Stop Smearing Critics of Islam as Islamophobes

Branding everything a "phobia" stifles meaningful debate.


The UK-based Islamic Human Rights Commission has disgusted everyone who owns a moral compass by giving its international "Islamophobe of the Year Award" to Charlie Hebdo.

Yep, that's right—not content that the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo have already been summarily executed for the "crime" of Islamophobia, the IHRC now wants to posthumously insult them, metaphorically branding their corpses with the i-word so that everyone remembers what scumbags they were.

The IHRC, a charity founded in 1997 to research, study, and bleat about anyone who is less than fawning about Islam, initiated the Annual Islamophobia Awards in 2003. The winners are, of course, not actually anti-Muslim bigots, but simply people who have had the temerity to criticize some aspect of Islamic faith or culture.

So Ayaan Hirsi Ali has won one for failing to show sufficient respect to the religion that ruined her childhood. How dare she! Tony Blair was awarded one as well, proving that even painfully PC politicians who go around quoting the Koran and saying what a wonderful religion Islam is can still find themselves labelled haters.

And now, eclipsing even those previous undeserving winners, Charlie Hebdo has been dishonored with an award. On March 7, exactly two months after the massacre—nice—the IHRC christened that mag the worst of the international Islamophobes. No one from the magazine was available to pick up the award, of course, since many of its writers are now dead.

The IHRC's labelling of freshly-killed satirists is like a post-mortem justification for the massacre itself, a reminder of the "crimes" these people committed prior to being shot at their desks. In fact, it's merely a less bloody version of the Islamic State's habit of hanging a placard around the neck of some poor bloke about to be crucified or pushed off a building: a reminder of the wickedness done by these individuals who are being, or have been, executed.

It isn't surprising that the IHRC's giggling at the dead of Charlie Hebdo has been met with outrage. But now we need to go further. We need to reject, not only the grisly handing of an Islamophobia award to dead cartoonists, but also the very idea of Islamophobia—the word itself, the notion that to criticize or mock Islam is to be disordered and therefore in need of reprimanding or a cure.

We live in an era of phobias. They are apparently spreading like a ravenous blob, turning more and more human minds black with prejudice. Today, it isn't only fear of spiders, clowns, or open spaces that is branded a phobia—so are certain ways of thinking, certain beliefs, moral viewpoints that fall outside the mainstream.

Islam is protected from ridicule not only by the slur of Islamophobia, but also through accusations of "hijabphobia" against anyone who criticizes the veil, and "shariaphobia," which is used to brand as sickly those who think Western democratic nations should have one, universal law applicable to everyone rather than different courts for different folks.

One Muslim writer describes hijabphobia as an "irrational fear" that has "crept into the subconscious of the unsuspecting all over the world." So you might think your dislike of the veil is motored by secular, liberal concern for the treatment of women as frail sexual creatures who must always be hidden, but actually you're sick; you've been infected by a fear of the Other.

Shariaphobia is, according to one dictionary, "fear or hatred of sharia law." The heated debate about the introduction of a sharia tribunal in Texas has led to accusations of shariaphobia. A writer for the Texan paper the Star-Telegram said commentators' criticisms of the tribunal show that "shariaphobia is back." So even the suggestion that we should have one law for all—a pretty standard Enlightenment idea—is now rebranded a weird, dark fear.

The purpose of all these utterly invented phobias is to delegitimize moral criticism of Islam by depicting it as irrational, fuelled by fearful thoughts that the mass media probably implanted in your unwitting brain. It's like an informal, non-legal enforcement of strictures against blasphemy. Whereas the Inquisition branded disbelievers as morally disordered "deniers," today's intolerant protectors of Islam brand critics of that religion as morally disordered "phobes." In Europe, a hotbed of phobia-policing, people have actually been arrested, convicted, and fined for the crime of "Islamophobia"—a direct echo of the Inquisition's trial and punishment of those who, in retrospect, we should probably call Bibliophobes.

It isn't only Islam and its sympathizers who use the phobe label to chill legitimate moral debate. Everyone's at it.

Gay-rights activists have become way too fond of using the word "homophobe," not only to attack actual anti-gay bigots but also to slam people who simply oppose gay marriage, for religious reasons, or who aren't in love with every aspect of the gay lifestyle. Here, too, legit moral viewpoints are reimagined as irrational fears and in the process demonized. Homosexuality was once treated as a mental illness; now criticism of homosexuality is described, in the words of psychiatrist and writer Martin Kantor, as an "emotional disorder."

Heaven help anyone who criticizes any aspect of transgender politics. Question the idea that boys who identify as girls should be allowed to use the girls' toilets at school and you're a transphobe. Wonder out loud if gender is at least partly biological and you're a transphobe. Accidentally call Chelsea Manning Bradley Manning and you're the most foul, irrational, phobic creature in Christendom.

There's also biphobia, lesbophobia, whorephobia (used against feminists who, wrongly in my view, want to outlaw prostitution), fatphobia, ecophobia (for people who aren't eco-friendly and, what's more, think green politics is a crock), and on it goes.

What we're witnessing is the pathologizing of dissent, the treatment of edgy or just eccentric ideas as illnesses requiring silencing or even treatment. It's a cynical attempt by certain groups and their media cheerleaders to opt-out of the battle of ideas by branding their opponents as irrational, and therefore not worthy of engagement.

Pathologizing moral thought has long been the favored tactic of the most authoritarian regimes. Think of the Soviet Union dumping dissenters in lunatic asylums. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, O'Brien, the torturer in Room 101, offers to cure Winston Smith of his anti-authority outlook: "You are mentally deranged," he tells him. "Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane!"

The 21st-century West is rife with O'Briens, keen to cure us of our phobias. We should respond by challenging the phobia-accusers to ditch the name-calling and instead take part in real, honest, moral debate.