An unhelpful approach

Two weeks ago in the JC the writer Douglas Murray described the idea of Islamophobia as "a crock". Douglas and I have shared a few platforms over the years and I have a respect for his combination of intellectual and street-fighting skills.

So it is with disappointment and trepidation that I take issue with him here. He is, I think, completely wrong. And here's why.

It is evident that some people dislike Muslims. It is also evident that some people, acting on this dislike, fail to discriminate between aspects of Islam that they claim to disapprove of and Islam in general. This is why many mosques are being attacked in this country, without any obvious relation to anything specific that is being said or done in those particular mosques. If these were, say, black churches, synagogues or Hindu temples we would probably not hesitate to describe such attacks as racist or antisemitic in nature. Nor would we have much difficulty in recognising movements of people who broadly give support to such actions as being racists or antisemites.

Yet when the static targets are mosques and the moving targets are Muslims, it would be somehow wrong - buying into "the crock" - to describe the attacks as "Islamophobic". Says Douglas.

Why? Allow to me to distill his argument. First, there cannot be such a thing as Islamophobia because Muslims are neither a race nor a people. Second, a phobia is an irrational fear and fear of Muslims is not irrational (because there are more Salafis than Ahmmadis). In other words, Islam is a religion that is not like other religions.

Third, even if there were such a thing as Islamophobia, its definition is contested and therefore it is unhelpful to talk about it. Fourth, there may actually be such a thing, but there isn't much of it around and the accusation of Islamophobia is being misused to close down legitimate criticism of aspects of Islam. And finally, insofar as there is something that might be called Islamophobia it is a reactive response to what Muslims themselves do. If they didn't do those things then it wouldn't exist. Which in any case it probably doesn't.

Some of this is, whatever Douglas says, very familiar. Before the race theories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, antisemitism (or Jew hatred) was not racial. The problem wasn't with the Jews themselves but with what they obstinately believed. If they abandoned Judaism they could become good people. So it is quite possible to posit an Islamophobia which corresponds to pre-racial antisemitism. The fact that, in this society, most Muslims are brown, can give this hatred a racial dimension.

Now if we agree that most British Muslims are indeed law-abiding, and pacific (as Douglas agrees), this means that attacks on their mosques occasioned by fear and hatred are quintessentially "phobic" and not rational.

Nor is the experience of having a term misused a good reason for rejecting the term itself. It is instead a good reason for arguing against the misuse. Imagine someone in Hackney wishing to criticize the exclusionary way the strictly Orthodox there seek to use new localised planning laws. If such a critic is wrongly accused of antisemitism would we regard that as grounds for dumping the idea of antisemitism itself? I think not.

As to "they bring it on themselves", well maybe some few do. But the people who then do the supplying of "it": the attacking and scaring and intimidation of ordinary Muslims for being Muslims - the EDL foot-soldiers and the BNP and the rhetorical fringes of UKIP - well, we've seen them before. We see them now. We understand their atavistic urge. Whatever we call it, we who think about it know what it is.

Last updated: 9:45am, July 7 2013