Phobias are not my thing — I am not afraid of heights, depths, open spaces, enclosed spaces, crowds and neither do I get the creeps when I see spiders, snakes, lizards or any other creature unless they have sharp teeth, are hungry and poised to strike with no bars between them and myself.
I do believe phobias exist, just as the colour-blind have to concede that the world is not grey or black and white. Recent decades have bred new phobias. ‘Homophobia’ is not a fear of gay people and it isn’t a sickness one can’t help. It’s hatred born of ignorance, prejudice and not minding one’s own business. I am quite willing to believe, as I have heard said, that some homophobes may be closet gays and have deep-seated psychological defects or problems which emerge in this irrational antagonism.
The same is perhaps true of Islamophobia. This is a recent coinage and seems to mean regarding Islam and Muslims in the same way that anti-Semites regarded Jews and Judaism. Giving it the designation of a ‘phobia’ elevates it to a psychological syndrome, a sort of affliction, whereas anti-Semitism is a labelled and vile prejudice. This is a function of the different times in which the phrases were coined. Anti-Semitism is as old as Christianity, whereas ‘Islamophobia’ is a recent coinage which sees the perpetrator as some sort of sick victim.
Islam has, through the ages, been variously denounced as a heresy, as fanaticism, as a religion of cruelty and other not very pleasant things. The people who called it a heresy were not labelled Islamophobic. They were usually called theologians.
It was when Muslims began to live as minorities in western countries in recent times that their religion was vilified or held responsible for some practice disapproved by the majority that the misleading term became current.
More often than not, these phobic terms are wrongly used. I don’t believe that condemning suicide bombing as terror and murder inspired in very many instances by some possibly distorted Islamic belief in martyrdom is Islamophobic. It’s telling it like it is.
To contend that the wearing of burqas or hijab is an abomination and is symptomatic of the Islamic oppression of women is a contentious opinion which can be argued against and perhaps refuted, but it doesn’t fall into the sin of Islamophobia. It is telling it as it arguably may be.
There are borderline cases. Is the more thorough security- searching of men with beards and obvious Islamo-religious costumes at airports a bit of paranoid Islamophobia? I think it is — because people who wanted to steer planes into tall buildings after hijacking them wouldn’t dress that way. Or are they relying on a double-bluff to get them through? I have been asked if as an Asian I am aware of other Asians being randomly attacked after September 11 or after the train bombings in Madrid and London. I have heard stories of Sikhs being assaulted in the US but don’t know of any British Islamophobes who have fallen into that error.
Nevertheless there is a strong current of Islamophobia in Britain. It stuck its head above the parapets last night on a widely followed popular, if intellectual, BBC programme and, I have to add, was immediately shot down.
It was about a court judgement instigated by Clive Bone, a councillor (a member of a town or district’s municipal ‘local’ government) in Bideford, Devon, supported by the British National Secular Society. Bone took a test case to court contending that as an atheist he objected to Christian prayers being the first item on the agenda of every council meeting he attended.
His lawyers contended that though Britain was a Christian country without a written constitution as such and the Queen was supposed to rule by the grace of God, including prayers on the agenda of council meetings was an intrusion of religion into a purely political democratic procedure. Bone won his case. In a historic judgement the court ruled that a compulsory opening prayer should not form part of the agenda of council meetings. Just as the British parliament did before convening for each session, council members could say a prayer and ask for God’s guidance, but this should not form part of the agenda of meetings. Attendance wouldn’t be compulsory.
The judgement seems perfectly reasonable. Of course the prayers that are said before council meetings in Britain are Christian prayers. No council with a large number of Muslim councillors — as is the case in at least one borough, that of tower hamlets, where there is a large Bangladeshi population — has asked for a Muslim prayer to begin proceedings. The court’s judgement has been challenged by churchmen and politicians alike. The minister for local government, Eric Pickles told the nation that the Bill which enables the reversal of this court judgement has already been passed and that soon councils, through a majority vote, can reinstate Christian prayers to open meetings regardless of whether they offended non-Christians.
Churchmen told the nation that this was the negation of traditions that were centuries old and an unwelcome thin end of a secular wedge that threatened the moral fabric of the nation.
One of the commentators on the BBC, however, attributed the judgement, the result of a case brought by an avowed white, native atheist, to the ‘pressure of the Muslim minority’.
The truth of the matter was immediately pointed out, but the idea that any erosion of Christina faith or authority is achieved through the creeping or rampant influence of Islam persists. That feeling of a slow corrosion is, I believe, persistent and widespread and can indeed be labelled an irrational phobia.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal