Fear of Islam is Rational. It’s Not Islamophobia.
Last October, prodded by a petition asking that it recognize “that extremist individuals do not represent the religion of Islam” and condemn “all forms of Islamophobia,” the Canadian House of Commons agreed on a statement repudiating Islamophobia. Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, then demanded that the government deal with the “Islamophobia” endemic to Canadian society. That demand is now under consideration.
Which caused me to wonder. What is Islamophobia? Might I, as a critic of Islam who nevertheless seeks to be kind to individual Muslims, suffer from this malady?
It is rational, moral and biblical to be wary of Islam as a whole, not just a few “extremists” within it — while offering kindness to individual Muslims.
Phobias are inordinate fears — of heights, dogs, snakes, enclosed spaces and so on. The term “Islamophobia” implies that if you are afraid of Islam per se (rather than just “extremist individuals”), you are likely to be unjust or unkind, or perhaps launch wars against innocent Muslims.
Thus the Canadian petition went on to note (echoing the constant drumbeat in some American high school textbooks), that the Golden Age of Islam produced a series of literate, advanced empires with the Muslim faith at their ideological core. It claims that Islam then made contributions in “arts, culture, science, literature, medicine” and more.
To what extent Islam produced rather than obtaining these things through its conquests is hard to say. That is just one of the many ways in which Islam is more complicated than the Islamophobia-phobic let on. In fact, I think it is rational, moral and biblical to be wary of Islam as a whole, not just a few “extremists” within it — while offering kindness to individual Muslims.
Responses to Real Danger
Most phobias are exaggerated responses to real dangers, after all. Heights are dangerous, unless you’re Spider-Man. Bees sting. Snakes bite. Ask a coal miner or parakeet what can happen in an enclosed space. God implanted such fears in us to keep us in one piece.
So why then is “Islamophobia” a word, and not “Buddhaphobia?”
Ask a Coptic Christian in Egypt whose faith has been suppressed for more than a millennia. Ask Nigerian Christian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Ask a survivor, if you can find one, of the once great and ancient Jewish communities in Egypt, Iraq or Iran. Talk to Yazidi girls sold into sexual slavery in ISIS-controlled territory.
A young Saudi woman I got to know in Oxford told me, “The only way I’m going back to Saudi is in a body bag.” A former imam I met in the same city told me that “of course” Islamic law prescribes death for those who convert out, which is why (after miraculously converting to Christ) he could not go home.
The villains in some of these cases are considered “extremist,” in others, they represent mainstream Islam. But “extremist” is one of those chameleon-words like “fundamentalist,” that derives meaning only from its neighbors. Therefore “extremist Muslims” must by definition be outliers and cannot “represent” Islam. The question that immediately leads to then, is, What does define Islam?
Like any ideology, Islam can be defined by (a) the life and teachings of its founder; (b) its canonical writings; or (c) its developed traditions.
Western liberals tend to accentuate its traditions (c) rather than (a) or (b). But even viewed “liberally” as a mere social phenomenon, Islam provides rational grounds for worry, even fear. The horror of 9/11 was no aberration. “The borders of Islam are bloody,” said historian Bernard Lewis. And modern Islamic societies, as shown by broad-based United Nations research, tend to suppress women, among other ills.
Things turn even darker when we look at Islam’s founder. Among Mohammed’s crimes, as chronicled in Muslim tradition, are child-rape, polygamy, torture, slave-trading, assassination, mass-murder, armed robbery and the waging of many aggressive wars.
As for its canonical writings, much of what the enlightened world decries in modern Islam’s treatment of women has its origins in the teachings and actions of the prophet. These include marrying children to old men, polygamy, wife-beating, keeping women indoors and covered. Some of this is enshrined within the sacred pages of the Koran — and stands in stark contrast to the example of Jesus.
One must still give credit where credit is due. Who cannot admire, for instance, a Libyan Muslim immigrant to the United States who takes in terminally-ill foster children? Since Jesus teaches us to recognize such “Good Samaritans,” we should also recognize whatever Muslims have accomplished in medicine, art and science.
That said, recall that Islam conquered several cradles of civilization — ancient Sumer, Persia, Egypt, Israel, and much of the Greek Byzantine Empire — and ruled over technologically-advanced Nestorian Christian and Jewish communities. Islam then conquered much of Christendom and India and enslaved millions of Africans and Slavs. While not as inherently vicious as Nazism, Communism, or Aztec religion, Islam thus proves itself an object of rational fear.
The Two “Extremes”
One should distinguish between phobias or inordinate fears and reasonable concerns. Jesus taught his followers that they would be persecuted for His sake. Was that fear-mongering? Jesus sometimes avoided angry mobs and warned against bullies and ideological predators (“wolves”). Life under Islamic rule taught many followers of Christ to take pragmatic steps to mitigate the dangers of Islamic theology. They did this even while placing ultimate trust in God, making friends in the Muslim community, and treating each individual with the dignity and compassion of Christ.
Thus it is rational to fear the influence of a man whose example and teachings have led to great harm — even if it includes some good.
Christians should place ultimate trust in God. We are called to love Muslims as well, some of whom may prove better men and women than ourselves.
Osama bin Laden was an “extremist” because he followed Mohammed too closely. And that example is the root of a rational fear of Islam in its normative state. Those who truly love their neighbors are “extreme” rather in their resemblance to Jesus, the normative state of Christianity, which overcomes, but does not simply ignore, rational dangers.