Between Islamophobia and Islamofascism
In a well known Bosnian joke, the Bosnian Muslim Suljo is walking in the hills around Sarajevo, when he comes upon his neighbour Mujo and his wife Fata. He is puzzled to note that Fata is walking several paces in front of Mujo.
‘My dear neighbour Mujo, why is your wife walking in front of you ?’, Suljo asks, ‘Surely, the Holy Koran commands that a wife walk behind her husband, not in front ?’
‘My dear neighbour Suljo’, replies Mujo, ‘When the Holy Koran was written, there weren’t any landmines.’
This is a joke thought up by Muslims, about Muslims. It humorously illustrates the essential truth about Islam and other religions: that they are interpreted by different individuals and generations to suit their own particular needs. The fictional Mujo could be described either as an Islamic conservative or as a progressive, upholding the Koran’s message about the subordination of women to men, but accepting that the precise rules needed to be modified to suit modern purposes. Mujo’s interpretation of Islam is no more or less valid than anyone else’s; with the Prophet dead, nobody can say for sure exactly how the Koran should be interpreted, or what God really wanted. Yet there are plenty of individuals, on opposite sides of the contemporary debate about Islam, who assume the mantle of the Prophet, and try to tell the rest of us that their own version of Islam is the only valid one. The irony is that apparently bitter political enemies – Islamophobes and Islamofascists – have an identical interpretation of ‘true’ Islam. Islamophobia and Islamofascism feed off each other – they are two sides of the same coin.
In her brilliant autobiography, Infidel, the Somali intellectual and Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that Osama bin Laden, in his murderous injunctions about slaughtering Jews and other infidels, is simply interpreting the Koran correctly. She writes that ‘the fallacy has arisen that Islam is peaceful and tolerant’, while in reality: ‘True Islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty. The inhuman act of those nineteen hijackers was the logical outcome of this detailed system for regulating human behaviour.’ (Infidel, p. 272). She strongly implies that Islam is inherently more problematic than other religions such as Christianity or Judaism. Hirsi Ali has got into a lot of trouble because of these and other observations. She has been denounced as an ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’ and become a bee in the bonnet of various representatives of wishy-washy left-liberalism. And she has been portrayed as an Islamophobe.
Hirsi Ali is not an Islamophobe. A ‘phobia’ is defined by the New Oxford Dictionary of English as ‘an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something’. There is no evidence to suggest that Hirsi Ali is afraid of Islam; indeed, all the evidence suggests that she is much less afraid of it than the vast majority of Western intellectuals. Nor is her opposition to Islam an ‘aversion’ or ‘irrational’; we are not talking here about an instinct or emotion that wells up from her subconscious, nor of a blind and ignorant prejudice, but of an entirely calm and rational position born of extensive scholarly research and reflection. There is nothing ‘extreme’ about Hirsi Ali’s position; she does not argue that Islam should be banned, nor that its followers be persecuted. She simply sees it as a problem, and wants to free Muslim women from the abuse inflicted upon them in the name of Islam. So Hirsi Ali does not qualify as an Islamophobe on any count.
Contrary to myth, Hirsi Ali is very well aware that there is nothing in the Koran that sanctions genital mutilation; she simply points out that the name of Islam, as interpreted by traditional societies, is upheld to justify such abuses. And the Koran really does appear to sanction other abuses such as wife-beating: ‘Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because Allah has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them’ (The Koran, 4:34). In pointing this out, Hirsi Ali is simply indicating a very real problem: that the abuse of women in Islamic societies is underpinned by religion. Hirsi Ali is a principled and courageous individual who deserves full solidarity in her campaign against the abuse of women and against those who would silence her. Nevertheless, she goes slightly too far.
Of all the countries in Nazi-occupied Europe, the single best record in the rescuing of Jews from the Nazis was achieved by Muslim-majority Albania (with the possible – and I stress the word ‘possible’ – exception of Denmark). In the words of Mordechai Paldiel, Director of the Department for the Righteous at Israel’s Yad Vashem:
‘The story of the Albanian rescuers is unique in several ways. Firstly, in that the persons saved were mostly not Albanian citizens, but Jews who had fled to that country when it was ruled by the Italians, and now found themselves in danger of deportation to concentration camps when the Germans took over, in September 1943. Secondly, the rescuers who were overwhelmingly of the Islamic faith felt a religious obligation to assist and save those who had sought refuge in their country and were unjustly persecuted; in other words, it was a behaviour motivated by the Islamic religion, as wisely interpreted by the rescuers.’
In Bosnia-Hercegovina during World War II, when the Croat fascists, or Ustashas, began a genocidal persecution of Orthodox Serbs, Jews and gypsies, they were opposed by Islamic religious figures across the country. One Muslim proclamation, whose list of signatories was headed by five imams, opposed the crimes of the Ustashas on the grounds that ‘For hundreds of years the Bosnian Muslims have lived in unity and love with all Bosnians regardless of religion, just as exalted Islam commands’. The proclamation appealed to the Bosnian people: ‘Let religion not divide us, let it rather unite us by acting beneficially upon all of us to be, above all, people who do not permit that they be ruled by the awaked animal instincts of killing and plundering, which a cultured person should restrain.’ This and other similar appeals inspired by Islamic and other sentiments were made, it should be remembered, under a genocidal dictatorship that was entirely ready to – and did – murder Muslims for acts of disobedience.
Nobody should suggest that these Albanian and Bosnian Muslim heroes were not proper Muslims, and that the ‘real’ Islam is represented by Osama bin Laden. To do so would be wrong both in principle and in practice. In principle, because everyone is free to interpret what Islam ‘really’ means, and nobody has any God-given authority to insist that theirs is the one ‘true’ version. And in practice, because opponents of Islamism would thereby be making propaganda on al-Qaeda’s behalf. If one tells young Muslims that the Koran, correctly interpreted, does indeed command them to slaughter Jews and other infidels, it is unlikely to persuade them to become atheists. It is at least as likely to persuade them to become jihadis.
Muslim Albanians have been staunch allies to Britain and the US in the War on Terror. Bosnia’s Muslims have been victims of genocide at the hands of genuinely Islamophobic Christians, but have nevertheless entirely resisted joining the international Islamist-terrorist movement. The moderate-Islamic Justice and Development Party in Turkey has promoted democracy while fighting fundamentalism and pursuing EU membership. So it is simply untrue that belief in Islam makes people automatically fundamentalists or fascists. Anyone who has spent any time in cities like London, Sarajevo or Istanbul, where large numbers of secularised Muslims live, knows very well that this is nonsense. It would be extremely stupid to alienate decent, moderate Muslims by demonising them and equating them with the fundamentalist minority – do we really want more Muslim enemies ?
It has been argued that Islam is uniquely aggressive and expansionist. We could perhaps draw up a score sheet comparing the crimes of Muslim and Christian conquerors: the great massacres of Timur; the expansionism of the Ottoman Empire and its violence against its subject peoples, culminating in the religiously catalysed Armenian Genocide; set against the Christian enslavement and extermination of the native Americans; the massacres of Muslims and Jews by the crusaders; and so on. The Christians would undoubtedly come out as the quantitatively worse offenders, simply because they occupied a larger portion of the globe. But only a truly self-hating guilty liberal genuinely believes that ‘Islam = good – Christianity = bad’; the point is that these religions are fundamentally similar. So too is Judaism – when the Jews finally got their own modern nation-state, they behaved exactly the same as most Christian and Muslim nations do – which is to say, not very well. As Benjamin Lieberman shows in his book Terrible Fate: Ethnic cleansing and the making of modern Europe, in their propensity to carry out atrocities, Christians, Muslims and Jews resemble nothing so much as each other.
Christopher Hitchens correctly points out that the term ‘Islamophobia’ has been used to stifle criticism of Islam. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the indiscriminate use of the term by paranoid, self-pitying Muslims and guilt-ridden, self-hating Western liberals. But he is wrong to describe the term ‘Islamophobia’ itself as a ‘stupid neologism’. Islamophobes exist – they are people who have an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to Islam. They view with suspicion, fear and revulsion even ordinary expressions of piety on the part of practising, non-fundamentalist Muslims. They see even such moderate Muslims as dangerous and unwelcome. This form of bigotry is arguably not quite the same as bigotry directed against someone because of their ethnicity or skin colour. Yet if it results in violence against innocent individuals, it is in the last resort just as bad. Anyone who doubts where this can lead should visit the city of Banja Luka, in Bosnia’s Serb Republic, and try to find the beautiful Ferhadija mosque that once dominated the city centre. The destruction of mosques across Bosnia, by both Serb and Croat Christian fascists, was directed against a Muslim community that, as indicated above, had provided many brave, religiously inspired opponents of genocide and fascism in World War II.
As an atheist, I sympathise with the view of the Marquis de Sade (on this question, at least), who wrote that ‘One must first have lost one’s mind to be able to acknowledge a God, and to have gone completely mad to worship such a thing.’ I consider the idea of a God an affront to my intelligence, and the idea that one should worship a God simply beyond comprehension. The point is, while religion is ultimately ridiculous from an intellectual standpoint, it is not necessarily evil. In a pluralistic society, we are all free to hold ridiculous beliefs. Muslims and Christians are equally free to consider atheism ridiculous if they so wish, which they presumably do; we are free to ridicule their beliefs, and they ours. The division is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between those who respect diversity of belief and freedom of expression and those who do not. Islamophobes do not respect Muslim freedom of conscience; Islamofascists do not respect the freedoms of non-Muslims, or indeed of anybody; less extreme Muslim bigots are not fascists, but nevertheless feel their religion should be above criticism. But moderate Muslims are the natural allies of moderate Christians, Jews, Hindus and others in the struggle against the fundamentalists of all creeds.
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