I recently presented a paper as a professional conference in which I argued that criticism of Islam—what is often referred to as “Islamophobia”—is not racist because Islam is not a race (obviously). However, I find compelling Maajid Nawaz’s argument that the denial of the human rights of individual Muslims that manifests itself as the left-wing practice of shutting down criticism of Islam with accusations of bigotry carries within it a racist impulse. The assumption that individuals in Muslim-majority countries and communities, because they are members of racialized minority groups (black and brown people), are on-board with the homophobic and patriarchal character of fundamentalist Islam—that, while it is no good for white Western Europeans to be saddled with Christian fundamentalism and to be told that is it bigotry to criticize the Judeo-Christian tradition (that’s the march of liberal secularism, after all), it’s not only okay for black and brown peoples living in Muslims communities to be so saddled and so told, but that it is bigotry to speak out against their suffering (homosexuals, women, free thinkers).
Those on the left who fetishize Islamic dress, attitudes, and practices reduce Individuals to a stereotype of what it means to be an authentic Muslim, while at the same time fail to acknowledge the coercive and cultural forces that compel individuals to appear certain ways, and in so doing fail the reformers across the Muslim world, thus lending tacit support to the Islamic fundamentalists. Imagine struggling under the yoke of fundamentalist Christianity and those outside that community accepting as representative of the individuals in that culture the claims made by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and other fundamentalist Christian leaders. Imagine hearing that criticisms of the homophobic and patriarchal values in Christian scripture and advanced by such fundamentalist leaders as Mike Pence was anti-Christian bigotry, in a word, “Christophobia.” It’s not hard for me to imagine the sinking feeling I would have as an atheist living in the Bible Belt to hear such arguments against my liberty. Because I have felt it.
The reality of oppressive structures does not depend on whether those who are oppressed see or struggle against their oppressors. Oppression is an objective matter. It exists when individuals do not have equal rights, when they are not treated as persons before the law, when their bodies and labors are exploited. When we hear that we cannot speak for oppressed people because we are not oppressed or that those who are do not believe they are, and we fall into silence, we betray the individual. Identity politics becomes a thought-stopping tactic, designed to selectively muzzle critique. But man, science, and human rights are universal. These should form the basis of our politics, not ideology.