Editor’s Note: Sometimes, when you write articles like these, you try to cram 10 pounds of baloney into a five-pound sack. I’m afraid this might be one of those times.

Islamophobia: It’s Not a Simple Concept


Reactions to radical Islam are so confused it’s often hard to tell the conservatives from the liberals. Although the religious right shares many philosophical similarities with the Islamists — opposition to modern science, women’s rights, gay rights and church/state separation, as well as an affinity for fundamentalism and theocracy — its members tend to be more viscerally hostile to Islam than most liberals.

Islamic values are a long way from liberalism, yet many on the left who decry Christian fundamentalism inexplicably take a more-tolerant attitude toward the Muslim variety. For example, when author Sam Harris referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas” on Bill Maher’s talk show, liberal actor Ben Affleck called him a racist Islamophobe.

The terms “racism” and “Islamophobia” are thrown around too freely, but they certainly can’t be equated. Muslims aren’t a race, any more than Zen Buddhists or Mormons. If you dislike blacks, Arabs or Asians, then you might be a racist, but Muslims can be black, Asian, Semitic or albino. Islamophobia is no more racist than a dislike of fascism, libertarianism, trickle-down economics or any other philosophy.


Racism involves hating people for ethnicity, which has no set of beliefs or values to be prejudiced against. This makes racism hateful and bigoted. It’s different from disrespect for a religion, philosophy or political affiliation, which is defined by the tenets and values that adherents accept or reject by their own free will, and which the rest of us in a free society are entitled to admire, mock or ignore.

Liberals often label Islamophobia as bigotry, but, based on the events of the past couple decades, it could more properly be termed “cautious discernment.” The First Amendment doesn’t preclude the right to yell fire in a crowded theater if the theater’s actually on fire.

Although the Constitution mandates that we respect everyone’s right to practice the religion of his or her choice, it doesn’t demand that we respect those choices. There’s nothing un-American about disparaging someone else’s faith, whether it’s Judaism, Christianity or Islam. (You don’t need to be a regular viewer of “South Park,” for example, to have a healthy skepticism toward Scientology.)

Liberals need to recognize that Muslims are just as responsible for the values they choose to accept as Christian conservatives are. However, right and left alike need to recognize that, although no religion or religious figure — from Moses to Jesus to Mohammed — is so sacrosanct as to be beyond criticism, caricature or ridicule, it is bigotry to discriminate against a particular individual just for being a member of an unpopular religion, or to demand that he be responsible for the actions of the worst members of his faith.

For example, conservative publisher and founder of Fox News (GOP-TV) Rupert Murdoch recently tweeted that most Muslims may be peaceful, but “until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer, they must be held responsible.” I’ve been hearing this sentiment for years in various forms, and not just from the right. At first, I found it sensible; then I thought about it a little.

Is it the job of Christians to “recognize and destroy” their worst denominations and adherents? Were Congregationalists in Connecticut held responsible for the lynchings perpetrated by Southern Baptist Klansmen in Mississippi? Which of my Christian friends is responsible for abortion clinic bombings? Was I responsible for my Irish Catholic brethren who, until recently, were killing Protestants back in the “old country”?

Like Christianity, Islam isn’t monolithic. Just as most Quakers opposed slavery, while Southern Baptists considered it a biblical mandate, Sufi Muslims differ greatly from Sunnis in the Islamic State. As Harry Potter’s creator J.K. Rowling tweeted, “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.”

Most Muslims, especially in the U.S., just want to go to work and raise their families, and are no more interested in militant Islam than the average Presbyterian is in persecuting homosexuals. Although it might be nice to hear the Pakistani shopkeeper who sells me my Lotto tickets voice contempt for ISIS, it’s not his job to fly over to Libya to “destroy” Islamist murderers.

One veteran of World War II told me that he felt no enmity for ordinary Germans until he saw the concentration camps, and realized the Nazis couldn’t have done it without the acquiescence of the German populace. American soldiers compelled many local civilians to bury the camps’ bodies, and, when I saw film of this, I thought the GIs didn’t go far enough, and should have tossed the German citizens into the burial pits as well.

But then I asked myself, “What could ordinary German citizens have done?” Even if they disapproved of Nazi policies, anyone opposing the Final Solution, physically or verbally, would have been sent to the camps along with the Jews. In the ISIS-controlled areas and other parts of the Muslim world, speaking against the jihadists might be equally perilous.

Similarly, how much influence do individual Americans have on U.S. foreign policy? Which of us is responsible for the wreckage we’ve helped create in the Middle East? Someday, if an Iraqi, distraught over our destruction of his country, decides to make a pilgrimage here to dance on Dick Cheney’s grave, he might be justified, but he has no quarrel with those Americans who opposed the invasion, but had no way of stopping it.

Author Salman Rushdie believes the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims may be embarking on a civil war that will determine their future. In response to growing militancy, conservatives want to “get tough,” but no one seems to know exactly what that entails, and even many on the right are resistant to putting “boots on the ground.”

Little we’ve done in the Mideast so far, including two decade-long occupations, has been successful, so maybe it’s best if we stay out of it as much as possible. When you’re dealing with something as confusing as radical Islam, less is probably more.

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