This is a good time to bury bad news. And sure enough it turns out that a cross-party group of MPs and peers that includes the failed MP Baroness Warsi has chosen this moment to try to persuade the government to adopt their own definition of ‘Islamophobia’.
Long-time readers will know that I have no sympathy for this term. The most succinct summary of the problem is often erroneously attributed to the late Christopher Hitchens. It is that, Islamophobia is ‘a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.’
That ‘Islamophobia’ was created by fascists is provable: the term was conjured up and pumped into the international debate around politics and religion decades ago by the Muslim Brotherhood. The claim that it is used by cowards slightly lets others of its users off the hook. For it is not only used by cowards. It is also used by sinister and sectarian figures who wish to protect their own religious patch from any and all discussion or scrutiny. That it intimidates cowards is evident from every day’s news.
But now, at a crucial juncture in this nation’s history, this group of MPs and Peers are attempting to push through an agenda of their own. As Tim Shipman described it in the Sunday Times the group is proposing a set of ‘tests’ of what is ‘Islamophobic’. Let us take them in turn:
- ‘Does it stereotype Muslims by assuming that they all think the same?
Well let us see. Would it be Islamophobic to say ‘All Muslims believe that the Quran is the revealed word of God, that Mohammed was the messenger of Allah and that this revelation has been revealed for all time as the unalterable, final revelation from God?’ It would appear so. And yet it would also be true. There are certain things which all Muslims do agree on. There are many other generalisations that one could make that are more critical. Yet to say so would be ‘Islamophobic’.
- ‘Does the criticism consist of generalising about Muslims in a way that excludes them?’
An interesting one. Let’s try a couple out. How about ‘All Muslim majority countries are either dictatorships, despotisms or countries where the army remains on standby at any moment to wrestle back control from religious zealots’? Or how about ‘Muslims tend to be bad at understanding and advocating minority rights unless they happen to be in a minority themselves’? Both of these statements are at least highly defensible. I would suggest they are also true. Yet they undoubtedly ‘generalise’ in certain ways, and if just one Muslim said that they felt ‘excluded’ by people failing to talk up the pluralism and freedom in the Islamic world we would have to agree that both statements are indeed ‘Islamophobic’.
- ‘Is the behaviour or practice being criticised in an offensive way so it makes Muslims rather than the issue the target?’
Well it rather hinges on two things, doesn’t it? One is the question of ‘what is offensive’. Who is to judge? Who is to say? Is a cross-party coalition of low-grade MPs and Peers to make this judgement? Who would like Sayeeda Warsi to make this call? Or Labour’s Wes Streeting, who is also supporting this sinister move? Does anyone feel that either individual’s intellect, knowledge and skill at impartially weighing up matters makes them fit for the task of deciding what the rest of us can think, write or say? Then there is the question of determining whether ‘Muslims rather than the issue are the target?’ Again, are the brains behind all this sufficiently huge to make this judgement call? If one draws attention to certain aspects of the private life of the man who invented Islam is one aiming the point at Muslims or the issue of, say, historical attitudes towards child abuse? Who is to say? I can guess at least some of the applicants for the role.
- ‘Does the person criticising really care about the issue or is he or she using it to attack Muslims?’
There is nothing sweeter than the sound of totalitarian ideology presented in the lingua franca of social justice. Do you ‘really care about the issue’? Who the hell is to say? And why should it matter? Let us say that I object to Islamic anti-Semitism. Let us say that I cite the considerable stream of examples (both current and historical) which I could bring to my aid to explain there is a problem here. Do I care? Or do I not? And who should decide?
Sayeeda Warsi says that some people use criticism of Islam’s approach to gays and women as a clever cover – a sort of ploy – for attacking Islam. ‘I’ve never known homophobes care so much about gay people and misogynists express such support for women as when they are criticising Muslims’ she is quoted as saying.
And that is interesting isn’t it? Firstly because there is again the question of ‘who is to judge’. If these criticisms are indeed legitimate – and even Baroness Warsi in her more liberal moments might agree that they’re not conjured up wholly out of air – who decides which person is allowed to say a truth and which person is not? Are gays allowed to criticise Islamic homophobia? If so am I – as a fully signed up, equity card-carrying gay – allowed to go to town on Islam whenever I like? My own experience and observation has often suggested not. So who can? Is a gay who raises a really very mild objection, filled with caveats and ‘in a very real sense-isms’ allowed to dip their gay toe in this Muslim water? I suppose we shall see.
But really it is – as so often – not a matter of absolutes. After all, one reason why people who might not be big on gay marriage, or don’t swallow every claim made about the ‘gender pay-gap’ might be voluble about Islamic homophobia and Islam’s attitudes towards women is that there is a question of degree. It includes the difference between whether you’re allowed to marry somebody of the same gender or whether you should have a wall pushed on you. And it is a matter not of whether, if you add up pay differentials taking pregnancy and other life-factors into account, women are still under-renumerated in certain sectors or whether all women are now and for all time (and should be) second class citizens. There is a difference is there not? A difference about the size of an ocean where plenty of people might peaceably swim.
Apparently the Home Secretary is being pressured – for reasons of optics – into signing up to this sinister and sectarian agenda. The rest of the government could be forgiven for having much else on its mind. I hope all relevant members of the government realise in their spare moments that this matters very much indeed. Future freedoms – including freedom of religion and freedom of speech in this country – will depend very much on this ugly agenda not being deployed.