By Ali A. Rizvi
April 28, 2014
As of this writing, the National September 11 Memorial Museum still hasn't caved in. But the pressure is building, and it feels very familiar.
The problem is a seven-minute film being shown at the soon-to-open museum called The Rise of Al Qaeda. Narrated by NBC's Brian Williams, it uses words like "Islamist," "Islamic," and "jihad" in reference to the 9/11 hijackers and their motives.
Some Muslim groups, and others like the Interfaith Centre of New York, want the film edited to remove those terms. They don't want the public to think that Islamism or jihad had anything to do with Al Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks, because that could foster "Islamophobia." We've so been down this road before.
As a brown-skinned person with a Muslim name, I can get away with a lot more than you'd think. I can publicly parade my wife or daughters around in head-to-toe Burqas and be excused out of "respect" for my culture and/or religion, thanks to the racism of lowered expectations. I can re-define "racism" as something non-whites can never harbour against whites, and cite colonialism and imperialism as justification for my prejudice.
And in an increasingly effective move that's fast become something of an epidemic; I can shame you into silence for criticizing my ideas simply by calling you bigoted or Islamophobic.
For decades, Muslims around the world have rightly complained about the Israeli government labelling even legitimate criticism of its policies "anti-Semitic," effectively shielding itself from accountability. Today, Muslim organizations like CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) have borrowed a page from their playbook with the "Islamophobia" label -- and taken it even further.
In addition to calling out prejudice against Muslims (a people), the term "Islamophobia" seeks to shield Islam itself (an ideology) from criticism. It's as if every time you said smoking was a filthy habit, you were perceived to be calling all smokers filthy people. Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. But when did we start extending those rights to ideas, books, and beliefs? You'd think the difference would be clear, but it isn't. The ploy has worked over and over again, and now everyone seems petrified of being tagged with this label.
The phobia of being called "Islamophobic" is on the rise -- and it's becoming much more rampant, powerful, and dangerous than Islamophobia itself.
Last month, a white American man successfully convinced the Massachusetts liberal arts school Brandeis University that he was being victimized and oppressed by a black African woman from Somalia -- a woman who underwent genital mutilation at age five and travels with armed security at risk of being assassinated.
That Is The Power Of This Term.
The man, Ibrahim Hooper, is a Muslim convert and a founding member and spokesman for CAIR. The woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is an unapologetic activist for the rights of girls and women and a harsh, no-holds-barred critic of the religious ideologies (particularly the Islamic ideology in Muslim-majority countries that she experienced first-hand) that perpetuate and maintain their abuse. Having abandoned the Islamic faith of her parents and taken a stance against it, she is guilty of apostasy, a crime that is punishable by death according to most Islamic scholars, not to mention the holy text itself.
Hirsi Ali was also involved with the award-winning documentary, Honor Diaries, which explores violence against women in honor-based societies, including female genital mutilation (FGM), honor killings, domestic violence, and forced marriage. Despite featuring the voices of several practicing Muslim women, the film was deemed by -- you guessed it -- the poor folks at CAIR. Again, they felt they were the real victims, wanting their own voices heard while silencing those of the victims of FGM and honor killing in the film.
"So what?" you say. "It's 2014. No one's going to take that kind of position seriously, right?"
Wrong. Astonishingly, this ludicrous argument was enough to convince both the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan to cancel their screenings of the film.
Earlier this year, this Islamophobia-phobia also worked successfully on Katy Perry, a singer well-known for fighting her evangelical minister parents to break out of a strict Christian upbringing. Her music video for Dark Horse enraged over 60,000 angry Muslims who signed a petition demanding that it be removed for blasphemy. The video showed a man wearing an "Allah" pendant being burned to ashes, pendant and all. The scene was visible for less than a second in the original video.
She gave in. The petition was successful, and within a day, the offending scene was edited out of the video.
The Islamophobia pseudo-smear isn't just used against apostates like Hirsi Ali or non-Muslims like Katy Perry. In January, British Liberal Democrat candidate and progressive Muslim Maajid Nawaz tweeted this, a cartoon with the caption:
The result? Vicious death threats. A petition signed by tens of thousands to have him removed from candidacy. Targeting by Western liberal apologists. Admonishments from his own moderate Muslim counterparts. And this wasn't in, say, Somalia. Tweets such as, "Have spoken to someone in Pakistan. They will have a surprise for him on his next visit. He is used to surprises in Pak," came from within the UK.
The most tragic aspect of all this is what Alishba Zarmeen has coined the "Greenwald Syndrome" -- the phenomenon of Western liberals, in a supposed show of tolerance, embracing an apologist stance in favour of the intolerant.
My good friend and writer/activist Faisal Al Mutar, who escaped repeated death threats for his secular beliefs in his native Iraq, put it best: "Many of [the Western liberals] have betrayed us liberals in the Middle East and other Muslim countries, and [inadvertently] sided with the Islamists against us."
After being publicly accused by Glenn Greenwald of "spouting and promoting Islamophobia," Sam Harris responded with these words, which should be read by everyone:
"Needless to say, there are people who hate Arabs, Somalis, and other immigrants from predominantly Muslim societies for racist reasons. But if you can't distinguish that sort of blind bigotry from a hatred and concern for dangerous, divisive, and irrational ideas -- like a belief in martyrdom, or a notion of male 'honor' that entails the virtual enslavement of women and girls -- you are doing real harm to our public conversation. Everything I have ever said about Islam refers to the content and consequences of its doctrine. And, again, I have always emphasized that its primary victims are innocent Muslims -- especially women and girls.
There is no such thing as 'Islamophobia.' This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it."
The fear of being called Islamophobic once led many prominent Westerners to abandon their own values when they abandoned Salman Rushdie. It led Yale to publish a book about the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy, but without the cartoons. It led Comedy Central to censor the show South Park on more than one occasion for fear of offending Muslims, even though the show irreverently lambastes virtually every other religion on a regular basis, unhindered.
This epidemic continues today with the new 9/11 museum film, the Brandeis fiasco with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, CAIR's whining over Honor Diaries, the Katy Perry video, and the Maajid Nawaz cartoon tweet controversy -- all within this year -- where too many Westerners are falling on the wrong side.
As I've written before, this is an effective deterrent. This is exactly how terrorism works. This is how perfectly intelligent, well-read writers, commentators, and broadcasters become silenced by the Islamophobia smear fear -- and rationalizes themselves into becoming unaware victims of it.
When you're unable to introduce Pakistan-style blasphemy laws in a secular, Western society, you have to find alternative ways to silence those who offend you, right?
And that's where the "Islamophobia" smear comes in -- the ultimate, lazy substitute for a non-existent counter-argument. Don't fall for it.
Ali A. Rizvi is a Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician and musician