Image by Gage Skidmore
Yesterday, Jeff Goldblum sparked controversy by asking Jackie Cox, a hijab-wearing contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, whether there was something about Islam that was anti-woman and anti-homosexuality. Immediately, social media began to opine on the ethics of this. Was this an example of anti-Muslim bigotry that apportioned blame in the wrong places, and did the numerous defenders of Goldblum’s question indicate that such bigotry is widespread?
Or was Goldblum raising an important issue about religiously motivated misogyny and homophobia, which liberal societies must be able to address because a failure to do so is, in itself, bigotry?
Goldblum himself gives little indication that he has given great thought to this thorny issue or that he intended to make a strong ethical statement by asking his question. His words were hesitant and uncertain: “Is there something in this religion that is anti-homosexuality and anti-woman? Does that complicate the issue? I’m just raising it and thinking out loud and maybe being stupid.”
The issue is actually more complicated than a lot of commentators seem to believe because it involves principles of tolerance and kindness, freedom of belief and freedom of speech, as well as the issue of whether generalisations about demographic groups are always bigoted or whether some accusations of complicity are warranted. This feeds into broader debates about polarisation, identity politics, dominant discourses, power and privilege. People who believe criticism of abuses of women’s rights and LGBT rights in Islam can generally be dismissed as simple prejudice or a failure to acknowledge the legacies of colonialism do not view any discussion of religiously motivated human rights abuses as legitimate. However, people who declare Islam to be anti-woman and anti-homosexuality (with much justification) will need to be wary of generalisation when it comes to Muslim people, whose own values vary considerably, especially in the West, where Muslims include feminists and LGBT activists.
Freedom of Speech and Tolerance
Freedom of speech involves much more than the laws or constitutions of various countries and governmental protections against censorship. A much broader principle applies: individual liberty and the advancement of knowledge and moral progress are best served by normalising a generally positive attitude towards the free exchange of ideas, even uncomfortable ones. Like Lawrence Fox’s statement that Britain is not a racist country, Jeff Goldblum’s question about misogyny and homophobia in Islam is clearly covered by this understanding of free speech.
However, freedom of speech also includes the freedom not to hear. While anyone should have the freedom to express their views on women’s and LGBT rights in Islam, they have no right to force anyone else to listen to them. You can write a blog about the sexism inherent in the practice of hijab, but you may not accost a hijabi going about her business and insist she defend her choice of headwear.
Is this what Jeff Goldblum did? No. Although he was addressing an individual in a place where she could not easily just walk away, he was responding to a political issue she herself had raised. Cox had said, “[T]his outfit really represents the importance that visibility for people of religious minorities needs to have in this country.” Having expressed a political view about the role of Muslims in Western cultures, it would be thoroughly unreasonable to insist that Goldblum refrain from responding to it with a tentative counterview.
Generalisation or Complicity?
This brings us to the statement itself. Does Islam, as it is practiced, have tenets that deny the rights of women to autonomy and equality and the rights of LGBT people to exist openly? Yes, it does. There is considerable evidence of widespread belief that women should be subordinated to men and of the persecution of LGBT people, justified by a strict understanding of sharia law. Islam justifies sexism and homophobic persecution, even though Muslim feminists and LGBT activists exist and oppose this and even though sexism and homophobia are also justified by other religious and political belief systems.
It is not a generalisation to say this, but it would be a generalisation to say that all Muslims justify sexism and homophobia, even though large percentages of them do—even when living in Western countries with laws protecting the rights of women and LGBT. If 52 percent of British Muslims think that homosexuality should be illegal, there are grounds for serious concerns for the wellbeing of LGBT youth in Muslim communities, but if you assume that any Muslim you meet wants to ban homosexuality, you will be wrong nearly half of the time.
Jackie Cox, who described herself as not religious and entered a competition for drag queens, is almost certainly not a conservative Muslim who believes in strict gender roles or calls for homosexuals to be prosecuted. Therefore to include Cox in generalisations about Islam-inspired sexism and homophobia is probably unwarranted. But could she reasonably be described as complicit?
In Critical Social Justice circles, the concept of complicity refers to a belief that all members of a group are responsible for perpetuating certain ideas that enable oppression of other groups simply by merit of their existence as identifiable members of said group. This relies on the belief that ways of understanding the world and talking about it perpetuate oppressive discourses like whiteness and patriarchy. In order to dismantle these discourses, one has to acknowledge one’s own complicity in the system. In Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy, Barbara Applebaum explains the difficulties she has getting her white students that they are complicity in racism merely on the grounds of their existence:
White denials of complicity are particularly widespread in courses that teach about social justice. Not unlike the ordinary German who denied being guilty of complicity with Nazi crimes, white students often conflate complicity with guilt, the guilt that arises from direct causality to harm. Such notions of responsibility support and encourage denials of complicity. White students believe that they are justified in denying their complicity because they claim that they do not have any “bad intentions” or any “causal connection” to the harms of systemic racism. Often white students refuse to even engage with the possibility that they are complicit.
Similarly, in “Rape, Women’s Autonomy and Male Complicity,” Sarah Sorial and Jacqui Poltera explain why all men should be considered complicit in rape:
One way to avoid inadvertently placing the onus on women to avoid rape and address rape culture is to provide an account of the ways in which men are complicit in rape culture and, thus, in systematically threatening women’s autonomy. We assume here that there is a correlation between the degree to which an individual or group is complicit in a social problem and the degree to which they should take responsibility for addressing it.
Complicity, then, can refer to the kind of good old-fashioned group blame based on immutable characteristics that we might have hoped had been banished by consensus in the decades following the civil rights movements. However, complicity can also be argued to exist much more justifiably.
While the majority of us will almost certainly reject the idea that whole demographics should be blamed for the actions of a few of their members when these demographics are categorised by immutable characteristics, few of us doubt that people can be held to be complicit in problems arising from certain systems of thought or ideologies that they themselves have either chosen to adhere to or not chosen to reject. Compare these two sentences:
White people want to maintain the status quo and are wary of progressive aims.
Conservatives want to maintain the status quo and are wary of progressive aims.
The first statement is easily refuted by the plentiful examples of white progressives.
But, while some conservatives may prefer that the second sentence were phrased differently, anyone who genuinely doesn’t want to maintain the cultural status quo and is enthusiastically on board with progressive aims is simply not a conservative.
It is reasonable for us to consider conservatives to be complicit in issues related to conservatism and responsible for addressing them unless they tell us that they oppose those issue and don’t believe that they should form part of conservatism. Similarly, it is reasonable for people to consider me complicit in a number of problems on the left including the kind of prejudice described above—until I tell them that I do not support Critical Social Justice but oppose it in favour of a consistent left-liberal secular humanism. They are welcome to consider me complicit in the values associated with left-liberal secular humanism because I chose those values and stand by them. This is not the case with my race or sex, which are empty of moral significance. To address the problem of racist and sexist views, therefore, the demographics we need to regard as complicit are white supremacists and misogynists, not white people and men.
But is Islam like race or like politics? It seems clear that religions are not immutable characteristics but belief systems, which people can adhere to or leave. However, it isn’t quite that simple because anti-Muslim bigotry, like antisemitism, does not require the target of prejudice to hold any specific beliefs. A liberal atheist named Muhammad is not safe from anti-Muslim bigotry. Nevertheless, somebody who calls herself a Muslim can be held to be complicit in the belief system known as Islam, which includes sexist and homophobic tenets, unless she states that she rejects and opposes those tenets and does not believe that they should be part of Islam. This does not mean that she should be required to do so every five minutes to any random inquirer or that we can’t have some sympathy with religious leaders who are exasperated at being expected to confirm that, yes, blowing people up is still bad, after every terrorist attack. It does mean, however, that if you take part in a drag queen contest in a costume that makes a political statement about the visibility of American Muslims and explicitly verbalise that statement, you might get asked about the misogyny and homophobia.