I literally did quite a bit of scratching of the ‘ole noggin, while simultaneously trying to wrap it around what this particular Tweet was trying to impart. So much so, in fact, that I had to document my thoughts for clarity.
Here we are then.
Aleesha’s Tweet is divided into two seemingly distinct scenarios between two arbitrary protagonists, and I’ll approach these separately later. In the first scenario, the first protagonist (P1a) confronts a perceived racist (P2a). In the second scenario, the presumably P1a aligned protagonist (P1b) confronts a perceived and presumably P2a aligned Islamophobe (P2b). After maybe ten minutes worth of thought on the matter, it became apparent the purpose of this Tweet was to highlight the hypocrisy of the positions of both P2a and P2b, but as we shall see, this isn’t necessarily the case, and that – worse than that – it can’t be.
To give Aleesha the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume both P2’s are one and the same person, because that is what I would expect from an honest attempt to expose the hypocrisy she feels she is highlighting. That said, it shouldn’t go without being noted, that each scenario doesn’t necessarily relate to the same person, or that they are both a racist and an Islamophobe. It is quite feasible for one to be a racist, but not an Islamophobe, just as it is to be an Islamophobe, but not a racist. Unless, of course, the fallacy of equivocation is being utilised – whether by design or by ignorance – to justify the use of one term in a specific context, as a placeholder for another definition for it in another distinct and discrete context. This is an important distinction which will become apparent as we progress.
Ignoring, for the moment, the presumption that someone is automatically an Islamophobe, simply because they are spouting what is perceived to be racist language, the imagined claim that ‘Islam isn’t a race’, is factually true.
Quite apart from the fact that race is a social construct, not a biologically useful taxon in relation to Homo sapiens, Islam is considered a ‘universal religion’ (as opposed to a ‘Universal religion’), in that it is welcoming to all people irrespective of their socially constructed race. Islam is literally inclusive of all races, thus negating the tentative counterclaim that criticism of it is a racist endeavour in and of itself. This is a fact.
The waters can be muddied, though. I don’t doubt for a minute that there exist small-minded and ill-informed people, that incorrectly conflate Islam with a socially constructed racial group – or even sets of racial groups – as a proxy for what we colloquially understand as racism. The vast majority of Muslims are non-white, and this all too visible observation can certainly give rise to racist sentiment. But if, as we know all too well, this is true, then their racism doesn’t approach the religion in any meaningful sense, and the term ‘Islamophobe’ is incorrectly applied.
Let’s take a moment to look at what Islamophobia means.
In case you hadn’t already realised, I’m a pretty pedantic sort; the meaning and derivation of words is important – not only to me – but to anyone that wishes to use certain terms to give weight to their arguments. This doesn’t necessarily mean having dictionary.com as a prominent bookmark on my browser (I don’t, btw!) It does mean having a well-rounded understanding of terms from their etymology, construction and context.
With this in mind, the term ‘Islamophobia’ is a portmanteau of the terms “Islam” and “phobia”, and is simply the irrational fear of the religion of Islam. I make no comment on whether or not this is an irrational fear in reality, as that isn’t a part of the remit of this article, but I am prepared to expand that basic definition to include the irrational fear of Muslims; after all, without Muslims, Islam can’t really be said to exist.
Looking at nGram for the term, we see its earliest root usage in 1962, with a slow but steady increase up until 1998. Since then (or, at least, up until 2008, where the record ends), its usage has increased more than six-fold. It is fair to conclude, then, that the term is a relative neologism, with no meaningful historical precedence.
Unfortunately for those that like to bandy the term around, this isn’t necessarily synonymous with racism. It might be, but then those proposing it is, have established a burden of proof for themselves, to warrant that this perceived correlation is, in fact, a true statement of synonymousness and that Islamophobia and racism have the same meaning. However, due to the term’s construction, this is likely to prove one of three things. The first is that racism and Islamophobia are distinct terms with wholly different meanings, secondly that Islamophobia’s construction is misleading, and its true meaning is wholly detached from its etymology and construction, and lastly, that if either of the former are true, then its use to equate it with racism is an example of the fallacy of equivocation. At which point, the argument as it is presented in Aleesha’s Tweet can be dismissed out of hand. The bald assertion it is necessarily true, is without foundation.
Imagine if you will, a white non-Muslim who is the victim of a horrific, but unspecified crime at the hands of a white Muslim. For the purposes of this thought experiment, it should be assumed the crime is intrinsically linked to the offender’s religious beliefs. The victim, as a result of the crime, has become paralysed with fear of all Muslims, lest they all maintain the same belief that these Muslim’s actions will be justified by their shared religious beliefs with the crime’s perpetrator. The victim could be forgiven for having a fear of both Muslims and Islam, and while the fear of being a repeat victim of the same crime by the same culprit could certainly be rational, the extrapolation of this fear to all Muslims (indeed, Islam in general) is irrational. This victim, then, would correctly be identified as an Islamophobe. It wouldn’t necessarily be their fault; the experience our victim has endured, has clouded their ability to think rationally about wider considerations, like sub-set diversity of interpretation within a whole-set religion. But is it then reasonable to suggest that, given their correctly identified Islamophobia, that they are being racist? Towards their own race? The ‘wrong sort of white person’?
Don’t get me wrong, the “I can’t be a racist because Islam isn’t a race” defence is moronic. Our victim in the last paragraph could maintain a level of hate towards non-white race ‘X’ that would make Donald Trump redden, but not necessarily have an irrational fear of them. So it is with Aleesha’s protagonist; they can’t be a racist for criticising or mocking Muslims (because they are Muslims) or Islam (because Islamophobia relates specifically to fear, not hatred), but there is nothing from stopping such people from hateful prejudices towards the same racial group as my own hypothetical victim, or others. Islamophobes, then, can be vicious racists, just not in relation to the multi-racial group that constitutes Islam.
Aleesha’s first example, then, is at best too broad a brush, and at worst is “not even wrong.”
Thankfully, given the thoroughness of my breakdown of Scenario one, Scenario two should be considerably less taxing to the casual reader.
It opens with the accusation from P1b that P2b is an Islamophobe, which, as we have seen, has a clearly defined etymology, construction and function as a term. So when confronted with the accusation of Islamophobia, it is more than justified to question the accusers motives. The alleged may be an Islamophobe. They may even be racists. Perish the thought they might be both, but this should not be ‘a given’. And there still exists a fourth possibility, i.e. that they are neither.
Perhaps, then, we should look more closely at the response to the allegation of Islamophobia, to see if it divulges any clues as to their implied irrational fear of Muslims/Islam?
Maybe I’m missing something here (and if I am, I will warmly welcome direction on the matter), but to my mind, the response doesn’t so much as approach the accusation. Certainly, it is evasive whataboutery, but what is salient here, is that the response does nothing to expose their alleged fear of Muslims/Islam or any racist sentiment.
What response we do have, is of no use to anyone. Who cares if each racial group has their own term to establish a distinction between different races or not, right?
Now, you may think you’ve caught me in a ‘gotcha’, and that such a response is an implicit admission that Islamophobia is, in fact, a racist endeavour, because the accused has framed it in those terms themself, but all this displays is that they are aware that the allegation is synonymous with racism, even if they are wholly ignorant of the term’s actual etymology, construction and function in its own right.
This is a clear example of why equivocation is such a futile and dangerous fallacy. It is so insidious and ubiquitous, that even those that are victims of it, use it to attempt to squirrel out of unfair allegations. I mean, you can get a custodial sentence for racism, I guess, but as far as I am aware, no one is so much as threatened with the same for holding an irrational fear.
While it is unquestioningly right to call out racism where and whenever it raises its ugly head, the two scenarios given here to show the hypocrisy of your interlocutor, don’t actually form a valid base to make such a comparison. The first approaches an anxiety disorder, the latter a socially conditioned and illegal act. There is no hypocrisy here.
I suffer from an undiagnosed anxiety disorder myself. What this line of reasoning suggests, is that whatever anxiety disorder it is people actually suffer from – through no fault of their own – that they should be considered a candidate for an imprisonable hate offence! And if that doesn’t demonstrate the dangerousness of the proposition, I don’t know what does.
It may strike some as petty, wrong-headed and ‘missing the point’, that I may dedicate so much time and effort into dismantling what was – I’m sure – a genuine and heartfelt attempt to shed light on racism and bigotry, but if I have learned anything from a Labour investigation into alleged antisemitism, it is that if your allegations are founded upon the intellectual quicksand of fallacies, misrepresentation and demonstrable falsehoods, whatever point it was you honestly wanted to put across, only serves to undermine the very point you honestly wanted to put across. This is not only a disservice to yourself, but it is – more worryingly – a disservice to those that you undoubtedly seek to offer protection to, because it gives false credence to the notion that what you have to say in defence of something genuinely worthy, and through the insidiousness of fallacious reasoning, actually emboldens those you seek to educate and inform. Why else would you resort to such sloppy thinking, if the truth of the matter is so much more apparent than a contrived anecdote?
Some will be inclined to suggest that I have overthought this, but the same people are often those that accuse me of a lack of the ability to think thoroughly on other matters that we may not agree on. The truth is, this long – and probably unnecessary – treatment gives the reader a glimpse into what it is to live within my psychological zeitgeist. I can never be justifiably accused of underthinking things. This is how my head works. This is who I am. And if your arguments weren’t so perplexing and riddled with lazy conclusions, I could probably be a lot more productive in a more socially acceptable manner. As it is, this insight into how my mind works – and even on the most throwaway and mundane aspects of life – might actually help people understand it is society’s abysmal approach to the throwaway and the mundane, that defines my inability to casually dismiss it. This is my disability, not so much in how I feel I am disabled, but in the sense that society has no choice but to see me as disabled. The fact that my disability is often mocked and questioned by those very same people, not only exposes their hypocrisy, it is evidence that their inability to think the requisite amount to dispel it, exacerbates my ability to live the life they blithely expect of me.