Questioning Islamophobia

What's in a term? Far too much!

The Haj Pilgrimage to Mecca — anachronistic but still a beautiful sight to behold.

There is a certain circularity to these things. They bite you in the ass just as you’re wrestling the tail into the ground, so to speak. I recently had opportunity to be asked if I was a Muslim. Perhaps a little background would be helpful. I frequently comment and post in a left-wing feminist online group on Facebook – at times weekly, at times a dozen or more times a week, depending on the topics that come up and, often, how far afield the discussion has strayed into territories that touch on my areas of expertise and show no signs of understanding that feel like they need a little direction to help along without everyone getting confused. That, of course, is where this began.

There was a post decrying that in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament, if you prefer), a certain passage that shall for the purposes of argument remain nameless, was kind and gentle and a corresponding and nearly-identical passage in the Qur’an was an incitation to violence and misogyny. I read the two passages. They were both brutally violent. But in the version of said Bible that had been quoted, the passage was softened and in the translation of the Qur’an, it was full-on, face-forward, and warrior-friendly. So I pointed this out, as a good atheist, me, showing that the Judeo-Christian version of the text was just as brutal in, let’s say, the KJV. But, of course, this prompted the vicious maelstrom of actual posts to the point that I had to mute them for awhile until they died down to a comprehensible mangle of thoughts that had ranged along two sides of an argument that, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure why it existed.

One side was that the Qur’an is a book of gentle thoughts, the word of a god that is or is not distinguishable from that of Christians and Jews, an argument left, thankfully, for another day. The other was that the more modern the translation of the Christian Bible, even the Hebrew Bible, the closer to the “true” meaning it became. This, I must stress, is an argument that is both silly and unproductive, with both sides arguing from belief and without any background in fact. Both sides being angry did not help the issue.

So I wrote a fairly long and, perhaps, unwise reply to the entire conversation, believing that I may be able to pour oil on the waters before the group divided itself into two groups, one of Christians and one of Muslims (the fact that the vast majority of the group is, indeed, like me, militant atheists would likely not have occurred to anyone in that particular discussion).

My view on the discussion went something like this. These are two books written by men (yes, I mean men, not humans) who lived in a particular time and place and circumstance and for a purpose. Admittedly, the purposes were different and they were very different types of men. But if we’re going to compare them, we should at least begin with the idea that, whatever one’s belief about gods and the fantasy of an afterlife and myths of creation, these books are man-made – again, emphasis on the man part of this.

So I called a friend who’s a research scientist (in a field that is irrelevant to this discussion) and had a short talk with her about the original text in Arabic of the passage in the Qur’an, as my Arabic is conversational at best. It was, as I suspected, even more brutal and violent than the translated version but not startlingly so. The translation was, as often is the case in English versions of the Qur’an, I have noticed, relatively true if not to the words, then to the spirit of the words in the pseudo-original (which is, one must admit, not simply arcane in its language but pre-standardization, leading to the possibility for many meanings of almost every sentence therein). And I took out my copy of original Hebrew text of the passage to study in depth. It was, in this case, what would be quite startling to anyone reading the “modern” translation. Not to mention it was almost a word-for-word copy (the copying having had to have happened in the other direction, simply because of the several thousand year time difference between the two works).

So I went through this in detail, pointing out just how similar these two passages were, using the original language and an ad-hoc translation, and showing that the only difference is in slight wording variations and not in either meaning or intent and that neither was particularly misogynistic (amazingly) but both were violent and unpleasant imagery, to say the least. Much of the same can be said of a lot of religious books but one must not forget that they were written for a particular audience at a particular time when savage barbarism was a daily affair (and when women were valued somewhere less than cattle but more than grain).

I thought that I had been even-handed. And as a fairly outspoken participant in these discussions, I am fairly well known to be an aggressive atheist and proponent of scientific thought.

So I was a little confused when the first reply to my attempt at calming the situation was by one of the raging Christians asking me simply, with no preamble or attempt at explaining why I was being asked this, other than my assumption that she did not like what she thought of as her warm-and-fuzzy religious text being equated with one she thought of as barbaric, “Are you a Muslim?” 

I replied rather quickly, “Most certainly not,” and this was, perhaps, in retrospect, unwise. Nearly a thousand messages decrying that I was demonizing Christianity by showing the violence in the original words that have been softened and mistranslated into incomprehensibility. Twice as many screaming that I am Islamophobic and believe that Muslims should be deported or some such bullshit.

I was taken aback. I have seen the intentional trolling on the internet as a matter of daily browsing and this was not it. These were real people, many of who I had discussed other topics with completely sanely, in a closed discussion group. They weren’t trolling me. They really believed these things.

I say it again; I am a scientist, a militant atheist. I am anti-religion, anti-faith, anti-belief, and anti-establishment. In a nutshell, I’m a feminist, anarchist bitch. But I’m not a racist; and I swear I’m not an asshole, unless I’m trying very hard to be.

So let’s look at this language, shall we? When someone hates you because you’re a woman, they’re a misogynist. When someone hates you because of the color of your skin, they’re a racist. But when someone hates you because you’re Muslim, you’re Islamophobic. I must admit confusion at this and someone truly does need to do something about this. It’s much in the same vein as calling someone who hates people who are homosexual “homophobic.” It’s often incorrect; it’s poor use of language; it conflates two distinct issues into one; it is a horrible oversimplification of a complex issue.

I am not afraid of Muslims or of Islam. Nor am I afraid of Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, or any other people who adhere to one of the many religious myth systems that exist. I’m not really afraid of anyone in particular, unless they break into my house in the middle of the night and hold me hostage at gunpoint, which, thankfully, has not happened to me and, until such an unlikely situation were to occur, nobody particularly frightens me. And that’s fear. Now, I am a professional woman. Specifically, I am in the profession of psychology. In such a profession, we have, as do most professions, technical terms for things. Phobia is one of them. It’s an extreme and often irrational fear. Usually people with phobias will do almost anything to rid themselves of them – think arachnophobia (spiders), ophidiophobia (snakes), cynophobia (dogs), astraphobia (thunder and lightning), and mysophobia (germs), as you will likely be able to think of someone that you have met who has one of these five, perhaps someone for each of them. But what’s common among them is that it is a brutal fear, often cripplingly so.

So who’s afraid of Muslims? Of Islam? I’m sure there must be some people out there, as there are people with the most unusual fears, not to make light of them, but to say that they are decidedly uncommon – hair between toes, dim lighting, feather pillows, spherical objects, and socks, to name five that I have encountered only once but, dare I say, once was enough.

I’m not afraid of members of Islam. Nor am I particularly bothered by being asked if I am one of these members. It’s like being asked if I’m black. I’m not. I have many friends who are but me, born in the south of Europe, am of Mediterranean descent, and my olive complexion doesn’t make it difficult for AI to distinguish that I have a face, simply that it’s almost impossible to find a foundation that matches my skintone when I don’t tan enough. That’s why the whole thing confuses me so much.

I hear this quite often. A politician is branded Islamophic because he (usually a man) is against immigration. He might be anti-immigration. He might well be a racist bastard. This is quite likely. He might hate Muslims, although I doubt he’d differentiate between those who pray to Mecca and Christians or Buddhists or Sikhs or anyone else who happens to come from the somewhere east of the European mainland. What I’m getting at is that this is not likely a religious bias but one of racism.

So was I being asked if I was a Muslim by a fire-breathing Christian because that would explain statements that she took to be insulting to her particular brand of the Abrahamic mythology? Quite possibly. And if she asked the question as an insult, I certainly didn’t take it as such. Simply a question like “Do you believe in ghosts?” to which, I am frequently called upon to answer without having to give it much thought, “No.” If you would like a parallel that you can relate to in your own life, imagine someone asking you if you are a fan of cricket, football, ice hockey, tennis, or golf. I doubt you’re a fan of all of them, although you might be, in which case, substitute something you don’t particularly like watching but don’t really care that other people watch it. And so, you say no without thinking. It’s not that you hate people who play or watch tennis. How absurd. You just don’t happen to be a fan of watching it or playing the game. Such am I with religions. I don’t hate someone because they are of a particular religious background. I just clearly state that I am not.

And when I said I was not, suddenly I’m afraid of Muslims. Not afraid of being one, which would at least have been a more sensible yet still negative question in response to my statement. But this is like being asked if you are a kitten (which I believe are cute, beautiful, and dare anyone not to love) and when I say sorry, I’m actual a woman, not a cat, to be asked if I’m afraid of kittens. Nope. Not even a little bit. Just don’t happen to be one. My bad.

The moral? Be careful of assumptions, please. Not everyone who isn’t a Christian hates you because you may happen to be and not everyone who isn’t a Christian is automatically a Muslim – there are many choices out there that people can take. If you’re not a Muslim, it doesn’t automatically make you afraid of Islam. Or hate Muslims. Or hate anyone because of their religion, for that matter.

But perhaps more important than that, there is a whole rhetoric about people being afraid of Muslim immigration. But that’s utter and complete bullshit. It’s old-school xenophobia (fear of outsiders) and racism (which, generally speaking, can easily be assumed to make someone a flagrant and unapologetic asshole). If someone’s a racist, call them out on it. If they say racist things or laugh at racist things, they’re probably a racist. And this needs to stop.

If someone doesn’t agree with you on a point of religious belief, so be it. It’s not the end of the world. If you’re not prepared to question your beliefs, please stop entering into discussions where that’s the whole point – anything involving comparative religious studies is, by definition, a critical look into it and you need to, if you actually believe the things you’re studying, be prepared to look at them from a detached perspective or you’re just going to get into a huge mess of argumentation and being angry.

I don’t want to be angry. I can’t imagine you do, either. (I hope you’re not a racist, either, cause that’s bad and we want to avoid having any of those around.)

Now Reading
Questioning Islamophobia