FOR a few hours after the killings in Norway, when many people guessed that the perpetrators were Muslims, the blogosphere buzzed with told-you-so indignation from those who argue that the threat to the Western world from political Islam has been underestimated. Surely now, it was said, people would see the need for vigilance, not only against Islamically inspired violence but against any Muslim talk that abets such violence.
Soon after, as it emerged that the killer was a self-appointed warrior for the white Christian West, the boot was on the other foot: defenders of Muslim rights began arguing that xenophobic violence, even by the unhinged, was abetted by any language that demonised Islam and all those who practise it. Then it came to light that many of the best-known critics of Islam in Britain and the United States were cited in Anders Breivik’s rambling 1,500-page manifesto. To some this seemed like proof that Islamophobic talk, even of the most cerebral kind, could have a cost in blood.
In response, critics of Islam were defiant, not embarrassed. In the sarcastic words of Mark Steyn, an Islamosceptic writer, posted in the National Review Online: “If a blond blue-eyed Aryan Scandinavian kills dozens of other blond blue-eyed Aryan Scandinavians, that’s now an ‘Islamophobic’ mass murder?” Equally strident in self-defence was Robert Spencer, an American whose website Jihad Watch is widely read by adversaries of Islam.
But for better or worse, the word Islamophobia, implying an intense, potentially violent antipathy towards the Muslim faith and its followers, is now firmly in the world’s political vocabulary. That may be one of the consequences of the Norwegian horror. Hitherto the term has often been called into question, especially if used to outlaw any strong dissent from Islam as a creed. A phobia suggests a prejudice, an irrational fear or hatred. Surely, some say, it is possible to criticise a religion, by disagreeing with its tenets or even arguing that they could have bad social consequences, without being malicious.