A Brief Note on “Phobias”

Yesterday I read this article: “Evangelical Islamophobia.” I was not a fan; here’s why.

A trending movement these days is to attach the suffix “phobia” to something (homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, etc.) and then describe a particular individual or group as suffering from one or more of these “phobias.” If this successfully catches on with the public, you can effectively dismiss this poor phobia-suffering individual/group while simultaneous conjuring up feelings of both outrage and compassion for such backward folk. This is a favorite tactic in gaining intellectual and moral superiority without having to think or discourse with others. It is, however, a sign of intellectual and cultural poverty.

Life is not so simple. A phobia is a fear of something that is admittedly irrational and is usually medically diagnosed as an anxiety disorder. A phobia is not a rational fear. For example, I fear swimming in the ocean with great white sharks nearby. This is not “greatwhiteophobia,” but a rational and healthy fear that prevents me from doing something really stupid. So there are rational fears which are healthy, and irrational fears which are not healthy. Since phobias qualify as irrational fears, then before you can call something a “phobia” and label a person or group as having that, you must first show that that fear is indeed irrational (actually, first you must show the fear actually exists as opposed to existing in your perception only; then you must show this real fear is irrational). This is a standard that few phobia-wielding pundits ever care to achieve. To reach such a standard, it would require that you actually interact with the people who supposedly have this or that phobia, learn what they believe, and then test their beliefs against the best available evidence (which would require that you’ve obtained genuine knowledge about the topic along the way). But few are willing to go this far.

Now, back to the article under consideration. The question that pollsters (p. 27) put toward the American public was, “Do you agree/disagree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life?” Overall, 56% of Americans answered yes, 41% said no, and 3% didn’t know. But the number that sticks out is that 73% of white evangelical Protestants (scary group, I know) said yes whereas 25% said no (and 2% didn’t know). But note that the question nowhere inquires as to the origin or motivation for the “yes” answer by the 73%. We have no idea if those who said “yes” said so because they fear Islam or Muslims or for other reasons, yet the author of the article (Chris Gehrz) imports this psychological state into their answer. This is unwarranted.

In addition, Gehrz doesn’t even try to make the case as to why a “yes” answer to the question of whether Islamic values are incompatible with American values, if motivated by fear, is an irrational fear. Only if he successfully does this can he be warranted in labeling those 73% as suffering from “Islamophobia.” So Gehrz’s article is presumptuous and under-determinate in calling white evangelical Protestants “Islamophobic.” This is good reason to be skeptical of his conclusions.

However, let’s consider the issue for a minute. I agree with Gehrz (quoting Jared Burkholder) that Islam is not monolithic, but much like Christianity, has competing interpretations and applications depending upon what branch of Islam and school of hermeneutics one hails from (Sunni: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali; Shi’ite: Ja’fari). The most conservative school, Hanbali (which includes Wahhabism and Salafism), is where most of the radical and violent Islamists originate from. While we might think such interpretive differences belong in academic debates, the effects of adopting a Hanbali interpretation are significant. If even only 5% of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide follow the Hanbali interpretation in its various forms, that’s 80 million potentially radicalized Muslims (perhaps the real number is smaller than that, and the percentage of those who will actually carry out terrorist acts is probably much smaller still). Regardless, when violent, oppressive, and radical Islamic thought is held by hundreds of thousands or millions of Muslims who hate the West (or any infidel) and are willing to persecute non-Muslims (or even other Muslims!), commit terrorist attacks, and kill themselves in the process, we are rational in fearing such strains of Islam that have the ability to scar our shores. Of course that doesn’t mean those who hold this view think that every Muslim is a terrorist (for a good explanation as to why most Muslims are peaceful even when the Qu’ran teaches violence, see Nabeel Qureshi’s book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus). But not every Muslim has to be radicalized and violent for terrorism to take place and to do what it does best: kill, maim, and terrorize. When this realization is combined with the fact that the vast majority of terrorists attacks in the last 15 years have been carried out by radical Islamists, our rational fears about this become evidentially supported.

In addition, it isn’t hard to see that this type of Islam is not compatible with American values (perhaps the fault lies more with the question: is there such a thing as a core set of “Islamic values”?). What are American values? Dennis Prager probably sums it up best in the last chapter of his book Still the Best Hopewhen he writes that the “American Trinity” consists of (1) Liberty, (2) In God We Trust, and (3) E Pluribus Unum (and for all those might be perplexed that “Trinity” here is an implicit challenge to the Christian belief that God is triune, relax; “trinity” is a noun meaning “a group of three”). Liberty is the value that freedom is a virtue and that people should be free to pursue the life they desire (within reasonable bounds of course, i.e., not harming others). In addition, it assumes that all persons are created equal, a value our Founders deeply held (before you object about how racist, misogynistic, patriarchal, and backwards the leaders of the Revolution supposedly were, do yourself a favor and debunk any anachronistic prejudices you might have by reading Thomas G. West’s Vindicating the Founders). In God We Trust encapsulates the central role that religion has played in our nation’s history, especially in providing a foundation for public virtue and liberty itself, something a democracy cannot survive without. E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) describes the unity Americans have enjoyed despite our differences, thus affirming our commitment to true tolerance. These three values (and the other values they are based upon and/or entail) sum up the American value system, a system that not only is admirable, but is completely compatible with Christian teaching and doctrine. What more, this value system is a network of ideas, which means that all persons are capable and welcome to become American (which is why we’ve had so many immigrants come here).

Many Islamic values, on the other hand, clash with the values above. Probably the best way to determine “Islamic values” is by looking at the teachings of the Qu’ran and Hadith, and by examining Muslim majority nations historically and presently (Saudi Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula, N. Africa, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.). What do we find? An uncomfortable amount of civil and human rights violations, from the mistreatment of women, to the oppression of gays, to violent punishment for non-violent crimes, to rank patriarchy and sexism, to intolerance and persecution of those of different religions. Particularly, violence against Christians has been exhaustively documented. This isn’t to say that Muslims living in these places don’t also exhibit kindness and love, generosity and hospitality, selflessness and hard work, and other positive virtues, along with following the five pillars of Islam (confessing the faith, prayer, fasting, alms giving, and pilgrimage to Mecca). But quite frankly, these positive aspects of Islamic belief and culture have failed to overthrow the violence and intolerance that coexists alongside it (although a sizable amount of people are rooting for just such a thing to occur). There’s no doubt that many German citizens during Nazism held beneficial values and lived virtuously, but that doesn’t mean the value system of Nazism was admirable. The application is that there’s an important distinction between evaluating individual Muslims or Muslim communities on the one hand, and Islam qua Islam as a religious, socio-economic, and political philosophy and way of life on the other. In addition, many of these people simultaneously hold and practice both positive and destructive virtues (see Ibrahim’s book above for examples of ordinary, everyday people participating in violent and hostile acts), which just goes to show that life is complex and superficial explanations belie. When entire Muslim civilizations and cultures tolerate such destructive behavior and lift not a finger to change things, we are dealing with deeply entrenched values and customs that will not easily be overturned. For those who are inclined to appeal to western Muslims as a read on Islamic values, this is a two way street: many of the positive Muslim values I listed above are compatible with western societies, but in addition many western Muslims are less severe in their beliefs and values precisely because they have absorbed western values. Only by looking at both the Islamic religious roots and Muslim majority countries can we hope to get a (semi) accurate understanding of Islamic values. Conclusion? It is rational to hold the belief that many (not all) Islamic values clash with American values, and there’s good reason to fear these Islamic values because of their destructive and oppressive nature.

Since this article is supposed to be about phobias and not Islam, let’s wrap up. In conclusion we can say that: (1) Before something can be labeled a “phobia” it must be determined that (a) the belief is motivated by fear, and (b) this fear is an irrational fear. (2) It is impossible to know from the question asked and the “yes” answer given by the 73% white evangelical Protestants if (1) is true of those who answered yes. Therefore, (3) Gehrz’s article is mistaken. (4) In addition, even if the 73% were motivated by fear, my guess is that the strain of Islam they are envisioning stems from the Hanbali school, in which case their fear is quite rational. Therefore, Gehrz’s article is doubly mistaken.

The moral of this essay is to be more cautious and prudent before we go tacking “phobia” on the end of words and smearing that label over others. Proving that various individuals and groups are actually suffering from a phobia is more difficult than we often realize, and our charged and divisive political culture has unfortunately captured the “phobia” tactic as a way to demonize the opposition. Don’t fall prey to it.

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