“Islamophobia” and Other Illegitimate Neologisms
In common usage, “phobia” connotes fear. Nevertheless, the term “Islamophobe” can legitimately be applied to people with a prejudicial hatred of Muslims, too. On the other hand, when the term is used to characterize someone with informed critical objections to the substance of Islamic doctrine, it is a smear. The proper term to describe the informed critic is “anti-Islamist.”
Phobias as Psychiatric Disorders
A perceived danger will provoke a “flight or fight” response in any animal, human beings included. When a person’s perception routinely misrepresents the actual severity of a type of threat, this might indicate the presence of a “phobia.” A fear of spiders, for example, is arachnophobia; a fear of heights is acrophobia. In the most common psychiatric sense of the term, a phobia is an irrational fear of something – an aversion out of proportion to its objective risks.
While falling from a height is obviously dangerous, the acrophobic cannot fully mitigate the physiological response of anxiety or panic, even if the sufferer has a rational awareness that the risks of being up high in a given situation may be very small (for example, in a restaurant at the top of a skyscraper). What the acrophobe most wants is to get down (a flight response). An arachnophobe may not be able to enter a room until any spiders present have been killed (a fight response). The latter response can legitimately be called hatred — the desire to see the perceived threat annihilated.
In short, for someone to which the term “phobia” applies:
- the object of the phobia is perceived as a threat; whether the response to that threat is flight or fight is secondary, and
- the perception of threat is unreasonable or irrational.
The Presumption of Irrationality
When the suffix “phobia” is appended to a prefix to create a new word, the intent of the creator is to indicate that the fear and/or hatred is irrational — that it is nothing more than an unthinking visceral or emotional reaction. Neologisms ending in “phobia” convey the impotence of reason to sustain any intentional modification of behavior in the face of a perceived threat. “Islamophobia” (like “homophobia”) is used in just this sense. Anyone who might have critical objections to the tenets of Islamic doctrine, whether they pertain to Islamic law, economics, jurisprudence, ethics, etc., is open to being called “Islamophobic.”
But the tenets of a belief system are not like spiders; one may well come to disagree with an ideology from a dispassionate, analytical perspective. A person need not become so emotionally invested in a theological or political disagreement that their capacity to remain reasonable is undermined. “Islamophobia” illegitimately presumes that anti-Islamic discourse is inherently irrational.
Like any religion, the acceptance of Islam is ultimately a matter of faith, not reason. And therein lies the great irony: Muslim’s apologists paint detractors as irrational, when their own commitment to the religion is itself grounded in faith.
Phobias vs. Ideologies
The “phobia” label is potentially more effective rhetorically than it’s close cousin, the “ism” label. Accusations of “racism” or “denialism” are reflexively hurled at skeptics about affirmation action and anthropogenic global warming with similar intent. But for the most part, the suffix “ism” denotes an ideology that comes complete with all the trimmings of reason (definitions of terms, key supporting evidence and argumentation, etc.). Phobias presuppose none of that. Unlike phobias, “isms” are typically doctrines for which a history of serious scholarship, both pro and con, exists. When you object to something as an “ism,” intellectual honesty requires that you be able to give an argument against it. Attributions of “phobia” carry no such obligation.
Isms call for refutation. Phobias call for treatment.
“Islamophobia” it is a term used, mostly by evangelists for the religion, to excuse its apologists from having to engage in debate and to attempt to silence critical discussion about Muslims’ beliefs and ideology.
Refusing to Debate
If a mode of discourse is truly irrational, identifying it as such removes it from the sphere of legitimate debate. If the accusation of irrationality cannot be sustained, then the proponent’s refusal to engage in debate may be a sign of timidity, evasiveness, or a tacit concession of the indefensibility of the position. In either case, the allegation of irrationality is a way for the proponent of a position to label an opposing viewpoint in a way that rationalizes the proponent’s refusal to engage in debate.
If you disagree with the tenets of Islam, say you are an anti-Islamist; disown the label of Islamophobe. By doing so, you are locating the discourse within the sphere of legitimate debate where it belongs.
Someone with a genuine phobia may realize that under certain conditions, they act embarrassingly like a complete nut case. Irrationality is regarded as shameful. I don’t know anyone who seeks to bear shame; people will resist leaving themselves open to that possibility. They will be on guard against saying something that manifests their irrational fears and results in public humiliation. The accusation of Islamophobia is intended to bring up that shame in the accused and suppress their expression of any form of opposition, dissent or suspicion.
Just as the accusation of “homophobia” tries to silence opponents of pro-homosexual public policy like same-sex marriage, the accusation of “Islamophobia” is used to silence anyone with the plausible conviction that Islam is a hegemony-seeking collectivist political ideology cloaked in a shroud of theological contradictions.