A suspect was arrested for starting a fire at a Houston, Texas, Islamic Center, on the busiest day of the Muslim calendar. Vile graffiti was left at a Rhode Island Islamic school: ‘F—k Allah,’ it screamed. ‘Now this is a hate crime.’ Police in Austin responded to a bomb threat at an Austin mosque.
Most tragically of all, three North Carolinian Muslims were murdered by their neighbor, and local police had the nerve to claim it was all ‘a parking dispute.’ Fortunately, the FBI didn’t buy it. They moved quickly to open a a hate crime investigation. But what we need is a national conversation.
All that happened in one week, and the mainstream response? Wondering if we’re just making it all up.
Just a few months ago, I was sitting around a table as we debated ‘Islamophobia’. Why don’t we just go with anti-Muslim hate, or anti-Muslim bigotry, or hell just bigotry—maybe, raising the stakes, outright racism? Except Islamophobes flatly deny any racism, and because some of the worst Islamophobes are left-wing progressives, comfortable with liberal values and blue-state politics, it’s kind of hard to make that charge stick. We don’t have a language to describe progressive bigots, after all.
This is why we need ‘Islamophobia.’ America is not cool with prejudices against inherent characteristics. ‘Race,’ the Islamophobe will argue, is ‘real’ in a way that religion isn’t. They’ll say that people choose their religion, but can’t choose their race. The way we talk about Jewish identity these days, too, is ethnically more than religiously. Anti-Semitism is like racism. The same goes for homophobia. If sexual identity isn’t a choice, then discrimination against gays and lesbians goes against who people fundamentally are. That is not just immoral, but unfair.
That’s what liberalism is all about: Accepting who you are, and celebrating who you choose to be. But because religion is a choice, religion doesn’t get to claim the privileges ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation do. You can convert out of Islam, you can choose not to wear a hijab, you can refuse to grow a beard. But you can’t not be black. You can’t not be Jewish. You can’t not be gay. Which is why we need the term ‘Islamophobia,’ because Islam is different. It’s not a race, and it’s not an ethnicity. In fact part of the reason Islam has so much power is because it tries to transcend race, and join ethnicities.
But even if all that is true, it doesn’t really matter.
Just because something is a choice doesn’t mean it’s only a choice, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t discriminate unfairly on the basis of it, incite violence against it, or demonize it. Because after all, religions are often treated like races. The Nazis decided who was Jewish. Bosnian Serbs picked out Muslims based on their last names, not their beliefs. Whether you got raped, maimed, shipped to a concentration camp, or killed, had less to do with what you believed than what someone else believed about you. That’s at the heart of Islamophobia. It’s why even though it might not start off as racism, it is experienced almost exactly the same.
And in that respect, Islamophobes have a lot to answer for.
If the language you use, the arguments you make, and the rhetoric you employ, lead to bomb threats, arson, vandalism, and outright murder, then it’s hate speech. If it leads you to judge all people based on the worst actions of a few, to impose collective guilt and collective punishment, then it’s wrong, no matter if it means radical Muslims killing Christians indiscriminately, or radical Christians killing Muslims indiscriminately. It’s called colonialism or, as half the planet experienced it, the nineteenth century. (Rather more recent in Chechnya, or Bosnia, or the Central African Republic.)
And we’re not going to stand for it. Not if it’s done by Muslims, and not if it’s done to Muslims. We will not allow our religion to become a haven for hate and intolerance, and we will not let our country be overrun by ignorant hordes. Rupert Murdoch wants collective responsibility—let’s honor his pledge with a call for individual accountability. We have resources, and we are not afraid to use them. We have voices, and we will not lower them. We have votes, and we are eager to cast them.
Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is the author of “The Order of Light” and “My First Police State.” His memoir, “How to be Muslim”, is due in 2016. He’s a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, formerly a Fellow at the New America Foundation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, and a member of the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Connect with Haroon on twitter @hsmoghul. The views expressed here are his own.