I’m hesitant to wade into a discussion on a book I haven’t yet read, but Jonathan Schanzer’s review of Nathan Lean’s “The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims” in today’s Wall Street Journal makes some pretty big claims about the term “Islamophobia” itself, so I’ll confine my comments to those.
“In reality,” Schanzer writes, “Islamophobia is simply a pejorative neologism designed to warn people away from criticizing any aspect of Islam”:
Those who deploy it see no difference between Islamism — political Islam and its extremist offshoots — and the religion encompassing some 1.6 billion believers world-wide. Thanks to this feat of conflation, Islamophobia transforms religious doctrines and political ideologies into something akin to race; to be an “Islamophobe” is in some circles today tantamount to being a racist.
First, while Schanzer severely overstates it, the problem of conflation is real. I noted this in my critical review of scholar Deepa Kumar’s “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,” in which I wrote, “The problem with defining Islamophobia as broadly as Kumar does is that it threatens to divest the term of meaning”:
It is possible to condemn terrorism committed by Muslims in the name of religion, or to have serious concerns over the development of pluralistic democracy under Islamist-controlled governments, without being anti-Islam. What defines Islamophobia is the belief that terrorist violence is somehow inherent to Islam, or that democracy is incompatible with correct Islamic practice. In uncovering Islamophobia here, there, and everywhere, Kumar unfortunately gives form to the straw man arguments of actual Islamophobes, who often cry that they are being silenced for voicing any criticism of Muslims.
Having said that, Schanzer’s assertion about all of “those who deploy” the term is indefensibly broad. I doubt the Muslims of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, or Temecula, California, or South Arlington, Texas, or of the other American mosques that have endured bigoted attacks in recent years would agree with Schanzer’s blithe dismissal of Islamophobia as “simply a pejorative neologism designed to warn people away from criticizing any aspect of Islam.”
Do some use accusations of Islamophobia to stifle legitimate criticism of Islam? Yes, certainly, just as some use accusations of anti-Semitism to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel (as we’ve seen in the recent smear campaign against Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel). But the fact that some use such accusations cynically and recklessly doesn’t mean that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism aren’t real existing problems.
As my co-authors and I noted in our 2011 report, “Fear, Inc,” the term Islamophobia shouldn’t be used lightly. We defined it as “an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life.” We also showed that there is a well-funded network of scholars and activists committed to promoting this fear, hatred, and hostility. People can disagree on how serious or widespread a problem Islamophobia actually is in the U.S. (my own view is that it is now on the wane), but Schanzer’s argument that the whole thing is simply an invention of scheming Islamists and Arab governments is obvious nonsense.