Melanie Phillips’ terrible column on the “fiction” of Islamophobia, annotated

The Times writer claims “Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate.” Is she right? Short answer: nope. Long answer: noooooope.

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“Remarks I made,” Melanie Phillips opens her Times column on Tuesday, “seem to have caused some controversy.” Well, that’s clearly the point. Her column that followed is an unusually blunt example of hate-bait: it is headlined ‘Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate’. Well, I’m taking the bait.

Sometimes writers don’t write their own headlines, but the body of the column follows through on its irresponsible and illogical premise.

Here’s a line-by-line evaluation of exactly where Phillips went wrong.

“There [is] no equivalence between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The former was a deranged demonisation of a people; the latter was used to shut down debate.”

No. Both are examples of a “deranged demonisation of a people”. The column is somewhat incoherent, but as far as I can tell Phillips here uses the word “Islamophobia” interchangeably between both its true meaning – a bigotry like any other, including anti-Semitism – and what she calls “the claim of Islamophobia”, which she appears to consider as its own nebulous movement (by whom? Phillips declines to specify) to abrogate the free speech of the nation in general, and Melanie Phillips in particular.

“Unlike the claim of Islamophobia, which was used to silence legitimate criticism of the Muslim world, anti-Semitism was based entirely on lies and demonisation.”

This is obviously a straw man argument of extraordinary proportions. The idea that Islamophobia is an entirely made-up concept specifically designed to “silence legitimate criticism” misses the very real effects of Islamophobia worldwide. In London there were 1,678 anti-Muslim hate crimes committed in 2017, up 40 per cent from the year before. In March 2018, letters were sent out in some cities announcing “Punish a Muslim” day. Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, has received an extraordinary and deplorable number of death threats for his Muslim faith.

“Criticism is legitimate because it is rational and grounded in evidence. Anti-Semitism is not criticism. It is instead a unique form of bigotry.”

While anti-Semitism is deeply pervasive, it is not the only type of bigotry that exists. It is obviously possible to make a legitimate critique of Islamist extremism or the behaviour of some Islamist or Muslim-majority nations without resorting to Islamophobia. Similarly, it is obviously possible to make a legitimate critique of the behaviour of the state of Israel without resorting to anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic tropes.

Obviously, anti-Semitism is pernicious and still extant across many communities, and some of its perpetrators are Muslims, just as many perpetrators of Islamophobia, or misogyny or other types of racism are Christians or Jews.

Racism is not a zero-sum game, and a member of any community or group can be both a perpetrator and a victim of racism at the same time.

“According to statistics published by the Jewish Community Security Trust about last year’s record number of anti-Semitic attacks, the ethnic appearance of the attacker was described in about one third of cases. Of those, about 25 per cent were of Asian, Arab or north African appearance. Many if not most of those are likely to have been Muslims, grossly disproportionate to the community’s estimated 4 per cent of the population.”

This is breathtakingly misleading reading of those figures. Even skipping past the assumption that “many if not most” of the attackers are “likely to have been Muslims” having been described as merely being of Middle Eastern appearance, it is an incredible stretch to call that difference “grossly disproportionate", given that even Phillips admits that the ethnic appearance of the attackers was only described in a third of cases. All you can say from that data is that there is not enough data.

In any case, the fact that the Muslim world has its share of anti-Semites is utterly immaterial to the fact that the Muslim community is victim to Islamophobia, just as the fact that some Jews are Islamophobic is immaterial to the fact that the Jewish community is victim to anti-Semitism.

“Anyone who calls out Islamist extremism as a fanatical or primitive interpretation of Islam currently dominant in the Muslim world is called an Islamophobe.”

This is demonstrably untrue. No serious commentator is saying that anyone who condemns the actions of Isis or al-Qaeda, or the lone wolf terrorists they inspire, is Islamophobic for doing so. What is in fact Islamophobic is when Islamist extremism is equated,  mistakenly, with the Muslim community as a whole, and a collective punishment is imposed for the actions of the extreme adherents to a niche and twisted interpretation of the religion.

“Of course not all Muslims are anti-Semites, just as many Muslims have nothing to do with Islamist extremism and are committed to western norms. And all attacks on Muslims are deplorable.”

Unsettling overtones here of the old cliche “Actually, I have lots of black friends”.

“A phobia is not a prejudice but a mental disorder. An irrational terror, it debilitates the victim for whom we feel sympathy. Yet Islamophobia is used to turn people into social pariahs. This is why. A mental disorder has no rational basis. A prejudice is merely a hateful viewpoint.”

This ridiculous act of logical gymnastics is the crux of the piece, and it is very illuminating as to what Phillips is trying to say – and why the column is such a failure. There are two ways to read this logical fallacy: either as a bafflingly stupid misunderstanding, or as a wilfully dishonest rhetorical trick.

Obviously, Islamophobia is not rooted in the same psychological basis as true phobias like arachnophobia (irrational fear of spiders), or coulrophobia (irrational fear of clowns); it is simply a shorthand word for a racial prejudice, just like anti-Semitism is. Islamophobia is not a medical diagnosis.

Phillips, who is not stupid, must on some level surely know this. But this makes her misattribution of the word’s meaning all the more egregious and dishonest.

“Anti-Semitism is in fact the only prejudice which can be viewed as a derangement of reason. Islamophobia seeks to arrogate that status to itself.”

I mean, come on. Demonstrably, all forms of prejudice, from misogyny, homophobia, and anti-black racism to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, are derangements of reason.

They are so because to make blanket judgments about any broad social group is never reasonable. To imply that some forms of predjudice have a basis in reason, as Phillips does in this line, is itself racist and dangerous. And it gets worse:

“That’s why the Muslim world invented the term: to turn criticism of the Islamic world into a pathology. Not only would this silence debate but it would serve a deeper project.”

We’re off at the deep end here. The idea that “the Muslim world” would invent the term in order to turn legitimate critique into some kind of invented victimisation is a pernicious conspiracy-theory. In fact, the term originates in French post-colonial scholarship of the early 20th Century, and entered the popular lexicon after 9/11, in part due to a speech by then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

“For the cause dating back to the Muslim wars against the Jews in the seventh century, now heard again from Islamists and their supporters, is to turn the Muslims into ‘the new Jews’. But they are not. The new Jews are still the old Jews.”

I honestly don’t know what she is trying to say here.

The turning Muslims into “the new Jews” quote is without attribution, and I can’t find its origin anywhere. I am Jewish, and I can confirm that I do indeed appear to still be Jewish today.

There also were not any “Muslim wars against the Jews in the seventh century”. I can only assume that Phillips is referring to the expulsion by Caliph Umar in 641 AD of both Jews and Christians from the Arabian caliphate, because if she’s talking about the seizing by Arab armies of Jerusalem 637 AD it bears mentioning that the population of what is now Israel was largely Palestinian Christians at that point.

Neither action can honestly be described as specifically anti-Semitic. In fact, under the Abbasid caliphate, which moved the capital to Baghdad, Jews and Christians were given legal protection and religious freedom, and a Jewish merchant class prospered in the new capital of Baghdad, according to Project Aladin, a UNESCO body aimed at countering Holocaust denial.

“Islamophobia is a mind-bending attempt at thought control. Equating it with anti-Semitism isn’t merely itself an attack on the Jewish people. Through its rebranding of totalitarian ideology as conscience, promoted by cowards, ideologues and imbeciles, it endangers us all.”

This ending remains entirely opaque. Phillips presumably means not Islamophobia itself, but her straw man of a mysterious “they” trying to push the idea on the public. What is the totalitarian ideology to which she refers? It is entirely unclear whether Phillips knows the meaning of the word.

Overall, the answer to the question begged by this deeply unpleasant piece is an obvious one: all racism is bad, and saying so in no way undermines any specific example of the genre.a

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.