By Khadija Khan
We are barely a month into 2022, and already we face the same old social and political challenges that have plagued us for centuries.
Among them is a crucial battle to protect our right to free speech from the influence of religious ideologues who remain hell-bent on normalising their theocratic beliefs by silencing dissent.
However, what makes this struggle against fundamentalism even more strenuous is that the left, once champions of free speech, seems to have abandoned the values of liberalism.
Debate is often stifled so as not to cause offence and protect religious sensibilities, and to appease a section of influential but minority groups who play the race and religion card to deflect genuine criticism.
Take the recent legislative proposal from US Democratic Representatives Ilhan Umar and Jan Schakowsky.
The “Combating International Islamophobia Act” would create a special envoy to address the rise in “Islamophobia” worldwide and still needs to pass the Senate before it is signed into law.
There is no denial that anti-Muslim bigotry does exist. Far-right and neo-Nazis use anti-Muslim sentiments to stir up hatred against Muslim communities in the West.
However, the response should be to challenge their vile narrative, rather than legitimising the contentious term of “Islamophobia”, which is a de facto blasphemy law to smear dissent and hound liberal Muslims.
My fear is that if “Islamophobia” is codified in legal terms in the West, all criticism, mocking and debunking of Islam as a set of beliefs would be shut down.
As the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy Zuhdi Jasser described it, “a more appropriate name for this proposed legislation would have been ‘The American Caliph Act’.”
The astonishing thing about this Bill is that it was introduced without even a proper definition of the term “Islamophobia”.
Furthermore, it was passed (219-212) without much scrutiny and what implications this could have for people on the ground.
It is no wonder that the word “Islamophobia”, and how it is used to silence opposition outside and from within Muslim communities, instigates a fair amount of criticism.
But this also poses the pertinent question of why people like Rep Omar would consciously choose such a contentious term, as it is used by Islamists and theocratic regimes to target dissidents and punish innocent people for scrutinising religious beliefs.
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries – where progressive voices have been treated as pariahs and subjected to harsh punishment such as flogging, torture, death penalty for criticising or opposing sharia laws and religious authorities – use the same term” to silence criticism of Islam.
Even more concerning is how the word is used by influential Islamist organisations in the West, such as the US-based groups Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society.
They were included in the UAE’s list of 82 terrorist organisations alongside al-Qaida, Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood and Boko Haram.
One of the reasons is because CAIR was previously linked to Hamas – an organisation that has been recently designated as a terrorist organisation in the UK.
However, CAIR said its inclusion as a terrorist group on the list was a “bizarre move.” Despite such serious allegations, CAIR continues to pose unhindered as an organisation fighting “Islamophobia” in the US.
Meanwhile in the UK, the group MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development) each year hosts an “Islamophobia Awareness Month”.
But they are not the right group to claim to defend Muslims against bigotry. The government’s Commission for Countering Extremism revealed in a report that MEND has been hostile to politically and socially liberal Muslims.
It has overtly referred to some Muslim individuals and groups as “Uncle Toms” and “sell-out”.
In light of this, it is appalling that such a controversial group was involved with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims to draft a vague and ambiguous definition of “Islamophobia”, whereas progressive voices within Muslim communities remained excluded.
Muslims are not a homogeneous group of people and there are many strands of Islam such as Shia, Sunni, and Ahmadi.
Each of them claims to have a monopoly on being the truthful representatives of their religion and consider other sects as non-Muslims or hypocrites.
Then there are those Muslims who don’t wear their religion on their sleeves and espouse secular, democratic values.
Therefore, it is useless to lump all Muslims into one monolithic group that is always ready to take offence.
Yet these self-proclaimed Muslim “community leaders” successfully manage to set the political and social discourse, where they authoritatively define who is “Muslim enough”.
This demonstrates how “Islamophobia” has become an effective tool to silence criticism of religion, and invoke Islamic blasphemy laws without facing any resistance from the politically correct left.
We should be focusing on how we can best protect people of Muslim heritage from actual threats, not indulging in a dangerous game of semantics, which only benefits the Islamists and their allies.
What we are witnessing is a demise of the hard-earned freedoms and values, for which the liberal left once diligently fought.
Exceptions are constantly made in order to accommodate the cultural sentiments of religious zealots in the name of “community cohesion”. In the long run, this only exacerbates tensions between different groups.
Today it is the debate around “Islamophobia”. Tomorrow it could well be something else. It is therefore imperative to challenge toxic ideologies head-on, for this trait of silencing dissent will only help extremists in their cause.
Main Pic Credit: Tim Dennell/Flickr
Khadija Khan is a journalist and commentator based in the UK. You can follow her on Twitter.