I don’t think that Valls would disagree with the notion that the fear of “mainstream Muslims” is grounded in anything but prejudice. But the question he is asking (and answering) is this: Can hostility to the various related ideologies of Islamism—ideologies rooted in a particular reading of Muslim texts, theology, and history—be properly defined as Islamophobic?
Michael Walzer, in the most recent issue of Dissent, provides one answer. He argues that it is quite rational to fear Islamism:
I live with a generalized fear of every form of religious militancy. I am afraid of Hindutva zealots in India, of messianic Zionists in Israel, and of rampaging Buddhist monks in Myanmar. But I admit that I am most afraid of Islamist zealots because the Islamic world at this moment in time (not always, not forever) is especially feverish and fervent. Indeed, the politically engaged Islamist zealots can best be understood as today’s crusaders.
Is this an anti-Muslim position, not a fear but a phobia—and a phobia that grows out of prejudice and hostility? Consider a rough analogy (all analogies are rough): if I say that Christianity in the eleventh century was a crusading religion and that it was dangerous to Jews and Muslims, who were rightly fearful (and some of them phobic)—would that make me anti-Christian? I know that crusading fervor isn’t essential to the Christian religion; it is historically contingent, and the crusading moment in Christian history came and, after two hundred years or so, went. Saladin helped bring it to an end, but it would have ended on its own. I know that many Christians opposed the Crusades; today we would call them Christian “moderates.” And, of course, most eleventh-century Christians weren’t interested in crusading warfare; they listened to sermons urging them to march to Jerusalem and they went home. Still, it is true without a doubt that in the eleventh century, much of the physical, material, and intellectual resources of Christendom were focused on the Crusades.
Walzer doesn’t understand how opposition to a misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-free-speech theocratic strain of totalitarianism could make a person a “racist” (a particularly inapt term for prejudice against Muslims, who are found among all races) or “Islamophobic,” or anything but a secular-minded progressive who is interested in defending the rights of women and minorities.
“I frequently come across leftists who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia than they are with condemning Islamist zealotry,” Walzer wrote. “There are perfectly legitimate criticisms that can be made not only of Islamist zealots but also of Islam itself—as of any other religion.”
Hussein Ibish, writing in The National, offered a definition of Islamophobia that makes sense to me, and I would imagine, makes sense to Valls.
The key to a practicable definition of Islamophobia that can help identify truly objectionable speech, must be that it refers to living human beings and their fundamental rights. It cannot be about protecting people from being offended, or having their feelings hurt. Still less can it be about protecting abstract ideas, religious dogmas, or cultural norms from being questioned, critiqued or even lampooned.
The proper metric to identify genuinely bigoted speech is whether or not the expression in question is intended or likely to have the effect of promoting fear and hatred against broad categories of people based on their identity. Would such speech make it more difficult for communities to function effectively in their own society? In other words, does the speech attack the legitimate rights and interests of identity-based communities? Does it prevent them being seen as, and treated as equal by, and with regard to, other communities?
Ibish argues that Charlie Hebdo, against which accusations of Islamophobia continue to be leveled, does not meet his standard: While many of the images it printed over the years were offensive to Muslims and many others, and were intended to be so, did its track record really suggest that its presence on the French scene in any way compromised, challenged, or complicated the ability of the Arab and Muslim migrant communities in France to function properly in that society? Clearly, the answer is no.
Prejudice against Muslims is repulsive. Criticism of Islamist doctrine, and the lampooning of religious beliefs, is not.