In a small, crowded conference room full of Christian icons at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., around 40 people gathered earlier this month to hear two academics from a Muslim background discuss the topic of "Islamophobia" in Europe. The scholars were Enes Bayrakli, a professor of political science and international relations at the Turkish-German University, and Farid Hafez, a political scientist at the University of Salzburg.
Hafez is also a senior fellow at the event's cosponsor, the Bridge Initiative (BI), a program of Georgetown's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, named for its Saudi benefactor. BI's raison d'être is to document "Islamophobia," and Georgetown's problems with extremely biased scholarship on Middle Eastern affairs are well documented. In practice, this means cries of "Islamophobia" are aimed at silencing critics rather than engaging in serious academic discussion.
The talk was an introduction to the annual European Islamophobia Report. Although the audience was predominately Western, a handful of attendees dressed in traditionally Muslim garb. For nearly 90 minutes, the authors fired off statistics and anecdotes on purported bias and discrimination against Muslims. While a number of issues raised were legitimate, an obvious problem went unaddressed.
Then, a tall, well-dressed woman stood up, and squarely named the elephant in the room:
"I'm relatively new to this field of Islamophobia. But I was in Bosnia recently, and I talked to people who were Muslim. If they had been in [other parts of] Europe, you'd think they were Islamophobic for what they considered the Salafist takeover of certain parts of Bosnia."
She continued, "I am from the Iranian community. I've heard many people who were Muslim — they aren't anti-Islam or Islamophobic — but they are concerned about a certain type of Islam. How do you distinguish between Islamophobia and those who are legitimately afraid of a certain kind of [Islam] that is taking over their countries?"
After the event ended this reporter spoke to the questioner and learned she is Sousan Abadian, a lady of Zoroastrian roots who is currently a Franklin Fellow at the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
Her question was direct: How does one distinguish between unfair, irrational prejudice against Muslims, while acknowledging the bitter truth that Islamism is a dangerous worldview unique to Muslims? And why does discussing "Islamophobia" tend to silence even Muslims who raise concerns about certain beliefs and behaviors?
Hafez gave a jumbled response, declaring that when people discuss "a specific person at a specific place and a specific time in a particular context" there is no problem, but when someone starts to speak of Islam as "a religion that walks and talks and thinks and commands, this is when we speak of Islamophobia."
While it is true that Islam is a widespread religion with many interpretations, Hafez's explanation obscures more than it explains. By definition, a religion consists of ideas about God, about meaning, about our very existence. And ideas have consequences. In this case, some ideas have convinced a distinct but sizable minority of Muslims to embrace Islamic extremism, which, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "dominate(s) terrorism around the world." While not all Islamists are violent, this ideology acts as what former British Prime Minister David Cameron calls a "conveyor belt" to violence.
Yet the BI discussion never tackled these difficult realities. For example, the report's authors decried the focus on Islamism and cited a study by Europol to argue there were more acts of terrorism by white nationalists and left-wing extremists than by Muslim jihadists. However, this argument is misleading, as such numbers conflate varied, distinct acts without further qualification. Indeed, the same Europol study concludes that "none of the reported activities in any terrorist category have been as lethal and have had such an impact on society as a whole as those committed by jihadist terrorists." Moreover, as Abadian pointed out, these concerns are not limited to non-Muslims. In response, Hafez tried to sidestep this inconvenient fact by arguing that "obviously, many Muslim people are Islamophobes themselves."
Discussing anti-Muslim bigotry in such sweeping terms allows radicals and their apologists to deflect legitimate criticism. Cries of "Islamophobia," rather than calling attention to deplorable attacks on Muslims, their places of worship, or unwarranted concern over innocuous religious practices that have close counterparts with other religions (such as ritual slaughter and head coverings), become strategies to avoid hard truths. This hurts the silent majority of non-Islamist Muslims, as voters reject this kind of thinking and will insist on being protected. Put another way: if only real "Islamophobes" take radical Islamism seriously, then voters will vote for Islamophobes to protect them from radicals. Moderate Muslims are lost in the wake.
Fair-minded scholars need to study unjust bigotry against Muslims without intentionally ignoring legitimate concerns about Islamism. Unfortunately, Bayrakli and Hafez seem anxious to avoid that discussion. Considering BI has previously listed such sensible thinkers as anti-radical Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz and mainstream conservative magazines such as National Review as key purveyors of "Islamophobia," the participants' reluctance to confront radical Islamism was unsurprising. This is tragic for non-Muslims, and especially for Muslims who want to live in peace and friendship with their non-Muslim neighbors.
Cliff Smith is the Washington Project Director of the Middle East Forum. He holds a Masters in Public Policy with a focus on International Relations and a JD with a focus in International and Comparative Law. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.