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 ...

"Semites were depicted as violent and irrational and therefore as needing a firm white colonial master for their own good," Cole wrote.

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.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali praised newspapers in many countries which have printed the cartoons, considered blasphemous by many Muslims, but said others had held back for fear of criticising what she called "intolerant aspects of Islam".

"Today I am here to defend the right to offend within the bounds of the law," she told a news conference organised by her publisher during a visit to Berlin.

"It's necessary and it's urgent to criticise Islam. It is urgent to criticise the teachings of Mohammad."

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.

Gay Indian Muslim helmer Parvez Sharma is directing the pic, which looks at gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims across the Muslim and Western worlds.

"The world right now needs to understand Islam, and these are the most unlikely storytellers of Islam," Dubowski said, who is producing 'Allah.'

Doc will undoubtedly prove an even thornier film to export than "Trembling."

Sharma and Dubowski plan to submit the pic to all major festivals in the Muslim world as well as in the West, but if it's rejected, Dubowski said, "We'll find ways of screening it in every Muslim nation, even if it's underground."

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


Believe it or not, the same confusion comes up in employment litigation involving claims of race discrimination. Not long ago I was defending a race case and asked the plaintiff in his deposition what his "race" actually was. He didn't know, but he sure knew he was subjected to race discrimination when he was fired.

PDS   ·  February 14, 2006 11:53 AM

It seems today that the popular connotation of the term racist is white english speaking person.
Racist does not seem to be applied to any other persons no matter how radical their position is.
I would suggest if white english speaking populations were to react to the real pain and terror inflicted by Al-Queda attacks, with the same fervor as Islamic reaction to innocuous cartoons racism would be mild terminology.
Playing the racist card seems to be adequate justification for any unacceptable reaction today.

hugh   ·  February 14, 2006 12:10 PM

They could say that it is racist against Arabs because of the false assumptions that all Arabs are Muslim or most Muslims are Arab. I think its pretty well-determined that Muhammad was Arab. Of course in my opinion, "Arab" and "white" aren't races in the first place, since we're all homo sapiens, but that's a different conversation.

Adam   ·  February 14, 2006 4:26 PM

Arabs are part of the Caucasian race. Many Arabs are non-Muslim. Many American Arabs are as integrated into the "melting pot" as was the entertainer Danny Thomas (born Muzyad Yaakoob).

Fascinatingly, there used to be "Arab Jews," although such things are no longer allowed:


Any attempt at serious discussion, though, is compounded by the fact that there is no agreed definition of the word "race."


What this means is that the word "racist" -- one of the most opprobrious terms in use today -- is equally undefinable.

(Makes for a lot of talk that's as irritating as it is meaningless.)

Eric Scheie   ·  February 15, 2006 8:39 AM

I think there is, legitimately, such a thing as Islamophobia ("They've infiltrated the Elks Club, I tell you") and homophobia as well ("My daughter can't even go to the ladies' room alone"). A phobia is an IRRATIONAL fear.

The problem is that "phobia" is now being tacked onto the end of the name of every group that feels the need to defend itself from those who don't like it. Thus, it has largely lost its real meaning.

I could claim, for instance, that those who are allergic to my cats are afflicted with "feline-o-phobia," and in dire need of counselling. And the next time my sister, who cannot enter a room with cats in it without dissolving into a sneezy, weeping fit, tells me she can't spend the night in my guest room, I could set the men in the white coats after her with the big butterfly net.

Lori Heine   ·  February 15, 2006 1:33 PM

Fear of cats=ailurophobia

Courtesy of The Big Book Of Phobias (popup edition.)

B. Durbin   ·  February 15, 2006 11:53 PM

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