Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, spoke to a May 13th Middle East Forum Webinar about the United Nations (U.N.) resolution declaring March 15th as The International Day to Combat Islamophobia and its chilling effect on freedom of speech.
When the General Assembly affirmed the resolution, the representative of France pointed out that there was not a generally accepted definition of the word at hand, Spencer reported.
"[The resolution] only underlined the absurdity of declaring an international day to combat something when nobody really agrees on what exactly it is," he said.
Historically, the word "Islamophobia," which gained currency in the 1990s, has had two uses, Spencer explained. The first — and legitimate — use of the word was to describe and condemn acts of vigilante violence against innocent Muslims.
"If that's what we're talking about when we're talking about 'Islamophobia,' then there's really no problem," he said. "Nobody wants to see any innocent people being attacked."
The second — and problematic — use of the word is to silence criticism of Islam, Spencer said.
Ominously enough, a leading advocate for the resolution's passage was Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan.
"Imran Khan, in numerous statements, made it very clear that what he found intolerable and what he wanted the West to proscribe — that is to forbid — was criticism of Islam," which Sharia [Islamic law], is a "capital offense." Dhimmis, or non-Muslims living under Islamic rule risk their lives if they say something critical about Allah, Muhammad, or the Qur'an, he added.
"What we are seeing with the International Day to Counter Islamophobia is an attempt to intimidate and/or fool the West into essentially criminalizing criticism of Islam or words that are critical of Allah, Muhammad, and the Qur'an under the guise of 'fighting Islamophobia,'" Spencer said.
About a decade before the resolution's passage, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave speech to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in which she declared that outlawing criticism of Islam was "impossible" because of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which acknowledged the right to free speech, but that it was possible to deploy "old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming" to silence critics of Islam.
"And so we have seen that [process] actually advance in the United States since then with very well-heeled groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, even the Anti-Defamation League, zeroing in on people that they charge with being Islamophobes," Spencer said. "As a result, these people have been subjected to all manner of restrictions with various groups, various platforms denying them access or cutting them off. This is exactly ... the kind of peer pressure and shaming that Hillary Clinton was envisioning."
Spencer said the OIC's campaign to outlaw "incitement to religious hatred" began after the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published cartoons of Muhammed in 2005 which unleased violent attacks against non-Muslims throughout the world.
The initial response to the riots was for commentators on the internet to call for people to draw pictures of Muhammad.
"If everybody draws Muhammad, they can't kill everyone, and it would be a sign of our defense of the freedom of speech to print the cartoons, to stand up and say, 'We are not going to submit to violent intimidation ... and not invite further bullying by kowtowing to bullying on this issue,'" Spencer said.
Yet, Westerners did not draw pictures of Muhammad, but instead internalized the idea that pushing cartoons of him crosses an unacceptable line, Spencer said.
"I think the days of free speech absolutism in pretty much any context are over," he said.
As part of this campaign to silence criticism of Islam, people who speak honestly about issues related to how Muslims practice their faith are designated as hate groups or hate leaders, Spencer reported.
"In my own case I was designated a hate group leader because I speak about Islam having doctrines of violence," he said. This designation prompted Amazon to refuse to allow its platform to be used to make donations to his charitable organization, Jihad Watch.
"And then of course, Patreon, I was banned from there, MasterCard, PayPal — briefly — various others," he said.
To justify such policies, Spencer said, activists put forth a "victimhood narrative that Muslims are supposedly so discriminated against and harassed in the United States that we need to take these measures to protect them. Now that in itself is a false narrative, as FBI hate crime statistics show every year that attacks against Muslims are actually quite rare."
Islamophobia cannot be equated honestly with antisemitism, Spencer said, because Jews remain the most attacked group, Muslims are for down the list, and there are many other groups who are more vulnerable violent attacks than Muslims.
"This is not just one year," Spencer said. "It's year after year, after year, after year,"
Another reason one should not equate Islamophobia with antisemitism is that there is no global network of Jewish terrorists committing acts of terrorism in the name of their faith.
"Now, there are Islamic terrorists all around the world on every continent, except Antarctica, who are committing acts of terror in the name of Islam on a more or less daily basis," Spencer said. "Now, does this mean that attacks on innocent Muslims are justified? Absolutely not. However, to say that Islamophobia as criticism of Islam is some gratuitous attack on innocent Muslims who were just minding their own business, that's just propaganda."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.