Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism: a dubious comparison

Words, especially the catchy ones circulating in today’s journalism and blogosphere, can be curious instruments. In their trendy contagiousness, these neologisms nudge us in the direction of accepting half-baked notions that we might otherwise reject.

A case in point is “Islamophobia.” The etymology of this current expression shows how words can be incestuously generated. The term “homophobia” was coined about forty years ago. It was itself modeled on such terms as “agoraphobia” and “ailurophobia” (fear of cats). As I am scarcely the first to point out, homophobia is not a real phobia, because those who are said to be afflicted with this disorder can, in many cases, interact quite easily with gay people. Were this not so, the self-appointed task of the “ex-gay” groups would be impossible, for they would not be able to tolerate new clients long enough to get an opportunity to subject them to the dubious therapy they are peddling. As is well known, the “cure” process is long and arduous--and successful only in the rarest of cases.

In a recent speech, Hannah Rosenthal, a US envoy in Kazakstan, likened Islamophobia to anti-Semitism (see article by Edward Rothstein in the Arts section of the New York Times for July 6). The envoy’s intentions were surely good, but the comparison is deeply flawed.

The function of the two ethnically loaded terms is quite different. In fact they are almost perfect opposites. The expression “anti-Semitism” was invented in Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century. It was not intended as a salutary warning to Europe’s Jewish citizens that danger was looming. Rather it was meant to be a rallying cry for chauvinistic and extreme-conservative groups eager to advance “Aryan” values.

By contrast, “Islamophobia” is not hostile to Islam itself. Instead, it disparages opponents of Islam, not its supporters. It is an aspersion cast against those so labeled, not a rallying cry for more of the same. Undoubtedly, the term Islamophobia is meant to be Muslim-friendly. As Rothstein remarks, “one [term] was constructed by a group’s supporters, the other by a group’s enemies.”

Moreover, Islamophobia is a weasel word. If it simply served to spotlight stereotyping of Muslims and discrimination applied to them it could be useful. Yet the term’s semantic iridescence--its broad range of meanings--renders it a dubious instrument in the campaign to fight bigotry, a campaign that must be unflagging and universal its scope. At its worst. hurling the epithet Islamamophobia! seeks to shut down any criticism of aggressive behavior by Muslims, including the effort to impose Sharia law in sectors of Western Europe, not to mention such appalling horrors as honor killings, female genital mutilation, and gay bashing--crimes in which not a few individual Muslims have been involved.



Blogger Thomas Kraemer said...

Functional MRI studies have demonstrated that homophobia is a disgust reaction and not a fear reaction, which is normally associated with a phobia. Different areas of the brain light up on fMRI tests with these two reactions. Also, homophobic men tend to get erections when shown gay porn, unlike non-homophobic men.

There has been some research to compare anti-Semitism to homophobia. (I can't cite it from memory)

I have had the honor of talking with the man credited with coining the term homophobia, George Weinberg. He was unaware of the latest research, but recalled naming it a phobia because of his personal observations of reactions to homosexuals over 40 years ago.

See my previous post George Weinberg homophobia book 1972 (12/7/08)

11:49 AM  

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