Critiquing Islam or Islamophobia?

December 26, 2013 — 9 Comments

This article appeared on as guest post – 

Critiquing Islam and Islamophobia

For nine years in a row a controversial resolution on, “Combating Defamation of Religions,” described by some as an, “international blasphemy law,” has been consistently losing support in the United Nations General Assembly. Until 2010, the only religion mentioned in the legislation was Islam, when the authors of the legislation, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, invented the terms; “Judeophobia and Christianophobia,” too quell criticism. Domestically too, the term Islamophobia has come under intense scrutiny, just this week. Opinion is sharply divided.

The discourse here in the UK often mirrors the international debate. In one camp, the appropriateness of the terms very existence is questioned; critics lambast the fact that in reality there is no equivalent terminology in existence to describe those who critique other ideologies and religions (other than Anti-Semitism, of course). They say it is telling of the particular defensiveness and privilege that Islam demonstrates and is often afforded. Others, however, maintain that the phenomena is one of the most concerning and potentially dangerous of our age. They contend that the recent increase in Islamophobia is akin to the rise of Anti-Semitism in the last century and portray Islamophobia as a current of hate, engulfing Europe and risking unrest, conflict even.

There is truth on both ends of this dialectic. Islamophobia clearly exists. It is a genuine phenomenon. A ‘phobia’ is an irrational fear or hatred of something – one need only browse the Internet momentarily before confronting a plethora of overtly irrational, hateful and inflammatory views directed towards Muslims. On the other hand, the term is very commonly misappropriated to deflect genuine and much needed criticism of Islam. And it is grossly misappropriated when used to scare and accuse those interested in discussing theology, ethics and progress of racism and bigotry.

The comparison between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism can be useful. Both are genuine and both are often misappropriated. (Israel frequently claims Anti-Semitism is at work when policies of the apartheid state are subject to criticism.) Mohammad Ansar explains here the increasingly worrying similarity between Islamophobia today and Anti-Semitism of the previous century,

However, misappropriation of the term is so common, and confusion so easy, because alongside the rising tide of irrational Islamophobia described by Ansar, there is an increasing need for a rational critique Islam (a process Ansar is deeply involved in himself).

Religions are not static or homogeneous. They change / evolve over time and at any one time there is often a plurality of voices within any religion advocating differing interpretations. Rigorous and continuous criticism is an important catalyst for this ongoing process. Denying the need for such a critique, and assuming Islam is static and unchanging, is as crude and misleading as islamophobia itself.

Religion is a historical process of change and modernization. Many early religions described man’s relationship with nature. There were Gods of sun, thunder and earth. Later, religions are often seen to embody man’s relationship with the state. The god of Athena, say, represented to the Greeks their relationship with the polis. Later, the great monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity began to function as the Polis itself. Church and state became one; it was the fear of God, rather that the Police, that kept citizens in line and it was parish / sharia courts who made judicial rulings.

After coming to dominate politics in Europe, Christianity did not give up its political power lightly. From Galileo to Copernicus, for centuries, owners of any voice of decent were persecuted. It was a long and bloody battle before Christianity began to communicate with post enlightenment thought. Christianity was battered and berated into submission by a reformation, enlightenment and a well-established tradition of biblical criticism. The result was the subdued and less political Christianity we know today (maybe not so in America). The simple fact is that Islam is not as far through this stage of its historical development, through which it will be brought to communicate with post enlightenment thought and secular politics, as Christianity, which began it in the 17th century.

Comparatively, very little is know about the true origins of the Koran. Historians such as Patria Crone and Tom Holland have only recently begun this mammoth task. Historical and Archeological examinations of the Bible helped Christians a great deal in reconciling their views with the realities of the modern world. Hopefully the same can be true for Islam.

Incongruity, or harmony?

As I’ve said, Islam is far from monolithic; Muslim feminists and gay rights activists are a historical fact. But today, particularly since the Islamic resurgence, Islam is dominated by conservative, and primarily male, voices. Such voices have been politicizing the religion and pushing an oppressive, conservative social agenda. This has resulted in the social regression we see in Iran and more recently, Turkey and Egypt. Critiquing the authoritarian, misogynistic and homophobic values of these interpretations of Islam is of pivotal importance for the survival and wellbeing of millions of people worldwide.

Another issue at hand is the confluence of Islamic culture with Islamic faith. If such a critique is to be as successful as it has been for Christianity then it is likely that many Muslims, especially those living in the west, will come to reject the dogmatism of religion and embrace Agnosticism and Atheism. It is critical that Apostates of Islam can hold on to their cultural identity despite losing their faith. It’s been decades since people, un-ironically, discussed ‘Christendom’ or ‘Christian culture’ instead of ‘western culture,’ and it’s time Islamic culture was more commonly afforded such respect, as something quite distinct from mere faith.

As conservative Muslim populations living inside western liberal democracies become more vocal and politicized, it must be remembered that a central condition of freedom of religion is the freedom of others to criticize your religion. New Atheism and ‘Dawkinism’ are consistently more abrasive and less patient with conservative religious views. If every time the two groups come into conflict commentators call it Islamophobia, the true meaning and importance of the word will very soon be lost.

I must stress, none of what is said above is written to suggest that the majority of Muslims today are not already moderate and do not accept post-enlightenment thought. Rather, if we are to begin to see the end of political Islam and the small but significant strains of radical Islam that western media is so obsessed with, then a vigorous and open discussion must be had about Islam. At a time when genuinely Islamophobic views are on the rise, keeping such a rational discussion distinct from genuinely Islamophobic, irrational prejudice will be increasingly difficult.


1) I tweeted the article to Tom Holland (one of the historians mentioned above), and very kindly he replied,

The essay he sent brings out a far more nuanced distinction between Christianity and Islam than i am able to describe in this article. As he explains in the essay, with a full examination of scripture and historical context, the holism and doctrinairism present in Islamic scripture is likely to distinguish Islam’s own idiosyncratic evolution from Christianity’s journey. It’s well worth a read.

2) Many of the Reddit comments have pointed out that i omit to define either, or draw a clear line between, Islamophobia and legitimate criticism. I merely describe one as rational and the other irrational or prejudice. Unfortunately this was simply not within the scope of the article. Kenan Malik draws such a distinction, quite excellently, here,


The idea concerning the evolution of religion and a dialectic of truth is obviously very Hegelian. Taken from Bob Stern’s guide The Phenomenology of Spirit.


9 responses to Critiquing Islam or Islamophobia?


    I’m sorry – this:

    “Next to nothing is know about the real origins of the Koran. Historians such as Patria Crone and Tom Holland have only recently begun this mammoth task. ”

    Is bollocks. Lot’s is known about the origiin of the Quran. It’s just western scholarship chooses to ignore subaltern voices and won’t accept their version of history as history.

    I’m really sad that you’re willing to do the same.


    This detailed and thoughtful reply was left on reddit. It is both interesting and fair to hear a Muslim’s response to the article.

    “They say it is telling of the particular defensiveness and privilege that Islam demonstrates and is often afforded.
    Is it fair to criticize the west and other religions (anything that looks “like the other”) and then have riots over “Draw Muhammad Day”? Especially when we know the pictures were meant to provoke? Its one thing to protect the Prophet, upon him be peace, by resorting to a better way (see Quran 41:34). Its another to make a ruckus over a bunch of brats trying to bully Muslims into losing their tempers.
    But today, particularly since the Islamic resurgence, Islam is dominated by conservative, and primarily male, voices. Such voices have been politicizing the religion and pushing an oppressive, conservative social agenda.
    The world has evolved in terms of human rights issues. Things we didn’t understand hundreds of years ago are clearer now. Things like child marriage. We now know that a girl who begins menstruation is too immature psychologically to be married and responsible for children. Psychology has shown that being lgbt is not deviant, it is a normal alternative sexual orientation. We have seen that women are as capable as men as running a household in various societies. What God gave us in Quran can always be changed by forgiveness so things like lashes for adultery or cutting off the hands of thieves can be changed.
    Who spend [in the cause of Allah ] during ease and hardship and who restrain anger and who pardon the people – and Allah loves the doers of good (Quran 3:134)
    If [instead] you show [some] good or conceal it or pardon an offense – indeed, Allah is ever Pardoning and Competent. (Quran 4:149)
    There is a new Muslim voice in the west. I think the problem wasn’t the lack of the Moderate Muslim, but the lack of a venue for them to speak. But there are quite a few reputable websites giving that space to them now. Alhamdulillah!”


    Another good one from reddit,

    “Utter bollocks. The only people who don’t believe in the historical record are people like Crone and Hawting. People made fun of them when they wrote, and when their assumption were torpedoed by the latest finds they disappeared into irrelevance.
    I studied under Hawting. Even he had to admit that the presence of narratives shared by Shi’is and Sunni meant that there was a historical source to it. Otherwise the Shia could have easily said the Quran was made up by the Sunni or vice versa. They don’t.
    Basically, this line of critical revisionism is robbing the people who’s history it is of a voice. The only voice that you seem to find acceptable is western , white and non-muslim.
    Classic case of Orientalism.
    and I see that you’re terrified of facing me in discussion because I have isolated the obvious weakness in your own knowledge.
    and /u/Fourgates is a lovely person.
    I’m not. I’ve had enough of people who think that picking up Tom Holland’s book gives them the right to disenfranchise us of our 1400 years of history. Call your self philosopher. What utter nonsense.”

    I study philosophy, not history, so i’m prepared to admit that i am far from certain about this point. However, even if a historical source is climbed to be know, the controversy simply shows that the central theme still stands – that there is much more is knowledge and certainty about the origins of the Bible.


      He (D-Hex) replied,

      “No it doesn’t, the Quran and Islam deserve to be taken in of themselves. Comparison to the bible is only interesting as comparative religion.
      The fact is that the Quran was codified very quickly. The issue is hadith literature and other jurisprudence that comes laters, and Muslims quite happily agree that the main hadith collections arrive in the early Abbasid period.
      But the Quran was codified and took its place as orthodoxy to such an extent that even during the faction fighting and civil wars between various people who KNEW Mohammad personally while he was alive – no one questioned its existence. Even the order was decided by the time of Ali Ibn Abu Talib Khalifate.
      Wansborough, Crone and Hawting put together this revisionism in the tradition of the great sceptics, but their school of thought is dying . No serious scholar from Madelung , to the cranky and mildy Islamaphobic bothers questioning the codification dates of the Quran anymore. At worst they say that the current vocalisations and structure may have been slightly different.
      Crone also famously questioned is Mohammad had existed at all, and wether he was a creation of Arab mythology or an amalgam of many leaders. Then we found references to him in Armenian literature and other works contemporary to his time that ended that debate.
      The more troubling aspect of your attitude is still this:
      You are willing to priviledge western sources over the scholarship of the people who’s book it is. That’s a deep deep problem. You don’t seem to be able to understand the implications of it.”

      Again, his response is fascinating. However, I do not believe i am privileging western sources, i am simply only accepting the most highly corroborated facts (of which there are not many). Muslim scholars are as inclined to support an account endorsed by scripture as Christian scholars writing on the origins of the Bible. I am skeptical of both. Thats is the difference between a scholar and an academic.


    From DeusExMentis on reddit,

    “There’s an important distinction to be made between criticism of Islam and criticism of Muslims. All the Muslims I’ve known personally have been decent people.
    Islam, however—the fundamentals of the religion itself—are undeniably problematic. The only reason the Muslims I’ve known are able to be decent members of a civil society is because they ignore a lot of their holy book, like the parts that mandate death for apostates and the subjugation of women.
    Reacting fearfully or hatefully towards a person for no reason other than that they self-identify as Muslim is just not rational. But criticism of Islam itself is not indicative of any irrational fear or prejudice, and is really a good thing when you look at what the books say. As with most ancient religious literature, the Islamic texts contain a fair amount of both inspiring concepts and barbaric nonsense. It’s hardly Islamophobia to recognize this fact, provided you don’t let the fact blind you to the individual in front of you who likely doesn’t subscribe to the barbaric nonsense any more than you do.”


    Pictures and artwork about Islam and lot more interesting information:


    whilst their may (arguably) be an increasing need for the criticism of islam, its a case in point that as you note yourself that religion is embedded in material and historical conditions. its can be misleading to denigrate islam per se when islam doesn’t exist in the abstract, The islam of hegemonic saudi arabia is a very different beast from the islam lower class jihadist nationalist of Iraq as it is the islam of british . Attacking religion in of itself, can often be at the expense of critically considering how it is interwoven with conceptions of ethnic and national identity and the historical issues related to how religion is being drawn upon in a particular way, it is not just religions that are the issue but relations between different groups of identification.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Atheism – Critiquing Islam or Islamophobia? - December 27, 2013

    […] Liam Deacon – December 26, 2013 […]

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