Why the I-word has closed down debate on extremism
David Aaronovitch is a gifted commentator, and fearless in speaking his mind. How his tireless defence of the Iraq invasion has gone down in his native Hampstead, I can only imagine, for Aaronovitch is not a man to trim.
Yet Aaronovitch was trepidatious about challenging another titan of the commentariat, Douglas Murray — and with good reason. With great (and genuine) respect to my former BBC colleague, I don’t think his challenge stands up.
Murray wrote in the JC that he considered the term “Islamophobia” to have been reduced to a meaningless idea – “a crock.”
Aaronovitch said Murray was “completely wrong” because the term “Islamophobia” does broadly capture the hostility directed at Muslims.
Yet judging by what Murray has written, he too wouldn’t have a problem with the term — provided it was confined to describing irrational anti-Muslim prejudice, like people who attack and intimidate Muslims, or who think the Koran is one big plot.
However, since 9/11, not only has the charge “Islamophobe” been levelled at critics of Islamist ideology — Muslims who see Islam as a political ideology as distinct from simply a religious belief; Murray argues that the charge now includes anyone challenging almost any aspect of Islam — even Islamic scholars.
Such critics are dismissed as racist and xenophobic, thereby closing down a legitimate debate about the origins and causes of both violent and non-violent extremism.
In other words, Islamophobia has become a blunderbuss, lumping together critics of a political ideology and Islam’s history with mindless bigots who just don’t like Muslims.
So Murray’s disdain for the concept of Islamophobia is about more than just semantics.
After the murder of Drummer Rigby in Woolwich, David Cameron set up an extremism task force. “We have to drain the swamp in which they inhabit”, he said. How will this be possible if, every time anyone who identifies the radical elements in the swamp is branded as an Islamophobe, i.e. “A Very Bad Person”?
Mr Cameron says that preventing radicalisation means “going through all of these elements of the conveyor belt to radicalisation and making sure we deal with them”.
He means charities, university campuses, and Islamic centres — all areas where the blunderbuss’s most trigger-happy activists are strongly represented.
It is not as if Aaronovitch doesn’t agree with Murray, at least to some extent, that the term “Islamophobia” has helped close down debate. Nor is it as if Murray doesn’t want real anti-Muslim prejudice labelled for what it is: hatred that must be confronted. So why has Aaronovitch — as it seems to me — strained to create some “distance” from Murray?
Aaronovitch sees a parallel with antisemitism: Jews wouldn’t want the term antisemitism dumped just because it is sometimes misapplied, as it often has been by Jews in response to legitimate criticism of Israel.
True. Yet there are several differences between antisemitism and (authentic) Islamophobia. The former is entirely irrational, the latter reactive.
Far from posing any sort of threat at any level, Jewish immigration has been the integration success story of our time.
By contrast, a minority of Muslims — yet the vocal and visible face of Islam — cite foreign policy as the reason for terrorism here, which suggests they identify more closely with other Muslims in far-off lands than with fellow Britons.
They do condemn terrorism here – but then give platforms to different forms of hatred and sometimes incitement — in prominent mosques or universities and elsewhere.
That is absolutely not to say that Muslims have “brought it on themselves” as Aaronovitch seems to have mischaracterised Murray’s explanation for this reactivity.
It is surely Muslim radicals who have brought it on their fellow Muslims — by their promotion of Islam as a political ideology, and by invoking Islamophobia to close down criticism of this ideology, pouring fat on the fire of those predisposed to blind bigotry in the first place.
Islamophobia — however it is defined — will abate when terrorism carried out in God’s name ceases.
John Ware is a journalist and broadcaster