Does it matter where the term ‘Islamophobia’ comes from?

Picture of Julie Bindel, a middle-aged white woman with short, greying brown hair, wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a grey suit jacket with a name badge pinned to it and a low-cut top underneath, sitting typing on an Apple laptop.Why are so many left-wing progressives silent about Islam’s totalitarian tendencies? by Julie Bindel (free registration required)

This article is on Unherd, a right-leaning opinion site edited by Tim Montgomerie (founder of ConservativeHome), and filed in a section called “Flyover Country”. Julie Bindel proclaims herself to be a “lifelong feminist, and firmly on the political left”. The notion of “flyover country” comes from the American Right, who spent years proclaiming on talk radio and blogs, etc., that (white) provincials were being ignored by the chattering classes who were overwhelmingly located on the two coasts. The fact that the Electoral College delivered the presidency to two extreme right-wing, incompetent Republican candidates (in 2000 and 2016) precisely by privileging their votes over votes cast in populous coastal states such as New York and California never seems to occur to them. They just repeat the “republic not a democracy!” mantra.

The blog’s name is UnHerd — a pun on “unheard”, obviously, when their opinions are regularly ‘heard’ on talk radio, on BBC panel shows, in magazines like Standpoint (where Bindel has been publishing for years, alongside the rather more blunt bigot Douglas Murray) and major newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Times. So, her claim to be “firmly on the political Left” rings rather hollow, as she has no problem rubbing shoulders with members of the extreme political Right and echoing their persecution fantasies.

She claims:

I am appalled at so-called progressives that capitulate to Islamist men, and make an exception for Islam as a religion – when being (rightly) critical of Judaism and Catholicism.

How often do we hear mainstream feminists criticise Judaism? Apart from the specific policy of allowing men to refuse their wives a divorce in orthodox Judaism, I’ve never heard a serious critique of Judaism itself coming from the political Left in recent years. The issue of orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next to women on aeroplanes is confined to Israel, specifically the El Al airline, and has been ruled unlawful even there; it did not receive much media coverage anywhere else. As for Catholicism, criticism of that is mostly confined to the particular issue of abortion and laws which privilege the rights of an unborn child over its mother, to the point of endangering the lives of both in many cases, and to the culture of abuse that exists in many of its institutions and the church’s reaction to it. The latter is not even about Catholicism itself though, but about the men who run the church.

What is behind this hypocrisy? From where I am standing it is simple: the fear of being labelled ‘Islamophobic’.

As Anna Pak, an Iranian exile to France, and staunch secularist feminist explains, the Islamophobic term originated from 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. “Women went to the streets and marched to be free of the veil,” she says. “Khomeini and the Islamists obliged them to wear the veil, and that’s when they started calling these women Islamophobic.”

I find that an extremely dubious claim. Iranians speak Persian (some speak other languages, such as Kurdish or Azeri); Islamophobia is a Greek-based English term. The term commonly used in Iran was Gharb-Zadigi, meaning west-drunk; intoxicated by ideas they found in the west, or preoccupied by the notion that the west was best. I can’t find any other trace of this Anna Pak, but anyone who knows a little bit of Iranian history will know that the previous régime had forced people to stop wearing the Islamically-based dress which had been customary up until the Pahlavi dynasty took power in the early 20th century. The women principally targeted were members of the same urban elite which had forced other Iranians to dress their way when they were in power. Among the other exiles were Marxists, who had hoped to capitalise on the revolution for their own purposes but were outmanoevred by the far more numerous Islamists. They are some of the most prominent exiles now lecturing to secularist audiences in London.

I first heard the term Islamophobia in the late 90s, when it was being used to mean bigotry being directed at Muslims. I presume it was derived from the term “homophobia” which had come into popular use at that time.

These cultural relativists have given their support to sharia courts, the wearing of the full-face veil, arranged marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and gender segregation in public places. What’s more, many do it in the name of women’s emancipation. Supporting traditional Islam flies in the face of the feminist quest for liberation from patriarchal structures.

I have actually never heard any feminist express approval of FGM. The closest anyone has come is Germaine Greer, who said that the ceremony itself, barring the actual FGM, could be very beautiful. Some have opposed excessive scrutiny of minority communities on the pretext that girls are at risk of FGM when in fact they might not be, and some have (particularly recently) questioned claims about the prevalence of FGM among minority communities here, for very good reasons. There are no “Sharia courts” in this country; there are some arbitration tribunals, the participation in which is voluntary. As for segregation, TERFs have held women-only events on multiple occasions in London and elsewhere, and one should remember that the ‘controversy’ in London occurred when a group of men invaded a section of seating that was reserved for women.

As far as the “full-face veil” is concerned: to begin with, almost nobody wears a full-face veil — usually they wear a veil that leaves the eyes exposed and is easy to flip up or remove when it’s not needed. Second, it’s not about approving of it, it’s about allowing women who wear it to walk in the streets unmolested, or to enter public buildings such as colleges. As with the headscarf, the issue is about the right of women whose religion dictates that they wear these items to access public services and education and to feel safe; your opinion on what it represents is irrelevant as it may not represent the same thing to them. It is also a fact that the number of women wearing the face-veil declined in the late 2000s as a result of hostile press coverage, and resulting public hostility, that made the women feel unsafe. It was not Muslim men responsible for this.

(By the way: the piece is accompanied by a library picture of two women in black niqaabs, supposedly in Morocco, which leave only the eyes barely visible. This is very atypical of even the style of niqaab worn in Morocco, which most women who wear hijaab do not wear; Moroccan women tend to wear light-coloured garments and if they cover their face, the veil will be fixed well below the eyes.)

“They think they are being oh-so anti-racist,” says Sabrina, who I met in Paris at a meeting recently of ex-Muslim women who were launching a campaign against political Islamism, “but their often mindless capitulation to misogynistic ideology has a detrimental effect on Muslim women.” These white do-gooders, she says, give a “shot in the arm” to the worst religious patriarchs.

Again, an appeal to an anonymous nobody that Julie has met. We have to take Julie’s word for it that ‘Sabrina’ exists, of course. But French ‘feminists’ have agitated against the hijab, leading to a right-wing government banning it in schools so as to force an uppity minority to behave and look like the white majority. That is a fairly good definition of racist policy, much as in many British and American schools, Black hairstyles are more aggressively policed than White ones. “Neutrality” is conflated with everyone behaving like the dominant group.

What’s more, it would appear that the support given by (mainly white) leftists towards certain so-called ‘traditions’ within Islamic culture include in particular, aspects that specifically affect women and girls. In the same way that self identified ‘pro-feminist’ men feel able to put their support behind lap dancing, prostitution, and slut-walking, by arguing it is ‘empowering’ and a ‘positive choice’, they are not reticent in handing out insults to feminists – like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown – who critique the wearing of the niqab.

The “Slut Walk” was a movement which happened as a reaction to a comment by a Canadian senior police officer who told women not to “dress like sluts” if they did not want to be victimised. It was a protest against victim blaming which lasted only a few months. It was more than just “pro-feminist men” who disagree with Bindel’s position on the sex industry; many women campaign for sex work to be legalised as they believe it would make it safer for the women involved, so that (for example) they could work together in the same house rather than being alone with a potentially abusive client. Even if you disagree with their views on this, Bindel’s claim misrepresents the situation (much as with the debate over transgenderism; it is common for anti-trans feminists to misrepresent the supporters of trans women as mostly men or as misguided young women, when in fact many women of all ages are represented).

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is widely distrusted by the Muslim community, because she represents herself to the non-Muslim media by calling herself a Muslim when in fact, by origin, she is a member of a small sect which diverged from Islam several centuries ago and today its practices bear little resemblance to Islam’s. It is a sect with an infallible leader, a concept Islam shuns and always has done. She relies on the fact that her non-Muslim audience (and media friends) do not know the difference between her and the average Muslim. Furthermore, no woman who actually wears hijab, let alone niqaab, gets a fifth of the media exposure for their opinions that she does.

Growing numbers of women that grew up under Muslim laws are resisting religious tyranny. Maryam Namazie, an Iranian feminist, and founder of One Law for All, a secularist organisation that campaigns against parallel legal systems, believes that it is now seen as “perfectly acceptable” for feminists and other progressives, including secularists, to defend sharia courts or gender segregation as a “right to religion”.

Maryam Namazie is an Iranian communist exile. The majority of Muslims in this country have no link to Iran at all. What growing numbers of Muslims, male and female, have been doing for the past twenty years is to campaign for themselves to be able to go about their business without discrimination based on their religious practices, including their dress, and to an end to unwarranted, hostile media coverage that translates into discrimination and violence against them. Namazie has never been involved in any of this.

I was the first journalist to write about the phenomenon of ‘grooming gangs’ that target and sexually exploit young women in towns and cities across England, but it was far from easy to get such stories published in the supposedly liberal press. My first piece on this, which focussed on gangs of men of Pakistani Muslim origin, targeting and pimping girls in Lancashire, was published by The Sunday Times Magazine just over a decade ago.

When, the following year I published my investigation into the disappearance of Blackpool schoolgirl Charlene Downes, my name was added to the website, Islamaphobia Watch, accused of demonising Muslims. My crime? Pointing out that police officers refusing to investigate these crimes were taking a ‘hands off’ approach for fear of having to police a ‘race riot’. I was told by a number of men, and some feminists, that by exposing the grooming gang phenomenon I was, in the words of one ‘anti-racist feminist’ that I was playing into the hands of the BNP (British National Party). I was truly staggered – it would appear that I was being told not to wash dirty linen in public, and to hell with the rape and abuse of teenage girls.

A search for Bindel’s name on the (now defunct, but kept up in archive form) Islamophobia Watch site gets six hits — the top one is from 2010, for an article in which she criticised Green MP Caroline Lucas for supporting the Pro-Hijab group, set up to oppose bans on the hijab in Europe. The actual entry on the site she is referring to is this one, which simply notes that the BNP and BNP-supporting bloggers were approvingly quoting an article she had written for the Sunday Times, and links her Guardian article about Charlene Downes (which does not mention the Asian grooming issue at all) at the bottom.

Bindel makes much of the claim that the police and media did not pursue the Asian grooming gangs until they had been active for many years out of fear of being called racist. In fact, they (and many of the social workers who were supposed to protect the girls) regarded the girls themselves as wayward and the sexual acts they were the victims of as consensual, regardless of what the law says about the matter. The BNP did make a meal out of it as well and media coverage in recent years has over-emphasised the question of generalised Muslim responsibility for the behaviour of a small minority. But it wasn’t why the activity was allowed to persist.

The quibbling over the term ‘Islamophobia’ or where it originates or what it really means is a staple of the racist right; objections like “it’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamo-realism” have been commonly seen on the far-right blogosphere going back at least to 2001. People will object that Islam is not like racism (Islamophobia Watch used to define the term as “anti-Muslim racism”) because Muslims are not a race and that a religion did not deserve the same protection from ‘criticism’. However, there are indeed criticisms of Islam that do not veer into hate or threaten actual Muslims, but much of what passes for “criticism of Islam” is actually excuses for intolerance towards Islam itself and Muslims, as well as normal Muslim customs such as hijab that of themselves cause no harm. In short, such quibbles about the term ‘Islamophobia’ are aimed at legitimising the thing itself. No, it’s not fear, it’s hate or at least hostility. That’s no defence.

In her final paragraph she proclaims “disrespect for religion, including Islam, should be at the heart of feminism”. But many of the women who are fighting to preserve their right to an education, to work, to walk the streets without fear of racist attack from men, do not do so from a perspective of disrespect for their religion and should not expect that any ‘ally’ from the majority community should show it such disrespect either. There’s a reason Julie Bindel cannot get this kind of thing published in a mainstream “Left” journal anymore: because it contributes to racism, and if you feel the need to complain that you cannot say this or that for fear of being called a racist, your opinion probably is racist.

Image source: Saeima - Starptautiska konference “Drošības kompass - efektīvi risinājumi cilvēktirdzniecības novēršanai”, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA 2.0) licence: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58907832.

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