A Tale of Two Speeches (or, Islamophobiaphobia)

by Barry King

On June 4, 2009, only a few months into his presidency, US President Obama gave a major speech about US relations with the Muslim world, at Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. Reuters reported that the President’s objective in the speech was to “repair ties that were severely damaged under his predecessor George W. Bush.” One sign of that damage was that at the end of Bush’s term, only 27% of Egyptians reported having a favorable view of the USA. Today in 2015, after the first six years of President Obama’s tenure, that approval rating in Egypt has dropped an additional 17 points, to the current abysmal 10% (according to Pew Research). That’s the real-world result, so far, of Obama’s pressing of his metaphorical “reset button”.

On January 1, 2015, only a few months into his presidency, Egyptian President Al-Sisi gave another speech in the same venue, at Al Azhar.

What Obama said, in summary and paraphrase, was: Islam is a really good and progressive religion of peace and scholarship. Progress toward peace now will involve the west achieving a greater understand and respect for how good Islam really is. In even briefer summary, he said: The problem is Islamophobia.

What al-Sisi said, in summary and paraphrase, was: Islam is messed up. Progress toward peace will involve Muslims getting their act together, so that they quit acting like jerks. In even briefer summary, he said: The problem is Islam.

Another, similar divergence between US views and Arab-world views occurred recently when the Islamic government of the United Arab Emirates added the US based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to their list of terrorist groups, based on whom CAIR favors and applauds, and what they do with their money. In contrast to that, the Obama administration views CAIR as good and progressive representatives of Islam (while insisting that ISIL is “not Islamic”).

It has been the custom of Obama administration spokesmen to respond to criticism of CAIR with an accusation of “Islamophobia” aimed at the critic. I imagine there must have been some cognitive dissonance in the White House recently, because in these cases, the standard response to something like the UAE terror group listing and to al-Sisi’s speech, would be to accuse the critics - in these cases, the devoutly Muslim UAE government, and the devoutly Muslim Egyptian president - of being “Islamophobes”. That would be complicated.

How did we get to this point, of only 10% approval of the USA in Egypt, and absurd cognitive dissonance about “Islamophobia”? My view is that we got here by way of Islamophobiaphobia. To define the term: if Islamophobia means, an irrational fear or hatred of Muslims or of Islam, then Islamophobiaphobia (hence IPP) means, an irrational fear or hatred of “Islamophobia”. Some examples:

1. When Obama says in Cairo (in effect) that the problem is Islamophobia, that’s a sign of IPP.

2. When former Secretary of State Clinton says about events in Benghazi (in effect) that it makes perfect sense to her that people might want to riot and kill because they find a video offensive, and that the US government wants to curry favor with Libyan terrorists by helping enforce sharia law against the “blasphemous” guy who made the video, that’s a sign of IPP. This example has the additional feature of being unusually ill-informed in comparison to other examples (which are all ill-informed to some degree) since the events referred to, in Benghazi, didn’t have anything to do with the video in question.

3. When Islamic terrorists murder journalists in France, and the first thing that mainstream media reporters think of is, “Oh no, now we are going to have a violent backlash from Islamophobes, who are going to attack innocent Muslims”, that’s a sign of IPP.

One good way to evaluate hypotheses is to check their predictive ability. Taking example #3 as a case in point: such predictions about a massively violent public backlash against innocent Muslims have been made after every terrorist atrocity since 9/11, but they never actually happen. In France, the only uptick in hate crimes following the Charlie Hebdo attack, was an uptick in violence against Jews. One might hope that repeated predictive failures like that would prompt the Islamophobiaphobes to review their premises and assumptions, but they don’t seem to do so. Even that recent, outrageous attack in France failed to break the pattern. The same old, same-old IPP was trotted out in the west, right on cue.

Where does it come from? Hard to say, but my guess is that it comes from the same source as Obama’s campaign comment that people who don’t vote for him are probably clinging bitterly to their guns and their religion. Funny thing about that: even though internationally, Muslims are well represented among those who cling bitterly to their guns and their religion, in the comment in question, Obama was almost certainly referring to American Christians. Candidate Obama could hardly conceal his self-righteous disdain for the conservative proletariat to whom he was referring in that remark. He himself, along with his fellow members of the progressive elite, would of course never be found guilty of clinging bitterly to guns or religion, or (this is the current point) of Islamophobia. However, he likes to imagine that the conservative proletariat which fails to vote for him consists of backward and ignorant rubes who in his imagination *do* cling bitterly to their guns and religion, and are also probably Islamophobes. Of course some of them are, but I suspect that most of them are not, noting as evidence that the IPP-predicted massive and violent backlashes against innocent Muslims always fail to materialize.

Thus IPP is born, takes root, and grows in the self-congratulatory imagination of progressive western elites. Around the world, Islamic terrorists are of course delighted with that, because it allows them to re-tweet all the IPP comments coming from the west while saying, you see, we are right (about irrational western hatred and oppression and hatred directed toward us, that the problem is “poverty”, etc. etc.). But moderate Muslims, as represented by the UAE listing of CAIR as terrorist, and Al-Sisi saying that Islam is the problem, and millions of other moderate Muslims all over the world, listen to western sympathy for the terrorist viewpoint, expressed as IPP, and shake their heads in dismay and amazement.

Mr. President, you said in Cairo that “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” I wish you hadn’t said that. I don’t think that should, in fact, be part of your responsibility, as President of the United States. You were not elected as a religious leader, but as a secular leader of a religiously diverse country, which has freedom of speech enshrined in its Constitution – freedom that surely includes the right to publish negative stereotypes of any religion, as Charlie Hebdo did, as a part of the public debate about religion. It surely is not part of your duty to fight against negative stereotypes of Christianity wherever they occur, so why should you adopt and announce such a responsibility with respect to Islam?

I myself am a Christian: does that mean that my views as expressed here are informed by my Christian faith? I hope so, but that doesn’t mean that others won’t reach the same conclusion. Sam Harris is famous for his atheism, and in a recent appearance on Bill Maher he said: “We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people,” Harris began. “It’s intellectually ridiculous.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/10/04/bill-maher-and-sam-harris-debate-islamophobia-with-a-defensive-ben-affleck/

A sign of the times: a movie like “American Sniper” gets blasted in the west for being “Islamophobic” while it does not attract anything like that kind of response in Baghdad.

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