If Europe really wants to pay tribute to the journalists and cartoonists massacred in Paris last week, it could do worse than ditch the term ‘Islamophobia’. For this empty, cynical, elitist phrase, this multicultural conceit, has done an untold amount to promote the idea that ridiculing other people’s beliefs and cultures is a bad thing. In fact, the widely used but little thought-on i-word has pathologised the very act of making a judgement. It has turned the totally legitimate conviction that some belief systems are inferior to others into a swirling, irrational fear — a phobia — worthy of condemnation and maybe even investigation by officials. That those two gunmen thought Charlie Hebdo’s ‘Islamophobic’ cartoonists deserved punishment isn’t surprising — after all, they grew up on a continent, Europe, that is so riven by relativism, so allergic to making moral judgements, that even saying ‘Islamic values are not as good as Enlightenment values’ is now treated as evidence of a warped, sinful mind, as a crime, effectively.
Never has the disconnect between the claims of the Islamophobia industry and the reality on the ground in Europe been as starkly exposed as over the past week. The blood on the floor of Charlie Hebdo’s offices was still wet when, moving on with callous speed from worrying about the terrible fate of 10 journalists, the respectable media started fretting about the danger now faced by European Muslims. We should all fear ‘the coming Islamophobic backlash’, said one hack. The Guardian thunderously warned that ‘Islamophobes [will] seize this atrocity to advance their hatred’. But no Pavlovian backlash came. Aside from the chucking of some dud grenades into the courtyard of a mosque in Le Mans — a terrible act, yes — there has been no mob fury with Muslims. The unreality of the Islamophobia industry’s claims became startlingly clear following the murder of four Jews in a shop by an accomplice of the Charlie Hebdo killers. Even after this act of anti-Semitism, observers continued to fret about the mortal threat allegedly facing Muslims from the ill-educated Euro-mob. Yesterday, as the bodies of the four Jews were being prepared for the flight to Israel, George Clooney told a bunch of fawning journos how worried he is about ‘anti-Muslim fervour’ in Europe. It’s surreal; real through-the-looking-glass stuff.
The factual chasm between the fears of the Islamophobia panickers and what actually happens after a terrorist attack reveals a seldom-grasped truth about the idea of ‘Islamophobia’: it is not in fact a description, far less an accurate one, of the rise of racist thinking or the state of community relations in Europe; rather, it is a term that developed and spread to chastise the moral criticism of certain belief systems. The now Europe-wide concern about Islamophobia differs from all other modern campaigns against racism and prejudice in one important way: it is the creation of political elites rather than being a grassroots campaign to win equality or liberty for a particular minority. Islamophobia is in essence a multicultural conceit, the invention of infinitesimally small, aloof, crisis-ridden elites keen to clamp down on any heated or overly judgmental discussion of non-Western values.
Unlike the civil rights movement in 1950s and 1960s America, where vast numbers of blacks fought tooth-and-nail against racial segregation and pervasive state violence, or the anti-racist movements in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, when communities agitated against discrimination, the concern with Islamophobia came not from the streets but from the rarefied, removed world of think-tanks and professional handwringers. The current understanding of ‘Islamophobia’ comes in large part from a 1996 report produced by the Runnymede Trust, a UK-based race-equality think-tank. This report’s definition of Islamophobia — ‘a shorthand way of referring to the dread or hatred of Islam’ — is now the most widely accepted, not only in Britain but in much of Europe. Tellingly, the Runnymede report was based, not on any serious measurement of real-world discrimination against Muslims, but predominantly on an analysis of the media depiction of Islam and its followers. That is, from the very outset the term Islamophobia was more concerned with media and moral judgement of a belief system — with apparently problematic words and ideas — than with actual physical or institutionalised prejudice against Muslims. Even more tellingly, 3,500 copies of the report were distributed among, as one author describes it, ‘metropolitan authorities, race equality councils, police forces, government departments, unions, professional associations, think tanks and universities’. The great and good. These were to be the watchers for any expression of ‘dread of Islam’, the policers, in essence, of criticism of or disdain for a belief system.
The Runnymede report makes clear the key concern of those who invented the idea of Islamophobia: that it is wrong to be judgmental about non-Western values or to elevate the West’s way of life over other people’s ways of life. As this defining document puts it, one sure sign of ‘Islamophobia’ is a view of Islam as ‘inferior to the West’. Those who speak of a ‘clash of civilisations’ contribute to the climate of Islamophobia, it said. In order to challenge Islamophobia, Runnymede suggested to the cliques of academics, coppers and officials it sent its report to that they should encourage people to understand that Islam is ‘distinctively different, but not deficient’ and is ‘as equally worthy of respect [as Western values]’. Furthermore, it said, we brave warriors against Islamophobia must challenge the idea that Islam’s criticisms of the West are without foundation and should instead encourage people to consider and embrace ‘[Islam]’s criticism of “the West” and other cultures’.