Islam can and should be reformed. We should not conflate legitimate criticism of Islamist ideology with anti-Muslim bigotry. It is the duty of those who seek progress for humankind to speak out against the bad faith actors trying to shut down long overdue conversations about reform.
My own experience with Islam has been anything but ordinary. My parents subscribed to a rational school of Islamic thought, rooted in reason and free will. I was raised in an environment that emphasized enlightenment values and appreciated healthy scepticism. My father was a practicing Muslim. My mother is Muslim, too. My siblings and I were raised to believe in a god, but not to take that god’s existence for granted. We were encouraged to doubt everything, including the omnipresence of a divine creator, and no guilt or shame was attached to that doubt. I grew up believing that I had not just a right but a duty to challenge conventional religious belief systems, as critical thinking is essential to the evolution of the individual, the community and society at large.
My father attempted to promote this rationality across the Middle East, at the cost of being placed under surveillance by distrustful governmental agencies throughout the region. He also suffered severe social persecution, due in large part to the powerful influence of deterministic and fatalistic Islamic ideologies in the Middle East. He was frequently dismissed as a heretic, or even an infidel. His legitimate criticism of Islamist ideologies, such as those of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism and Wahhabism, was almost always attacked as blasphemous. He operated within the strict constraints of an anti-liberal environment.
My experience with Islam has been peculiar, yet it has shown me that a reason-based reform of Islam could actually happen. But because I face relentless social resistance and the possible risk of legal persecution in my home country, I look to the liberal West as a safe space where I can voice my criticisms and share my aspirations without catching the attention of the wrong people. Unfortunately, that safe space has been compromised by the authoritarianism of identity politics.
On 6 February 2021, a controversial video clip that has since been deleted by the BBC made the rounds on social media. In the clip, Emma Barnett from BBC’s Woman’s Hour asks Zara Mohammed, the first female Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, “How many female imams are there in the UK at the moment?” Ms. Mohammed dodges the question: “I don’t feel like that’s in the parameters of my roles and responsibilities, especially as the first elected female representative.”
It might seem surprising that the first elected female representative was not eager to address women’s issues within the Muslim community on a radio programme devoted to women’s issues. But perhaps that is because there is a very simple—and embarrassing—answer to the question Barnett posed: zero.
Faiza Shaheen, a non-resident fellow of New York University’s Center in International Cooperation and leader of the Grand Challenge on Inequality and Exclusion for the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, tweeted in response:
“I’m so angry this. Pure ignorance from the presenter. And why have you clipped it? Trying to cater for the Islamophobic Twitter crowd?! Click bait for a culture war you support? You should be ashamed. Much respect to @ZaraM01 (Zara Mohammed) for keeping her cool and pushing back.”
This is not the first, nor will it be the last, time that accusations of Islamophobia have been thrown around to suppress criticism of Islamism.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent book, Prey, examines the impact of Muslim immigration on European cities, with a specific focus on sexual violence. While I personally disagree with Ali’s alarmist tone, especially when it comes to immigration, she has had first-hand experience of the extreme misogyny encouraged by Islamist ideologies, and may have valid criticisms and demands in her quest for much needed reform. But, instead of addressing her arguments, Ali’s critics have chosen to lob accusations of bigotry. This kneejerk negative reaction is yet another glaring example of the relentless authoritarianism of identity politics.
The constant accusations of Islamophobia in response to valid critiques of Islamist ideologies are depressing. Identity politics discourse tries to silence such critiques by tapping into the politically correct zeitgeist that discourages good faith analyses of Islamic belief systems and traditions. Sadly, those who advocate this approach are oblivious to the damage they are inflicting on the very same marginalized Muslim communities they claim to want to protect.
Islamophobia is neither real nor dangerous. It’s a term exploited by authoritarian actors to smear their political opponents, rally the masses and consolidate power for themselves. Crying Islamophobia shields radical Islam from much needed scrutiny and demands for progressive change.
Anti-Muslim bigotry is real and dangerous. But accusations of Islamophobia actively feed into anti-Muslim sentiments by preventing genuine debate, maintaining a status quo of radicalism and oppression within Muslim communities and reinforcing cultural rifts.
There are many serious issues within Islam, including lack of gender equality. Accusations of Islamophobia are actively contributing to the continued oppression of women within Muslim communities. Those who claim to be allies of social justice should not deny Muslim women the equality they themselves enjoy. Right now, the imagined right of an ideology to remain unchallenged is a greater priority for such people than the rights of real women in the Middle East.
Islamophobia accusations perpetuate Islamist intolerance, which leads to the persecution of Muslim dissenters and the bloody sectarianism sweeping across the Middle East. And those who use this trope can become the targets of this intolerance themselves.
My late father spent the last three decades of his life trying to bring about change through rationality. He believed in freedom of expression and the right to criticize. And, despite social and legal persecution, he continued to fight for those values until the very last day of his life. According to the definitions of today, my late father would have been labelled an Islamophobe. Yet he simply wanted more from and for Islam and real, continued progress for Muslims.
False charges of Islamophobia are detrimental to any efforts towards genuine reform of Islam. Identity politics discourse is effectively denying Muslim communities the right to achieve progress, and is inherently divisive and covertly racist: a bigotry of low expectations. It’s time to change that. We must all be able to question ideologies, without discriminating against the people who believe in them. And, above all, we must realize that ideologies do not take precedence over people.