If Islamophobia means anything, it must be the fear and hatred of Muslims that makes it harder for them to live in diverse societies and operate effectively in the globalized economy and culture. But by that standard, who really are the worst Islamophobes?
Counterintuitively, it isn’t those who make a career out of demonizing Islam and Muslims like the self-appointed Catholic holy warrior Robert Spencer. Nor is it those for whom raw hatred is some sort of demented hobby like Jewish extremist Pamela Geller. Nor is it even the softer bigotry of the liberal American agnostic comic Bill Maher, who doesn’t like any religion but singles out Islam for particular opprobrium. It isn’t even the politicians in the United States and other Western countries like Peter King or Michelle Bachmann who have tried to win votes by presenting themselves as defenders against a Muslim fifth column.
For all the harm purveyors of the standard Islamophobic narrative undoubtedly cause, the worst Islamophobes – indeed in many ways the real Islamophobes – are the violent Muslim extremists who seem bent on providing Islamophobic narratives with some basis in fact. It’s ridiculous to equate Islam with terrorism as if the two are synonymous. There are any number of other terrorists and practitioners of political murder. And, of course, the violent Muslim extremists are not only a fringe in the Islamic world, they are a fringe of a fringe.
Yet their own actions are uniquely damaging in threatening, and sometimes even succeeding, in exacerbating fear and hatred of Muslims in the West and around the world.
The ironies are almost endless. The New York Times reported, for example, that Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev “was angry that the world pictures Islam as a violent religion.” So, he decided to try to help prove “the world” is right by murdering as many random people as possible at a sporting event. No amount of raving from bigots and propagandizing from hatemongers could possibly have done even a fraction of the harm he inflicted on the cause about which he was supposedly so concerned.
From their outset, the various forms of contemporary violent Sunni and Shiite political extremists saw themselves as defenders of the “downtrodden.” Chief in their bill of particulars has always been outrage about the way the West and other non-Muslim societies depict Islam and Muslims. By living up to the worst stereotypes of Muslims as violent fanatics, Tsarnaev was following in a tradition that essentially dates back to the late 1970s, where Salafist-Jihadists and Khomeinites have bizarrely sought to defend the integrity and reputation of Islam by using it as a rationalization for the mass murder of innocent civilians.
When Danish cartoons are understood as “insulting” the prophet Mohammed, and extremist organizations take the opportunity to organize violent riots with deadly results, who is the real purveyor of anti-Muslim sentiment? Some of the cartoons were racist, some clever, and some merely silly. If no one had reacted, surely no real harm would have been caused. If anyone associated with the cartoons was actually trying to promote fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam, their work was almost entirely done for them by the extremist groups and their cynical and vicious overreaction. That was the real Islamophobia, and infinitely more serious an insult to Islam and Muslims.
Probably the first incident of this kind of bizarre, self-inflicted Muslim promotion of Islamophobia was the Iranian death-threat fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. His novel The Satanic Verses is in no sense an Islamophobic or anti-Muslim book, even though it did contain a delicious caricature of Khomeini himself – which, along with the most cynical political ulterior motives, was probably the real reason for the death threat. But the book was already being condemned and burned by Muslim communities, especially in Britain and India, almost entirely by people who had never read a word of it on the grounds that it was “an insult to Islam.” Again, the real insult was the hysterical, bloodthirsty reaction, book burnings, death threats, riots, and all of the hideous manifestations of manufactured or misplaced rage.
Perhaps the most recent such incident is the brutal killing of a British soldier by two Nigerian men in Woolwich. In their ensuing diatribe, they cited the usual paranoid narrative about the Islamic world being under siege from the West. Naturally they also complained about being labeled “extremists.”
And thus it is that a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims – who are probably sincerely outraged at negative depictions of Islam and genuinely believe they are acting in its interests – become the very thing they hate the most. They are the most reliable allies of Western Muslim-haters, who play them like fiddles with the simplest provocations. And they are, without a doubt, the world’s ultimate Islamophobes.