‘Islamophobia’ and the freedom of speech

Freedom of speech should be defended precisely when it is offensive, and when people do vehemently disagree

Within the last decade or so, the term ‘Islamophobia’ has gained widespread currency in public and private life throughout the Western world. Lawlessness erupting over the amateur film Innocence of Muslims in the Middle East just last month, and the current trial of three Birmingham jihadists – who were allegedly planning to carry out ‘another 9/11’ – demonstrates the ongoing issues surrounding radical Islam. The question remains: how should we view a religion that constantly has to distance itself from extremists? Secondly, is there a rising tide of ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain today, and if so, how do we explain such a rise?

In an Independent article earlier this year, Owen Jones declared that ‘Anti-Muslim hate is a European pandemic.’ The problem with the term ‘Islamophobia’ herein lies. There seems to be a dangerous lack of a distinction between the rational critique of Islam as a religious ideology, and a real prejudice against those ethnic groups in Britain that are perceived to be ‘Muslim’ because of their race.

The former I would completely defend, and the latter I would utterly condemn. It seems uncontroversial and fundamentally essential that all individuals are respected within our society, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, age and so on. But all ideas and ideologies needn’t warrant such a degree of respect. It’s becoming a shameful reality in public discourse that atheism and doubt of religious faith is akin to racism and bigotry.

The recent proposal of the United Nations to limit international laws of freedom of speech to not ‘provoke’ the Islamic faith would have been nothing short of catastrophic. Crucially, freedom of speech should be defended precisely when it is offensive, and when people do vehemently disagree. Indeed nothing of any real worth would ever be said if it was inoffensive to everyone.

The problem arises when people assume that contempt for a religious faith necessarily translates into contempt for that group of religious individuals. The reality is more complicated. In Britain today, racists who have long held anti-middle eastern ethnic prejudices have hijacked ‘Islamophobia’ as the acceptable prejudice.

The real underlying problem is that those ethnic groups that are thought to be Muslim in this country – Pakistani, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Indian for example – have suffered repugnant racial abuse on British streets for decades. The rise of militant Islam, however, has had the knock-on effect of giving free rein to those racial prejudices that have now been hidden under the more acceptable slogan of Islamophobia. It remains taboo to make this link between radical Islam and Islamophobia as Owen Jones pointedly – and in my view cowardly – avoided, but the sooner we examine this connection, the better.

It is a revealing paradox, that freedom to discuss the relative merits and problems of Islam in an open and public way, would lead to a reduction of anti-middle eastern prejudice – which is now termed Islamophobia. The need to de-mystify Islam is urgent, for people to understand the faith, and realising that Islam does not necessarily equate to fundamentalism. The sooner this public discourse can happen without fear of intimidation – from either side – the sooner we can begin to resolve this issue, rather than let it boil out of control.

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