baggy pants? Put in Nietzschean terms, in the process of fighting monsters we must see that we do not become a very nasty one ourselves.

On this matter we can learn a lot from the Norwegians. Deeply hurt by the inenarrable cruelty of a psychopath who claims to be a templar knight (a knight of a bloodthirsty and long disbanded Christian order, by the way) they still decided that the right path to choose was the path of tolerance. In what seemed to be a vivid example of the amazing things that human civilization can achieve, up to 40.000 Norwegians gathered last April to sing Children of the Rainbow, a song about multiculturalism, as a sort of symbolic punishment to the man who killed more than 77 people in Oslo. Amongst them was Harald Foesker, who lost 80% of his vision and suffered facial injuries due to the bomb on the government building but still claimed “he was proud to live in a country that treated criminal defendants with dignity”[6].

That is the example that we have to live up to. Our cause is not a crusade, we are not inquisitors nor crusaders. Anyone who wishes to defend secular values needs to understand that the pretension to drive religion out of the world must be abandoned. If we embark in such an enterprise we would be betraying ourselves, we would be effectively becoming Nietzsche’s monsters. Some of our tasks are to question religious nonsense, defend the separation of church and state, reveal the inadequacies of religious morality and make secular law prevail in the face of god-given law and ancient scripture. But we must do this while keeping a peaceful coexistence with the people of faith or our efforts would be self-defeating. Our tools: education, secular culture and science are not weapons. Our key responsibility is to educate and raise secular children, children who are not abused in their infancy with ludicrous ideas about eternal damnation or supernatural beings that take sides in wars. Our right is to demand that our children receive secular education and that the religious keep their religion to themselves. In these times of unemployment and economic turmoil, whenever and wherever Salafi or Evangelic fanatics offer the youth to invest their lives with meaning by offering them the word of their scriptures[7], we must meet them with secular cult-ure:  cinema, poetry, literature, science, philosophy. If they are to call our cause a cult, let it be the cult of the mind.

And then we come to the issue of Islamophobia. Whoever coined the term was probably smart enough to understand its potential for deterring any critical inquiry of Islam. The fact is, however, that there is no such a thing as a mental illness called islamophobia because there are legitimate reasons for fearing and distrusting Islam as a religious creed. Equating the fear and distrust or even the dislike of Islam to racism or xenophobia is a fallacy in the sense that there are Muslims from virtually all races. I don’t dislike and fear Islam because I hate brown people (like myself) or their cultural expressions. I dislike Islam in almost the same way I dislike Christianism: I find both to be very powerful enterprises usually led by fanatics and puritans with an expansionist totalitarian drive and a reactionary political agenda.

It goes without saying that not all Muslims are reactionary fanatics, but it seems hard to deny, I insist, that it is completely reasonable to fear and distrust Islam in the year 2012. Islam, or at least a faction of Islam, has shown to imperil the core of free speech, as when a British writer was sentenced to death by a despotic cleric in the Middle East for the terrible sin of writing a novel, or when a Danish cartoonist was almost axed in front of his daughter for the unforgivable mischief of drawing a cartoon[8]. Islam has shown to be a powerful catalyzer of organized acts of terror, as when a group of men hijacked planes and flew them into buildings or planted bombs in Spanish trains. Sharia, on the other hand, seems to enshrine and foster the subordination of women, taking it to extreme levels in countries with Muslim majorities.  Aren’t these reasons to fear or at least dislike Islam in all honesty? The moderate Muslims would respond to such a question by saying that the fear of Islam is a consequence of negative stereotypes created by ignorant Westerners, that we overlook the fact that there used to be Islamic science, for example. We are told that our fear for Islam is an uninformed reaction to the acts of extremists who have distorted their faith.

A simple look at the holy books, however, suggests that the God of the Quran is as bloodthirsty and cruel as the God of the Bible. One ordered the slaughter of the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites leaving no one (not even children) alive[9], while the other commands their worshipers to slay the infidel until all religion is for their God[10], suggesting that dying a martyr in the Holy war is the best of fates given the generous rewards for martyrs in heaven[11]. But yet when a casual reader of the holy books points out this terrible scriptural cruelty, she is once again labeled an uninformed interpreter and told that the issue is a matter of exegesis. It takes an expert to interpret all this, they say, an expert like Khomeini, perhaps. The fact is that we are not simply depicting a biased caricature of Islam, as Harris very eloquently puts it:

“When one reads the Koran and the hadith, and consults the opinions of Muslim jurists over the centuries, one discovers that killing apostates, treating women like livestock, and waging jihad—not merely as an inner, spiritual struggle but as holy war against infidels—are practices that are central to the faith”[12].  

By 2001, polls in the Middle East suggested that 75% of people favored the doctrine of martyrdom[13] and a more recent Poll by the PEW Research Center has shown that despite its tendency to decline, the percentage of Muslims who think suicide bombing is justifiable is still around 70% percent in Palestine and around 40% in countries like Nigeria[14]. But yet what we fear the most about Islam is perhaps that whenever their clerics issue a disproportionate and cruel sentence (as in the Rushdie Affair) the moderate and righteous Muslims seem to have a hard time condemning their intolerance. Why is it so hard to find unanimous self-critical spirit about these issues in the ranks of Islam and so easy to be labeled an Islamophobe? As Luther King would put it: The strident clamor of the bad people is not nearly as tragic as the appalling silence of the good people. Instead of denial, moderate Muslims should offer the world a constructive discussion about the doctrine of Martyrdom, about the scope and reach of the sources of Sharia and also a recognition that something must be done to mitigate the impact of maverick fatwas that conflict with western secular law and fundamental rights like Free Speech. That would be a real step towards the end of fear. The other option, as suggested by Harris, is that mainstream Muslims simply try to persuade new generations that the true Islam is peaceful, tolerant, egalitarian and compatible with a global civil society, but the Holy books will remain unaltered and the most belligerent and barbarous passages “will remain forever open to being given their most plausible interpretations”[15].

In his column, Prager suggested that the term islamophobia and the rhetoric that surrounds itare in part to blame for disparities such as a Pace University student accused of felony for taking a copy of the Quran to the toilet, while the man who put a crucifix in a jar of urine continues to have his work displayed in galleries and museums. Both are despicable acts of poor taste, but Prager’s observation is brilliant if we consider that some time ago, the Catholic Church would have probably sentenced the abovementioned artistic provocateur to death (to put it mildly). Our task with Islam is perhaps to find the most benign way to reach an agreement in which it surrenders, like the Catholic Church, the most of its violent character. The Islamic community and its cleric should understand the fact that Free Speech in the form of caricature and critical inquiry of their faith and even their prophet is here to stay. Such scrutiny is extremely necessary and worth the risk of islamophobia accusations. After all, if the Roman Church had not been challenged at a certain point in history, it could still be burning apostates everywhere[16].

[1] A part of the interview may be seen in Youtube:
[4] I nearly reproduced Harris’ phrasing as I find it so eloquent. A full version of his article can be retrieved from:
[5] A very interesting look at the issue and the divergences between Sarkozy and Obama about it can be found in this Time Magazine article:,9171,1908306,00.html
[6] A video of the gathering and a story about it can be retrieved from The Guardian Online:
[7]Salafi fundamentalists recently planned to distribute 300.000 copies of the Quoram in  Western European cities, perhaps with the intention of "investing the lives of the youth with meaning". Here is a story in the Economist about the issue
[8] These two incidents, Involving the writer Salman Rushdie and the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard are widely documented in International media.
[9] As in chapter 7 and 20:17 of the Deuteronomy.
[10] Examples of these divine commands are to be found in: (2:191-193; 4:76).
[11] The heavenly rewards are promised in (47:4-6).
[12] In the case of the Christian Bible, it is hard not to agree with Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo, who wrote with a hint of his characteristic Black humour that the worst enemy of the Bible is the Bible itself.
[15] This is once again a direct quotation from Harris’ brilliant article about the Ground Zero Mosque, referenced above.

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