The day you buy a car, it can seem like every fourth or fifth vehicle you see is the same brand and model as yours.
As soon as you become aware of a piece of newish slang, everyone in your social circle seems to be using it.
It often works the same way for people with a social or political cause. A burgeoning passion for or against a movement leads them to look for, and then to see, examples of their bugbear everywhere — expressions of racism, perceived attacks on their favorite Amendment, and so on.
Those who parlay this focus into an academic career, or into an object of professional advocacy, soon run a second risk. Not only may their selective perception cause them to unwittingly exaggerate the extent of the problem they fight to eradicate; there’s also serious temptation to fan the flames more or less wittingly. It’s easy for this to happen when people’s careers, and funding for their research or organization, depends on ratcheting up the hyperbole.
This occurs on both sides of the spectrum — at the National Rifle Association and at Everytown for Gun Safety; at the Anti-Defamation League and at the Council on American-Islamic Relations; at Breitbart and at the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Infamously, the latter put both Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz on a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” in 2016.)
All of this brings me to Khaled A. Beydoun, an associate professor and “critical race theorist” at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. Beydoun also works with the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at the University of California, Berkeley. He is, for all intents and purposes, a professional Islamophobia sniffer, currently burnishing his credentials with a new book on the topic (American Islamophobia) and a sprinkling of interviews, like this one over at Religion News Service.
It’s easy to agree with him on the deplorables who firebomb or vandalize mosques or who attack Muslim women for wearing headscarves. They are anti-Muslim bigots — as well as cowardly criminals — and they will always reap straight-up contempt and condemnation on this blog and in all of polite society.
Of course, there are also bona fide Muslim baiters who happen not to resort to violence, but who engage in wolf whistling of the most obnoxious and dangerous kind. Many of the agitators against the wrongly-named “Ground Zero mosque” richly deserved to be called out on their clamorous claptrap. Various pundits and politicians on the right do too, and then some: Sean Hannity, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump.
But Beydoun’s definition of Islamophobia includes (wait for it) the writings of Sam Harris, whom he carelessly dismisses as
… an Islamophobe and not a scholar.
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience. The difference is that I don’t go around writing books about neuroscience.
This comically snobbish take on who should be allowed to hold forth on religion is a classic case of the Courtier’s Reply fallacy. For my money, Aslan and Beydoun are well qualified to discuss all manner of religious and cultural matters. They’ve clearly applied themselves to the topics they care about in a scholarly fashion — and even if they hadn’t, they’d still be more than welcome to think and agitate and write about the field, letting the strength of their reasoning carry them through the marketplace of ideas.
And the same is true for everyone else. Very much including Sam Harris.
By Aslan’s and Beydoun’s clannish standards, the religion-focused work of Jerry Coyne (biology) and Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biology) may also be dismissed out of hand; and we can only imagine how much Beydoun and Aslan would sniff at Christopher Hitchens‘ presumed husk of an academic record (philosophy, politics, and economics).
It’s understandable, I suppose, that Beydoun holds a low opinion of Harris; Harris has a deep aversion to the word “Islamophobia,” a stance that’s seriously at odds with the premise of Beydoun’s book. Harris once voiced support for a tweet that read
Islamophobia. A word created by fascists, & used by cowards, to manipulate morons.
That seems unduly harsh, but Harris subsequently explained it pretty well:
Islam is not a race, ethnicity, or nationality, it’s a set of ideas. … Criticism of these ideas should never be confused with an animus toward people. And yet it is. I’m convinced that this is often done consciously, strategically, and quite cynically as a means of shutting down conversation [on] important topics.
When Hemant asked me to write this post, he added,
I’m curious what this guy [Beydoun] would consider legit criticism of Islam that’s not “phobic.”
To get a read on Beydoun, it helps to remember that the word Islamophobia has been around for more than a hundred years. In his interview with Religion News Service, Beydoun claims it only “started catching a resonance” around 2007, but I’d heard and read it hundreds if not thousands of times before then. It gained popular purchase especially after the spectacular terrorist attacks of 9/11, but we can’t blame Beydoun for not using that infamous day as a marker; it obviously wouldn’t fit his message to link the popular use of “Islamophobia” with the largest-ever Muslim-perpetrated atrocity on American soil.
This distaste for inconvenient realities, and Beydoun’s tendency to hew close to the orthodoxies of the regressive Left, are evident elsewhere in the interview, too. For instance, he declares himself moderately upset with an early scene in the movie Black Panther.
I read some articles and Facebook posts that were calling the film Islamophobic (for a scene in which the main characters save a group of kidnapped Chibok girls from Boko Haram). And when I saw the movie, I was like, yes, there are some concerning elements. Why are they including Boko Haram in the movie when the group isn’t central to the plot? And I was uncomfortable with that scene being so early in the movie — it forces people to think about Islam in criminal or villainous terms throughout the rest of the film.
Maybe. But Boko Haram’s violence is all too real. So are the bloodthirsty actions of ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and so on. As much as I (and presumably Beydoun) would like these Muslim terrorist groups to disappear overnight, it doesn’t follow that even otherwise progressive moviemakers are out of bounds when they weave references to them into a film. Why would it be unacceptable for artists to deplore crimes, or to attempt to give kidnapping casualties and rape victims a voice? Why wouldn’t we be cheering such an act of female empowerment? Why isn’t Beydoun?
Beydoun also makes the error of attributing the 2015 homicide of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill to “blatant Islamophobia.” But more than three years after the despicable crime, there is still no compelling evidence that killer Craig Stephen Hicks acted out of anti-Muslim animus.
Of course Beydoun trains his ire on various right-wing targets, but he says he observes lots of Islamophobic behavior and comments on the left, too,
… by individuals that we qualify as liberals and progressive allies.
He doesn’t just mean Bill Maher; he means Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
[Obama’s] engagement of Muslims was done to advance counter-radicalization,
… complains Beydoun. Sadly, yes, there were (and are) worryingly large numbers of Islamist radicals to counter, and for eight years it fell to President Obama to persuade them to de-radicalize. That’s not Obama’s fault; the blame can be placed at least in part on radical Islam. More specifically, it should be placed at the feet of the mullahs and imams who seek to mold Islam into a death-drenched warrior cult.
You also see that with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. She never mentioned Muslims outside the context of the war on terror.
I understand his frustration, but again it is misdirected. Worldwide, well over a hundred million Muslims, and perhaps a multiple of that number, are radicalized (to the point where they feel death is a legitimate penalty for apostasy or adultery or blasphemy). Why wouldn’t there exist, on Western shores, a weariness of the violence that these fundies wish to unleash on civilians? Why wouldn’t a Secretary of State turned presidential candidate say firmly and unapologetically that she intends to prevent terrorism by Muslim radicals, rather than pretend that Islam is somehow uniformly a religion of peace?
More to the point, when is it appropriate to criticize Islam’s many terrible ideas and customs? Is doing so proof of Islamophobia?
Is it Islamophobic to wish to reform Islam with liberal values?
Maybe Khaled Beydoun will tell us in his next interview.
P.S.: Interesting analysis of the word Islamophobia here.
(Screenshot via YouTube)