In my last article about the hysteria around Canada’s Motion 103 on Islamophobia this past winter, I alluded to the idea that Islamophobia as a term might not accurately convey anti-Muslim bigotry or racialized hatred endured by Muslims. I also noted how in the discussions around the use of that term in the federal motion, Islamophobes who were arguing that the whole thing should be trashed were not actually interested in whether or not the term accurately described what Muslims face. They had their own hateful agenda centered on shutting down the motion and stirring up anger towards Muslims and the Liberals which became abundantly clear in the death threats and hate mail received in the tens of thousands by MP Iqra Khalid who put forth the motion.

But there are people who are actually concerned about whether or not the term Islamophobia is good enough. As an academic, I am preoccupied with not only definitions of terms but how people use and think of terms, irrespective of their official definitions. And I would say, yes, Islamophobia is insufficient for some of the phenomena we describe with that term. That doesn’t mean we should throw it out completely and I would even say that we could continue using it until we find something adequate to slowly replace it with and that replacement is successfully filtered into popular memory… but before I suggest what to do with it, I will talk about the reasons it just doesn’t work anymore.

  1. It centers the person who fears/hates. The first thing to note is that Islamophobia is not about what Muslims endure. Unlike racism, anti-Semitism or sexism, Islamophobia does not name the violence that Muslim people are faced with. It isn’t about the micro-aggressions, verbal assaults, fearing for one’s personal safety, systemic marginalization or obstacles Muslims face to self-actualization. It isn’t about having to watch your brethren globally massacred. It isn’t about how you feel when people demand that you apologize for the actions of extremist militants. None of that is really encapsulated in the term Islamophobia because a phobia is used to describe the irrational fears of the person who fears, not the person who has to deal with the symptoms of those fears. In this way, the term Islamophobia actually centers the person who either fears or hates Muslims, marginalizing Muslim voices in the very term which is meant to describe their marginalization in the first place.
  2. Not all hatred is rooted in fear. Using Islamophobia to refer to hatred and violence lobbed at Muslims assumes a subscription to what has become a pervasive (but false) axiom in our society: that the root of hatred is fear and ignorance. I actually do not believe this. The root of hatred is not always fear and it certainly is not always ignorance. In fact, historically, the root of hatred is more often power: the desire to consolidate, maintain, and build it. If this were not the case, we might have been able to sing kumbayah with hateful people like Hitler and his Nazi henchman to show them the err of their ways. But Hitler didn’t fear Jews and he certainly was not ignorant of some knowledge about them. He scapegoated Jews and other minorities to consolidate power according to his own warped worldview and the one he exploited in his society. Similarly, using a term which ends in -phobia connotes fear and ignorance, and subliminally excuses the person who hates.
  3. It conflates Islam and Muslims. Unsurprisingly, when people actually legitimately fear something, it usually isn’t “Islam(s)”, but some horrendous cultural practices found within the purview of some Muslims. By calling it Islamophobia, we conflate Islam with Muslims and basically declare them to be the same thing when they are not. Islam is a cultural and comprehensive philosophical, ethical, and legal system. People who use Christianoform secular definitions of “religion” think that separating Islam from bad cultural practices is a matter of separation “religion from culture.” This is a poor way of thinking of Islam. The term deen which Muslims use to refer to Islam better translates to “way of life” meaning a cultural system. Where people get caught up is in forgetting that people can actually subscribe to multiple cultural systems at any given time and some of those cultural expressions come to the fore dependent on the socio-political context they find themselves in. That’s a very simplified version of describing how we can get practices that are “unIslamic” in “Muslim” cultures. These practices might even be justified as Islamic but that doesn’t actually make them Islamic. So this conflation doesn’t work.
  4. It ignores the economy of hatred that produces Muslimophobia(?). Fear of Muslims by regular folks is very real. People are inundated daily by lies about Islam and Muslims, and they come to believe those things. Who wouldn’t fear a terrorist? Who wouldn’t fear the obscene garbage Saudi Arabia passes off as Islamic law these days? Crucifying teenagers? Lashing raped women? Come on, none of this bullshit has anything to do with Islam. What people see in places like KSA should be called what it is: Wahhabism – a 19th century political-cultural cult centered on the power of the Al-Saud family which obfuscates its false origins by masquerading as Islam. It is an insult to the Prophet sallahu alayhi wa salam and an abomination to the guidance sent to him by Allah that a government funding terror globally, obliterating women’s rights, and single-handedly causing the most recent man-made famine in Yemen could call itself “Islamic” or be the keepers of the Hijaz. Period. People are taught to believe that those things are Islam itself though and they rightly fear those things. But they are merely pawns in a much larger, transnational game of manufacturing consent for modern Crusades which generate untold wealth and power for elites in Western countries – and Islamophobia does not adequately describe that practice.

So what do I tentatively propose instead?

To describe the manufactured fears of cultural and political practices commonly found in Muslim cultures, especially when those fears are found in non-elite folks who do not hold positions of power, we might use the term Muslimophobia. These people tend only to keep their fears to themselves or they might talk about these fears in some groups. They are susceptible to becoming radicalized easily, particularly when preyed upon online. This group is also the easiest to change the minds and hearts of. They are the most likely to alter their worldviews through interaction with real Muslims and by learning more about Islam. These are the people whose attention community organizers should focus on in order to build numbers of allies.

To describe those who manufacture those fears for personal and political gain, we can say that they exhibit anti-Muslim hatred or bigotry. These people might be in government, policy-making, or media. They are harder to convince in terms of the unethical nature of their hatred. They often gain financially from their hatred and construct their identities around their hatred. If one manages to change these peoples’ minds, they become very strong allies and often center their lives on fighting anti-Muslim hatred to fill the void left by their hatred when they change their ways. Community organizers, advocates and lobbyists should focus on these people to build numbers of allies.

For those with a Crusading ethos who hold key power positions and have openly declared war on Islam with the hopes of obliterating the religion from the face of the earth, we might describe them as engaging in anti-Islamic hatred, repression and genocide. Their goal is to eliminate the cultural system of Islam from their borders and maybe even globally which would entail having to kill off Muslims. These people are like Nazis or are Nazis and should be treated as such.

These terms might not take hold right away but I am certainly going to try to start using them more frequently and encouraging others to do so as well.

What terms would you use?


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

Edmonton Public Library ought to be ashamed of themselves. Last night, I attended their lecture series on Freedom of Expression headed by Salman Rushdie. For people who have come to know Rushdie’s work over the years, we knew what to expect from him: the cognitive dissonance experienced when trying to reconcile two images of a man – a brilliant and evocative writer and a public speaker who revels in blasphemies, insults and what has come to be called (glorified) “trolling”. I attended because I love some of his novels purely for the craft and I received a free ticket from a colleague of mine at the University of Alberta. I also wanted to see what he could possibly have to say that would fly with an open Canadian audience that prides itself on pluralism. What happened at the event, was far more sinister than anything I could have anticipated and is something that EPL should not be proud of.

Rushdie purported to be talking about freedom of expression and censorship – issues that he has built his personality cult around. And yet, his discourse on the subject is not very well-thought out and lacks significant nuance. That is, of course, giving him too much credit. It could just be that he actually believes that freedom of expression means never having any censorship whatsoever, including for spreading hate propaganda and denying that certain phenomena actually exists. Hard to believe that someone could buy that, but he does. Denying the Holocaust as a counter-argument to this “expression free-for-all” is the first thing that usually comes to mind as something that should (and often is) legislated against. (And before any ill-informed Judeophobes get up in arms, let me be clear: historical discussion is not denial. Ever.)

But Rushdie didn’t take his own argument to those problematic ends. Instead he blatantly denied that a different kind of harmful phenomena exists: Islamophobia. He dismissed Islamophobia (a word he allegedly “doesn’t like”) as a relatively recent innovation designed by Daesh (ISIS) apologists (see: all Muslims) to stop genuine criticism of Islam.

Excuse me? Sit down, Sir.

For people who live with the vile discrimination of Islamophobia every single day, dismissing their lived reality as part of a conspiratorial global Muslim plot to make the world more PC is part and parcel of the rest of the Islamophobia we endure daily. Rushdie’s reified Clash of Civilizations narrative wouldn’t even fly in an intro to Poli Sci class at the University so why the hell is EPL giving this fool a podium to spew it so unapologetically?

Here’s a fact: polarizing rhetoric polarizes. They become self-fulfilling prophecies because they don’t describe the world, they prescribe it and in swallowing such quantifiably impoverished arguments, bigots allow the work done to reconcile alienated communities get thrown under the bus immediately. And for him to put all of this under the self-defensive, circular argument of “freedom of expression” is no better than the unreflective xenophobes I am accustomed to dealing with in much less distinguished settings.

At one point, Rushdie actually said he should have the right to disrespect religions and then proceeded to make an argument for the freedom to hate, coupled with jokes that emulated Trump’s pussy-grabbing sexual assault “quips” and quite literally made fun of transgender women for not having vaginas. He did this while painting the artist/writer as a victim of censorship to a room full of people who, astonishingly, swallowed his intellectually devoid argument and laughed along with his hateful one-liners, including politicians and senior city bureaucrats. As a writer, I was appalled.

Rushdie spreads hate under the mandate of anti-censorship so that any legitimate critique of his neo-liberal, anti-religion, secular homogenizing agenda is dismissed as either anti-modern or Islamist.

And isn’t that the tactic of every colonizer to dismiss his critics as being “uncivilized”?

In Rushdie’s Lilliputian world, I am simply a reactive, anti-modern because I don’t think we should give intolerant hacks the time of day – especially not to massive, sold-out crowds at a huge downtown hotel in our capital city. He would simply cry “Censorship” and believe that that should silence me. Point to my hijab and shout “extremist” because I disagree with him. And that should somehow silence me? The caveat of his argument about freedom of expression is that freedom of expression is for all except people who actually recognize how harmful hateful rhetoric is, who devote their lives to studying and preventing it, who don’t believe that people have an intuitive “bullshit radar” (if they did, they wouldn’t have been laughing so hard at his gay-bashing jokes last night and we wouldn’t be dealing with the gongshow of an American election right now) and who know how easily people are manipulated and made to hate by stories told in defense of their social position and power.

But this isn’t about Rushdie. At all. He is so predictable, it hurts.

We all know what to expect from this pandering neo-liberal fool who positively ejaculates every time one of his books is put on a banned list because he gets to self-fellatiate in front of global press audiences. We all know that virulent liberal secularist proponents are the least reflective and least self-critical non-thinkers on the planet. My God, they barely even know that they too operate under an actual cultural system that is not, impossibly, outside ”culture” itself while reifying Christianoform time, rituals and rhetoric unquestioningly as an allegedly non-religious zombie of the Western European tradition.

No, the real problem here is that a community institution, the Edmonton Public Library, attacked Canadian pluralism in bringing him here and simultaneously undermined the difficult and incredible work their staff does daily to establish safe spaces in their libraries for people of colour, Muslims, women and LGBTQ people. I won’t go so far as to say people like him should remain silent or be made silent because I don’t think that is the case. A community institution giving Rushdie’s blatant intolerance a speaking platform and a large audience is entirely another story.  I did not feel safe in an EPL-created space last night and I know a lot of other people who didn’t either. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. I know I am.

 

October has been an exceptionally busy month for The Drawing Board owner and head writer, Nakita Valerio – especially after being appointed as the Director of Marketing for the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC). Given the highly central role that Muslims are embodying in the current Canadian election campaign, Nakita opted to speak out (along with other academics and other citizens across the country) against the enticement to hate being perpetuated by the current federal administration. The first publication was an Op-ed printed in the Edmonton Journal on October 8, 2015, entitled “Veil That Divides My Canada” (Online version). Nakita was also interviewed for CBC Radio for her opinion on the niqab issue being raised by the Conservative government and, finally, published a Question and Answer article in the Edmonton Sun on October 10, 2015 to answer questions about why women wear Islamic veils and how the country can move forward from this forced division.

As a direct result of these publications, Nakita has had the honour of being asked to deliver the following lectures:

  • to Native Studies students at the University of Alberta regarding the commonalities between Muslim and Indigenous communities, particularly as it regards their treatment by different forms of political and social authority
  • to Edmontonian High School students as part of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research’s Community Outreach initiative, regarding subjects on the Middle East in transition

Finally, Nakita was invited by a downtown Edmonton synagogue to start a womens’ dialogue group in their community for the purposes of starting conversations to learn and dispel Islamophobia.

Keep up to date on all of our activities here!