February 14, 2006
Fear of fear of fear
That last post brings to mind an ugly language problem I'm having. A couple of words have been ringing in my ears lately.
"Racist" and "Islamophobic."
As I am not entirely sure what these words mean and I hate manipulative or code language, I thought I should take a second look. A recent op ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer used both of these words in the way they're typically used:
As a person of faith, I found the cartoons published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten to be racist, base and grossly offensive.And later in the piece:
in an environment in which the Muslim community feels besieged by the very real Islamophobia that exists today, Muslim extremists have an incentive to inspire hate, and the Muslim masses sometimes join in the us-vs.-them struggle. They may find it easier to take to the streets in a rarely allowed public expression of their anger - justifiable anger that loses its ground when it manifests itself in violent attacks.The writer is talking about the cartoons, which mostly depict Muhammad, although one depicts suicide bombers, and a couple of others also caricature the cartoonists themselves. If the word "racism" is to mean anything at all, it would have to involve some sort of racial prejudice. Is it the race of Muhammad that's at issue? Or is it the race of the suicide bombers? Or both?
Exactly what race is involved here?
"Islamophobia" is one thing, but doesn't racism require at least some degree of racial specificity? Or is the idea that Muhammad is not "white"? Well, what is white? Was Jesus "white"? Both Jesus and Muhammad have been depicted with Asian features, but does anyone know the races of the actual historical figures? Assuming Muhammad's descent from Abraham, wouldn't that make him technically the same "race" as most Jews? Would a cartoon depicting Abraham be racist?
Clearly, I'm missing something here. Might it be that "racism" has come to include all criticism of any person who isn't of white European descent?
As a matter of fact, Juan Cole thinks the cartoons reflect racism of the Nazi variety:
the same themes of Aryan superiority and Semitic backwardness in the European 'scientific racism' of the 19th and early 20th centuries ... led to the Holocaust against the Jews. ... A caricature of a Semitic prophet like Mohammad with a bomb in his turban replicates these racist themes ...I guess, according to that view, depicting Muhammad with a bomb is the same thing as Julius Streicher's depictions of subhuman Jews. (I'm familiar with Streicher's rabid work, and I just don't see Cole's analogy.)
What I'd like to know is, if the cartoons are racist and Islamophobic, then how are we to interpret a statement from a Muslim Reuters labels a "self-styled Muslim dissident":
BERLIN (Reuters) - A Dutch politician and self-styled Muslim dissident urged Europeans to stand firm on Thursday in an international crisis over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, saying it was "necessary and urgent" to criticise Islam.I'm still puzzled by Reuters putting "self styled" before "Muslim dissident." I mean, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali isn't a dissident, then who is? Could it be that Reuters is hinting that she isn't a Muslim? I don't know whether she is or is not a Muslim*, but if by dissenting she is not, then what are the implications as to race?
And what about Islamophobia? (According to Wikipedia, it's a neologism -- the definition of which is in dispute.) In the clinical sense, the suffix "phobia" means fear. Does that mean that people who are afraid of Islam have a disease for which they need treatment? Does it mean that they are bigoted? If the intent is to attribute the disease model, wouldn't that tend to supply a medical excuse for resultant bigoted attitudes?
I don't know. But others obviously do. And I get the impression that these definitions vary according to the whims of the people who use them.
Makes it tough to have any sort of rational discussion.
I haven't even addressed the issue of what to do in cases where phobias collide..... ("Instead of sowing division and promoting homophobia, the Muslim Council of Britain should be working with gay organisations to challenge the twin evils of homophobia and Islamophobia.")
What do you do when language evolves faster than definitions of words? When new words to label people are created faster than they're defined, and the definitions are off-limits to the people being labeled?
I don't know.
(If I weren't trying so hard to avoid going crazy, I'd suggest we could start by finding a new Islamohomophobophobia niche market for "heteronormative" sex toys like this....)
*Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes herself as an apostate from Islam, which would mean that she is not a Muslim. If Muslim status is a race, does that mean she changed her race?
MORE: An upcoming film called "In the Name of Allah" will explore the clash of "phobias":
Sandi Dubowski, who won the Teddy gay and lesbian award in 2001 for his controversial doc "Trembling Before G-d," may cause an even bigger stir with "In the Name of Allah," which explores the struggles of homosexual Muslims.I should point out that using the "phobia" suffix is not my idea, but that of others. I don't think "fear" is the right word to describe these things, but whatever...
posted by Eric on 02.14.06 at 08:24 AM
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