“Not every aversion is a fear, and not every fear is a phobia.”—Aaron Haspel
At a certain point in the not so distant past, we started saying that everyone who has a problem with Islam is “Islamophobic” and everyone who has a problem with homosexuality is “homophobic”. To some extent this made sense. After all, many of the most virulently anti-gay guys I knew in high school were out of the closet and openly gay by the age of 25. It’s obvious now, but only in retrospect, that their bizarre hate-on for gays was really just a kind of self-hatred, a fear of their own repressed desire for some hot man-on-man action. The term “homophobic” fits guys like this like a glove.
But it doesn’t fit guys like Ralph (not his real name), the super-conservative, Christian fundamentalist father of a gay friend of mine. Ralph thinks homosexuality is wrong. He’s totally against gay marriage. And he would never watch Modern Family. Yet he really loves his gay son and totally accepts his son’s partner. I’ve seen Ralph with them: and he’s genuinely kind and openly affectionate with both of them. There’s some real love there. And definitely no fear. Describing Ralph’s anti-gay “thing” as a manifestation of “homophobia” is, well, bullshit. The shoe just doesn’t fit.
The term “Islamophobic” is fraught with similar difficulties. If we’re talking about a guy like Alexandre Bissonnette, the shooter who killed six people at a Quebec City mosque last weekend, it fits like a glove. Bissonnette wasn’t radicalized by traumatic first-hand experiences with terrorism or war; he was radicalized by fake-news sites like Rebel Media and Breitbart News. The term “Islamophobia” applies equally well if we’re talking about the anti-Muslim hysteria that flares up from time to time among hicks in homogeneous hamlets like Hérouxville. After all, these people have never seen a Hungarian, much less a hijab. Their ignorance is astounding. They don’t know any actual Muslims and their knowledge of Islam is wholly a product of media misrepresentations of Muslims inflected by the paranoid imagination. Referring to anti-Muslim antipathies of this stamp as a manifestation of “Islamophobia” makes perfect sense.
But, truth be told, the nastiest “Islamophobia” I’ve encountered wasn’t in rural backwaters like Hérouxville; it was in diverse cosmopolitan centers like Montreal, Los Angeles, Sydney, Baltimore, and New York—amongst Christians and Jews who’ve had to flee the Middle East. Most of these people have had first-hand experience with real persecution at the hands of Muslim majorities, much of it decidedly horrific. Their businesses were destroyed, bank accounts seized, places of worship trashed. Some of them were even tortured, kidnapped, ransomed. And these experiences have, quite understandably, left deep scars. Have they earned the right to demonize 1.6 billion people? Of course not. But saying that their problem with Islam is a manifestation of an irrational fear of The Other seems unfair, and lumping them together with the likes of Alexandre Bissonnette seems decidedly unjust.
I would never say that demonizing all Christians is okay. But if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder because you grew up gay in a Pentecostal household, in the heart of the Bible Belt, surrounded by people who treated you terribly, I get it. I’m not saying it’s okay. But I get it. I might think you’re a bit of a bigot but I’d never call you a Christophobe. I’d never say that your problem with Christianity is a manifestation of Christophobia (the fear of Christianity). Likewise, I would never say that demonizing all cops is okay. But if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder because you grew up poor and black in inner-city Baltimore, surrounded by cops who habitually mistreated you, I get it. I’m not saying it’s okay but I’d never call you a Policophobe. I’d never say that your problem with cops is a manifestation of Policophobia (the fear of police).
I’ve spent a great deal of time talking with students, friends, and family members about the horrible massacre that happened at the Grande Mosquée de Québec eight days ago. Trying to make sense of it. Trying to have an honest and open conversation about what’s wrong with our society. How we can fix it. How we can do better. How we can prevent things like this from happening in the future. Many things have become clear to me as a result of this process. One of them is that the term “Islamophobia” isn’t nearly as useful as I once thought it was.
Sam Harris eats our lunch once or twice a month on his podcast precisely because he can easily drive a truck through the conceptual holes in “Islamophobia”. So long as we keep implying that everyone who’s got a problem with Islam is motivated by a kind of irrational fear of The Other, it’s easy for Harris (and others like him) to make us look ridiculous. All he has to do is bring people on his program like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Gad Saad: people who’ve got horrific stories to tell. Stories that are unfortunately true. Stories which would seem to indicate that a generalized fear of Islam makes sense. Do we really need a clumsy concept like “Islamophobia” to describe the anti-Muslim bigotry in our midst? Probably not.
—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2017)