Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Phobia?

This week Parliament will debating something other than Brexit. I know, hard to believe isn't it. The subject in question is a definition of 'Islamophobia' drawn up by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. Ahead of the debate, the government has already rejected the definition.

Here's the definition
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

Where to start? Well, several other people have, so I won't, much. But a few thoughts
1. It's not a definition, unless you take off the first 8 words

2. Where 1 type of Muslim attacks another type, for being the wrong type, is that Islamophobia? Or is it more niche- Shiaphobia, Sufiphobia etc.? Or does it depend on whether they come from a different racial group?

3. To pick another trending phobia, homophobia is variously defined, but the definitions all cluster around an irrational fear, dislike and aversion towards homosexuals and homosexuality. This overlaps reasonably well with the psychological definition of a phobia as an unreasonable fear of or aversion towards x (where x is clowns, spiders, enclosed spaces etc.) If Islamophobia really is a word, and not a slogan, then why not define it in the same way: "An unreasonable fear, dislike and aversion towards Muslims and Islam." That sort of definition is transferrable to prejudice against Jews, Christians, Buddhists, devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster et al.

4. In the political and public sphere, us of the '...phobia' label carries more than just the connotation of fear and aversion. It is mainly attached to words and actions, rather than mental states. The label is often used in a similar (but less potentially fatal) way as accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan - someone has said or done something you don't like, and an accusation of 'xphobia' is the easiest and clearest way to label them as an enemy of the people, and someone to hate, ignore and pour invective upon. Whereas a medical diagnosis of a phobia is descriptive, a politically defined phobia is performative, it is public language used to claim or defend territory, to win or shut down discourse, rather than a description of a psychological state.

5. But does that help? In the Islamophobia definition, there is no reference to fear or psychological states at all. It has cut loose from its etymological moorings. It also, oddly, brings in racism: a Christian living in Pakistan may have an irrational fear of Muslims, but it's more likely to be based on Islamic terrorism and mob abuse of the blasphemy laws than on race. In fact, they may have a deep fear and aversion towards Muslims which is entirely rational, if their experience includes repeated examples of anti-Christian violence, church burnings etc.  Some Islamophobia may have a racial component, but some doesn't. So if it doesn't, would it qualify for the APPG definition, or is that something else? What if Muslims themselves are irrationally afraid of their fellow Muslims, and their forms of 'Muslimness'? Or rationally afraid of them?

6. At what point does a 'definition of Islamphobia' cease to be a definition of Islamophobia, and simply be a definition of something else, which has been labelled 'Islamophobia' for political and rhetorial reasons? In the film The Princess Bride, antagonist Vizzini keeps declaring that things are 'inconceivable!' eventually sidekick Inigo responds "you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means". Repeated use of a word to mean x doesn't entail that x is what the word means. Humpty Dumpty famously declared "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, no more, no less", which results in 'impenetrability'. If the definition of a word is down to the user, rather than a commonly accepted meaning, then we lose the ability to communicate, and with it the ability to reason together.

7. The medical definition of a 'phobia' carries no moral baggage, but the political definition does. With two diverging understandings of what a phobia is, which one will give way first?

8. There is a danger that Islamophobia, and along with it homophobia, transphobia, and all the modern phobic family, will cease to mean anything. That it will just mean 'Booooo!', rather than communicate any clear content. If a word becomes 100% condemnation, 0% content, then another word will be needed to explain the phenomenon behind it, if we are actually serious about tackling it.

9. In order to be fair, we would not just need a working definition of Islamophobia, but a word for every other form of irrational prejudice and antagonism towards other social, racial, religious and demographic groups. At what point does this just get silly?

10. The (hopefully) blindingly obvious point that any definition needs to allow for rigorous analysis, critique and legitimate criticism of Islam, from historic sources right through to contemporary behaviour, without being used to shut this down.

11. And finally, which is more effective, running backwards away from something bad, or running forwards towards its opposite? It's easier to avoid negative behaviour if there is a positive culture of love, respect, hospitality, generosity and altruism. Focus on those positive things, and the negative behaviour withers away. Perhaps our focus on phobias is a symptom of a wider dis-ease, that we no longer have a shared ethos of goodness which we strive towards, and to which we can hold one another to account. Wrapped up in the supremacy of individual personal choice, a culture of rampant individualism is barren ground for a communal ethic. So more and more we find ourselves policing language, attitudes, and behaviour, so that you cannot be a threat to my rights. That's not a way of being society which has much of a future.

Maybe one day a traveller in an ancient land will stumble across a plaque, inscribed with descriptions of all the phobias defined in the early 21st century. And around it, the lone and level sands will stretch far away.

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