by Sheeva Seyfi
Of late, any questioning of Islam as a belief system is often regarded as xenophobic rhetoric. This has effectively shut down what would be a warranted debate that is highly relevant to Europe today.
Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-born human rights activist, was recently invited to speak at Warwick University in England by the university’s National Secular Society. Warwick’s Student Union then temporarily revoked Namazie’s invitation. They claimed that, due to her particularly harsh criticism of Sharia Law, she had made remarks that were “highly inflammatory and could incite hatred” among the school’s Muslim community. After a petition protesting Warwick’s decision gathered over 5,000 supporters, the invitation was issued once again, accompanied by a wholehearted apology.
Seeing that Namazie had had similar run-ins with such institutions before, herein lurks the notion that the qualification of a lecturer is assessed neither by her experience nor her understanding of an issue, but rather by how her understanding will be received by the public. In other words, declaring a former Muslim who was born and raised in the Islamic Republic of Iran as unqualified to speak at an academic institution on Islam undermines the distinction between questioning Islam on intolerant grounds and questioning Islam on any grounds whatsoever.
History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Does Rhyme
Approaching Islam even slightly critically has become taboo in today’s society, often resulting in tense silence or a fierce defense arranged by the Millennial generation’s cultural minutemen. In this case, however, the road to awkward silences and loud disapproval is paved with good intentions. After all, Europe has had a particularly ugly past when it comes to the demonizing of religion.
Today, far-right political parties who aggressively equate Islam with terrorism are on the rise. This has provoked the counter-creation of far-left parties, whose intentions, in this case, admirably lie in preventing the further negative stigmatization of Islam by highlighting its commitments to “peace.” The trouble arises when both parties attempt to homogenize the world’s Muslim community into these two conflicting categories, as though a centuries-old belief system could not possibly have developed any intricate internal divisions.
With the far-right’s loud and bigoted characterization of the Muslim community and the far-left in a panic and fearful of repeating past atrocities committed against the Jews, an armed and protective wall around Islam as a belief system has been erected. In the midst of these vague assertions, terms such as “Muslim,” “Islamist,” “Islam” and “religious fundamentalism” have become conflated and wrongly interchangeable. Consequentially, terms such as “criticism,” “debate,” “racist,” “xenophobic” and “Islamophobic” have also become far too entangled.
As such, it has become nearly impossible to moderately criticize Islam without leaving both parties unsatisfied and oneself isolated in the middle. Criticism of Islam as a religion is now wrongly equated with criticism of Muslims as people. So if you do not have anything nice to say, it is safer to keep quiet. End debate – exit, stage left.
Et tu, Europa?
In a number of Muslim states throughout the Middle East, criticizing Islam is met with harsh blasphemy laws ranging from a heavy fine to the death penalty. The debate is nonexistent in public spheres and materializes only in the relative safety of online activity. Europe’s legal restrictions on free speech come nowhere close to the threat of capital punishment. Yet, social censorship and fear of causing offense as well as fear of reprisals from those who are offended, have similarly affected what can and cannot be said in public.
These fears have effectively shut down the debate on Islam, even for those who have constructed their arguments with sustained and thoughtful treatment. As a result, one is left with an all too homogenous social forum in which only the most optimistic of opinions are echoed. This tedious “echo chamber” has been established at the expense of, well, a social understanding of freedom of speech as well as a meaningful deliberation of the topic at hand.
Instead, as a democratic society, it is our duty to foster a safe space for a critical, dialogical approach to ideas and systems regardless of their origin. That is to say, one is much less likely to be considered racist when scolding or dismissing the Bible than if she were to question the Koran. To protect Islam so disproportionally to the extent other religions are protected both undermines our claim of sweeping religious equality while simultaneously setting a dangerous precedent in which the ability to scrutinize an action is not determined by its effect on a person or persons, but by the belief system in which the action is rooted.
Watch What You Say, But Still Try to Say It
With the left and the right both exploiting loaded words just to make their point, vital terms of the debate have been broadened so widely that they have lost their individual value and intention. In the same way that labelling all Muslims as terrorists renders one’s understanding of Islam shortsighted and uninformed, ubiquitously labelling those who question Islam as Islamophobes or racists waters down these terms, weakening the integrity of the accusation even when appropriately advanced. As such, the conflation of certain terms not only minimizes debate, but cripples all remaining credibility.
In order to revive the debate, the detangling of terms associated with Islam and its critics is necessary. This will enable the public not only to respectfully challenge particular aspects of the religion, but also to better defend them. It will allow for an understanding of Islam to fall somewhere between the leftist and rightist reductions and for both sides to highlight the juxtaposition of troubling characteristics alongside the admirable qualities found within any religious system.
As Namazie wrote in her response to Warwick’s initial decision, “The Student Union seems to lack an understanding of the difference between criticizing religion on the one hand and attacking and inciting hate against people on the other.” With freedom of religion and freedom of expression comes a public duty to allow thoughts that may initially cause discomfort to circulate nonetheless – a phenomenon that is not only desirable but has proved necessary time and again.