Harry’s Place and Islamophobia Watch

Over at Harry’s Place, the eponymous blogger offers a critique of Islamophobia Watch and challenges our characterisation of certain leftists and liberals as Islamophobes. Compared with some of the anti-Muslim rants that have appeared on his site, it’s quite a reasoned piece – but entirely wrong, of course.

In his critique Harry quotes part of the Runnymede Trust’s definition of Islamophobia, which is reproduced on our site: “Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change.”

He claims that most of the leftists and liberals criticised on our blog would reject that view and therefore cannot be characterised as Islamophobes: “The whole point of supporting liberal progressives, socialists or gay activists in Muslim countries or in the ‘Muslim community’ is that there is the potential for change and that Islam most certainly isn’t a monolothic bloc.”

The problem with this argument is that, if you take the Runnymede Trust definition absolutely literally, then Islamophobia doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. Even fascists are prepared to make a formal distinction between different tendencies within Islam, along the lines Harry proposes.

Thus the BNP election broadcast last May – using terminology that echoed the arguments of leftists and liberals – called on “moderate Muslims” to reform their religion in order to “make it compatible with the modern world”, and claimed that the BNP’s racist propaganda was directed against “Islamic fundamentalists”.

Would anyone seriously argue, on that basis, that the BNP is not Islamophobic? Nick Griffin is on record as denouncing Islam as “a wicked, vicious faith” – a description that he clearly intends should apply to all of its adherents. It is self-evident that the fascists’ reference to reforming, moderate tendencies within Islam is simply a cover for their real aim, which is of course to whip up prejudice against all Muslims – who, in practice, they do treat as a “monolithic bloc”.

The same ploy is used by the non-fascist right. Daniel Pipes, for example, is the author of a notorious article entitled “The Muslims are Coming! The Muslims are Coming!” in which he argued:

“All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most. Also, they appear most resistant to assimilation. Elements among the Pakistanis in Britain, Algerians in France, and Turks in Germany seek to turn the host country into an Islamic society by compelling it to adapt to their way of life…. West European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene.”

This does not prevent Pipes from acknowledging the existence of “moderate voices of Islam“. However, the one “moderate voice” he shows enthusiasm for is Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam, who devotes her efforts to condemning her co-religionists and has expressed sympathy for the Israeli state in its conflict with the Palestinians.

Significantly, this self-styled “Muslim refusenik” also finds favour with Anthony Browne, who is the author of an article that claims: “Islam really does want to conquer the world. That’s because Muslims, unlike many Christians, actually believe they are right, and that their religion is the path to salvation for all.” (See here.) Browne however has no objection to dialogue with Muslims like Irshad Manji who he says represents the alternative to “Islamic extremists”. (See here.)

Are Pipes and Browne therefore to be acquitted of charges of Islamophobia?

Hardly. Irshad Manji’s ideas would find support among a minuscule number of Muslims worldwide. If she represents “moderate” Islam, then the overwhelming majority of Muslims are plainly not moderates. Recognition of mainstream reformist tendencies within the worldwide Muslim community, some of whom have genuine mass influence, is obliterated by this approach.

So the fact that leftists and liberals, too, usually play lip service to the distinction between “moderates” and “Islamic fundamentalists” before launching into some tirade against the majority of Muslims, their beliefs and their organisations, is hardly a telling argument.

Peter Tatchell, who is regarded as a bit of a hero over at Harry’s Place, has denounced the government for holding talks with the Muslim Council of Britain, on the grounds that the MCB is homophobic – even though he is well aware that the MCB is the umbrella body representing a large section if not the majority of British Muslim organisations. (See here.) Indeed, he has characterised the MCB as “right-wing Islamists” who open the door to “Islamo-fascism”. (See here.)

At the same time, Tatchell repeatedly declares his readiness to engage with “liberal” and “progressive” Muslims. But these categories are defined so narrowly – essentially, it means any Muslim who is willing to endorse Tatchell’s views on sexuality – that they necessarily exclude the vast majority of Muslims, whose outlook is of course much closer to the MCB’s than to Tatchell’s.

In practical terms, therefore, Tatchell’s pious declarations of support for liberal, progressive Muslims are, as in the cases of Pipes, Browne and the BNP, nothing but a cover for his refusal to identify and relate to actual reforming tendencies within the main body of Islam.

As for Harry’s argument that people like Peter Tatchell assist the Muslim world in realising its “potential for change”, Tatchell’s self-promoting stunts have precisely the reverse effect. His high-profile campaign against Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, has been rejected by the Muslim lesbian and gay group Imaan (formerly Al-Fatiha UK), whose members characterise Tatchell’s methods as at best “self-indulgent” and at worst “racist”. They oppose his anti-Qaradawi campaign because they say it not only promotes prejudice against Muslims in general but also undermines their own efforts to get a hearing among the straight majority of their fellow believers. (See here.)

My conclusion? The Runnymede Trust definition of Islamophobia should perhaps be amended to read: “Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change (although this is often accompanied by hypocritical references to ‘moderate Muslims’ and occasionally by support for dialogue with the handful of Muslims who share the Islamophobes’ own hostile view of Islam).”