March 2017 Pulse
After a closed-door meeting with 60 Madrasah students in March this year, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam spoke to the press about the dangers that Islamophobia poses to the social fabric of Singapore.
The origin of the term “Islamophobia” is somewhat obscure. However, it is clear that by the late 1990s, the term had already entered into mainstream political and social discourse.
In 1997, the U.K.-based Runnymede Trust issued a report entitled ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All’, in which Islamophobia is defined as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims”. In its 2001 Durban conference, the United Nations describes Islamophobia as a form of prejudice.
Islamophobia, Minister Shanmugam argues, “will be destructive to the soul and spirit of Singapore that we have created – a multi-racial and multi-religious community where we embrace all races and live as one community”.
The Minister is, of course, right.
If Islamophobia refers to irrational and closed-minded prejudice and discrimination against all Muslims, it should be resolutely condemned without qualification. No community should bear the blame for the atrocities perpetrated by a few of its members in the name of the religion that the community espouses.
However, in condemning Islamophobia, one must also take with equal seriousness the obverse problem, which some have described as “Islamophobia phobia” – the fear of being accused of being Islamophobic.
Islamophobia phobia must be taken seriously because of its potential to impose an irrational self-censorship that impedes the objective criticisms and genuine debates necessary for any society to flourish. This may in turn induce a dangerous societal paralysis that would put both the security of our societies and the safety of their members in jeopardy.
Examples of such paralysis and its tragic consequences are not hard to find.
In 2009, Major Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage that killed 14 people at Fort Hood. Although a number of his fellow officers and superior officers were aware of Hasan’s jihadist sympathies, they kept quiet about it for fear of being accused of bigotry.
Perhaps the most appalling example of the paralysis caused by Islamophobia is the shocking spate of sexual exploitation of children in Rotterham.
Between 1997 and 2013, Pakistani gangs have reportedly subjected at least 1,400 children in the South Yorkshire town to unconscionable sexual abuse. The official inquiry report revealed that although the police, city authorities and child protection agencies knew what was happening, they chose to turn a blind eye because they were afraid of being accused of “racism” and “Islamophobia”.
It is pertinent to note that Islamophobia is itself a somewhat murky notion that is often sloppily used by politicians, activists and the media. Important distinctions are often ignored, especially when the term is used rhetorically or as a slogan.
However, understanding the distinctions between criticism and fear, and between criticism and contempt or hatred of Muslims is absolutely critical if we are to have an objective assessment of the issue. Once these distinctions are not in view, anyone who criticises the Muslim community will very quickly be condemned as a fear-mongering Islamophobe.
In his statement to the press, Minister Shanmugam rightly pointed out that Islamophobia plays “right into the hands of the terrorists”. This is because such attitudes can cause Muslims to feel that they are being marginalised and discriminated against, and this would make them more vulnerable to radicalisation.
It should, however, be pointed out that the notion of Islamophobia (in distinction to the reality it describes) can also be used by extreme Islamists to further their cause. They can use it to silence and even criminalise all criticisms (however legitimate the criticisms may be), and to portray Muslims as victims.
It is therefore quite illuminating to compare how gay activists in the West have been using “homophobia” with how Muslim activists are using “Islamophobia” to serve their respective agendas.
As William Fitzgerald puts it, “just as gay activists and their enablers in the media and the courts have managed to criminalise criticism of homosexuality in many places in the West, Muslim activists have succeeded in criminalising criticism of Islam in the same places”.
The idea of Islamophobia – employed by certain people in certain ways – is therefore potentially as dangerous as the thing itself!