Social issues

“Islamophobia” – the right to be bigots?

– by Hanifa Abdiraihan

If there exists a word in recent days that’s most likely to incite a variety of passionate reactions, it’s probably Islamophobia. Purely semantically, it means the irrational fear of Islam, but the word takes on a new level in a context of anti-terrorist raids, new counter-terrorism legislation, and the conflicts in the Middle East. Some dismiss it as an instance of ‘Muslims playing the victim card’.

It’s a tad unfair to say that when just a few weeks ago, three men tried to enter Parliament dressed in protest outfits: one wearing a niqab, one wearing a motorcycle helmet, and the third in full KKK garb. If you were wondering, they were protesting the repeal of the “burqa ban” in Parliament – never mind that there are laws already in force for mandatory facial identification upon request. I don’t know, though. It’s also pretty rude to motorcycle riders, if you ask me.

One of them, Sergio Redegalli, had also painted a mural in Sydney’s Newtown depicting a woman in a niqab crossed out in a large, red circle (it also said, “Say no to burqas”), intending to “open a debate” but attracting reports of discrimination instead. In response, he told the Sydney Morning Herald, “There’s a problem about the right to free expression, the loss of the ability to say something without instantly being branded a racist.”

Let’s get one thing straight: the right to free expression is not all-encompassing. One’s right to free expression stops where it begins to impinge on the rights of others. Theoretically speaking, there is no case for the ‘right to be bigots’, and ethically, there shouldn’t be.

It’s perfectly reasonable to critique a religion. But in Redegalli’s case, the combination of his mural and the Parliament stunt seem to be more of a rallying statement against the ever-oppressive ‘them’. Rather than opening debate, this would encourage shutting down the opinions of those who are targeted — whom we most need to hear from — and risk furthering the stigma around them.

As for calling him a racist – I suppose it is technically wrong to call him one (he didn’t, after all, wear the KKK outfit himself). In fact, many hours perusing comment sections of numerous publications will try to tell you that it is absolutely impossible to be racist to a religion.

Well, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Opening a debate would be throwing wide the doors to multicultural and interfaith discussions and entering them. Opening a debate would be to seek credible education on the issue at hand; to realise that much of the “oppression” has more to do with certain political climates and agendas using highly opportunistic interpretation of religious text to tyrannise, and less to do with the religion itself. Opening a debate would be to hear all sides of the story, dispelling the misunderstandings, and not to mistake a few violent, deviant trees for the entire forest.

It certainly has less to do with demanding why Muslims and their leaders haven’t condemned the likes of ISIS (spoiler alert: they have, many times over), absolutely nothing to do with cursing them out of their own homes, and everything to do with joining the ranks of others, including Muslims, who seek to foster peaceful, multicultural societies.

ISIS is the perfect example of why confronting and dismantling vilifying myths is critical. The group is founded upon hate: hate speech and hate beliefs which justify the killing of anyone who don’t follow their specific brand of religion. The vast majority of their victims are Muslims, and it is their voices which are essential to clear away the blinding fog of fear that simple, sweeping accusations create.

Redegalli is, partly, right. We do need to have these discussions. But to get anywhere, these discussions must be constructive, and prejudice has no place. When scores of the misguided are joining ISIS, it is at best unhelpful, but at worst, irresponsibly un-human.

Photo credit: Chris Rojas via Flickr

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