If we had to choose one thing that has obstructed many Westerners from understanding modern Islam and undermined our ability to handle its excesses, it would be our perception of Islamophobia. How many times have fair and honest criticisms of one aspect or another of Islam, rebukes of behaviour, or literary and artistic expressions of Muhammad or other figures been loudly shouted down or banned on the grounds that such criticism was "Islamophobic"? In Europe, individuals have been arrested, tried and sentenced for "Islamophobic" utterances. As Judith Bergman recently commented, in Europe it is becoming a criminal offence to criticize Islam.
In 2011, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, for example, a former Austrian diplomat and teacher, was put on trial for "denigration of religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion [Islam]," found guilty twice, and ordered to pay a fine or face 60 days in jail. Some of her comments may have seemed extreme, but the court's failure to engage with her historically accurate charge that Muhammad had sex with a nine-year-old girl and continued to have sex with her until she turned eighteen -- its regarding the historical record as somehow defamatory -- and the judge's decision to punish her for saying something that can be found in Islamic sources, illustrates the betrayal of Western values of free speech. A charge of "Islamophobia" was enough to confine the freedoms that most Westerners take for granted.
Sabaditsch-Wolff is not the only person to suffer for this "offence". Danish author Lars Hedegaard suffered an attack on his life and lives in a secret location. Kurt Westergaard, a Danish cartoonist, suffered an axe attack that failed, and is under permanent protection by the security services. In 2009, in Austria, the politician Susanne Winter was found guilty of "anti-Muslim incitement", for saying, "In today's system, the Prophet Mohammad would be considered a child-molester." She was fined 24,000 euros ($31,000) and given a three-month suspended sentence. The phrase "child molester", like the charge made by Sabaditsch-Wolff was based on the fact, recorded by Muslim biographers, that Muhammad had sexual relations with his new wife A'isha when she was nine years old (after marrying her when she was six).
Neither historical fact nor literary sophistication (as the British author Salman Rushdie learned to his cost) are able to deflect charges of Islamophobia.
What is worse is that, while it is not surprising to find Muslims, especially those from unsophisticated backgrounds and little education, offended by certain words or images, it is distressing to find Western courts and other bodies only too willing to genuflect to those charges and turn "Islamophobia" into a criminal offence in countries that otherwise value free speech and open expression.
Recently, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, a man who could very well become Prime Minister of the Netherlands in 2017, was found guilty of "inciting discrimination and insulting a minority group," merely for asking voters whether they favoured larger or fewer numbers of Moroccan immigrants – a legitimate if controversial political question. Wilders, of course, is known for his antipathy towards Islam, but pertinent concerns about its influence in a democracy do not make him an "Islamophobe", despite repeated accusations of it.
Fear of being "Islamophobic" affects not just the lives of outspoken individuals but the lives of whole populations. Because leading politicians are desperate not to offend Muslims, they often shape public and foreign policies to avoid even the appearance of "Islamophobia". This is, at the domestic level, done to avoid giving offence to growing numbers of Muslims in countries in Europe and North America. Giving offence invariably results in outraged Muslims chanting death threats in the streets; outraged but well-controlled leaders of Muslim organizations appearing in radio and TV interviews masquerading as victims of government or police intolerance, and demands for banning this newspaper, that book, or the resignation of a politician who said something unwise.
A careless word of offence may ruin trade relations with a Muslim state or threaten the cancellation of lucrative arms sales to a human rights-abusing, obscenely rich oil-state in the Gulf. A controversy like this happened to the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in early December, when he condemned Saudi Arabia and Iran for their sectarian proxy wars in Yemen and elsewhere -- only to have his views angrily rejected by the Prime Minister, who had just returned from the Gulf on a visit to promote British goods and services. In a shifting world -- with Britain pulling out of the EU and desperate for trade deals anywhere it could find them - hurting the feelings of people who can buy you up and spit you out is hardly advisable.
And this is where accusations of "Islamophobia" come into their own. Fear of it results in leaders such as Barack Obama, John Kerry, David Cameron, and Pope Francis repeating "Islam is a religion of peace" or "terrorism has nothing to do with Islam", when, in fact, Islam has never been free of religiously-inspired violence and the terror attacks we see around the world today have everything to do with Islam and its call to jihad. Denying that involvement for fear of giving offence or encouraging further violence means that Western powers have handicapped their own ability to recognize the source of conflict, target it, and end it. President Obama's history of avoiding offence and staying apart from direct action in the Middle East was the result of such woolly thinking -- not just woolly thinking but lying through his teeth.
Those of us who express sincere concerns about Islam in general or specific beliefs and actions committed in the name of the religion, yet wish to have respect for Muslims as people and for those aspects of their lives that are not a cause for concern (prayer, alms-giving, celebrations, pilgrimages, social work, mysticism and so forth), have to speak and write in a manner that shows we are not "Islamophobes". We need to do this if we are to be taken seriously, allowing our thoughts the chance to be heard and not dismissed as "bigoted" or "racist".
Much critical work is, however, greatly undermined by a vast quantity of bigoted, racist and genuinely Islamophobic comment on social media and elsewhere. This material, some of which will be quoted here, comes from a deeply worrying trend associated with the far-right, as well as associations of white supremacists. While a great many of these comments or videos on YouTube clearly come from people who seem semi-literate or poorly educated, this is by no means universally true. Many have obviously made limited efforts to educate themselves about Islam. But their efforts at self-education fall short. They repeatedly make factual errors or leap to wild assumptions. They do not know an Islamic language, have never consulted primary sources, nor have they read serious academic studies or reference books such as the Encyclopedia of Islam. But when someone with qualifications challenges their ignorance, they become angry and call their critics "apologists for Islam", something that has happened to the present writer more than once. It is never enough to point out that one may be personally critical of Islam, for they do not seek rational debate or moderate opinion, only hardline condemnation.
For such people, it is never acceptable to point out that a majority of Muslims are good people, honest, charitable, spiritual. No, for them, all Muslims must be evil, Satanic (a common term), liars and murderous terrorists. Both their language and attitudes betray them as being close to, if not at times, also anti-Semites. Much the same sort of slurs, falsehoods, and calls for murder are increasingly used again about Jews; and it is an understanding of anti-Semitism that acts as a measure for judging these anti-Muslim rants. Anti-Semites create stereotypes about Jews, that they are liars, money-grabbers, conspiratorial enemies of Gentile society. So too, real Islamophobes stereotype Muslims, claiming they are all violent, bent on the overthrow of Western governments, deceivers using the principle of taqiyya [dissimulation] to lie to non-Muslims. Both forms of hatred stem from fear of people who are different, both find their most loyal following in the same parts of society where the Nazi party found its supporters.
In 2015, an Australian body named the Online Hate Prevention Institute, led by Andre Oboler, a British Zionist who has fought hard against anti-Semitism, carried out research on anti-Muslim hate on social media sites. On December 10, 2015, the Institute published an interim statement entitled the Spotlight on Anti-Muslim Internet Hate Report and intended to publish a full report in March 2016. Sadly, the Institute has been unable to find further funding for this work with the result that this valuable research may never be made fully public or available to government ministries.
In the introduction to the interim report, we read:
This report is based on over 1,100 items of anti-Muslim hate in social media reported and categorised by the public through our FightAgainstHate.com reporting tool. The vast majority of the hate this report is based on was found on Facebook. The report indicates the volume of content by category, and how effective Facebook has been in responding to content in each category. The vast majority of this hate has not yet been removed.
This author was given access to a considerable part of these 1,100 items and can testify that many of them are genuinely disgusting and filled with hatred. Here is a short selection of comments taken from them and from other websites, including YouTube. They are self-explanatory. Even to suggest that there are reform movements within Islam is beyond the pale to someone whose username is "IzlamIsTyranny". Some of the milder comments include:
Repeated calls to drop a nuclear bomb on Mecca, for example, or calling on others to stab Muslims, calling Muslims "sandmonkeys" -- statements one can find in several places -- are deeply offensive. Have these bigots forgotten how many Muslim preachers call Jews "the sons of apes and pigs"? Imitating the people you despise can hardly be an intelligent policy or one calculated to win friends in places of influence.
When the Dutch politician Geert Wilders was brought to court on a hate speech charge, all he had done in fact was to ask a simple question about Moroccan immigrants, should the Netherlands take in more or fewer. That is a question with many potential answers based on political, social, or demographic grounds. It is a rational question that is, almost by definition, one that could be asked in the Home Office of any state that receives immigrants. Governments make such decisions regularly, and many have to answer similar questions since the influx of vast numbers of refugees into Europe since 2015. Wilders's concern about Moroccans has a rational basis in the Dutch-Moroccan Monitor 2011:
Forty percent of Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands between the ages of 12 and 24 have been arrested, fined, charged or otherwise accused of committing a crime during the past five years, according to a new report commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Interior.
In Dutch neighborhoods where the majority of residents are Moroccan immigrants, the youth crime rate reaches 50%. Moreover, juvenile delinquency among Moroccans is not limited to males; girls and young women are increasingly involved in criminal activities.
But when someone says we should stab Muslims in the throat or, "slaughter all Muslims", there can be no question that this is hate speech, and hate speech with murderous intent. Our problem is that politicians, church leaders, and decent people in general may be led to conflate the two forms of utterance -- the intelligent and critical as against the bigoted and violent. For Wilders and others who want to criticize Islam or ask questions about some Muslim behaviour, the presence of genuine Islamophobia is no help at all. It muddies the waters everywhere. Before the matter gets out of hand, responsible critics of Islam badly need to act to silence this hate speech by joining forces with governmental and social media administrations to clamp down heavily on it. We, and not our opponents, must place ourselves in a position to define what is and what is not real "Islamophobia." If we cannot do that, others will conflate criticism and hatred, and clamp down on both at once.
Dr. Denis MacEoin is the author of a forthcoming book on causes of concern about Islam. He has degrees in Islamic studies and is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.