Casual Islamophobia: You’re doing it right. Unfortunately.

So as the American campaign season barrels along to its end, more and more questions of religious identity and religious belief seem to be bubbling to the surface.  Most recently, it was in the Vice Presidential debate – Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan were asked about their Catholicism and its potential effect on their politics, which led to Congressman Ryan telling a bizarre story about his daughter’s ultrasounds and thinking she looked like a bean.  If you can tell me what that has to do with Roman Catholicism, you’re a better person than me.

But the reactions to Ryan’s statements, and his apparent use of his own faith to defend his position on abortion, has led many authors into my most loathed trap – casual Islamophobia.

One of the best examples I’ve come across is from a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik.  In response to Ryan’s answer to the Catholicism question, that “I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do,” Gopkin replies “that’s a shocking answer—a mullah’s answer, what those scary Iranian “Ayatollahs” he kept referring to when talking about Iran would say as well.”

Is it?  Well, first off, it’s probably worth pointing out that mullahs and ayatollahs are different things – or more precisely, an ayatollah is a mullah, but not all mullahs are ayatollahs.  A ‘mullah’ is a religious scholar, and there are thousands of mullahs throughout Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Bosnia, and Central and South Asia.  Moreover, it can also just be used as a term for ‘intellectual’ or as a term of respect for teachers.  Ayatollahs, on the other hand, are the recognized religious hierarchy of Iranian Shi’ism.  But even if they were the same thing, there’s still the problem of sources – has Gopkin read the writings of *every* mullah in Iran?  In the whole of the Middle East and South Asia?  That would be quite a feat, as most of their writing is never translated into English or brought to the US.  But the way the statement is casually dropped into the sentence implies that we should accept Gopkin’s summary of mullah-belief, without asking for any evidence, apparently because Ryan’s statement is just so clearly the sort of thing mullahs would say.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Gopkin.  I think it’s plausible that if you surveyed every mullah, the majority would agree with Ryan’s statement.  The problem with casual Islamophobia is that 1.) you haven’t do that, so we as the audience have no reason to believe Gopkin’s imagined inner mullah monologue and 2.) that’s not even the point of the sentence.  Gopkin isn’t trying to make a statement about Shi’ism – he’s making a statement about Congressman Ryan, and using Shi’ite religious hierarchy as short-hand for ‘the bad scary kind of religion that is enemy of science, freedom, liberty, etc’.

And it just gets worse from there.  He goes on to explain that Congressman Ryan’s belief that life begins at conception is essentially exploitative and cruel, just like Islam – “this kind of cruelty—cruelty to real persons, killing the infidel in order to hasten him into heaven, stoning the fourteen-year-old girl in pursuit of some prophet’s view of virtue, forcing the teenager to complete her pregnancy to fulfill a middle-aged man’s moral hunches—is the kind of cruelty that our liberal founders saw with terror.”

Okay, first off, I know I do have a pet peeve about the ‘what the founding fathers would think’ trope, but the founding fathers were *not* concerned with the killing of infidels or ‘some prophet’s view of virtue’ – in fact, I’d be impressed if any of the founding fathers knew anything about Islam at all.  It just wasn’t something important to them.

But more to the point, this statement has all of the hallmarks of casual Islamophobia – no clear references to Islam (although there can be no doubt *which* prophet is intended), the use of Otherness to scare the reader (remember children, someone out there thinks *you’re* the infidel!), the threat of hurting women and children to stress barbarism (in this case, all in one go!  yay 14 year old girl!), and the escalation from our ills to theirs, to stress the availability of our salvation – we’re not stoning children or killing infidels.  Yet.  But we are hurting people.

And again, the real problem with this statement is the combination that 1.) there’s no evidence for any of these attacks and 2.) the attacks on Islam aren’t the point of the argument, they’re the setting used to bolster the real point of the piece.

There are a lot of reasons why casual Islamophobia is so common, but I think a big one is that Islam falls at the perfect balance point between familiarity and foreignness.  Historically, this same role was played by Catholicism and Judaism (more on that below), but now, those faiths don’t seem as foreign as they used to.  We have loads of elected officials from both traditions, Catholics and Jews are both common in mainstream media, and most Americans know at least of few of each.  Pushing farther east, most Americans, I’d guess, just aren’t familiar enough with any eastern religion to use it as this kind of trope – I’d be impressed if Adam Gopnik or any other mainstream essayist could correctly name the leaders of and two stereotypical practices of Hindu, eastern Buddhism[1] or Taoism, at least without access to wikipedia.

Islam, then, falls perfectly between these two extremes – Americans are very aware of Islam, and have some vague, and generally incorrect or misleading, assumptions about its theology and practice, but the religion still feels foreign and Other.

I suppose it’s sort of ironic that the background for Gopkin’s essay – John F Kennedy’s famous statement about faith and public service – is actually evidence for how little has changed in our treatment of religion.  As I said before, before Islam, Catholicism and Judaism played the part of ‘bad religion’, and indeed the question put to Kennedy stemmed from that prejudice – ‘Catholicism’ in the minds of many Americans, even in the 1960s, implied ignorance, dull-mindedness, civil disloyalty and poverty, so Kennedy was being asked, basically, to evidence that he wasn’t a Papist.

Papism – the sloven, ignorant allegiance to the Pope, particularly among the poor – was a common trope in Protestant propaganda and Western culture since the Counter-Reformation.  By comparison, Protestants are hard-working, educated, individually-minded and civilly obedient – a belief that protected Nixon, Kennedy’s opponent, from being asked the same question.

Although Catholicism has definitely become more mainstream since Kennedy’s time, the Papist stereotype does still exist, particularly in reference to class and race.  For Kennedy, the Papist attack had a great deal to do with him bring Irish Catholic.  Today, it seems to appear more with reference to the Latino community – certainly growing up in the American Southwest, I’ve regularly heard the words ‘Hispanic/Latino’ and ‘Catholic’ used as short-hand for ignorant, uneducated, superstitious, poor and illegal, never mind that with the exception of some local cultural traditions like Dia de los Muertos, Latino Catholicism is largely the same as white Catholicism or that, at least in terms of politics, Latino issues are largely middle class issues – healthcare, jobs, the economy, the housing market, the cost of education, etc.

Similarly, antisemitism and anti-Jewish sentiment were commonplace in the US well into the twentieth century, and arguably, have only become socially unacceptable because of our collective guilt over the Holocaust, rather than any improved awareness of Jewish theology or practice.  However, elements of these stereotypes still exist, particular in terms of the idea of ethnic Judaism – I have a number of Jewish friends who are regularly told ‘but you don’t look Jewish!’, because obviously it’s still the 2nd century BC, there’s no way to convert to Judaism and thus all Jews are direct blood relatives[2].

But throughout the twentieth century, both Catholicism and Judaism, or at least people’s imagination of these religions and their beliefs, were regularly trotted out as stand-ins for the bad kind of religion, with Protestantism emerging as the classically mainstream American faith.  Islam, it seems, slots into this role even better, but no more appropriately.

So basically – casual Islamophobia.  It’s bad.  And a form of bigotry.  And just poor rhetoric.  If you have a point to make, make it with evidence, not with stereotypes and fear-mongering.

[1] This point is made more complicated because of the differences between eastern Buddhism and western/American Buddhism – although there is no formal division between the religions, who recognize each other as co-religionists, the practices are vastly different. The same goes for Hindu and Hari Krisna.

[2] You’ve got to respect that stereotype – there’s not a lot of genuinely Old Testament stereotypes running around!

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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