Words matter. As humans, they are the primary means by which we communicate. Whether orally or in written form, words provide us with shared meaning by which we can engage on shared topics.
In law enforcement, it is well known that our words are often our most important tool. They can be used to de-escalate, restore order, bring calm, give commands, maintain control, and subdue the unlawful.
If words are not effective, violence is often the alternative. Generally, violence is to be avoided unless others make choices that compel the use of superior physical force to protect oneself or others. In short, we prefer to use words to resolve our differences and to understand each other better.
The term "Islamophobia" is one that has been used in the past several decades with increasing frequency. As a symbol of shared meaning, or as a tool for deeper understanding, it has become largely a useless word, and that is unfortunate.
Sam Harris, a well-known author, defines “Islamophobia” as “a Word created by fascists, & used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”
Merriam-Webster defines “phobia” as “an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation.” Mariam Webster defines "Islamophobia" as "irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam."
Both Merriam Webster definitions implicitly accept the point that certain criticisms of Islam are valid. For anyone who has studied and understands the factual underpinnings of Islam as a collection of ideas, it is entirely logical to have a wary skepticism of a belief system that commands its adherents to “Fight and slay the unbelievers wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them, lie in wait for them in each and every ambush.”
On the other hand, the Oxford dictionary defines "Islamophobia" as "dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force." This definition however, completely excludes the possibility that there could be any valid critique of Islam or Muslims. It denies that any dislike of Islam, based for example on an understanding that Islam requires jihad until the entire non-Muslim world is living under Muslim control, could be well-founded.
Those who control the meaning of words can control important debates and their outcomes. Indeed, “[h]ow a problem is conceptualised fundamentally affects how it is addressed.” Some people want to hide Islam’s command to violence or deny that we should be worried about it. It serves their purpose to portray clear-eyed skeptics as irrational or afraid. They have perverted use of the term “Islamophobe” to imply that someone is “’insane or irrational,’ which impedes constructive dialogue, obscures the context-specific roots of the observed hostility, and erroneously portrays anxiety about Muslims as a minority condition.”
This determination to control the narrative and to present any legitimate, fact-based critique of Islam as irrational and fear-based is insidious and dishonest. Fact-based concern over Islam is rational, not irrational. It is based directly upon passages from the Koran. It is based upon the textbooks used to teach grade-school aged children in Islamic schools. Any conclusions drawn from these teachings are thus grounded in reality. (By the way, those conclusions are also reinforced by what we see in the media every day.) In fact, it is the opponents of Islamist critics who are deliberately using the word “Islamophobia” to pervert its true meaning and obscure reality.
These opponents know that if they can change the meaning of the word “Islamophobia” or “Islamophobe,” they can label and silence people with differing viewpoints. Their goal is to shut down criticism of Islam.
“Islam is not a race, ethnicity, or nationality: It’s a set of ideas. Criticism of these ideas should never be confused with an animus toward people. And yet it is. I’m convinced that this is often done consciously, strategically, and quite cynically as a means of shutting down conversation [on] important topics.”
This quote makes two important points: one, criticism of Islam as a set of ideas is often deliberately misrepresented as criticism of Muslims as people. In this way they can perpetuate the lie that any criticism of Islam is racist and bigoted. It is important to realize that the two are different, and that legitimate criticism of Islam (which does exist, despite the contorted efforts of its propagandists to obliterate that truth) does not equate to discrimination against Muslims. It is disrespectful and insulting to suggest otherwise, and it is a form of stereotyping in and of itself. Second, this misrepresentation of such criticism is an attempt at mind control. It is a subversive effort, though not a very subtle one, to keep the real problem from being discussed. Unfortunately, despite its crudity, it has traction in widespread quarters.
For a blatant example of this attempt to misappropriate the word, we can look at the University of California’s definition from its Center for Race & Gender:
Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve "civilizational rehab" of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.
This definition does not even pretend to be close to the commonly used sense of the word "phobia."
And these deliberately distorted views of the term are not denied. Reza Aslan, an author who advocates the inaccurate interpretation of the word, acknowledges that “it might not be the most precise term, but it works.” His use of the word “might” is disingenuous, since he knows that it is not the most precise term. Yet “it works” for him exactly because it conveys this secondary, manufactured meaning. It has been corrupted to promote his agenda, and the agendas of many others who seek to hide the truth.
It is important to acknowledge that “[r]eligions differ, and their specific differences matter. [Yet] the truth is that Islam has doctrines regarding jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, etc., that pose a special problem to the civilized world at this moment in history. We deny this at our peril.”
Words matter, and we need to pay attention to those.