Religion in Society

Time Magazine Asks: "Is America Islamophobic?"

| by The Volokh Conspiracy

By Eugene Volokh

“Is America Islamophobic?,” asks Time magazine. The lead story is abridged online here. I have little opinion on the title question, partly because I’m not a public opinion researcher, and partly because I don’t know what exactly “Islamophobic” means. And paragraphs such as this don’t help much:

Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution — there’s no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance — there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated. Meanwhile, a new TIME–Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Only 37% know a Muslim American. Overall, 61% oppose the Park51 project, while just 26% are in favor of it. Just 23% say it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44% say it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11.


So 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers — which, as best I can tell, is an accurate belief. I don’t think most Muslims support violence against nonbelievers. But it seems to me that Islam as we see it in the world today is more likely than most other major faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers, at least if we focus on encouragement that actually makes the violence materially likely (which is the sort of encouragement that I suspect most people are worried about).

This observation is hardly evidence of a “phobia” in the sense of “irrational fear” or “irrational prejudice” (it’s quite rational), or even in the sense of “hatred or hostility towards the group” (which is how I think “-phobia” tends to often be used in terms such as “Islamophobia” and “homophobia” are used). And if “Islamophobia” simply means “holding negative views about some strains of Islam,” then Islamophobia becomes a virtue (if practiced properly) and not a vice — just as I think it’s correct to hold negative views about some strains of Christianity, Judaism, and so on, or to be aware of accurate generalizations about what is especially likely to be encouraged by Protestantism, Catholicism, Mormonism, and so on.

Loose juxtaposition of justified worry about Islam with the label “homphobia” also makes me wonder just how the authors define “hate speech against Muslims and Islam.” As readers of the blog are aware, I have publicly condemned what strikes me as unjustified discrimination against Muslims, or unjustified rejection of Muslims’ reasonable requests for religious accommodation (see, e.g., with regard to the near-Ground-Zero mosque, accommodations for Muslim women doctors, religious accommodations for Muslims generally, accommodations for Muslim women athletes, accommodations of Muslim headgear in court, and the propriety of Muslim witnesses’ swearing on the Koran). I’ve even done this in two articles on National Review Online, see here and here. But insisting on fair and equal treatment of Muslims doesn’t require blindness to the perils posed by some strains of Islam, and awareness of those perils doesn’t require refusal to give fair and equal treatment to Muslims.