The outcry over Boris Johnson’s comments on the Islamic veil reflects a dangerous trend of censorship.
In the last few days there’s been a groundswell of irascible journalists vilifying quirky Tory MP Boris Johnson for comments made in his recent Daily Telegraph article. ‘May must learn from Labour mistakes and stamp out Tory Islamophobia’ wailed Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedman, ‘Why aren’t the Tories cracking down on Islamophobia in their party?‘ bawled Anoosh Chakelian in The New Statesmen.
Speaking on whether the UK should follow suit in adopting a veil ban similar to Denmark, Boris Johnson penned an impassioned harangue, jilting the idea of a ban as “wrong”. Johnson stressed “telling a free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear” would give a boost to radicals, most of whom are known for pitting Islam against the West. Further, Johnson forebodes such a ban as a slippery slope, leading to “a general crackdown on any public symbols of religious affiliation”.
What caught the ire of many left-leaning commentators and politicians centres on Johnson’s derisive – and drolling – liking of the Islamic veil to letterboxes, pointing out that it is weird and “bullying” to expect women to cover their faces – a practice he finds “no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran”.
Hot under the collar from Johnson’s mocking comments on the Islamic veil, many are urging Prime Minister Theresa May to expunge the former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for “blatant Islamophobia”. Indeed, Conservative Muslim Forum founder Lord Sheik called for Mr Johnson to have the whip removed – meaning the MP would no longer represent the Tory party. Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi accuses Boris Johnson of making ‘hate crime more likely‘, calling the remarks ‘dog-whistle’ Islamophobia.
Many people on all sides of the political aisle appear at sixes and sevens concerning the proper response to Boris Johnson’s “offensive” comments. Do we support the outre MP and the principle of freedom of speech or do we reproach Boris Johnson for insensitive comments that risk stoking some pretty dangerous flames? Before tackling this, it is necessary to examine what is meant by ‘Islamophobia’.
What does ‘Islamophobia’ mean?
With the superabundance of identity politics and political correctness, the term ‘Islamophobia’ has reached mainstream acceptance, a term that would surely leave many dumbfounded if heard a decade ago.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word means “Intense dislike or fear of Islam, esp. as a political force; hostility or prejudice towards Muslims”. The Berkeley University Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project suggests the working definition:
“Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalising the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve ‘civilisational rehab’ of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended”.
So, the accusation being made against Boris Johnson is that he is harbouring an intense dislike or fear of Islam and Muslims, all of which fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure which, in many respects, he supposedly typifies.
Problems with the term ‘Islamophobia’
As I have written at length before, points that Robin Richardson of the Runnymede Trust has also made, the problems associated with using the term Islamophobia are profound. Some of the problems concern the focal ring implicit in the concept of phobia. Others concern the overtures to the term Islam:
1. Labelling someone as ‘Islamophobic’- as having a phobia about Islam and for Muslims – is preposterous. Medically, ‘phobia’ implies an acute mental illness of a kind that affects only a small number of people. Whatever else anxiety about Muslims and/or Islam may be, it is erroneous to claim that it is merely a mental illness and it surely does not merely involve a small number of people.
2. Labelling someone ‘Islamophobic’ essentially absolves oneself of the responsibility, both intellectually and with empathy, why someone thinks and acts as they do towards Islam and Muslims, and attempt to modify their perceptions and understandings through engagement and argument. This is shutting down debate and failing to address – let alone redress – an interlocutor’s views towards Muslims and/or Islam.
3. ‘Islamophobia’ suggests hostility towards Muslims is no different than other forms of hostility such as racism and xenophobia. Additionally, the way in which Islamophobia is understood suggests that it is a social disease bearing no connection with issues of class, power, status and territory; or with issues of military, political or economic competition and conflict. Islam, however, is not a race, ethnicity, or nationality; it is a set of ideas. Critiquing those ideas – such as some of the regnant positions held by the majority of scholars concerning women, LGBT people, apostates, etc., – should never be confused nor conflated with an animus towards a people.
4. The term implies little difference between an animus for Muslim people within one country and an animus for groups (e.g. ISIS) and regimes elsewhere in the world, where those who identify as Muslim happen to be the majority, and with which ‘the West’ is in military conflict.
How did the term become mainstream?
‘Cultures’ have become fatefully synonymous with the category of the ethnic or minority. As academic Davina Bhandar observes in her much celebrated article Cultural politics: disciplining citizenship, cultures are now seen as an entity highly abstracted from practices of daily-life, thereby becoming represented as a ‘geist’ of the people. “Cultures” now mean a homogenisation of cultural identity and the ascription of particular values onto minority cultural groups. Put another way, cultures have become strange and saturated entities hybridising identity and ideology.
When we now hear the word Islamophobia – or rather acts of Islamophobia – we are seeing it as an act so offensive that it’s tantamount to racism. Accordingly, yesterday’s anti-racism activist has refashioned him or herself into the salesman of a highly specialised commodity: a niche form of discrimination.
When we now hear the word Islamophobia – or rather acts of Islamophobia – we are seeing it as an act so offensive that it’s tantamount to racism
Accepting the term ‘Islamophobia’ has become a great commodity for the media. As former editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier states in his posthumous Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression, the phenomenon gained traction by the “mostly idiotic complicity of the media”, because of “laziness, then for novelty, and lastly out of commercial interest.”
Another, arguably more perverse, motivation behind mainstream acceptance of the term ‘islamophobia’ is to perpetuate a siege mentality and sense of victim-hood amongst Muslims, essentially putting an end to legitimate criticism of the religion. This is largely a result of a strategic conflation of Islam with the horrors Muslims are facing, particularly in the Middle East. The Middle-East and the Wahhabi form of Islam (we often see all across our newspapers) have become identical with Middle Easterners. This almost appears to be a facsimile of the homogenisation of Judaism and the Jewish People – whereby Judaism, the Jewish People and Jewish culture and history are seen as a monolith.
Lampooning religion is important in any liberal society
Freedom of speech is arguably the most important value in a democracy, the bedrock of a genuinely free society. The entire process of free inquiry into ideas, such as inquiring into the wearing of the Islamic veil, is and must be underpinned by free speech and expression. Without such freedom, ideas cannot be assessed in their full context, we would live in a benighted world in which ideas are seen as too dangerous or offensive.
Allowing free speech is important for truth, even if sensibilities are affected. The UK has a long track record lampooning religion, epitomised by treasured British icons Monty Python, which has played a seminal role in shoving religion into the fold of legitimate social criticism – every religion flourishes when descent is quashed.
Screaming ‘Islamophobia’ when someone ridicules or criticises elements of the Islamic faith is an absurd riposte with terribly knotty repercussions, as we now know, which only threatens to embolden those thumping for religious exceptionalism.
Many comedians, John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, and Stephen Fry included, have stressed the problems of the slippery slope of censoriousness. The point is belaboured beautifully by Atkinson, who says “Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult.” Further, in a free society there is no right not to be offended, even if comments are seen as distasteful and insensitive, such as the ones made by Boris Johnson. This is not only true outside of Westminster, but also inside of it.
The media and its politically correct stooges have a choice to make when adjudicating on Boris Johnson’s ridiculing of the Islamic veil: aiding and abetting the new intolerance at the peril of free speech or fight for those hallowed cornerstones of British freedom. The choice really is that simple.