Ed Miliband, UK opposition leader and head honcho of the British Labour Party, stated in an interview with a muslim news service that he would outlaw Islamophobia.
We are going to make it an aggravated crime. We are going to make sure it is marked on people’s records with the police to make sure they root out Islamophobia as a hate crime
This is a really bad idea.
The reasons for this are manyfold, and while I suspect that Miliband’s heart is in the right place for suggesting this, it’s disquietingly obvious that his brain isn’t:
First, a phobia is an irrational fear, i.e. a fear that has no base. For example, agoraphobia is a fear of open places. Most importantly, though, a phobia is a medical condition.
There are doubtless people who have an irrational fear of Islam, and by extension fear those who adhere to Islam: Muslims. These people are a tiny minority. They are not the people Miliband wants apprehended, because they have a true case of Islamophobia – a real phobia. They suffer from a medical condition. You can’t, or shouldn’t, really, make that a crime. If you did, you would make falling ill a crime. Imagine if the government outlawed having a cold. They could throw you in prison for sneezing.
Yeah, it’s that preposterous.
There are, on the other hand, many people who criticize many aspects of the Ideology called Islam. There are quite rational reasons to fear Islam’s Ideology – about as many rational reasons as there are to fear Christianity, Judaism or any other religion.
Some people are not only rationally afraid of what damage such an ideology could inflict on society, they experience disquiet – even apprehension – in the presence of devout practitioners of religion: muslim fundamentalists, for example. Their unease isn’t entirely baseless: criticizing Islam in the presence of islamist fundamentals can be dangerous, even lethal. The shocking images of the Charlie Hebdo massacre are still too fresh to ignore. So these aren’t the people Miliband is after either.
I submit that what labour actually wants to outlaw isn’t really Islamophobia. They want to outlaw hate-mongers who seek to make political hay or gain personal status from inciting hate. These people aren’t Islamophobes. They are the exact opposite – they love Islam, for they can only thrive in its presence.
But the problem lies much deeper: Islamophobia is an ill-defined term that entered the English language in 1997; today it is a term devoid of true meaning yet has become rife with accusation. It was coined to call out (perceived) prejudice against Muslims. As such, the term is strongly misleading: it conflates an Ideology (Islam) with people (Muslims). This has lead to serious misunderstandings, a fact that is constantly being maliciously exploited.
For example, a few months ago, on Bill Maher’s Real Time, Actor Ben Affleck verbally attacked Philosopher Sam Harris for his critique that Islam is the Mother Lode of bad ideas. Affleck interpreted the criticism as a slur on Muslims: Muslims are idiots.
This is the kind of misunderstanding that results from conflating things that must be kept separate. It has also resulted in a strange imbalance: If someone openly said The Torah is the Mother Lode of bad ideas, nobody would think them to be an anti-semitic, merely overly critical of some scripture. Do the same with the Quran, and many people label you an Islamophobe.
Because of this, the term Islamophobia is now actively, and intentionally, used to stifle criticism of Islam. Such criticism is interpreted as an attack on muslims. It’s as if a doctor who said “sugar is bad for your health” was understood as saying “people who eat sugar are bad”.
Making Islamophobia a hate crime in this context would be like making Blasphemy a criminal offense: say God Damned and get thrown into jail for committing a hate crime.
So the issue runs deeper than mere semantics. What we must do is disentangle ideology from believers, concepts from people. It’s not Islamophobia that should be labelled a hate crime. Discriminating against Muslims should be. And the word for that is anti-muslimism, the muslim pendant to anti-semitism. Both should be a criminal offense.
How do we determine anti-muslimism? If your actions are directed exclusively against Muslims (people) simply because they are Muslims, you are guilty of anti-muslimism. If you are critical of Islam (ideology), you are not – even if people don’t like, or feel offended by, your opinion. Ridiculing an ideology is not an attack on its adherents, no matter how offended they may feel.
The problem with this approach: too many people have problem grasping that last part. See Ben Affleck.