I am taking part on Friday in a discussion entitled ‘When does criticism of Islam become Islamophobia?’, hosted by Oxash, the Oxford Atheists, Secularists and Humanists. So, I thought it might be worth setting out the basic points that undergird my own thinking about the relationship between criticism, Islam and Islamophobia.



Islamophobia is a problematic term. This is not because hatred of, or discrimination against, Muslims does not exist. Clearly it does. Islamophobia is a problematic term because it can be used by both sides to blur the distinction between criticism and hatred. On the one hand, it enables many to attack criticism of Islam as illegitimate because it is judged to be ‘Islamophobic’.  On the other, it permits those who promote hatred to dismiss condemnation of that hatred as stemming from an illegitimate desire to avoid criticism of Islam. In conflating criticism and bigotry, the very concept of Islamophobia, in other words, makes it more difficult to engage in a rational discussion about where and how to draw the line between the two.



When it comes to criticizing ideas, nothing should be out of bounds. Nothing should be unsayable simply because someone finds it offensive. Particularly in a plural society, offending the sensibilities of others is both inevitable and important. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities.

‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged.  To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority.



If no criticism should be off limits, nevertheless some kinds of criticism need to be challenged. The other side of defending free speech is the necessity of confronting bigotry.  The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is, in other words, morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to also stand up to racism and bigotry.



When does criticism become bigotry? The line is crossed when criticism of Islam, of ideas or beliefs, become transposed into prejudice about people; or when critics demand that Muslims are denied rights, or be discriminated against, simply because they happen to be Muslims.

We should oppose all discrimination against Muslims in the public sphere, from discriminatory policing and immigration laws that might specifically target Muslims, to planning regulations that make it more difficult to build mosques than other similar buildings or restrictions on the ability of Muslims to assemble or worship that apply merely because they happen to be  Muslims.  Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence. Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. A Muslim should have the same rights and obligations as any other citizen.

We should also oppose all attempts to use criticisms of Islam to demonise Muslims. But criticism of Islam, of whatever kind, even if it is offensive or bigoted, should not be a matter for the criminal law. Bigoted speech should not be a legal but a moral issue. Just as Muslims have the right to express their beliefs, short of inciting violence, so should everyone else, including the right to express the most pungent beliefs about Islam. A society that outlawed anti-Muslim arguments would, in my mind, be as reactionary as one that banned Muslim immigration or pursued discriminatory forms of policing.

muslim at prayer



It is important to make the distinction between criticism of Islam and prejudice against Muslims. There is also, however, a large gray area on the borderlands of bigotry that needs addressing, a gray area between, on the one side, vicious anti-Muslim hatred and, on the other, absurdly self-serving claims of ‘Islamophobia’ hurled at everyone from Salman Rushdie to Tom Holland. It is a large gray area where you may sometimes find, say, the likes of Sam Harris or Martin Amis. I have been highly critical of both; not because they are bigots in any reasonable sense of the word but because their arguments often so lack nuance, and are so bereft of context, that they both provide intellectual ammunition for bigots and can become a means of mainstreaming bigoted arguments.

Much of the problem arises from the way that the debate about Islam is filtered through the lens of the ‘clash of civilizations’, the claim that there is a fundamental civilizational difference between Islam and the West that will, in the words of Samuel Huntingdon, the American political scientist who popularized the term, set the ‘battle lines of the future’, unleashing a war ‘far more fundamental’ than any ignited by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’. The ‘clash of civilizations’ is a threadbare argument, but it is part of a genuine academic debate. It is also the frame through which the ‘otherness’ of Muslims is established, a frame within which both popular discussion and the arguments of the bigots, including tellingly those of Islamists, have developed.

The academic arguments need challenging. So do popular perceptions, and the arguments of the bigots, too. The academic debate is clearly distinct from the popular discourse which in turn is separate from the claims of the bigots. Yet not only does each shade into the other, but the academic debate also provides the intellectual foundation for both the popular discussion and for the arguments of the bigots.

The real issue we need to address, then, is not so much where to draw a distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ criticism, as how to remake the very framework within which Islam is viewed, a framework that helps define both mainstream and bigoted ideas. Or, to put it another way, we should stop being so obsessed by the distinction between legitimate criticism and Islamophobia, and start thinking about how an obsession with both Islam and Islamophobia distorts our culture and our debates.


  1. Scott Reilly

    Terrific article and such wonderfully clear thinking.

    There is one issue that I would like to raise though. You say that “We should oppose all discrimination against Muslims in the public sphere, from discriminatory policing and immigration laws that might specifically target Muslims,…” but could there not be cases where some laws are morally justifiable while discriminating specifically against one group. For example, if a government took a decision to ban the religiously sanctioned ritual slaughter of animals. Such a ban would seem to discriminate against Muslims and Jews only but would be morally justifiable regardless considering our duty not to treat animals with cruelty, or at least in an event that the state took similar steps to ban all cruel practices towards the keeping and killing of animals, not just for halal or kosher reasons.

    So I guess my question is whether you think discrimination against a group would be permissible in this case or similar ones.

    Much obliged,

    • Thanks for this. This is not a question that arises simply with respect to Islam or halal meat, but is part of a much broader debate about religious practice – the same kinds of questions have come up, for instance, with respect to Christian b’n’b owners refusing to let rooms to gay couples or Christian marriage registrars refusing to marry gays. My view, as I set out in my Notes on Religious Freedom is that

      As a society we should tolerate as far as is possible the desire of people to live according to their conscience. But that toleration ends when someone acting upon his or her conscience causes harm to another without consent, or infringes another’s genuine rights.

      But while I have no objection in principle to acts of conscience being curbed if such acts harm others or discriminate against them in the public sphere, I also think that such curbs should be as minimal as possible (and not just when it comes to religious practices). In this case, I don’t see the need to ban halal or kosher meat.

      • The issue of halal (or kosher) meat is even more complex as it brings the rights of those favouring ritual slaughter into conflict with those with religious taboos prohibiting the consumption of ritually slaughtered meat.

        Where food chains have adopted halal meat by default without notifying customers they may be discriminating against Sikhs.

      • There are many practices that only certain groups pursue. Banning such a practice may not necessarily be discriminatory (for instance banning FGM). But, equally, banning everyone from practising a particular act is not necessarily to adopt a non-discriminatory stance if that ban in reality affects, and is intended to affect, only a limited number of groups. It all depends upon context. The point I was making here, though, was less about potentially discriminatory laws than about the relationship between the state and individual conscience. My view is that as a society we should tolerate as far as is possible the desire of people to live according to their conscience, and that the state should not prevent people from acting upon their beliefs, unless in so doing they either physically harm another or transgress upon another’s rights in the public sphere. I can see why some may wish to put ritual slaughter in that category. I would not.

  2. Surely,
    If someone is a bigot, address their bigotry;
    If someone is prejudiced, address their prejudice;
    If someone is a racist, address their racism;

    Why this islamophilic need to invent a silly word to protect a specific group of people from the above?

    • Galactor

      Excellently put. If someone is raising legitimate criticism against something, whatever their motivations, the criticism does not evaporate just because it is made by a bigot or not.

  3. “A Muslim should have the same rights and obligations as any other citizen.”

    You forgot to add: “unless they are a female Muslim, of course.”

  4. bruce madeiros

    Great words of thought and I am reminded that your views are backed by the newly ammended Public Order Act 1986 which has removed the word ” insulting” but keep the word “ abusive”.

  5. Paul

    Somehow I doubt that, say, people who burn down embassies, riot en masse et cetera because of a few cartoons will give a shit about this blog post.

    This message needs to be brought by enlightened Muslims to those less so, or it will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, blatant racism should be challenged as well.

  6. Niels Christensen

    Pascal Bruckners take, in german; link to the french version at the bottom of the article from a couple a weeks ago.

    I hope to return later on this. But just one point in relation to the ‘clash’ thesis. In connection to the debate in Denmark about the the young danish poet ( with palestinian roots) Yahya Hassan I travelled through a lot of Facebook threads. I was a bit surprised to find such a massive muslim identity and and a worldview which was constructed with the West as an ‘enemy’ both today, but of course historically. I found it at people I wouldn’t characterize as islamists ( in the more classic sense), but among people who identify themselves with AKP ( Turkey) and parts of the MB. I think the ‘clash’ thesis among muslims a far more widespread than most observers think. It’s a thesis that are alive among many turks and MENA muslims in second and third generation. It’s been there a long time, but incidents like the coup against Morsi, or the Western critique of Erdogan ( Gezi Park) are taken as a sign of western double standards and wish to influence muslim politics. But of course at the same time a consequence is a division among muslim living in Western Europe ( just as in the Middle East), but it’s a unequal division because the traditionalist dominate the religious interpretation.

    In case you haven’t seen it, link to the WSJ article

  7. P Smith

    The term “islamophobia” is hurled around and misused by many who want to conflate arguments and make false accusations. It’s easier to silence and argument by labelling it “hate speech” than to address it – and they usually do it because the argument is right. That deplorable tactic has been used for decades by defenders of Israeli policy who hurl claims of “anti-semitism” at those who have valid criticism of Israel.


    Critic of Israel: “The Israeli military fired white phosphorus at Gaza in January 2009.”
    Rabid Israeli defender: “You’re calling for jews to be gassed!”

    Critic of Egypt: “Morsi is a criminal and deserves to be in prison.”
    Rabid islamic defender: “You’re claiming all muslims are criminals!”

    Those might be exaggerations, but not by much. All bigotry is wrong, regardless of who is being targeted, but so are false accusations and attempts to silence valid arguments. This is why the religious want blasphemy laws again, so they can make false accusations and imprison those who question them.

    • The examples you give seem a bit a strange, but I agree that there is a similar issue in the blurring of the distinction between criticism of Israel, of Zionism and of Judaism, on the one had, and anti-Semitism on the other.

  8. Vann Jons

    Much appreciate this thoughtful article. But one concrete, tangible, indispensable aspect of the issue is not mentioned: The two great and unforgivable sins in Islam are apostasy and–more instructive in understanding motivations to charge of Islamophobia and violence itself–blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. Those born and raised Muslim and, with treble effect, newish converts receive nothing short profound emphasis and re-emphasis in how uncontrovertibly and irrefutably important the latter of the two great sins is. When it comes to insults to Islam and its notable figures, it’s almost an unbridgeable gap in developed, liberal societies, even among a large percentage of mainstream or liberal Muslims. Solution? Time, viable leadership, education, and, well, time…it took many centuries for Christiandom’s skin to thicken, and perhaps in exponential times, sensitivities around Islam and criticism thereof will diminish more quickly.

  9. Phil

    “And whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. A Muslim should have the same rights and obligations as any other citizen.”

    So, are you saying, that we should allow anybody to practice their religious rituals in peace, as long as he doesn’t harm anybody, even if the religion behind these rituals advocates to handle “nonbelievers” with disrespect or even kill them only because they don’t believe or maybe because they criticize this rush for killing others, when they don’t comply with these believes (Quran 2:190-193, 4:89, 5:33, etc.)?

    In this specific case, do you think, nonmuslims shall allow muslims to practice their prayers, when their religion includes the chase and killing of nonmuslims?

    • Deuteronomy commands the Israelites to ‘utterly destroy’ the other nations that inhabit the Promised Land, forbidding them from making a covenant with other tribes or from showing ‘mercy unto them’. Leviticus instructs believers to ‘chase your enemies and they shall fall before you by the sword.’ It also tells us that if a ‘man commiteth adultery’, then both ‘the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.’ According to Exodus, ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. It insists that those who work on the Sabbath may be put to death. And so on.

      So are you suggesting that synagogues and churches be closed down and Jews and Christians be banned from practicing their faith? Or does your intolerance extend only to Muslims?

      • Kinana

        I notice that you side-stepped the question from Phil. He reasonably asked you a question which flowed quite naturally from your essay. It is difficult, if not impossible, to have a conversation about Islam when the subject is immediately changed to Judaism/Christianity. By shifting the ground of the discussion you are presuming equivalence between these three religions, their respective texts, the application of their texts and their interpretation in the modern world, which in my opinion and understanding does not exist. You seem to agree that the texts sited by Phil do in fact encourage Muslims to behave in a way this is violent toward non-Muslims and I would add also women (e.g. Qur’an 4:34). But I am not sure that you even see that there is a problem? Or do you think that there is absolutely no problem until a Muslim acts on these encouragements from their Allah?

        • I did not sidestep the question at all. The point I was making was that it is as ludicrous to suggest that a Muslim should be banned from practising his or her faith even if, in Phil’s words, ‘he doesn’t harm anybody’, as it is to suggest that Jews or Christians should be banned from practising theirs just because Deuteronomy or Leviticus tells them to ‘utterly destroy’ their enemies or to put adulterers to death. The issue here is not the equivalence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is your discriminatory attitude towards Muslims. Do I think that the line in the Qur’an that demands of ‘transgressors’ that you ‘kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you’ is acceptable in the modern world? No. Nor do most Muslims. Do I think that the demand in Exodus that ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ is acceptable? No. Nor do most Jews and Christians. In all cases what matters is not what a particularly Holy Book says but what believers actually do. When believers commit a crime, they should be treated like anyone else who has broken the law. Otherwise they should be treated like anyone else who has not broken the law – in other words be free to assemble, worship, and practise their faith. To discard that principle simply in the case of Muslims is not only discriminatory but a classic case of crossing the line by transposing criticism of belief into prejudice about peoples.

      • Kinana

        Mr Malik

        Thank you for your reply. (NOVEMBER 16, 2013 AT 16:58)

        On the contrary, you are making a case for moral equivalency when you just quote texts from the Bible as if those texts are considered by Jews and Christians in the same light as texts from the Qur’an are considered by Muslims. It makes no sense otherwise to do so. And you do this without explanation or discrimination as if each belief group has the same relationship to their ‘holy’ texts as each other, and that is just not true; or at least you have not argued that case; you just assume it.
        You say that ‘most Muslims’ do not agree with the texts in the Qur’an that Phil and I have indicated. Let me assume that you have not spoken to ‘most Muslims’ so I ask: How do you know? Obviously, you cannot know that. But we do know that many millions of Muslims support groups like Al-Qaeda and want Sharia law imposed on non-Muslims. I am sure you are aware of the many polls with this evidence.

        Should we treat Muslims as individuals? Yes, I agree with you.

        However, I would hope that you see that enough Muslims do act on the advice of the Qur’an and hadith, both now and throughout history, to warrant special attention as to what is encouraged by their ‘holy’ books.

        Should we recognise as a problem, a belief system whose followers have a 1400 year history of imposing Sharia law by the sword and whose many millions of followers today are doing their best to do likewise (using both violent and non-violent means) in all Western societies? I think we should.
        Please note that I am not advocating a particular solution, as Phil seems to be doing, but only asking you to recognise that there is a problem — both in this country and internationally.

        Your position seems to be: there is no problem until there is a problem. I suggest that by then it will be too late.

        • There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. How many, say, are involved in terrorism or support terrorism? A tiny minority. How do I know? Because I have taken the trouble to look up the research, such as, for instance, the various Pew surveys.

          Who, for instance, supports suicide bombings? In the USA 1 per cent say it is ‘often’ justified, 81 per cent say it is ‘never’ justified. Even in Pakistan the figures are 3 per cent and 85 per cent respectively. Three countries stand out from this pattern – Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine, where, for instance, 31 per cent think that suicide bombing is ‘often’ justified. There are, of course, non-religious reasons why this may be the case.

          As for sharia, the survey suggests that

          Support for making sharia the official law of the land varies significantly across the six major regions included in the study. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East- North Africa region most favor making sharia their country’s official legal code. By contrast, only a minority of Muslims across Central Asia as well as Southern and Eastern Europe want sharia to be the official law of the land… Among Muslims who support making sharia the law of the land, most do not believe that it should be applied to non-Muslims.

          Strikingly the most important distinction is between those who live in countries that impose some form of religious law and those that don’t, suggesting non-religious reasons for the variation. At the same time the majority of Muslims, irrespective of their views on sharia, also desired a democratic system.

          A Pew survey of US Muslims showed that 37 per cent thought that there was only one true way to interpret Islam, and 35 per cent thought that Islam was the one true faith. This might seem alarming – until you see that it is broadly comparable to Christian views (the figures for Christians are 28 per cent and 30 per cent respectively).

          No just geographically but historically, too, adherence to and interpretation of Islam has dramatically changed. Contemporary fundamentalism is a new phenomenon. Look at photos of Cairo or Kabul in the 1960s. How many women do you see wearing a hijab, let alone a niqab? Virtually none. My parents are of a generation who rarely attended mosque; few women covered their hair, few men wore beards, many drank alcohol. It is indeed very different today; but that suggests the need to attend to historical, sociological and political reasons for the shift, not merely religious ones.

          Sure there is a problem – as someone who has spent my adult life challenging religion, opposing fundamentalism and theocracy, supporting free speech and equal rights, I can hardly be accused of thinking otherwise. But rather than throw around prejudices and stereotypes, let us understand more clearly what the problem is and how to deal with it.

          This thread began because Phil rejected my opposition to discrimination against Muslims. That is what indulging in prejudices and stereotypes leads to: a belief in ‘one law for us and another for them’ – a belief with which, ironically, Islamists would be very comfortable.

  10. Reblogged this on The Failed Gael and commented:
    We hosted Kenan Malik at Oxford Atheist, Secularists and Humanists’ last night, discussing Islamophobia with Saif Rahman, Anne Marie Waters and ‘Mithra Pasargardae.’ I was very excited to discover today he’d blogged about our event – its an important conversation society needs to have, and I’m glad we played some small part in facilitating it!

  11. Elisabeth

    It is interesting you bring up the distinction between popular and academic discourse on Islam. One of the biggest problems I observe is that the most visible scholarship actively invites these abusive accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ by providing a spectacularly poor example of critical, disinterested inquiry into Islam. While certainly exacerbated by the politics of ‘anti-imperialism’ since 1967, this problem has a long pedigree.

    Prominent 20th century scholars like William Montgomery Watt, Martin Lings, and H.A.R. Gibb seem to me both paternalistic and deferential in a manner that would be unthinkable for a serious scholar of Christianity. Currently ‘visible’ academics like John Esposito, Juan Cole, and Edward Saïd have continued in this tradition, albeit often with more sophisticated postmodern maneuvering around the absurdity of defending what they agree is a false belief system.

    Further in the shadow of Saïdism, brazen Orientalism remains alive and well so long as it romanticises Islam as some majestic counter to the ‘Christian’ West. Menocal’s “The Ornament of the World” stands out as an exemplar of this problem from an academic and with Karen Armstrong being the most noxious ‘popular’ acolyte. An attendant to this romantic view is the overemphasis on more liberal ‘pluralities’ (another postmodernism) within Islam at the expense of denying the overwhelming conservative orthodoxy. Becoming morally blind with shades of grey is apparently preferable to a ‘monolithic’ critique of Islamic misogyny or use of corporal punishment.

    In any case, I hope thinkers such as yourself continue to speak freely on the subject and defend the Enlightenment tradition.

  12. James Lovelace

    “When does criticism become bigotry? The line is crossed when criticism of Islam, of ideas or beliefs, become transposed into prejudice about people; or when critics demand that Muslims are denied rights, or be discriminated against, simply because they happen to be Muslims.”

    Around 40% of British muslims say they want “sharia law”. We see from the way that sharia law is implemented in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, etc. that it leads to discrimination against people just because they happen to be non-muslims. This indicates that by your own definition, around 40% of British muslims can be classed as bigots. In countries where muslims are more numerous, the proportion who are to be classified as bigots is far higher.

    The debate we should be having is not about islamophobia, but about how islam is founded on kuffarphobia. We kuffar in Britain have had to learn about islam in order to explain to ourselves how “the religion of peace” in the UK has had 330 of its devout followers convicted of terrorism (when the supposedly violent thugs in the EDL have not had a single supporter convicted of terrorism). That is what needs to be explained: what kind of religion produces devout followers who behave worse than “violent thugs” from the EDL? Those of us who have read the Koran with the surahs arranged in the proper chronological order know that Mohammed went from preaching tolerance to ending his life preaching apartheid, discrimination and genocide. The fear for us non-muslims is that if the muslim population of Britain was significantly larger and more informed about the movement from “tolerance” to genocide by the man they are supposed to emulate, we will face civil war and possible destruction. You are the equivalent of someone from the 1930s arguing that we should not prejudge the Nazis.

    Muslims own religious texts show that Mohammed had his critics assassinated, that he was a mass-murderer to those who opposed him, that those victims who were not killed were sold off as slaves, and that he even beheaded boys who had any sign of pubic hair. Most muslims only know as much about islamic doctrine as they hear from their schools, their parents and their mosques. Whilst they are being kept in ignorance about the monster who was Mohammed, then we face no immediate danger. But those muslims who resort to terrorism know whose example they are copying. Islamophobia is the equivalent of Naziphobia.

    Islam is the only religion in the past 2500 years which enshrines killing non-believers (the enslaving of non-believers as Dhimmis came with Umar, not Mohammed). I’ve seen many discussions where muslims claim that what Mohammed was doing was returning “the Abrahamic religions” back to the original values of the time of Abraham (i.e. the Bronze Age). Judaism and christianity were reformations of those values over a period of 2 millenia. Islam does not just turn the clock back to the 7th century, but turns it back to 1500 BC.

    Practically the last words to leave the mouth of Mohammed were “kill the unbelievers”. Surah 9, the verse of the sword, was issued just before Mohammed left Medina with his army of 10,000 to conquer Mecca, slaughtering all inside if necessary.

    • Sigh. I doubt if any rational argument will change your mind, so there seems little point in me disagreeing with you point by point. Let me just point you instead to my previous responses to similar kinds of arguments from Phil and Kinana.

      • James Lovelace

        If countries like Pakistan (where Guillaume’s translation of Ibn Ishaq is printed) were to prosecute the publishers for blasphemy against islam, then I might start to believe that most muslims found that portrayal of Mohammed — as an assassin, a torturer, a genocidal murderer, a rapist, a slave monger — offensive. Pakistan is very quick to prosecute christians for blasphemy against islam. Yet the publishers of islamic texts that glorify his war crimes are not prosecuted. Such an image of Mohammed is clearly not considered blasphemous.

        Instead of rejecting such an image of Mohammed as false and derogatory, muslims gave Guillaume honorary awards, from islamic institutions in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. It is clear that most learned muslims in many islamic countries find nothing blasphemous about the portrayal of Mohammed as the 7th century Hitler. And you don’t want to deal with this because you must either admit I am telling the truth, or you must lie yourself and risk exposure.

        Muslims become terrorists because that is what Mohammed was. No-one can tell me the difference between a violent islamist and Mohammed. And until you are prepared to explain why it is most learned muslims have no problem with worshipping a genocidal killer, we have to regard supposed secularists like you as fifth columnists.

        You prefer to practice the racism of low expectations, denouncing modern European nazism, but defending Arabic nazism, which has endured from the 7th century to the 21st century. It is why people like Robert Spencer are kept out of Britain, so that people like you are not put on the spot on live TV and radio.

        Just like there were good Nazis (e.g. Schindler) there are good muslims. That 99.5% of British muslims are openly homophobic, and 61% to 70% want to see gay people punished, shows that we have a serious problem in our country. A problem that you cravenly refuse to address.

        • I had to chortle at the idea of Theresa May banning Robert Spencer because she is worried about him debating me on TV. When someone seriously believes that I am a ‘fifth columnist’ for Islam, I am afraid they have abandoned any pretence to reason or to the possibilities of rational debate. The irony is that, having spent a lifetime debating Islamists, your approach and your attitude are only too familiar.

  13. Shiva

    When does criticism become bigotry? The line is crossed when criticism of Islam, of ideas or beliefs, become transposed into prejudice about people; or when critics demand that Muslims are denied rights, or be discriminated against, simply because they happen to be Muslims.

    Nobody are denying muslim any rights, what muslim are being denied are the endless demands for specially privileges, and demands to be respected just because they are muslim.

    We do not need to be told we must respect and conform to muslims who chose to reside amongst us, it is the muslims who should respect and conform to our ways. When a non muslim lives in a islamic nation, then he/she must comply with the laws of the land, and they do not have the same rights as muslims.

    I think Mr Malik, you are preaching to the wrong people, it is muslims you need to be preaching to.

  14. I’m glad to see you raise this topic, and of course, the same question could be raised in regards to any other religious group, or of a religious person critiquing atheism. In the mix it is important to consider not only the “what” of subject matter, but the “how” in the manner in which critical concerns are raised. At the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy we are committed to civility in discussion of differences, and a process of engagement that transforms enemies into trusted rivals enabling cooperative efforts in the public square. Thanks again for raising this issue.

  15. Ally

    ‘It is a large gray area where you may sometimes find, say, the likes of Sam Harris or Martin Amis. I have been highly critical of both; not because they are bigots in any reasonable sense of the word but because their arguments often so lack nuance, and are so bereft of context, that they both provide intellectual ammunition for bigots and can become a means of mainstreaming bigoted arguments.’

    No, I think Harris’ views on Muslims are indistinguishable from the far right. In fact Harris is in Eurabia territory:

    “Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow. Throughout Western Europe, Muslim immigrants show little inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost—demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-Semitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques. Political correctness and fears of racism have rendered many secular Europeans incapable of opposing the terrifying religious commitments of the extremists in their midst.”

    And here’s Sam again explaining how he believes there is a conspiracy underway where Muslims are planning to outbread everyone:

    “And one of the problems we have is that many Muslims, for understandable reasons and some for really deplorable reasons, are playing hide the ball with the articles of faith, and are eager to have the conversations of the sort you have had from a very cynical and manipulative perspective. We’re just going to keep having big families, and eventually it’s going to be Eurabia, and the war will be won. There are people who really think in those terms, and they’re not necessarily just the people in the center of the bull’s-eye of Islamic infatuation.”

    Wow. Just wow.

    • Elisabeth

      I seem to recall a frequent chest-thumping rhetoric of ‘the fast growing religion’ endorsed not only by Muslims, but multiculturalists. Since we know this is not due to mass conversion, but in fact higher than average birth rates, are people like Harris not allowed to discuss a phenomenon that many Muslims themselves assert?

      In turn if you are any sort of feminist or environmentalist, then you should recognise that high rates of birth are not in anyone’s best interest, but harm women in particular. Unless you are utterly convinced that Islamic norms are going to collapse among immigrant populations, you are ironically smearing Harris as “far right” whilst in effect turning a blind eye to the potential rise of an alternate far right demographic.

      • Elizabeth, the demographic arguments are baseless and threadbare, driven more by fear and prejudice than fact and reason. As for the wider population debate, you should perhaps listen to Hans Rosling and his demolition of many of the myths.

        Having said that, it does little good lumping Harris’ views with those of the far right, as Ally does. (This is one of those strange debates where first I have to defend Islam from its one-sided detratctors, and then in turn defend those detractors from their one-sided critics.) I have been highly critical of Harris and his views on a number of issues. But it is pointless pretending that he anything but a card-carrying liberal who, like many liberals today, has a highly distorted view of the ‘Muslim threat’ and who advocates dangerous and discriminatory policies. Tackle his arguments as they stand, not through association.

        • Ally

          The French Muslim population is forecasted by the Pew Research Centre to grow to 10% by 2030 from its present figure of 7.5%, and France will be the Western European state with the highest number of Muslims. The only country that surpasses it is Russia which, even as it borders autonomous Muslim states, is projected to see her share of Muslims rise to 14%. Actual research by Pew has exposed the Eurabia idea for what it is: rubbish.

          Why pretend that Harris’ views on Muslims are not far-right? He clearly thinks that the far-right have the right idea when it comes to Muslims. Indeed, he thinks: “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascist.” (Letter To A Christian Nation, P. 85). Harris’ fetish for the breeding habits of immigrants is one that he cultivates with far-right nationalists.

          Harris a card-carrying liberal? Come on, now. The only areas where Harris has expressed anything resembling liberalism are in his views on taxation and the legalization of drugs. Let’s take a look at some of the things Harris has defended: ethnic profiling, torture, uncritical support of Israel’s more brutal actions towards the Palestinians, doing away with the fifth amendment, imposing benign dictatorships in the Middle East because Muslims are unfit for democracy, opposition to gun control, pre-emptive nuclear strikes, gov’t restrictions on religion, NSA spying and so on and so on. Oh, yeah, a real liberal is Harris.

        • Yes, I’ve used all those quotes in various critiques of Harris. But it remains the case that it is no more plausible to suggest that Harris is a proto-fascist than to suggest, as James Lovelace does above, that I am fifth columnist for Islam. Only in a debate about Islam and Islamophobia could I be accused of being both too soft on Sam Harris and a fifth columnist for Islam.

        • Ally

          Based on James Lovelace’s comments elsewhere, I wouldn’t be suprised if he considered Ratko Mladic to be soft on Muslims. I personally don’t think you are soft on Islam.

          The suggestion is not that Harris is a proto-fascist, though his views on the Jews and the Holocaust could be lifted straight from a neo-nazi website. The point is that his views on Muslims can be described as far-right and extreme and it is not a baseless smear to suggest this. There are simply far too many examples of Harris deliberately engaging in the kind of fear-mongering and dehumanisation of Muslims which has been a common characteristic of the far-right to deny this.

        • Elisabeth

          “There are simply far too many examples of Harris deliberately engaging in the kind of fear-mongering and dehumanisation of Muslims which has been a common characteristic of the far-right to deny this.”

          At yet you cited all of one quote, ironically from a book whose purpose is to tear apart Christianity and American Christian nationalism. It would be a waste of time deconstructing all your accusations. The fact you accuse Harris of wanting to “do[] away with the fifth amendment” shows what a fool’s errand it would be.

          Even so what you describe might just be a “common characteristic” of atheists that are not afraid to assert their views in a context where we are encouraged to show automatic deference to faith and treat is differently than other belief systems. As the left courts the ‘Muslim votes’ (some monoliths are worse than others it seems), liberals of the New Atheist mould are dangers to political solidarity and must be denounced in the most damning terms. Harris is hardly alone after all in drawing intense ire.

          I am fully willing to acknowledge that some of what Harris says is problematic and I certainly disagree with him on any imminent demographic change (for the very quantified reasoning Mr, Malik sites). Yet I have yet to witness the Guardian-style left embrace a trenchant critic of Islam, whom they deem to be ‘doing it right’. There are a lot of ex-Muslim critics out there in particular, but even when they have a firmly leftwing worldview, e.g. Maryam Namazie, they remain strangely maginalised.

          In fact Mr. Malik, whom I deeply admire, is a superb example himself of a liberal-left thinker not given the prominence he deserves.

  16. Shiva

    So let me which of the following criticisms of Islam is to be considered “Islamophobic”:

    1) Muhammad is a role-model for all time. Muhammad married Aisha when she was 6 and had sexual intercourse with her when she was 9. I find appalling that Muslims consider this act of Muhammad to be that of the man who is in every way a role model, and hence to be emulated. In particular, I am appalled that virtually the first act of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a very orthodox and learned Shi’a theologian, was to lower the marriageable age of girls in Iran to 9 — because, of course, it was Aisha’s age when Muhammad had sexual relations with her.

    2) I find appalling that Islam provides a kind of Total Regulation of the Universe, so that its adherents are constantly asking for advise as to whether or not, for example, they can have wear their hair in a certain way, grow their beards in a certain way, wish an Infidel a Merry Christmas (absolutely not!).

    3) I find appalling the religiously-sanctioned doctrine of taqiyya — would you like some quotes, sir, about what it is, or would you like to google “taqiyya” and find its sources in the Qur’an?

    4) I find appalling many of the acts which Muhammad committed, including his massacre of the Banu Qurayza, his ordering the assassination of many of those he deemed his opponents, even an old man, a woman, or anyone whom, he thought, merely mocked him.

    5) I find appalling the hatred expressed throughout the Qur’an, the hadith, and the sira for Infidels — all Infidels.

    6) I find nauseating the imposition of the jizya on Infidels, the requirement that they wear identifying marks on their clothes and dwellings, that they not be able to build or repair houses of worship without the permission of Muslim authorities, that they must ride donkeys sidesaddle and dismount in the presence of Muslims, that they have no legal recourse against Muslims for they are not equal at law — and a hundred other things, designed to insure their permanent, as the canonical texts say, “humiliation.”

    7) I find the mass murder of 60-70 million Hindus, over 250 years of Mughal rule, and the destruction of tens of thousands of artifacts and Hindu (and Buddhist) temples, some of the Hindu ones listed in works by Sita Ram Goel, appalling.

    Shall I continue
    8) I find the 1300-year history of the persecution of the Zoroastrians, some of it continuing to this day, according the great scholar of Zoroastrianism, Mary Boyce, which has led to their reduction to a mere 150,000, something to deplore. There are piquant details in her works, including the deliberate torture and killing of dogs (which are revered by Zoroastrians), even by small Muslim children who are taught to so behave.

    9) I find the record of Muslim intellectual achievement lacking, and I attribute this lack to the failure to encourage free and skeptical inquiry, which is necessary for, among other things, the development of modern science.

    10) I deplore the prohibition on sculpture or on paintings of living things. I deplore the horrific vandalism and destruction of Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Hindu, and Buddhist sites.

    11) I deplore the Muslim jurisprudence which renders all treaties between Infidels and Muslims worthless from the viewpoint of the Infidels, though worth a great deal from the viewpoint of the Muslims, for they are only signing a “hudna,” a truce-treaty rather than a true peace-treaty — and because they must go to war against the Infidel, or press their Jihad against the Infidel in other ways, on the model of the Treaty of al-Hudaibiyya, no Infidel state or people can ever trust a treaty with Muslims.

    12) I deplore the speech of Mahathir Mohammad, so roundly applauded last year, in which he called for the “development” not of human potential, not of art and science, but essentially of weapons technology and the use of harnessing and encouraging Muslim “brain power” for the sole purpose of defeating the Infidels, as a reading of that entire speech makes absolutely clear. Here — would you like me to read it now for the audience?

    13) I deplore the fact that Muslims are taught, and they seem to have taken those teachings to heart, to offer their loyalty only to fellow Muslims, the umma al-islamiyya, and never to Infidels, or to the Infidel nation-state to which they have uttered an oath of allegiance but apparently such an oath must be an act of perjury, because such loyalty is impossible. Am I wrong? Show me exactly what I have misunderstood about Islam.

    14) I deplore the ululations of pleasure over acts of terrorism, the delight shown by delighted and celebrating crowds in Cairo, Ramallah, Khartoum, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and of course all over Saudi Arabia, when news of the World Trade Center attacks was known — and I can, if you wish, supply the reports from those capitals which show this to have taken place. I attribute statements of exultation about the “Infidels” deserving it to the fact that Islamic tenets view the world as a war between the Believers and the Infidels.

    15) On that score, I deplore that mad division of the world between Dar al-Islam and dar al-Harb, and the requirement that there be uncompromising hostility between the two, until the final triumph of the former, and the permanent subjugation, and incorporation into it, of the latter.

    16) I deplore the sexual inequality and mistreatment of women which I believe I can show has a clear basis in the canonical Islamic texts, and is not simply, pace Ebadi and other quasi-”reformers,” a “cultural” matter.

    17) I deplore the fact that Infidels feel, with justice, unsafe in almost every Muslim country, but that Muslims treat the Infidel countries, and their inhabitants, with disdain, arrogance, and endless demands for them to bend, to change, to what Muslims want — whether it be to remove crucifixes, or change the laws of laicity in France, or to demand that “hate speech” laws be extended in England so as to prevent any serious and sober criticism of Islam.

    18) I deplore the emphasis on the collective, and the hatred for the autonomy of the individual. In particular, I believe that someone born into Islam has a perfect right to leave Islam if he or she chooses — and that there should be no punishment, much less the murderous punishment so often inflicted.

    • bruce madeiros


      That is quite some comment you have made However I would suggest that when you made this comment
      “I find the record of Muslim intellectual achievement lacking” you should prefixed it with “modern” because clearly in the time before the Renaissance the Muslims were the intellectuals whereas the Europeans were somewhat behind.

  17. Shiva

    With due respects Bruce, you must be referring to the islamic “Golden Age”

    The so called “Golden Age is a myth, and you are giving too much credits to muslims

    The myth of an Islamic Golden Age is needed by Islam’s apologists to save it from being damned by its present squalid condition; to prove, as it were, that there is more to Islam than terrorism. It is, frankly, a confession that if the world judges it by what it is today, it comes up rather short, being a religion that has yet to produce a democratic or prosperous society.

    Whatever intellectual achievements flourished, it did so not because of Islam but in spite of Islam. Musllms overran societies (Persian, Greek, Egyptian, Byzantine, Syrian, Jewish) that possessed intellectual sophistication in their own right and failed to completely destroy their cultures. Islam per se never encouraged science, in the sense of disinterested enquiry, because the only knowledge it accepts is religious knowledge.

    The Muslem Empire inherited “the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle east, of Greece and of Persia, it added to them new and important innovations from outside, such as the manufacture of paper from China and decimal positional numbering from India.” The decimal numbers were thus transmitted to the West, where they are still mistakenly known as “Arabic” numbers, honoring not their inventors but their transmitters.

    Furthermore, the intellectual achievements of Islam’s “golden age” were of limited value.

    At the present day, for almost a thousand years all innovative and intellectual thought has frozen, except when they have even contracted, as in the case of Wahabism. Those who try to push the fundamentals of Muslim thought any further into the light of modernity frequently pay for it with their lives.

    • Unfortunately, Shiva, it is you who is propagating myths. Yes, the Islamic Empire drew upon the treasure house of philosophy and learning of other peoples it had conquered (and initially relied on Christian Syriac monks to translate much of that material). But the idea that the Islamic Empire in the early centuries ‘never encouraged science, in the sense of disinterested enquiry’ is ludicrous, as is the idea that ‘intellectual achievements flourished… not because of Islam but in spite of Islam’. Such beliefs are the products not of ‘disinterested enquiry’ but of straightforward prejudice.

      Arab philosophy and science played a critical role not just in preserving the gains of the Greeks and Persians and others but also in genuinely expanding the boundaries of knowledge. What began as the ‘translation movement’ of ancient texts soon became original scholarship and a remarkable flourishing of science and learning. Yes, Arab scholars found in India a rudimentary version of the modern decimal number system, but they helped greatly develop it. They also transformed algebra, revolutionized astronomy, established the basis of optics, and set the ground rules of cryptography.

      Equally important was the importance of Muslim philosophers. The faylasufs saw learning as an ethical duty and took from the Greeks not just their spirit of rational inquiry but also their faith in the almost boundless power of the human intellect. The long line of ‘Rationalist’ philosophers beginning with the likes of al-Kindi, and al-Farabi, and culminating in the work of the two most important Muslim philosophers, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, was hugely influential, not least on the ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition.

      It is true that for a combination of theological and political reasons, this great tradition of learning had been squeezed out by the thirteen century. Ibn Rushd, for instance, came to wield far more influence within Judaism and Christianity than within Islam. Much of the Islamic world came to walled-in, insular, hostile to reason and freethinking. But it is pointless rewriting history for propaganda purposes. While people like you wish to do just that, the Christian and Jewish thinkers of the time certainly recognized their debt to the Muslim world. Aquinas and Maimonides both acknowledge the influence of Muslim philosophers. In The Divine Comedy, Dante places Ibn Rushd with the great Greek pagan philosophers whose spirits dwell not in Hell but in Limbo ‘the place that favor owes to fame’. In The School of Athens, one of Raphael’s most famous paintings, which depicts the pantheon of the world’s great philosophers, standing with Aristotle, Plato and Socrates is Ibn Rushd.

    • bruce madeiros

      I would have to agree with you that the scourge of Wahabism has not help both the 21st century Arab mental intelligence as well as their emotional intelligence. However one could argue that in the past, the western historians, have not recognise that the Arabs did make a significant contribution to civilization in the west. I haven’t read much regarding Arabic science but recently I have read Jim Al-Khalili book ” the House of Wisdom” which sets out in detail historical evidence that the Muslim did contribute to the Renaissance.

  18. Shiva

    It is true that for a combination of theological and political reasons, this great tradition of learning had been squeezed out by the thirteen century. Ibn Rushd, for instance, came to wield far more influence within Judaism and Christianity than within Islam. Much of the Islamic world came to walled-in, insular, hostile to reason and freethinking.

    So that little spark of innovation (bidah) was snuffed out buy islam, which you with your above statement confirm. If I recall Ibn Rushd philosophy was considered controversial in Muslim circles was exiled and all the philosophy books to be gathered and burned. Many of his works in logic and metaphysics have been permanently lost, while others, including some of the longer Aristotelian commentaries, have only survived in Latin or Hebrew translation, not in the original Arabic..

    As you correctly point out, In The Divine Comedy, Dante places Ibn Rushd with the great Greek pagan philosophers whose spirits dwell not in Hell but in Limbo ‘the place that favor owes to fame’. Yet In the Inferno section of Dante’s trilogy The Divine Comedy, mohammed is described as being one of the “Sowers of Discord,” showing his entrails to Dante and Virgil in the Eighth Circle of Hell:

    But this debate is not about the islamic mythical golden age, I was being polite and answering to the commentator Bruce.

    What is important, is for you to to attempt to answer the eighteen questions I ask above. So lets us get back on track, are any of the above criticisms islamophobic.

    • You began by arguing that the tradition of Islamic learning and innovation in the period before the thirteenth century was a ‘myth’. Now you appear to be suggesting that the fact that this tradition was ‘snuffed’ out is evidence for your original argument that it never existed in the first place! Only someone completely bedazzled by their prejudices would fail to recognize the contradiction here.

      I am not here to defend Islam, its ideas or its practices. Anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of my work knows that I am critical of all religions. I am also, however, critical of one-sided, unnuanced thinking driven not by facts and reason but by bigotry and prejudice, a kind of thinking that mirrors that of the Islamists.

      As for whether I think any of your points are ‘Islamophobic’, perhaps you should read the very first sentence of my post: ‘Islamophobia is a problematic term’. And perhaps you should read, too, the first sentences of my second point: ‘When it comes to criticizing ideas, nothing should be out of bounds. Nothing should be unsayable simply because someone finds it offensive.’ But do I think that much of what you say is ignorant of the facts, bereft of context, and often driven by prejudice? Yes.

  19. Tec15

    I don’t think that someone who continues to defend the likes of the literally genocidal Sam Harris from (completely well founded) charges of bigotry is in any position to adjudicate on Islamophobia. If you are still weaseling away from directly calling him out on his bigotry even after “Nuke Mecca”, “Profile anyone who looks Muslim”, etc, than it’s hard to see you concede anything as Islamophobia.

    • Ryan Clark

      The “literally genocidal Sam Harris”! Sigh… Another person who hasn’t bothered to actually read Harris’s book. I take it you also think that Peter Singer endorses infanticide.

      • Tec15

        Yeah, silly me. Why can’t I look past my lying eyes and simply trust a Harris fanboy? So come on, tell me what Harris really means when he calls for war, nuking Mecca, profiling anyone who “looks Muslim”, etc?

        • Ryan Clark

          First off, I quite like Harris’s writing and agree with him on most things, but I’m not a “fanboy”. For instance, I think Harris downplays the effects of U.S. foreign policy on creating the conditions that lead to radicalization in the Muslim world. And he barely mentions the injustices and blatant violations of international law that Israel has inflicted upon the Palestinians over the decades. He also seems rather credulous about such odd things as the strength of the evidence for reincarnation (at least he was at the time of writing The End of Faith).

          But let’s get something clear; Harris isn’t calling for preemptive war on the Muslim world or the nuking of Mecca, nor has he ever. I know exactly which passage from The End of Faith leads some to claim this, but they are either unable to comprehend the difference between philosophical analysis of difficult questions and actual endorsement of certain actions, or they’re being intellectually dishonest for some reason (or in most cases, they’ve only heard about this particular passage second or third-hand).

          Again, Harris simply does not call for these things. And if you think he does (or ever has), you’re flat wrong. Period. This isn’t a matter of opinion.

          As for the issue of profiling anyone who “looks Muslim,” this is and should be a controversial idea, but not one that any thoughtful person can dismiss out of hand. Yes, it’s politically incorrect to even entertain the notion–an unequivocal “I’m against it” is the only acceptable position if one is a self-respecting liberal (like me). Yes, Harris supports it. I’m not sure where I stand on it.

          But keep in mind that “profiling” doesn’t mean strip-searching every person who “looks Muslim” or making them stand in a separate line, or rounding them up and putting them in camps like we did with those who “looked Japanese” during WWII–nor, by the way, does it involve anything outside of an airport (though it certainly follows that it might). It means instructing airport security agents to pay a bit more attention to, say, a group of young men who “look Muslim” than to an elderly woman who “looks Buddhist.”

          Again, what the U.S. did to Japanese Americans during WWII was wrong. But at that time, had young Japanese men hijacked three commercial airliners* and flown one into the Empire State Building, one into the Pentagon, and attempted to crash one into the White House, would it be wrong for airport security to pay a bit closer attention to people who “looked Japanese” than to little old ladies who “looked European”?** Not throw all Japanese people into camps, but just instruct security agents to pay a bit closer attention to them in airports? Yes, it would be controversial by today’s standards, but would you seriously dismiss it out of hand? Would you charge anyone who supported such profiling with bigotry as you do with Harris?

          If you’re against airport profiling, fine. You can disagree with someone without accusing them of bigotry or engaging in outrageous misrepresentations of what they’ve written or said about other things.

          *This is a hypothetical, so any quips about the difference between commercial air travel then and now are unwarranted.

          **Yes, I know the Nazis also “looked European,” but again, it’s a hypothetical.

  20. bruce madeiros

    Adebolajo said ” I did it for my God ” at case of the murder of Private Lee Rigby yesterday I wonder if there will be any criticism from the muslim community on his comment ?

  21. Shaliza

    As a Muslim I think this article is so important for people to read. This is the kind of attitude I would love for people to take! People should always be allowed to criticize any religion as long as a line is not crossed. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and sometimes people will get offended in the process, but in order for society to be tolerant and function together, people need to learn to take criticisms and move on.
    Excellent read!

    • Kinana

      Care to elaborate on where that line is that should not be crossed? You seem to both agree and disagree with Mr Malik in your comments. ref points 3 and 4. I note: ‘But criticism of Islam, of whatever kind, even if it is offensive or bigoted, should not be a matter for the criminal law.’ If you agree with this statement would you support the exercise of speech by groups like the EDL and BNP and opposse penal/legal sactions against them?

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