If a Muslim woman is spat on because she wears a niqab, that is bigotry. If a Muslim man is denied an apartment because of his faith, that is bigotry. If a mosque is firebombed by a Christian nativist, that is bigotry. Blasphemy, however, is not.
The term “Islamophobia” conflates blasphemy with bigotry. This is no accident. In origin and purpose, this pejorative has always been illiberal. Pascal Bruckner explained:
To avoid incurring any blame, in the 1970s fundamentalism invented the term “Islamophobia,” which was supposed to parallel xenophobia: the semantic buckler was first used against the American feminist Kate Millet, who was said to be guilty of calling upon Iranian women to take off their chadors, and then in the 1990s against the Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie when he published The Satanic Verses. This was a clever invention because it amounts to making Islam a subject that one cannot touch without being accused of racism.
The use of this “semantic buckler” is not confined to the Islamist movement. Garry Trudeau is no Islamist, but he has joined the campaign against those who dissent from political Islam. In the acceptance speech for his Polk Award, Trudeau said:
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Moliére and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie [Hebdo] wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voilá—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.
Powerless is not an adjective I would apply to men with Kalashnikovs. But unlike Trudeau, who was punching the dead, I view Islamists as political actors.
Buried within Trudeau’s argument is a peculiar assumption about Islamist agency. David Frum teased it out:
Had the gunmen been “privileged,” then presumably the cartoons would have been commendable satire. The cartoonists would then have been martyrs to free speech. But since the gunmen were “non-privileged,” the responsibility for their actions shifts to the people they targeted, robbing them of agency. It’s almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better.
An aggrieved dog also has no politics. It’s violence cannot induce cognitive dissonance. It presents no conflict between multiculturalism and liberal values.