Muslims may be innocent of the abandon with which violence is being perpetrated in their name. But Islam itself, and both its Muslim and non-Muslim apologists, are beyond guilty; they are complicit. Yet, sparing Islam the hardships of scrutiny and judgment and reevaluation seems to be a new norm of propriety; a modern form of appeasement; a twenty-first century version of the collective recoil of yore; worlds and words groveling before a new rising totalitarianism.
Thus Islam, we are told, ought to be immune from the robust inquiry and censure that both Judaism and Christianity have undergone for centuries. Islam is likewise a victim of Islamism; it is, therefore, to be protected, cocooned, exempt from responsibility for the savagery being committed by its adherents and in its name. Anything less than reeling off such modern pieties is tantamount to bigotry, racism, Islamophobia, and the critics of Islam’s depravities are themselves the pinnacle of depravity, to be shamed, discredited, indicted, relegated to the vilest margins of society.
Pascal Bruckner’s new essay, “Un racisme imaginaire,” seems to have come as a break from the prevalent intellectual platitudes and the all too fashionable euphemisms vis-à-vis Islam. Bruckner is one of the few Western voices not cowed by the “linguistic assaults” being mounted against those calling violent Islamism to task. A “linguistic revolution” ought to be initiated, he urges, to reclaim the language being subverted by the new totalitarianisms of our times, impeding honest, crucial conversations on a creed that is maladjusted, distressed and distressing.
In the summer 2016, on the heels of the decapitation of a geriatric priest near Rouen, France, almost a year to the day before the May 22, 2017 Manchester massacre and the vicious slaughter of Coptic Christians in Egypt a few days later, I took to task the falsity, and indeed the lewdness of the term “Islamophobia.” “Silencing the critics of Islam’s flaws,” I noted in a year-old essay that might as well have been written yesterday, “and dismissing them as ‘Islamophobes,’” is as deceitful and counterproductive as the term “Islamophobia” itself is defective. After all, a phobia is a form of anxiety, a fear. Fears and anxieties may not always be justified. But often they are.
Admitting that Islam – or at least some incarnations of it – may cause anxiety and fear is a statement of fact borne out by Islam’s checkered modern and historical legacies: it is not unreasonable; it is not a fantasy; it is not an insult; it is not an expression of hatred to call an ailing Islam to task. Those brandishing the term “Islamophobia” abusively to muzzle critics and accuse them of an unjustified “hatred” ought to use caution. Otherwise, as one observer aptly put it, Islamophobia is a vacuous and meaningless term; “a word created by fascists, brandished by cowards, to manipulate morons.”
And so, the struggle against Islamism and Islamist apologia relates, before anything else, to a debate about language, and the value of language. This is ultimately an existential fight to counter the semantics of falsehood and deceit, to delegitimize the evasive neo-“newspeak” of a creeping new religious despotism crippling our human right to criticize – indeed our right to simply speak out. One ought to imagine the assaults that Voltaire, Rousseau and other eighteenth- century luminaries mounted against Christian dogma being described as “racism” or “Christianophobia” by their contemporaries – and their modern offspring. Indeed, it is likely that Christianity might have remained ossified, unable to evolve, had it been left to its own devices, immune from criticism. Indeed, it might have been “the assaults of its adversaries that regenerated and awakened Christianity and Christendom from their long dogmatic slumbers.”
We should demand and expect nothing less from Islam, its adherents and its defenders. The persecution of Muslims is no doubt a reprehensible act – immoral, punishable by law, and part of crass, uncouth attitudes that do not belong in the twenty- first century. But by the same token, brandishing such terms as “Islamophobia” to shield Islam from judgment is laughable; it is an expression of an “imaginary racism” that does not obtain in circumstances where Islam and Muslims are the offenders.
Questioning Islam, therefore, ought to be deemed a fundamental sovereign right; the prerogative of all mature civilized nations; an attitude born out of reason, not discrimination, and indeed a human right, not a slight.
Attacking a believer, insulting a veiled Muslim woman, defacing a mosque are all an affront to democratic values, and a slap in the face of all citizens, of any given republic, whether Jews, Christians, Buddhists or atheists. But if believers and their places of worship are owed respect and protection, so the venom spewing from the pulpits of those same places of worship ought to be curbed, and indeed exposed and punished. Again, questioning Islam and subjecting it to the most robust, painful examination is a sacred duty of citizenship, in any republican system, and those undertaking the critiquing ought to be heeded, not muzzled or dismissed as racists and Islamophobes.
But the scourge of Islamism, and the linguistic strictures into which the West’s “liberal Left” has cocooned Islam, shielding it from all manner of introspection, may prove too daunting a habit to break. Indeed, the linguistic offensive being mounted by Muslim apologists seems to be bearing fruit; the term “Islamophobia” has become the social, political, juridical and academic armor with which all critiques of Islam are fended off, criminalized, passed on as “racist.” Yet, this is hardly valid reason to walk away from the civilizational challenge to defeat the language of defeat. Indeed, nothing less than the very future of Western civilization is at stake. Civilizations don’t disappear overnight; they decay and abdicate, gradually; they die a slow death, over a period of decades and centuries before breathing their last. And before their physical death, the dying civilizations’ languages die, debased, impaired, dilapidated, unable to adequately commune with the experiences at hand, nor define the perils besetting them.
The struggle is therefore one of language; a battle for the sake of redeeming plain speaking and countering the semantic racketeering that renders irreverence toward Islam and its symbols a crime, that brands offenders of Islam “racists” – racists without race, ironically.
The struggle is also one that demands Islam and Muslims take stock of their troubled history – and the wrongs of present days – and labor to redress their own doctrinal and scriptural failures. It is no longer acceptable that Islam act as humanity’s reckoner; it is high time it came clean and recognized is it no “immaculate” conception, and apologized for all its failures, its conquests, its colonizations, its auto-da-fés and forced conversions, and its role as an exogenous intruder into lands stretching from today’s Near East to Europe, Africa and Central Asia. Only then, perhaps, Islam will come to terms with the intellectual insolence that is the foundation of Western values, will abandon its fetishist obsession with linguistic cataplasms, and will cease being looked at with suspicion.
The author is an associate professor of Near Eastern studies and chairman of the Dept. of Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures at Boston College.
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