On Sunday I came across an article in the International Business Times, reporting a posthumous publication by slain Charlie Hebdo editorial director Stephane Charbonnier. The book, completed two days before the attack that killed him and nine of his colleagues, denounces the western media, politicians and those commentators who mute their criticism of Islam for fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia’. “By what twisted logic”, Charbonnier writes, “is humor less compatible with Islam than with any other religion? … If we let it be understood that we can laugh at everything except certain aspects of Islam because Muslims are much more susceptible than the rest of the population, isn’t that discrimination?”
In the knowledge that the poor man is now dead, a victim of religiously-motivated killers, and with news of the Melbourne arrests dominating the headlines all weekend, I found the article both poignant and pertinent.
And then, driving in Brisbane on Sunday morning, I listened to an ABC radio discussion of the Melbourne anti-terrorism operation. The main theme of the discussion? Was it appropriate to interrogate Islam’s messages, or was the Victorian premier who had that morning declared that these young men are “not people of faith. They don’t represent any culture. This is not an issue of how you pray or where you were born… this is simply evil: plain and simple”, correct to steer public attention and anxiety away from the islamic connection?
We all understand the reasons why our politicians urge caution in addressing the issue of Islam and its interaction with democratic, secular cultures such as Australia’s. No-one wants to see moderate muslims scapegoated or blamed for the crimes of a few extremists.
We understand that the particular interpretation of the Quran which fuels the global jihad is not shared by muslims as a whole. There are extreme Christians too, and Hindus and even Buddhists, who advocate violence in the name of their respective deities. The history of Christianity is awash with conquest and innocent blood. The non-violent, non-extremist practitioners of these religions are not responsible for the crimes of the past, or for the actions of present-day radicals on the periphery. The same point applies to muslims, many of whom have spoken eloquently and forcefully against jihad.
We also know that those young men and women, often from secure middle class, moderate backgrounds, who choose to join the jihad do so for many reasons other than the religious.
But for that reason, too, analysis of Islam’s vulnerability to such hijacking should not be interpreted as an attack on muslims as a whole, or as ‘islamophobia’. On the contrary, as Charbonnier writes, failure to scrutinize Islam in the media and elsewhere, in the same way that we should scrutinize all religions and belief systems, is itself a kind of discrimination. It patronises Islam to say that its adherents are too sensitive to be treated with the same intellectual rigor and scrutiny as, say Christianity or Scientology.
Reluctance to draw attention to and satirise the absurdities of Islam – and all religions are absurd in their own ways - will in the end breed more public anger than it prevents. Moreover, it is an important sign of acceptance of democratic political culture that Islam’s leaders, even if they disapprove of what is said, should embrace the satirist and the heretic alike, without feeling the need for a fatwa. Christians had to swallow Life Of Brian, after all, though many church leaders called for bans. How offensive would we think it today, had bishops and cardinals called for the deaths of the Monty Python team?
So let’s be clear. Critiquing Islam in the media and elsewhere is not ‘islamophobia’.
It’s not racism, since being a muslim has nothing to do with ethnicity.
It’s not anti-muslim, since many muslims are critical of the extremists in their ranks, and ashamed of how the name of their religion has been tarnished.
It is, rather, a legitimate and increasingly necessary engagement with a uniquely (for our time) toxic variant of a belief system which, whether or not one disagrees with its tenets, can easily coexist with secular society in the same way that other religions do in a multicultural society. Anything less than vigorous, skeptical media discussion of those beliefs, including its still-medieval attitudes to women and homosexuality, does moderate muslims no favors.
Brian McNair receives funding from the Australian Research Council.
Authors: The Conversation