Passing the dinner table test

So, apparently, the dinner tables of England are ringing to the sounds of casual Islamophobia. Baroness Warsi says so, and who am I to demur? I’ve never been invited to her dinner table and, if I were, I suspect I’d have some other things on my mind and on my lips. Like her government’s economic policy, for a start. Although it would seem that I’d be committing another faux pas since – along with religion – politics and money are also verboten. In truth, Baroness Warsi is telling us more about her privileged social milieu than she is about either manners or public attitudes to Muslims. A sad fact it may be, but the quantum of dinner tables is already in fast decline; most of those that exist rarely support formal dinner parties; and of those that do, I doubt many would be subjected to ruminations about Islam.

But aside from the Baroness’s rather quaint metaphor for what indicates that an idea or perspective has become mainstream, respectable, and a safe topic for polite society, is there any truth in her substantive complaint? Before trying to answer that question, a quick digression to complain about the modern tendency to attribute prejudicial views to a quasi-psychological condition by the neat device of adding “-ophobia” to whatever it is that has irked us. It won’t be long, I suspect, before someone accuses me of “toryophobia”, which I suppose is at least not quite as shady an attribution as “labourophilia” might be, with its connotations of an excessive attraction to a lady’s downstairs lip department. I don’t like these “-ophobia” constructions both because they are generally etymologically suspect (if homophobia means anything, it surely only means a morbid fear of any things which are the same – to make the point its coiners wanted to make it would need to be “homosexualophobia”, an expression whose very unwieldiness indicates it is probably not a useful word) but also, and more importantly, because they make assumptions about motivation that are not sustainable. It is just a sophisticated version of “scaredy-cat”. By suggesting that people are fearful of that which they don’t like, rather than simply hostile or ignorant about it, an attempt is made to by-pass the issues, and short-circuit them with a kind of macho challenge. You wouldn’t believe that crap if you weren’t a wuss who is scared by gays, Muslims, spiders, or whatever the matter at hand happens to be. The issue is much more likely to be irrational hatred than irrational fear. And because the perpetrators know that they are not in fact frightened, they can evade the challenge that the “-ophobia” name-callers would see themselves as throwing down.

Enough of the word: is there a reality that Islamophobia is trying to capture? There is certainly prejudice against Asians, as against all visible ethnic minorities in Britain. I’m less convinced that this anti-Asian sentiment is particularly religiously discriminating. It’s nothing to be proud of, but I suspect that the average person holding prejudiced views about Asians probably knows very little about Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other religion from the sub-continent. Their issues are to do with a misapprehension about the economic impact of immigration, along with a casual racism that is as blind to religion as it is to history. There is, to be sure, a widespread revulsion against some of the uglier aspects of the beliefs and activities of some Muslims. It’s hard not to be critical of the stoning of women, or the ecstatic celebration of the murder of a politician, or the indiscriminate murder of fellow citizens. It’s also hard not to be critical of some Christians who murder abortion clinicians, or who want to burn books, or who want to demonise homosexuals. I doubt that expressing those views would get me labelled as a Christophobic though.

You don’t have to be an atheist to deplore the behaviour of many followers of many faiths, both historically and now. I am highly critical of many of my fellow Christians, and I reserve the right to be critical of Muslims too. I am not Islamophobic: I have rational reasons for my critiques, which are not addressed to all Muslims everywhere. I am not afraid. At least not of Islam as a religion. If lived in Pakistan at the moment, I’d be very afraid indeed, but that would hardly be an irrational fear. To the extent that there is an irrational hatred of Muslims in Britain, it is about racism, and not about religion. To the extent that there is fear about some aspects of Islam as it is practised by some of its adherents, it is not irrational. What would be irrational, obviously, would be to believe that dinner tables have much, if indeed anything, to do with it.

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3 thoughts on “Passing the dinner table test

  1. Interesting but I think you rather miss Sayeeda’s (admittedly clumsy) point which was that we habitually lump all muslims together in our criticism. On the substantive point – and living where I do and doing what I do makes it pretty relevant – there is undoubtedly anti-muslim sentiment that is wholly seperate from prejudice against visible minorities. I have heard hundreds of times – literally hundreds – the comment that it’s muslims not Asians per se that are “the problem”. So my friend Omar who hasn’t been inside a mosque for years is seen as just as much a muslim as Khaliq who, with his beard, skull cap and shalwar cameez is almost a stereotypical muslim.

    I agree about the neologisms but that doesn’t change the substance – it is too easy and too accepted for people to treat all muslims as a homogenous lump rather than as a varied and diverse bunch of people. And this stereotype is problematic because it paints muslims as dangerous, threatening and secretive.

    • If I believed that was her only point, then I’d have little argument with it. However, I do think that the connection between anti-Muslim feeling and racism generally is stronger than you allow. In the example you cite, what is indicating to prejudiced people that Omar is a Muslim at all? The name? Do you think that the average ignorant racist knows which names are Muslim, and which not?

      I think the Baroness is indulging in some special pleading here, and it would be better if she was more vehement about racism generally rather than concentrate on Muslims, which while it is understandably the issue closest to her heart is not the main point here. Certainly I don’t agree with her that a general prejudice against Muslims has become respectable and acceptable, any more than anti-Semitism has.

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