February 29, 2012 | ASMEA

“Islamophobia” and the Silencing of Dissent

In recent years, much has been written on and discussed about “Islamophobia,” that contrived prejudice that is said to attach to those who question, however sincerely, prevailing understandings of Islam. For the self-appointed gatekeepers of acceptable thought, Islam embodies a tangible and fixed set of beliefs that cannot be legitimately contested, and those who dare to dissent, to challenge, to offend, risk being tarnished with the “Islamophobic” brush.

While free thinkers would be wise to reject attempts to artificially distort the marketplace of ideas, many of Islam’s self-appointed “spokespeople”—with the support of the United Nations at various levels—tend to the contrary.  Increasingly, international law and international institutions are being manipulated to sideline and silence critical voices.

Consider the recent Report on Islamophobia released by the Observatory of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an intergovernmental organization that “represents” the Ummah of over fifty Muslim countries and enjoys a permanent office at the UN.  The Report—while decrying “distortions” and “misconceptions” of Islam—blacklists such accomplished, yet assertedly “Islamophobic” scholars as Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington and Daniel Pipes.  “Attempts to defame it as a faith supportive of terrorism” are denounced, yet no effort is made to show how militant Islamists’ carefully-considered and theologically-articulate manifestos—for example, the statements of al-Qaeda’s leadership and Hamas’s 1988 constitution, the Charter of Allah—are somehow, so obviously, “un-Islamic.”  Lost seems to be the recognition that a liberal democratic framework can countenance no favored position, no pedestal of privilege, for Islam or, for that matter, any other religious ideology.  Islam’s “essence,” constantly changing and fluid, cannot be defamed.

One might be tempted to dismiss the Report as an attempt, however misguided, by the OIC to safeguard its particular interpretation of Islam and disenfranchise perceived Martin Luthers.  This would be a mistake, however, because the Report satisfies itself not with mere political polemic but actually seeks to harness international law for its ends.  It demands a “binding legal instrument to fight the menace of Islamophobia in the context of freedom of religion and elimination of religious intolerance.”  While the structurally-challenged nature of international law should not be overlooked, the public relations coup that such an assault on freedom of expression would represent must be guarded against and would be significant if it were to be successful.

Indeed, the UN seems to be moving in the OIC’s direction.  In the last two years alone, the General Assembly and the successor to the infamous Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Council, have adopted resolutions condemning the defamation of religions—particularly Islam.  The Alliance of Civilizations—which operates under UN auspices—has expressed similar concerns and continues to castigate those who put forward alternative positions.

The idea behind these efforts seems to be that the constant insistence that Islam is peaceful, rather than acknowledging the legitimacy of alternative perspectives, including the argument that it knows many reasonable, plausible interpretations—pacific, belligerent and in-between—categorically makes it so.  But as Edward Said once noted, “with authorities who claim the secular right to defend divine decree there can be no debate no matter where they are.”

In this sense, one fears that the establishment’s reaction to the release this spring of Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders’ short film, Fitna, may portend things to come.  Three HRC Special Rapporteurs, in a joint statement the day after Fitna’s release, called on countries to stop such speech and also encouraged “legal remedies,” and in truly remarkable language, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that “the right of free expression is not at stake here.”

In what former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky has called “free societies,” discourses on the nature of the “good life” should be encouraged, not discouraged, and ideological convictions, religious or otherwise, should be vigorously debated, without fear of state interference.  The international denizens of human rights should not be allowed to replace free speech with sensitive speech.  Otherwise, as Wilders’ iconoclastic compatriot Theo van Gogh learned all too tragically, we may all have to watch our backs, lest the debate be dominated not by the pen, but by the sword.

Dr. Robert Barnidge is a lecturer of international law at the University of Reading and a member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). The opinions expressed here are his own.

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