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Stuart Chambers
Stuart Chambers, Ph.D., is a professor in the faculties of arts and social sciences at the University of Ottawa: schamber@uottawa.ca  

Islamophobia needs to be approached rationally, not emotionally

When students ask me if Islamophobia exists, my reply is always the same: It does—if you can prove it. I advise them to follow the evidence when ascertaining whether a claim against Muslims or Islam possesses any merit. Unfortunately, not everyone adopts a scientific approach to understanding this social phenomenon. It has even become fashionable of late to discredit the reality of Islamophobia or deny its existence altogether.

For instance, when interviewed on The Rebel, University of Toronto professor Dr. Jordan Peterson referred to Islamophobia as a term “without integrity.” Likewise, Toronto Sun columnist Tarek Fatah insisted that Islamophobia could not be defined, since it was a “fraud.” In the National Review, journalist Brendan O’Neill labelled Islamophobia a “myth.” Writing for the Prince Arthur Herald, political science professor Henry Srebrnik called Islamophobia a media “obsession.”

None of these characterizations, however, are sufficient from a scholarly viewpoint. Self-evident positions, quick dismissals or gross exaggerations tend to detract from the main issue, that being whether a given claim made against Muslims or Islam is rational or irrational.

Take, for instance, the statements made by conservative political commentator Mark Steyn. He remarked in the National Post, “most Muslims either wish or are indifferent to the death of the societies in which they live.” Yet Steyn provides no statistical analysis to support his case. Here is what the evidence states concerning Muslim attitudes towards violence.

In a 2016 Environics poll, only one per cent of Canadian Muslims believe that “many” or “most” Muslims in Canada support violent extremism. Globally speaking, Muslims overwhelmingly reject suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam. Studies conducted by the Pew Research Center found that Muslims view such extremism as rarely or never justified, including 96 per cent in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Azerbaijan, 92 per cent in Indonesia and 91 per cent in Iraq.

As well, the most extensive research of British Muslims ever conducted, a 2016 report titled “What Muslims Want,” found the vast majority of British Muslims reject terrorism outright (as stated on page 529 of the study). When asked “to what extent do you sympathise with or condemn people who commit terrorist actions as a form of political protest,” 90% condemned such actions, 5% didn’t know, and 3% neither condemned nor condoned political acts of terror. That’s hardly “most Muslims,” as Steyn asserts.

Some so-called principled liberals are equally guilty of making misleading claims against Muslims. For example, Bill Maher, host of Real Time, suggests that a “connecting tissue” binds 1.6 billion Muslims to terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State group (IS). However, recent surveys indicate most people in countries with significant Muslim populations have an unfavorable view of IS, including virtually all respondents in Lebanon, 94% in Jordan, and 84% in the Palestinian territories (10% of Palestinians had no opinion on IS).

Organizations such as La Meute (The Wolf Pack), Quebec’s largest right-wing organization, tend to base their assumptions on conjecture rather than proof. Co-founder Patrick Beaudry boldly suggests that political Islam is “slowly invading our institutions.” But according to the Pew Research Center, by 2050 Muslims, will remain a small minority in Canada (5.5 per cent), whereas Christians will make up 60.2 per cent of the population. Members of La Meute may sense a Muslim tidal wave is imminent, but there is no evidence to suggest Canadian law will be swept away by Sharia law.

Using empirical studies, one can safely conclude that criticisms levelled against Muslims or Islam are not always rational. Individuals and groups often make sweeping generalizations based on fear, ignorance and prejudice. Islamophobia, therefore, is an appropriate neologism to describe these unfounded assertions.

Because dishonest deliberators often forward such arguments, students need to think critically, not emotionally, about sociological issues. One of the best ways to avoid the trappings of ideology is to adopt an evidence-based approach to learning. By staying with the facts, students will possess a greater understanding of the way mass media conveys distorted images of Muslims and Islam.