Podcast Transcript

What Is "Islamophobia"?

December 6, 2023

This is a transcript of a recorded podcast

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What is Islamophobia? Someone once said on the Internet, it’s a word “invented by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons,” and that’s not far from the truth. There is no question that the term has been designed to confuse people. Its purpose is to conflate any criticism of Islam, which is a doctrine of religious beliefs, with bigotry against Muslims as people. In fact, it equates secularism itself—the commitment to keeping religion out of our laws and public policy—with hatred. The term is now being widely used in the mainstream media, and it is making it impossible to speak honestly about the consequences of dangerous ideas.

Let’s be clear about what is real here and what is fake: Racism is real. There are white supremacists in America, for instance. And, of course, these imbeciles can be counted upon to hate immigrants from Muslim-majority countries—Arabs, Pakistanis, Somalis, etc.—and to hate them for their superficial characteristics, like the color of their skin. This is detestable. But these people hate non-Muslim immigrants too—for instance, Hindus from India—and for the same reasons. We already have words like “racism” and “xenophobia” to cover this problem.  Inventing a new term like “Islamophobia” doesn’t give us license to say that there is a new form of hatred in the world.

There is no race of Muslims. Islam is a system of ideas, subscribed to by people of every race and ethnicity. It’s just like Christianity in that regard. Christianity and Islam are both aggressively missionary faiths, and they win converts from everywhere. People criticize Christianity all the time and worry about its political and social influences—but no one confuses this for bigotry against Christians as people. There’s no such thing as “Christophobia.” If you criticize Christianity—and I’ve written an entire book excoriating Christianity—no one accuses you of being a racist against people from Brazil, or Mexico, or Ethiopia, or the Philippines. But even the New York Times will use the term “Islamophobia” as a synonym for racism against Arabs. This is pure delusion and propaganda. There are Christian Arabs. And I could become a Muslim in 5 minutes just by converting to the faith.

How does the term “antisemitism” differ as a concept? Well, we have a 2000-year-old tradition of religiously inspired hatred against Jews, courtesy of Christian theology. But for at least the last 150 years, or so, Jews have been thought of as a distinct race of people, both by those who hate them and, rather often, by Jews themselves. So antisemitism tends to be expressed as a specific form of racism. Antisemites are not focused on what Jews believe, or even on what they do on the basis of their beliefs. Modern antisemites, like Nazis, care about who your mother’s mother’s mother was. Just like racism, antisemitism has become a hatred of people, as people, not because of their beliefs or their behavior, but because of the mere circumstances of their birth.

Why is this different? Well, unlike a person’s race or skin color or country of origin, beliefs can be argued for, and criticized, and changed. And the truth is, we don’t respect people’s beliefs just because they hold them. Beliefs must earn respect. And there is a good reason for this: beliefs are claims about reality and about how human beings should live within it—so they necessarily lead to behaviors, and to values, and laws, and institutions that affect the lives of everyone, whether they share these beliefs or not. Beliefs end marriages and start wars.

Honestly criticizing the doctrine of Islam does not entail bigotry against Arabs or any other group of people. It is not an expression of hatred to notice that specific Islamic ideas—in particular, beliefs about martyrdom, and jihad, and blasphemy, and apostasy—inspire terrible acts of violence. And it’s not an expression of phobia—that is, irrational fear—to notice that violent religious fanatics don’t make good neighbors.

And while every religion has its fanatics, there is only one religion on Earth where even its mainstream members of the faith seek to impose their religious taboos on everyone else. There is only one religion that has made it unsafe for people to criticize it—or indeed, for its own members to leave it. Only Muslims routinely fear for their lives when they decide to leave their religion—and this is true, even in the West. If you doubt this, just read some books or listen to some podcasts by ex-Muslims.

Anyone who wants to draw a cartoon, or write a novel, or stage a play that makes fun of Mormonism is free to do that. In the United States, this freedom is nominally guaranteed by the First Amendment—but that is not, in fact, what guarantees it. The freedom to poke fun at Mormonism is guaranteed by the fact that Mormons don’t tend to murder their critics. They don’t start riots and burn embassies in response to satire.

When The Book of Mormon became the most celebrated musical in the United States, the LDS Church protested by placing ads for their faith in the program. That might have been a wasted effort: but it was also a charming sign of good humor. Yes, there are crazy and dangerous people in every faith—and I often hear from them. But what is true of Mormonism is true of every other religion, with a single exception. Can you imagine staging a similar play about Islam anywhere on Earth? No you cannot—unless you also imagine the creators of that play being hunted for the rest of their lives by religious maniacs. You also have to imagine Muslims by the hundreds of thousands, in dozens of countries, going absolutely berserk.

At this moment in history, there is only one religion that systematically stifles free expression with credible threats of violence. The truth is, we have already lost our First Amendment freedoms with respect to Islam. We lost them decades ago—and anyone who is tempted to cry “Islamophobia” at this point, shares the blame for this. This status quo is intolerable—and, most important, it should be intolerable to Muslims themselves. They should be mortified that their community is so uniquely combustible. So uniquely uncivil. So incapable of self-reflection and self-criticism. So dangerously childish. So desperate to make the whole world it's safe space.

Consider what is actually happening: Some percentage of the world’s Muslims—and it is not just extremists—are demanding that all non-Muslims conform to Islamic law. And while they might not immediately resort to violence in their protests, they threaten it. Carrying a sign through the streets of London that reads “Behead Those Who Insult the Prophet” might still count as an example of peaceful protest, but it is also an assurance that infidel blood would be shed if the thug holding the sign only had more power. Wherever Muslims do have real power, this grotesque promise is always fulfilled. To make a film, or stage a play, or write a novel critical of Islam in any Muslim-majority country, is as sure a method of suicide as the laws of physics allow. There is only one religion on Earth that has normalized this level of fanaticism. And it isn’t an expression of bigotry to notice that this is totally antithetical to everything that civilized people value in the 21st century.

The October 7th attacks in Israel changed the way many of us think about the vulnerability of open societies. They changed the way we think about immigration and failures of assimilation. And they revealed a level of moral confusion in our universities and other institutions that is as astonishing as it is masochistic. We have people who are ostensibly committed to women’s rights, and gay rights, and trans rights, mindlessly supporting people who would hurl them from rooftops or beat them to death with their own hands. It is not a sign of bigotry to notice this hypocrisy and moral confusion for what it is.

It really is possible to be critical of Israel, and to be committed to the political rights of the Palestinian people, without denying the reality of Islamic religious fanaticism—or the threat that it poses not just to Israel, but to open societies everywhere.

There have been nearly 50,000 acts of Islamic terrorism in the last 40 years—and the French group that maintains a database of these attacks considers that to be an undercount. Ninety percent of them have occurred in Muslim countries. Most have nothing to do with Israel or Jews. There have been 82 attacks in France and over 2000 in Pakistan during this period. Do you want France to be more like Pakistan? You just need more jihadists. You just need more people susceptible to becoming jihadists. You just need a wider Muslim community that won’t condemn jihadism, but pretends that the theology that inspires it will be true and perfect until the end of the world. You just need millions of people who will protest Israel for defending itself, or call for the deaths of cartoonists for depicting the prophet Muhammad, and yet not make a peep about the jihadist atrocities that occur daily, all over the world, in the name of their religion.

When hundreds of thousands of people show up in London to condemn Hamas, or the Islamic State, or any specific instance of jihadist savagery, without both-sides-ing anything, then we will know that something has changed. When Muslims by the millions pour into the streets in protest, not over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, but over the murder of cartoonists by their own religious fanatics, we will know that we’ve made a modicum of progress.

The Muslim world needs to win a war of ideas with itself, and perhaps several civil wars. It has to de-radicalize itself. It has to transform the doctrine of jihad into something far more benign than it is, and it has to stop supporting its religious fanatics when they come into conflict with non-Muslims. This is what’s so toxic: Muslims supporting other Muslims no matter how sociopathic and insane their behavior.

If the Muslim community and the political Left can’t stand against jihadism, it is only a matter of time before their moral blindness leads to rightwing authoritarianism in the West. If secular liberals won’t create secure borders, fascists will. And that is a world that none of us should want to live in.