Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who is "Islamophobic" really?

To be "phobic" of something is normally taken to mean to be frightened of it. The Greek word phobos actually means fear or terror, so it would make sense to think that people who are "Islamophobic" are those who are frightened of Islam. However, in recent times, the term "islamophobic" has been used to describe those who publicly criticise Islam such as Richard Dawkins and other "new atheists" e.g. in a rubbish article a few months ago by Salon.com.

However, this use of the term seems rather ironic to me, considering how much courage it takes to dare to criticise Islam in today's climate of fear.

Case in point: a student newspaper Woroni based at the Australian National University, the country's flagship university no less, ran a series of satirical articles about "Advice from Religion." The first four articles, which poked fun at Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, and Judaism respectively, all ran without problems. The fifth instalment in this series was bold enough to poke fun at Islam.

Infographic from Woroni which the university forced students to remove. For more details see The Friendly Atheist piece about this

The university's response, described in detail on the Woroni website, makes for some disturbing reading. In brief, the students responsible were summoned before the Chancelry, threatened with disciplinary action, including academic exclusion from the university, and forced to remove the piece from their website. The university cited some politically correct BS about "providing a welcoming environment for a diverse student and academic population." However, they also cited particular concerns about the likelihood of religious violence that I think are much more telling: 
“This was most clearly demonstrated by the Jyllands- Posten cartoon controversy … and violent protests in Sydney on September 15 last year,” the Chancelry told Woroni.
 So now we get to the heart of the matter. The student newspaper poked fun at Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and Scientologists, yet there were no complaints about making students of these faiths feel unwelcome. Yet when they criticise Islam specifically, the university threatens to expel them. They even admit that they are afraid of a violent response by Muslim extremists.

I find it ironic, even hypocritical, that people who are brave enough to criticise Islam are described as "islamophobic", yet those who are most cowed by fear of Islam are the ones who would suppress all criticism of it. People who would forbid criticism of Islam due to fear are the ones who truly deserve the label "islamophobic."

Once upon a time, universities cherished the right of freedom of speech. The fact that Australia's most prestigious university would show such cowardice and disregard for the principles of academic freedom is a sorry reflection on the times we live in. But what is even more disturbing perhaps is the fact that such responses are rooted in realistic fears of violence by intolerant people with contempt for the values of liberal democracy. However, placating the sensibilities of fanatics who demand "respect" for their violent beliefs by shutting people up out of fear is not only cowardly, it provides no real solution to the problem. Instead, it will only reinforce the sense of entitlement and embolden religious fanatics to demand more and more concessions to their preferences at the expense of liberty.

Further reading
Surrendering freedom to the violent: ANU censors student paper for mocking Islam

New Atheism should be able to criticise Islam without being accused of Islamophobia

Is Insulting Religion "Extremism"? No amount of provocation can excuse violence. Piece I wrote on Psychology Today in response to "The Innocence of Muslims" riots

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