There are three terms that have been bugging me because their definitions are elusive: “New Atheism,” “scientism,” and “Islamophobia.” Yesterday we dealt with “New Atheism.” In the past few days, Jason Rosenhouse and Massimo Pigliucci have duked it out on their websites about “scientism” (Massimo here, Jason here and here; read all three because the exchange is informative). I think Jason definitely has the upper hand in the scientism debate, which he sees as a distracting kerfuffle about semantics. On the other hand, while Massimo makes some good points—e.g., some questions have answers that aren’t found by science, like what is the mathematical relationship between the sides of a right triangle and its hypotenuse—he doesn’t show how philosophy or math answers questions about what exists in the real world, and he seems overly huffy about biologists’ neglect and criticism of philosophy.
So let’s take up the third term, “Islamophobia.” I hear it a lot, particularly when applied to Sam Harris. But I don’t know what it means, and nobody ever explicitly defines it. It is used by atheists often, but yet those same people never use the term “Christianophobia” or “Hinduphobia.” I can think of only two definitions:
- Overweening fear and hatred of the religion of Islam. If that’s the definition, I suppose I adhere to it. Islam is a pernicious religion and its holy book, the Qur’an, is worse than any other sacred book I’ve read in terms of vilification of apostates or nonbelievers, threats of hell, and percentage of the text occupied by stuff that’s scary and threatening. It’s about the worst faith going, and I see nothing wrong, nothing pejorative, with using the term in this way. Nor do I see “moderate Islam” acting so moderately: even though there are pockets of Muslim condemnation for rioting and killing when the Prophet is insulted, in general Muslims just keep quiet about the issue. The moderates thus become enablers, so I see the whole faith as a bad business.
- Fear and hatred of Muslims. Many people construe the term this way, and it appears to fit some people, like those who see anyone in a turban or burqa as a threat. This is obviously bigotry, since many Muslims are decent folks who don’t damn their Christian neighbors or cut off people’s heads. (I do criticize their silence when it comes to more extreme coreligionists.) Nevertheless, I can damn their religion without damning them as people. This form of “Islamophobia” is the Islamic equivalent of anti-Semitism, for anti-Semites aren’t nearly as opposed to Judaism per se as to Jews themselves.
It would help if those who throw these terms around would say what they mean, because “Islamophobia,” like “misogyny,” means very different things to different people.
No New Atheist I know of falls under the second definition, though Sam Harris has been accused of bigotry because he favors some forms of religiously-based profiling (and remember, there is a case to be made for that: it appears, for instance, that El Al does it). But even Harris is not a Muslim-hater, and his “profiling” stand is based not on dislike of Muslims, but on the danger he perceives that the faith’s adherents pose to air travel.
Are there other definitions of Islamophobia that make sense? I see it as a term that shouldn’t be used without an attendant definition.