Point / Counterpoint: A Debate about Islamophobia, Christophobia, and Religious Freedom
This week, we publish another example of “Point / Counterpoint” discussions on the Blog. Klemens Ludwig starts with his take on Islamophobia and Christophobia; Rachel Woodlock then responds to his claims from her point of view.
Islamophobia? Christophobia? A Plea for an Equal Treatment of all Religions
When the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently converted the Hagia Sophia—used as a museum that documented the country’s diverse cultural tradition—into a mosque, there was some critical response in the Christian world, but no real outrage and only short time later, it was business as usual. That is rather amazing because for many centuries the Hagia Sophia has been one of the most prominent and holiest buildings in the Christian world. It is also noteworthy because there is no prominent talk about Erdogan’s “Christophobia,” or the widespread “Christophobia” in the Islamic world, while “Islamophobia” is a common catchword in Western countries. Not only Muslim groups use it when responding to critiques; but numerous Western intellectuals use it too. However, only a few ever accused the Erdogan government of being christophobic. And when in Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, or Iraq Christians are murdered, kidnapped, or expelled for the sole reason that they are Christians, only very few see “Christophobia” at work.
Furthermore, there is a tendency within Western intellectual and political circles that denounces any criticism of Islam as “racist,” as a “threat to democracy,” as “xenophobic,” or even “right-wing radicalism.” While some forms of criticism of Islam certainly use racist clichés, disavowing any criticism by bringing in this argument prevents a serious discussion. Any religion should be open to critiques.
The tightrope walk between justified criticism of Islam and Islamophobia is narrow, and irrational fears can be found in all religions. Yet, only for Islam a special term has gained wide currency. Why is that? This makes it necessary to have a closer look at the way Islamic countries treat other religions. Turkey has been an outspoken example of a laicist state, established by the founder of the Republic, Kemal Atatürk. And Turkey has a Christian tradition of almost 2,000 years, which was wiped out during World War I, when about 1.5 million Armenians and about 500,000 Arameans/Assyrians were systematically exterminated. Even Atatürk did not show much tolerance for the decedents of the victims. One hundred twenty years ago, about one third of the population of the present Turkish Republic was Christian; today, it is less than 0.1 percent. And yet, these last remaining Christians seem to be a threat to Turkish identity, and they are not allowed to practice their religion freely. Bedri Peker, president of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Turkey, complains: “Christians are portrayed as potential criminals, separatists, and traitors.”
“Anti-Islamic Racism” Contradicts the Basic Features of Islam
Another problematic expression is “anti-Islamic racism.” If there were such a thing, Islam would have to have an ethnic basis, or at least claims to represent a certain ethnic group. But this contradicts its basic setup, since it wants to reach all people, regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, or cultural affiliation. But the term will probably stay, because criticism of Islam is often subsumed under the general suspicion of racism. What is at stake here are not only semantic theories or concepts; these considerations have regard to religious freedom and the universal declaration of human rights.
No Islamic community, both in the past and in the present, has treated Muslims and non-Muslims equally. Such an observation is not an indication of “Islamophobia,” but a matter of historical honesty. And the fact that the Islamic rulers in the age of the caliphates between the ninth and the thirteenth century were more tolerant than most of the Christian rulers at the time reveals more about the character of the unholy Christian empires than about the exceptional tolerance of Islamic rule.
The reactions to such analyses are well known: It is not legitimate to generalize Islam! Of course, Islam comprises an extremely heterogeneous cultural area, stretching from the Arabized Northern Africa to the Malayans and Indonesians of Southeast Asia; from the Turk peoples of Central Asia to various ethnic groups of Central Africa. One conviction, however, connects basically all of these cultures, and is also shared by converts in Europe or the USA: the belief that Allah in the Qur’an has revealed his ultimate word to his believers. This is not only true for radicals in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Even in the more liberal Islamic countries, social conditions for religious minorities have deteriorated dramatically in recent years.
Indonesia and Malaysia are often mentioned as an example that Islam, tolerance, and diversity are compatible. And in many ways they are, but even there radical outside forces have become more and more influential; attacks on all those who deviate from the one true direction are becoming more frequent. This includes charges of blasphemy, which have become inflationary in Indonesia, but also political decisions. By way of example, when the very popular governor of Jakarta, Basuki Purnama (called Ahok), who is Chinese and Christian, faced reelection in 2017, Muslim fundamentalists didn’t really know how to attack him. Eventually, they turned to the very simple but effective strategy to proclaim: “Muslims do not elect a Christian.” In any event, Ahok lost the election. This would not likely happen on this scale in the Western world, where many metropolises have Muslim mayors, such as in London, Rotterdam, and Hanover. Still, we haven’t seen a public outcry about “Christophobia” in Indonesia.
Dealing with its own past is also disconcerting in most parts in the Islamic world. Granted intolerance, nationalism, racism, and the like are serious problems in western, secular, and Christian influenced democracies, it is still the case that colonial “heroes” and conquerors are being brought down from the pedestal in a direct and figurative sense. The same kind of heroes are rather unquestioned in the Islamic world. Take for example the Turkish historical TV drama Diris Ertugrul (“Ertugrul’s Resurrection”), which is also extremely popular in other Islamic countries. Some call it the “Muslim Game of Thrones.” The series is based on the life of the Oghus Turk leader Ertugrul, a warlord of the thirteenth century and father of Osman Ghazi, founder of the Ottoman Empire. It depicts the bravery of Muslim Turks fighting the evil Mongols, Christians, Byzantines, and the Knight Templars in Anatolia. The drama is so popular because it “glorifies the Muslim value system and the Ottoman empire,” as the BBC comments. In its substance, it’s the same “black and white,” “good and bad”-pattern as in Western films with John Wayne, who is heavily criticized because of his racist statements about Native Americans.
With these considerations, I want to make a claim for freedom of religion as a universal right, a right that does not depend on the sovereign’s generosity. We must be proactive in defending values such as diversity, tolerance, pluralism, and democracy—all over the world.
Calling for Christians’ Religious Freedom is No Reason to De-legitimize Islamophobia
Although young at the time, I remember the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution well because I was raised in a Baha’i family, and our little community of a few converts, hippies, and Iranian ‘pioneers’ quickly swelled in ranks with the swathes of refugees fleeing persecution. I know how important it is to fight for the rights of religious minorities in places where the stratification of society is based on religious group identity, not the least because I too became part of a stigmatized minority when I converted to Islam in the late ‘90s. Thankfully my experiences were mild by comparison, still I’ve had “terrorist” snarled at me in supermarkets and on public transport, and moved from front-of-house in my job to hidden out back, when I put on a hijab.
I write this to say whilst I think it is absolutely vital to recognize the existence of prejudice against Christians (and other minority groups) at the hands of Muslims, yet this is no reason to de-legitimize the existence of Islamophobia as Klemens Ludwig does in his post “Islamophobia? Christophobia? A Plea for an Equal Treatment of all Religions.” Whilst Islamophobia isn’t synonymous with racism, because it is perceived as the religion of the Brown Man, it is regarded as inherently inferior, suspiciously troubling, and most importantly: Not-Western. Writ large, this suspicion becomes the belief that the Brown Man’s religion somehow makes it impossible for him to aspire to freedom and democracy.
Ludwig makes the error of reifying Islam, such as where he writes its “basic setup” is that “it wants to reach all people, regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, or cultural affiliation” (my emphasis). Islam cannot want anything: it is not a living, breathing human being. Reification allows the Islam-critic to project on it a unitary ontological manifestation with a mission for world domination, one that must be resisted by those wishing to ‘save’ Western civilization. However, Islam is not one thing. Like Christianity/Christianities, there are many Islams that are the product of how various Muslims interpret their scriptures, narrate their stories to construct their histories, and define different acts and practices as religious. This is why the Islams of the peacenik Sufi, the modern feminist Muslimah, the bearded seminarian in Azhar, or the gun-toting militant in Syria are so vastly different in expression.
By asserting that Muslims the world over are united in their basic theological assumptions, Ludwig implies the ‘true’ interpretation of Islam and the Qur’an is un-democratic, exclusivist, and religiously intolerant. He is, in effect, choosing to give preference to a fundamentalist interpretation promoted by (for example) the opponents of Jakarta’s former governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok) when they successfully defeated his campaign to be re-elected on the basis of his Christian affiliation. Ludwig dismisses those Indonesian Muslims who had supported Ahok as running mate to Joko Widodo (leading the way to his governorship) and their more tolerant version of Islam that clearly doesn’t have a problem with Christians as elected officials.
Ludwig is correct when he writes that “no Islamic community, both in the past and in the present, has treated Muslims and non-Muslims equally.” But even today no Western society truly treats its citizens with full religious neutrality, admirable as may be this goal. Even in those nations where there is not an official state religion, Christianity is still privileged in societal structures. Easter and Christmas are universally recognized holidays; marriage, divorce, and burial practices conform to Christian norms; churches are numerous and rarely face the same planning objections that other houses of worship (particularly mosques) face; where religious instruction is taught in schools, it is largely Christian in focus and availability; and most politicians at least nominally affiliate as Christians.
In Germany, for example, anti-Muslim sentiment is strong, with women’s religious veils being the subject of discriminatory legislation, and prejudice against Muslim immigrants, particularly women wearing religious dress, rife as Doris Weichselbaumer’s 2016 study found. Aggressive secularism in Europe not only negatively affects the religious freedom of Muslims, but Jews, Sikhs, Orthodox Christians, and other religious minorities as well. Hardly something to which the Muslim world should aspire.
State neutrality and the discussion around democracy and pluralism is far from absent amongst Muslims, as Andrew March discusses in his excellent book Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus (2011). Muslims are more than willing and able to draw on Islamic doctrinal resources to support the concept of liberal democracy. Although March is specifically interested in the question of Muslims living as minorities, the religious arguments themselves are transposable to Muslim-majority societies. This directly contradicts Ludwig’s assertion that faithful Muslims everywhere are simply unable to countenance anything other than theocracy.
Take Egypt, for example, where young Muslims’ support for the Arab Spring was perhaps nowhere more evident. As Juan Cole writes in The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East (2014):
The demand for bread, liberty, and social justice on the part of the revolutionary youth of 2011 was an attempt to craft a political coalition. The poor and workers wanted “bread”, that is, an improved standard of living. The urban middle classes wanted freedom and dignity, that is, a democratic, liberal politics and freedom of expression on the Western European model. And the unions and student left wanted a more equitable society with a social safety net, minimum wage, and less impunity for rapacious billionaire oligarchs. (p. 269)
Unfortunately, more peaceable and democratic manifestations of Muslim nation-states aren’t in the economic and political interests of Western powers, or we wouldn’t see the United States’ almost unconditional support for human-rights violating dictatorships in the Muslim-majority world. That’s not a question of religion, it’s a question of power.
We should work for a world in which religious freedom is knitted into our societies’ very DNA, but we all have a task to make this a reality, whether living in Cairo, Dublin, Riyadh, Washington, or Berlin.
Klemens Ludwig (born 1955) studied theology and is a longtime activist and honorary member of the German Society for Threatened Peoples, author, tour guide in Asia, and astrologer. For decades he has been committed to cultural diversity and self-determination.
Dr. Rachel Woodlock is an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of the Study of Religions, University College Cork (Ireland). She co-edited Fear of Muslims? International Perspectives on Islamophobia with Professor Douglas Pratt (Springer, 2016), an evidenced-based examination of Islamophobia in both ‘old-world’ Europe and the ‘new-world’ of America and Australia, and also Southeast Asia.
Counterpoint blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 28 October 2020.”
The views and opinions expressed on this website, in its publications, and in comments made in response to the site and publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated. Counterpoint exists to promote vigorous debate within and across knowledge systems and therefore publishes a wide variety of views and opinions in the interests of open conversation and dialogue.
Photo credits: “Hagia Sophia becomes a Mosque again” by Mike McBey, downloaded from Flickr.