Time to Ditch Terms Like 'Islamophobia'

Certain terms commonly used in our political and cultural discourse serve only to thwart thinking and halt debate. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson continues to defend himself against accusations of “Islamophobia,” after recently stating Islam is not compatible with the United States Constitution. But what is “Islamophobia”?

In the above video, Ayn Rand Institute senior fellow Onkar Ghate identifies “Islamophobia” as an “anti-concept.” The term works against proper conceptualization. Ghate explains (at 19:28):

That term [Islamophobia] is an anti-concept that has been deliberately originated to make discussion of the issue impossible. And it’s similar to the term, in another kind of would-be debate that in the mainstream they want to silence… similar to the notion which functions as an anti-concept “climate change denier.” And what that does, it’s a package deal meant to silence… meant to destroy the ability to think, which is part of what makes it an anti-concept.

What “climate change denier” does is it puts into one package irrational objections, people mounting irrational objections to manmade climate change and the possibility of it – so it puts a bible-thumping Christian who says, “No, I don’t believe in the theory of evolution and I don’t believe in [climate change], none of these are part of God’s plan. They’re not happening.” It puts that person into the same category as a rational scientist who has legitimate worries, objections, doubts about the state of [climate change] science, about conclusions being drawn, about supposed lessons to learn from the models and so on.  It puts them into the same category…. So why even pay any attention to them? So the debate and the discussion is ended before it can start.

And “Islamophobia” serves in exactly, and functions in exactly the same way. What it puts together is irrational discriminatory behavior, whether towards Islam or towards Muslims, with thoughtful rational criticism…

I think too many people on the political Right [unwittingly aid] this, attempting to dismiss the whole idea of irrational treatment of Muslims as, “This is made up. This is a bogus thing that they’re trotting out to try and silence debate…”

So to get and to start discussing the issue of Islamophobia, you have to get everything that is put into the package, and you need to help people distinguish the elements of the package, that they don’t belong together. One should not have the same view or valuation of these things…

Don’t get tripped up by the example Ghate uses. Whether you think religious objection to climate change is irrational or not, his point remains that certain terms are meant to conflate the rational with the irrational in an effort to shut down debate.

Ghate’s talk was presented long before the current Ben Carson hubbub. But recent events demonstrate Ghate’s point clearly. Carson (and anyone sympathetic to him) is immediately labeled as an “Islamophobe.” To qualify as such, one need only criticize Islam. The nature of the criticism does not matter. Whether its rational and informed by fact, or irrational and informed by prejudice, it’s all the same. Indeed, the dictionary definition of Islamophobia is “dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.”

Think about that. Mere “dislike” of Islam makes one an “Islamophobe” by the dictionary definition. It doesn’t matter what Islam is, or what the basis of one’s dislike of Islam is. All one need do to be condemned as irrelevant to civil debate is dislike Islam. Of course, this precludes any debate. You can’t have a discussion on the merits of ideas if any negative valuation is effectively forbidden.

The same impasse presents itself when any anti-concept is used. Ghate cites the term “climate change denier.” We could substitute “homophobe,” “cis normative,” and increasingly “racist.” The tragedy of how these terms are used and abused is that opportunities to confront actual bigotry are missed. As Ghate points out, some get so frustrated with being thrown into the same category as bigots that they begin to imagine that no bigotry exists. Meanwhile, real issues are evaded while both culture and policy stagnate.