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03/01/2011

The invention of Islamophobia

Islamophobia was invented to silence those Muslims who question the Koran and who demand equality of the sexes. By Pascal Bruckner



At the end of the 1970s, Iranian fundamentalists invented the term "Islamophobia" formed in analogy to "xenophobia". The aim of this word was to declare Islam inviolate. Whoever crosses this border is deemed a racist. This term, which is worthy of totalitarian propaganda, is deliberately unspecific about whether it refers to a religion, a belief system or its faithful adherents around the world.

But confession has no more in common with race than it has with secular ideology. Muslims, like Christians, come from the Arab world, Africa, Asia and Europe, just as Marxists, liberals and anarchists come or came from all over. In a democracy, no one is obliged to like religion, and until proved otherwise, they have the right to regard it as retrograde and deceptive. Whether you find it legitimate or absurd that some people regard Islam with suspicion – as they once did Catholicism – and reject its aggressive proselytism and claim to total truth – this has nothing to do with racism.

Do we talk about 'liberalophobia' or 'socialistophobia' if someone speaks out against the distribution of wealth or market domination. Or should we reintroduce blasphemy, abolished by the revolution in 1791, as a statutory offence, in line with the annual demands of the "Organisation of the Islamic Conference".  Or indeed the French politician Jean-Marc Roubaud, who wants to see due punishment for anyone who "disparages the religious feelings of a community or a state". Open societies depend on the peaceful coexistence of the principle belief systems and the right to freedom of opinion. Freedom of religion is guaranteed, as is the freedom to criticise religions. The French, having freed themselves from centuries of ecclesiastical rule, prefer discretion when it comes to religion. To demand separate rights for one community or another, imposing restrictions on the right to question dogma is a return to the Ancien Regime.    

The term "Islamophobia" serves a number of functions: it denies the reality of an Islamic offensive in Europe all the better to justify it; it attacks secularism by equating it with fundamentalism. Above all, however, it wants to silence all those Muslims who question the Koran, who demand equality of the sexes, who claim the right to renounce religion, and who want to practice their faith freely and without submitting to the dictates of the bearded and doctrinaire. It follows that young girls are stigmatised for not wearing the veil, as are French, German or English citizens of Maghribi, Turkish, African or Algerian origin who demand the right to religious indifference, the right not to believe in God, the right not to fast during Ramadan. Fingers are pointed at these renegades, they are delivered up to the wrath of their religions communities in order to quash all hope of change among the followers of the Prophet.

On a global scale, we are abetting the construction of a new thought crime, one which is strongly reminiscent of the way the Soviet Union dealt with the "enemies of the people". And our media and politicians are giving it their blessing. Did not the French president himself, never one to miss a blunder - not compare Islamophobia with Antisemitism? A tragic error. Racism attacks people for what they are: black, Arab, Jewish, white. The critical mind on the other hand undermines revealed truths and subjects the scriptures to exegesis and transformation. To confuse the two is to shift religious questions from an intellectual to a judicial level. Every objection, every joke becomes a crime.

The desecration of graves or of places of worship is naturally a matter for the courts. In France, for the most part it is Christian graveyards or churches that are affected. Let us not forget that today, of all the monotheist religions, Christianity is the most persecuted – particularly in Islamic countries such Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey or Egypt. It is easier to be a Muslim in London, New York or Paris than a Protestant or Catholic in the Middle East or North Africa. But the term "Christianophobia" does not function – and that's a good thing. There are words which taint language, which obscure meaning. "Islamophobia" is one of the words that we urgently need to delete from our vocabulary.

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Pascal Bruckner, born in 1948, is one of the leading French "nouveaux philosophes". He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Roland Barthes. His works include "The Temptation of Innocence - Living in the Age of Entitlement" (Algora Publishing, 2000), "The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt" (The Free Press, 1986) "The Divine Child: A Novel of Prenatal Rebellion" (Little Brown & Co, 1994) Evil Angels (Grove Press, 1987)

This article was originally published in Liberation.
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