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March 04th 2015 print

Peter Smith

A Very Rational Phobia

This new word ‘Islamophobia’ should be consigned to the dustbin of etymological mishaps. The Oxford Dictionary disagrees in its politically correct way, but harbouring a prejudice against religious despotism in no way reflects a tendency to the bigoted and irrational

islamophobicI looked up the meaning of phobia in my Concise Oxford Dictionary. It is defined as ‘an extreme or irrational fear of something’. I had always thought it meant an extreme and irrational fear. But, I bow to the Oxford in these matters.

Certainly my dictionary was consistent when it came to words like claustrophobia and hydrophobia. However, consistency disappeared when it came to the modern word homophobia. Extreme and irrational are now indeed linked by ‘and’ rather than ‘or’. Moreover, no longer is phobia encompassing a ‘fear of’ but an ‘aversion to’. Disconcerting?

Get over it, I told myself. The English language must move with the times. And so it has with the comparatively recent mass migration of Muslims into the West. The very modern made-up word ‘Islamophobia’ has entered the language. A strange word is this to be sure. So far as I know it is unique in attaching phobia to a religion. I haven’t heard of phobia being attached, say, to Hinduism or Sikhism or Taoism or Hinduism or Buddhism. I looked it up.

Well, my 2002 Oxford edition didn’t define it at all. I had to go to Oxford online. There it is defined as ‘dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force’. You will note here that the contextual definition of a phobia has changed significantly. The words: extreme, fear and irrational have all gone. Dislike has replaced fear and prejudice has replaced irrational. However, the most telling change is the addition of the rider. The rider – ‘especially as a political force’ – effectively unravels the substantive clause.

I would suggest that any and all negative views about Muslims and Islam are directed at the political manifestation of the religion. No-one cares a fig if Muslims want to attend their mosques and revere Muhammad. So, the rider would be more pertinently put as ‘in its manifestation as a political force’.  But at question then would be the use of the word prejudice – ‘preconceived opinion not based on reason’. Au contraire, disliking Political Islam has everything to do with reason.

Prominent and devout Muslim and medical doctor Zuhdi Jasser, the president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, uses the term ‘Political Islam’ to describe the Islam he doesn’t like. He would like to see a separation of mosque from state. Is he Islamophobic? It would be strange if he were and of course he isn’t. He is being absolutely reasonable and rational and without prejudice in rejecting theocratic government.

By the way, in case you read Dr Jasser’s stuff or see him (he often appears on US TV) don’t get to hopeful. He is impressive and appears to be absolutely genuine. But he admits that he’s not a Koranic scholar. This is useful for him because it means he can go on arguing against Political Islam with conviction; without the deflation that would come from understanding the futility of his cause.

He has weight among non-Muslims and zero weight; I would guess, among the imams. Cometh the witching hour, his head would go along with ours.

Back to Islamophobia. The word as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is internally contradictory. It is not possible to be enlightened, rational and reasonable and also to like or be unprejudiced against Political Islam.

Being prejudiced against religious despotism does not lend itself to being described in a pejorative way; just as being prejudiced against Nazism or ethnic cleansing or animal cruelty can’t be so described. The word adds confusion to the English language as would, say, a word such as ‘rabidophobia’ – a dislike or prejudice against being bitten by rabid dogs. It makes no sense. It serves no useful purpose.

‘Islamophobia’ should be discarded like a passing fancy and placed in the dustbin of etymological mishaps. Then, when the leaders of the myriad Muslim organizations that have sprung up in every Western country complain that it is Islamophobic to take steps to prevent people from being randomly decapitated (as, say, in Australia) or to protect the primacy of parliamentary laws (as, say, recently in Austria) we can say we don’t understand. And we can ask the complainants to explain their objections in plain words rather than via a meaningless slogan.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics