The problem with Islamophobia

A recent speech by Lady Warsi, a leading member of the British Conservative Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the Cabinet, has triggered another round of debate about “Islamophobia.” 
Writing in the Guardian, Giles Fraser largely agreed with Lady Warsi’s view and argued that “Islamophobia is the moral blind spot of modern Britain.”
The views and arguments presented by Fraser should have pleased anyone who identifies with today’s self-described “progressives,” but there was soon a heated debate in the comment section.
While the very first comment was deleted, the second comment rejected Fraser’s stance in no uncertain terms as “rubbish”, arguing that people had good reason to object to Islam because it was “a homophobic, mysognistic [sic], racist creed.” This comment attracted a remarkable 1546 endorsements (at the time of this writing).
The next comment, which got 618 endorsements, made the fairly popular comparison between accusations of Islamophobia and accusations of antisemitism: “This is merely an attempt to muzzle critics in exactly the same way that critics of Israel’s policies are inevitably called anti-semitic and should be treated with the same disdain.” [Emphasis in the original]
A bit further down in the comments, there was also the inevitable “Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism”, with the predictable pseudo-argument that Muslims “are also Semites,” and for good measure, there was some misspelled and confused throw-away about “the hiyjacking of the word ‘Holocaust’.” More than 70 people clicked to recommend this comment.
These comments illustrate several noteworthy trends.
The first comment reflects the growing resentment against an elitist “political correctness” that disapproves of attempts to critically examine mainstream Muslim attitudes that are incompatible with many of the basic values of modern Western societies.
There are plenty of examples to choose from. If we turn to one of the recent Pew opinion polls, we find that “Muslims […] in nearly all of the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed overwhelmingly welcome Islamic influence over their countries’ politics.”
Imagine for a moment that there would be a survey showing that “Christians […] in nearly all of the predominantly Christian countries surveyed overwhelmingly welcome Christian influence over their countries’ politics” – and imagine further that Muslims fared in those countries like Christians fare in Muslim countries…
Or take another result of the same Pew survey: “At least three-quarters of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan say they would favor making each of the following the law in their countries: stoning people who commit adultery, whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery and the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion. Majorities of Muslims in Jordan and Nigeria also favor these harsh punishments.”
But one of the perhaps most revealing accounts of mainstream Muslim views was provided in a Foreign Affairs article last summer, when Marc Lynch – an academic who attracted a loyal readership with his blog “Abu Aardvark”, where he offered generally sympathetic comments on the Arab world – sharply criticized Paul Berman’s book “The Flight of the Intellectuals”.
Lynch attacked Berman’s critical views of Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan, who is widely – and according to Berman wrongly – praised by Western intellectuals as a “moderate” Muslim reformer.
But while Lynch passionately defended Ramadan’s “moderate” credentials, he also drew a rather alarming picture of mainstream Muslim extremism. He argued for example that “Ramadan has little use for the puritanical versions of Islam that have taken root in many Muslim communities”, and that Ramadan should be appreciated for opposing “literalistic Salafists whose ideas are ascendant in Muslim communities from Egypt and the Persian Gulf to western Europe.”
Similarly, Lynch rejected Berman’s view of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguing that “Qaradawi is a pivotal figure who straddles the divides within today’s Islamist world.” Lynch argued that Qaradawi was trying to find a “middle ground between secularism and fundamentalism”, and while he acknowledged that Qaradawi’s views made for a “potent mixture” that might be “troubling”, he asserted that such views merely reflected mainstream Muslim attitudes: “Indeed, one of the keys to Qaradawi’s popularity is his ability to anticipate Arab and Muslim views; like Ramadan, Qaradawi is a barometer of Muslim opinion as much as a cause of it.”
Well, if a widely respected expert like Lynch regards Qaradawi as “a barometer of Muslim opinion”, who am I to disagree?
So let’s have a closer look at Qaradawi’s views, keeping in mind the notion that, as the second comment quoted above suggested, concerns about Islamophobia and antisemitism are often simply a ploy to suppress entirely legitimate criticism.
In 2008, a book written by Qaradawi to explain his “Rulings on Palestine” became available in English. The book was reviewed by by Mark Gardner and David Rich (pdf available here), and a short report in the Jewish Chronicle quoted the reviewers describing Qaradawi as the personification of “the combination of theological anti-Judaism, modern European antisemitism and conflict-driven Judeophobia that make up contemporary Islamist attitudes to Jews”.
An ADL report describes Qaradawi as a “Theologian of Terror”, and the final part of the report offers a compilation of quotes from sermons, speeches and television appearances by Qaradawi. The report was posted in early February 2009, and includes a statement made by Qaradawi two years ago, at the end of January 2009, in a sermon on Al-Jazeera TV:
“Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them – even though they exaggerated this issue – he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”
It is noteworthy that in the wake of the Danish cartoon crisis, Qaradawi called on the Muslim “nation” to “rage in anger” and he insisted that Muslims “must never accept the degradation of our religion.” But the inescapable and deeply disturbing conclusion to be drawn from Qaradawi’s own words is that it wouldn’t be a degradation of Islam if some obscure Danish newspaper published a cartoon depicting Hitler as Allah’s divine tool. And unfortunately, if Qaradawi is indeed “a barometer of Muslim opinion”, there would also be nothing wrong with depicting the average Muslim Joe – that is, Muhammed – as hoping for a new Muslim Hitler.