Many critics of the West's policy in the Middle East and Western attitudes towards the Islamic faith are keen to invoke Edward Said's theory of Orientalism, which posits that our study of the East is unavoidably distorted by the West's inherent ideological biases. It is clear, however, that if such an absolute predisposition exists, through their support for "moderate" Islamists and rejection of secular Muslim liberals, the Europeans who regard themselves as defenders of the East are the true perpetrators of such prejudice.
For example, in claiming Islam and Islamism as one and the same, by painting criticism of Islamism as bigoted, and by defining multi-culturalism as cultural relativism, when innocent Muslims are slaughtered by their co-religionists, Western comment or criticism is condemned as Islamophobic intolerance.
Defining the question of Islamophobia is especially critical in Europe. There, Islamophobia is dishonestly claimed by many to be that to question or comment on virtually any tenets of Islam is a wicked, bigoted act. By accepting discussion of religion as "Islamophobic," we provide a dangerous legitimacy to the claims of extremists within the Islamic community, while we abandon those Muslims who desire a reform or modernization within Islam, and greater assimilation with Western society.
Over the last few decades, a number of people have been charged with inciting religious hatred, or "abusing" free speech. During the Rushdie affair, the violent fury in Britain unleashed against a work of literature and its author was chiefly organized by Islamist factions within British Muslim groups, which later formed the core of the Muslim Council of Britain. Politicians and journalists across the spectrum, and even the British Chief Rabbi, suggested that Rushdie and the Iranian Ayatollah who prescribed the Indian writer's murder were equally guilty of "abusing free speech." Everyone should be concerned at such distortion. It is impossible to abuse free speech: the right to free expression guarantees the act of abuse itself – that is, the right to criticize anything and everything.
In America, unrestrained scorn of religious belief is far better established as the proudly enshrined right of the free citizen. In the US, as long as one does not incite violence against specific persons, it is legal for an individual to speak his mind about anything, whether as a member of a Muslim Brotherhood group or even a neo-Nazi organization.
There are several things Islamophobia is not. The first is ugly, straightforward anti-Muslim bigotry, such as the violent attacks by the incensed mob in the street or the shopkeeper who refuses to serve a particular customer. Such bigotry is not born out of fear; it is just thuggery. Additionally, those who claim criticism of religious ideals as "Islamophobic" are guilty of dangerously trivializing genuine anti-Muslim violence.
Further, the term cannot be applied to those Muslims who oppose religious extremism. This may seem odd, but Jonathan Steele, writing in the Guardian last October, did just that when he suggested that Muslim Tunisians who did not vote for Ennahda, the Islamist party, were themselves guilty of Islamophobia.
Real Islamophobia does apply, however, to those who legitimize extremists and "hate-preachers" as persons representative of the Islamic faith. When, for example, the British politician Ken Livingstone embraced the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and proclaimed him to be the "voice of Islam," he insulted Muslims all around the World. Those who adhere to the Islamic faith suddenly found that a non-Muslim politician was forcing upon them the responsibility of a hate-preacher who believes Jews and homosexuals should be purged from society. What could be more detrimental to Muslims than such an imposed obstacle to real reformation and enlightenment within their faith?
In 2011, the British Government's review of the PREVENT program, the state-funded counter-extremism initiative, declared that providing taxpayers' money to moderate Islamists in order to calm the "extreme" Islamists had not worked all that well. The Government's report noted that "there have been cases where groups whom we would now consider to support an extremist ideology have received funding." This came as no surprise to leading counter-extremism activists, who have long-warned about Islamist organizations taking advantage of Government funding for "interfaith" schemes – money and moral legitimacy to which extremists quickly sign-up in order to shroud their more nefarious activities.
In 2008, the Conservative MP Paul Goodman questioned the British government's support for the Lokahi Foundation, which runs a University interfaith project named Campusalam. Several hundred thousand pounds of taxpayers' money was given to the Foundation, which has previously associated itself with Muslim Brotherhood groups such as the Cordoba Foundation and IslamExpo. The Islamist academic Tariq Ramadan, whom the US has previously refused a visa, is on Lokahi's advisory board. The journalist Lee Smith has described Mr Ramadan – who has referred to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Bali and Madrid as nothing more than "interventions" -- as a cold-blooded Islamist whose "cry of death to the West is a quieter and gentler jihad, but it's still jihad."
It is not just Government that is susceptible to exploitation. Rabbi Wittenberg, a prominent Jewish leader in Britain, recently defended his interfaith work with the East London Mosque and an interfaith group called London Citizens. The deputy chair of London Citizens is Junaid Ahmed, who has referred to senior Hamas terrorist Ismail Haniyeh as "our leader".
As for the East London Mosque, it is considered by many critics to be one of the most extreme religious institutions in Europe: one does not have to look far back through its events to find speakers who denounce women, Jews and homosexuals. Featured guests have included Sheikh Saad al-Beraik, who once stated:
"Muslim Brothers in Palestine, do not have any mercy neither compassion on the Jews, their blood, their money, their flesh. Their women are yours to take, legitimately. God made them yours. Why don't you enslave their women? Why don't you wage jihad? Why don't you pillage them?"
Wittenberg responded to criticism of his collaboration with these groups by opining, "We have to take risks to engage with each other. The Jewish community will be far weaker if we all shelter within a comfort zone labeled 'They all hate us out there'."
By choosing to "engage," Wittenberg legitimizes the extremists as the warranted representatives of London's Muslim population. The original task of these Jewish groups was interfaith dialogue, but conversely, by embracing the extremists within British Islam, Wittenberg has only succeeded in isolating all those Muslims who would have otherwise been delighted to enjoy authentically close relations with the British Jewish Community.
In 2010, Gita Sahgal, a human rights activist and writer, was forced to leave Amnesty International because of the organization's continuing support for the jihadist Moazzam Begg and his Islamist organization, Cage Prisoners. Sahgal accurately described Begg as "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban."
Meanwhile, Muslim activists dedicated to promoting an Islam that is compatible with liberal democratic ideals are shunned. It would appear that this is because government, non-profit groups and much of the media consider truly liberal Muslims to be an anomaly; and that by embracing the enlightened Muslim voice, opinion-makers fear alienating vast sections of the general Muslim population. This is nothing more than the racism of low expectations.
After extremists organized a backlash against the Danish cartoonists, the Muslim MP Naser Khader formed, with the support of leading liberal Danish Muslims, an organization called "Democratic Muslims." This new group declared its support for liberal democracy and a secular Denmark, in which Islam could flourish as the private faith of the free individual. Yet when James Cain, the US ambassador to Denmark, invited Muslim community leaders to celebrate the an Iftar meal during the Muslim month of Ramadan, he refused to include the liberal members of Democratic Muslims. Instead, he chose photo opportunities with many of the same anti-Western Muslim leaders who preached hatred and, in response to the cartoon crisis, encouraged violence.
Almost immediately after Democratic Muslims was founded, a leading Danish researcher accused the group of "monopolizing democracy" - a criticism that was never leveled at the extremists who, during the cartoon crisis, promoted themselves as the unelected and unaccountable leaders of the Danish Muslim community. The real Islamophobia thinks that advocates of liberty and democracy cannot be 'real Muslims'.
In fact, Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a Danish newspaper that condemned the publication of the Mohammed cartoons, has used this very term. When Naser Khader told Seidenfaden that he did not find the cartoons insulting, Seidenfaden replied: "But you are not a real Muslim". Anti-Muslim activists have also claimed that those Muslims who fight extremism and support secularism are somehow not "real" Muslims – the implication being they are not cruel enough.
Whether these denials, from both the Left and Right, stem from the 'racism of low expectations' or genuine sympathy for religious supremacism, for the moderate Muslim population such marginalization is frightening It seems to render them powerless, with attention given only to the extremists, presumably in an effort to persuade them to be otherwise.
This is the real Islamophobia: the fear of directly addressing and challenging the extremism manifest within the Islamic community -- to the point where we will even ignore the pleas of moderate Muslims who have dedicated themselves to the ideals of reason, self-criticism and pluralism.
The fight against Islamic extremism, including the dispute over the limits of free expression, can only become a more pressing problem in the future. Most recently, the protests in the Middle East over the anti-Islam YouTube film The Innocence of Muslims and the cartoons published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo seem both to be harbingers of further anguished debate over the conflict between truly free expression and the limits self-imposed by many Europeans' misguided perception of others' cultural, religious and racial sensitivities.
The conflict is confused, and each side uses the terms of debate interchangeably. In response to concern over the anti-homosexual, anti-Jewish and misogynist lectures given by Islamist hate preachers at British universities, the faculty increasingly invokes the right to free speech in defense of such rhetoric, but not in opposition to it. However, this skewed appeal to the ideas of Locke and Stuart Mill is not so much a rediscovery of Enlightenment values, but rather just another act of submission to only one side. Instead of challenging extremism and hatred on their own university campuses, the faculties, by their inaction, are complicit with it -- they enable it and embolden it.
When the hate-preacher Yusuf Chambers recently spoke at the University of York, for instance, the faculty, in response to uproar from gay rights and women's rights activists, insisted that the event should go ahead but that a faculty member should be present. The University cited the importance of allowing students to challenge Chambers' views -- including his support for the stoning of adulterous women and the execution of homosexuals -- through a calm and rational platform. This would have worked perfectly, if the University had not, at the event itself, attempted to ban any questions challenging Chambers' bigoted views.
Additionally, the Student Union suggested that Chambers' right to free speech somehow precluded others' right to freely criticize or protest. In a rather depressing illustration of the real Islamophobia, Leon Morris, a student union officer, declared: "I wish for the society to cancel the event, but in openly protesting, we endanger those students who may feel vulnerable as a minority student."
Government, universities, interfaith groups, and community organizations must rethink their approach. Pro-Western Muslims are waiting for people to reach out to them, not censor them. It would help to defend liberal values, not selectively invoke them. It would help to forge strong links with those who seek to bring about greater enlightenment within the Islamic faith, and counter all those who work to threaten the liberties of Muslims, Christians, Jews and everyone else.
Sam Westrop is Associate Director at the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, and blogs at the Jerusalem Post on the symbiotic relationship between far-Left, far-Right and Islamist extremism. He can contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org