David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

“Islamophobia” Blunts Criticism of Religion

Brandon Sun, December 16, 2019 – David McConkey

Podcasts offer deep dives into fascinating and controversial subjects. I listened recently to the 2019 CBC Massey Lectures on the CBC Radio podcast, “Ideas.” This year’s topic is the long –  thousands of years! – struggle for women's equality. The lectures feature Canadian journalist, author and human rights activist Sally Armstrong. The title is Power Shift: The Longest Revolution.

Despite Armstrong’s sharp passion, though, her remarks about Islam seem blunted by political correctness. I blame the bogus concept of “Islamophobia.”

The intention behind “Islamophobia” is laudable: to discourage bigotry towards Muslims. But often the effect is to stifle criticism of Islam. The conundrum is rooted in a confusion between discriminating against people and speaking out against ideas. Everyone should respect all people, including Muslims. But everyone should have the freedom to criticize all ideas, including Islam. Because folks don’t want to appear bigoted toward people, they often hold back when commenting on the religion.

Canadian free speech advocate and self-described “atheist Muslim,” Ali A. Rizvi, would like more respect for people and more open discussion about religion. Instead of “Islamophobia,” he suggests we seek a better term, such as “anti-Muslim bigotry.” I applaud his proposal, but I worry that we are stuck with “Islamophobia.”

How does this stifling of criticism of Islam play out? Often two notions – both largely accurate – are used to gloss over problems plaguing contemporary Islam. The first: the Qur’an is a more modern and benign book than the Bible. The second: for a period of time after its seventh century founding, Islamic civilization was more enlightened than Christendom.

Armstrong channels this rosy thinking. Here are her first two sentences about the Qur’an:

“Well, you know the Qur’an was delivered by God through the archangel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad over 23 years. It promoted women’s rights in marriage, divorce, inheritance; it prohibited female infanticide; and it recognized women as full persons.”

These sentences are soothing, but deceptive. First, Armstrong reports that the words of the Qur’an came from God. As a journalist, shouldn’t she be obligated to report this event – not as fact – but as Islamic belief? Second, Armstrong portrays the Qur’an as a document about women’s rights. But the Qur’an is mostly about God and men. In the Qur’an, women are not  “full persons.” Yes, the Qur’an was ahead of its time – for the seventh century.

Armstrong does say that the Qur’an “belittled women.” But that description seems to melt into her larger theme that religions in general put down women.

Armstrong’s soft attitude toward Islam undercuts the courageous efforts today to reform that religion and advance women's rights. One heroic women's rights activist is ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She campaigns against forced and child marriage, female genital mutilation, and honour-based family violence.

Hirsi Ali and other activists identify a major barrier to progress. That barrier is the Islamic belief that the Qur’an consists of God’s actual words, which are good for all time. Reformers want Muslims to adopt the view of most Jews and Christians: scriptures were written by people and reflect their societies in those bygone times. So scriptural understandings should be updated for today.

The Qur’an, like the Bible, is ethically challenged. Both books, for example, casually accept men taking multiple wives as well as men owning sex slaves. So it is not bigoted to note that a literal reading of the Qur’an is problematic today. And it is not bigoted to note that many Islamic practices are problematic today. These include Islamic beliefs and customs that curtail the rights of women, of LGBT individuals and of citizens in general.

Armstrong’s presentation would be strengthened if she were as hard hitting toward Islam as she is toward other beliefs – from Confucianism to Christianity. I can’t help thinking that her commentary is subdued by the chilly shadow of “Islamophobia” and a dread of being labelled an “Islamophobe.”

On the whole, though, I enjoyed this year's CBC Massey Lectures. Armstrong offers a sweeping panorama of the role of women and the fight for equal rights. Armstrong describes the scene from prehistoric times to today’s “fourth wave feminism,” which includes #MeToo.

You can listen to Armstrong’s five-part lecture series on the CBC Radio “Ideas” website or podcast. The lectures have also been collected into a book, Power Shift: The Longest Revolution.

* * * *
See also: 

So Many Reasons to Appreciate Podcasts

Reading the Qur’an Key to Understanding Islam

Optimistic New Book From Muslim Writer

Gripping New Memoir from Canadian Author “Unveiled”

Authors Leading Vital Conversation About Islam



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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Some Reviewed Books:

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The Atheist Muslim:
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Stranger Than We Can Imagine:
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Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now


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Islam and the Future of Tolerance:
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Extraordinary Canadians:
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The Greatest Show on Earth:
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