The False Dichotomy of Islamophobia

Massimo Pigliucci argues against oversimplification in the way we view Islam and the way we view criticism of Islam.


A false dichotomy is a basic type of informal logical fallacy, consisting in framing an issue as if there were only two choices available, while in fact a range of nuanced positions may be on offer upon more careful reflection. While I have argued together with my colleagues Maarten Boudry and Fabio Paglieri that often so-called logical fallacies turn out to be pretty reasonable heuristic strategies [1], there are nonetheless plenty of instances were they do identify truly bad reasoning. I have recently discussed one such case in reference to so-called trigger warnings in the context of college classes [2], but another one is arguably represented by the never ending “debate” about Islamophobia.

It is easy to find stark examples of people defending what appear to be two irreconcilable positions about how to view Islam in a post-9/11 world. For the sake of discussion, I will bypass pundits and other pseudo-intellectuals, and use instead two comedians as representative of the contrasting positions: Jon Stewart [3] and Bill Maher [4].

Before proceeding I must acknowledge that while I’ve liked Stewart for a long time, and followed with pleasure his evolution from being solely a comedian to a savvy social commentator during his run at the Daily Show [5], my appreciation of Maher has slid further and further. I used to like his brusque style back when he was doing his “Politically Incorrect” show, first on Comedy Central, then on ABC [6]. I was aghast when ABC (allegedly) let him go because he had dared to make the truly politically (but clearly correct) statement that the 9/11 hijackers could properly be labelled with a number of negative epithets, but that cowards wasn’t one of them. But then he made his Religulous movie [7], where he slid into crass new atheism-style “criticism” of religion, and finally came out as an anti-vaxxer all the while chastising some of his guests who were “skeptical” of climate change for being anti-science. At the same time, my conscious transition from a youthful predilection for assault rhetoric to a more nuanced (okay, middle aged), if still ironic, discourse also definitely marked a permanent shift in my taste from Maher (a good representative of the first style) to Stewart (an excellent example of the second one).

Back to Islam and Islamophobia. Maher has been repeatedly accused of the latter, while he defends himself as simply having the guts to be politically incorrect and openly criticize a religion that he considers the worst of a bad lot (since he rejects all religions anyway). Stewart, by contrast, has often had guests whose position is that there is nothing inherently wrong with Islam, and that the current undeniable penchant of a number of Islamic societies to harbor large reserves of potentially violent extremists has really nothing to do with religion and everything to do with external circumstances affecting those societies — circumstances that are usually traced back one way or the other to the aftermath of (Western) colonialism.

Notice that part of what interests me in this debate is the contrast on this topic among individuals who all consider themselves to be on the left of the political spectrum, just like in the above mentioned case of trigger warnings. And again as in that other case, I am far less interested in the even more inflammatory, and intellectually much coarser, rhetoric coming from the extreme right, which will accordingly be left out of the current discussion.

Now, broadly speaking, I don’t think religions in general are particularly good ideas. In my mind they originate from a combination of false presuppositions (that there are higher beings of a supernatural kind) and a power grab by individuals (i.e., religious leaders) who sometimes unconsciously (and sometimes not) end up exploiting the fears and hopes of the people that they are supposed to lead. Even so, I recognize that the religious instinct is pretty much universal among human beings, and not likely to go away any time soon, if ever. I also recognize that religions have done lots of good in the world throughout history, and that it isn’t at all clear whether a world without them would indeed be a better one, as a number of overconfident atheists keeps claiming [8].

What I’m saying is that I don’t believe that religion, any religion (including Islam) is a particularly good idea, but at the same time I also don’t believe that any religion (again, including Islam) is “the motherlode of bad ideas” [9].

But of course we are not talking about religions in general, we are talking post-9/11 Islam. What are we to make of it? While the statistics on international terrorism are complex and can be read in a number of ways [10], there is little doubt even in the mind of sympathetic commentators like CNN’s Fared Zakaria that contemporary Islam does have a problem with violence and oppression (especially of women and gays).

Zakaria (a frequent guest on the Daily Show), however, puts things in the right context when he reminds us that all we need to do is to look at the relatively recent comparative history of Islam and other Abrahamic religions to be convinced that there isn’t anything especially pernicious, in the long run, with the former when compared to the latter [11]. The (Muslim) Ottoman Empire, for instance, was one of the most tolerant places bordering with Europe for centuries, while many (Christian) European countries themselves were busy suppressing or violently expelling religious minorities, including different flavors of Christianity. This, Zakaria rightly concludes, ought to dispel any simplistic idea about one of the Abrahamic faiths being intrinsically worse than the others, selective quotations of the Quran by some modern commentators (on both sides) notwithstanding. (As is well known, the quotation game can easily be played by more than one side, as Jewish and Christian scriptures are full of severely objectionable passages, by modern moral standards.)

It would seem, then, that Maher & co. simply haven’t bothered to study history, and that it is a combination of social, economic and political factors that is creating a special problem for Islam in the contemporary world — just like different circumstances did not lead to the same problem during the Ottoman Empire, and did lead to them in Christian controlled countries for many centuries.

Well, not so fast (and here comes the hopefully more nuanced approach that might save us from simplistic dichotomies). It is also simply unconvincing to argue, as Stewart and a number of his guests have done — that Islam qua religion and idea has nothing at all to do with the above mentioned culture of violence and oppression. If one asks recruits of Al Qaeda or ISIS why they are doing what they are doing they reply with a combination of political motives (get American military bases off their sacred land, for instance) and their own interpretation of what Islam is about and the Quran mandates.

Sure, one can argue that such interpretations are simply mistaken (though it’s hard to adjudicate theological debates, since we can’t ask the alleged divine source), but even so those ideas clearly play an enabling and highly motivating role in the ensuing violence and repression. To deny this is simply not to pay attention to what is plainly in front of our eyes and ears.

The above should clearly imply that the dichotomy presented to us by the “it’s the mother lode of bad ideas” vs the “it has nothing to do with Islam” crowds is simply mistaken. And it is mistaken for reasons that, again, ought to be familiar to anyone even superficially acquainted with history. We have plenty of examples of how certain combinations of external and internal social circumstances have become fertile ground for extremist ideas, religious or not, and of when bad, or badly interpreted, ideas feed right back into people’s behaviors, giving them a way to rationalize and magnify their thinking and actions.

Take, for instance, the rise of “communist” countries during the 20th century, particularly Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Unlike, say, nazism and fascism — which I think truly are irredeemably bad ideas — communism as developed by Marx and Engels [12] is not even close to being in the same ballpark. It may be unworkable, and even undesirable, but it isn’t intrinsically evil. Yet the communist ideal was easily twisted by unscrupulous and power hungry “leaders” like Stalin and Mao (and a number of others), resulting in many decades of entirely non-religious violence and oppression that killed many times more people than contemporary Islam has managed so far. Why? Because millions bought into the ideas that were being presented to them and used them as a justification for what they were doing, even though they were doing it at the least in part because of external social, political and economic circumstances (just remember in what context both the Russian and Chinese revolutions took place [13]).

So, while some people may very well be “Islamophobes” (i.e., they may genuinely harbor an irrational prejudice against Islam), simply pointing out that Islamic ideas play a role in contemporary terrorism and repression does not make one a Islamophobe, and using the label blindly is simply an undemocratic, and unreflective, way of cutting off critical discourse. Then again, those who focus on Islam as uniquely problematic may themselves benefit from dusting off a couple of history books and learn a thing or two about the complex interplay of ideas and socio-political situations in human affairs, before making themselves Paladins of simplistic and highly misleading non-truths.

Share This

[1] The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life, by M. Boudry, F. Paglieri and M. Pigliucci, Argumentation:1-26, 2015.
[2] The false dichotomy of trigger warnings, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 May 2015.
[3] Jon Stewart, Wiki entry.
[4] Bill Maher, Wiki entry.
[5] See: The Ultimate Daily Show and Philosophy: More Moments of Zen, More Indecision Theory, ed. by J. Holt. I contributed chapter 17, “Evolution, Schmevolution.”
[6] Politically Incorrect, Wiki entry.
[7] Religulous, 2008, IMDB entry.
[8] See: Would the World Be a Better Place Without Religion?, Rationally Speaking podcast, 8 March 2015.
[9] Sam Harris Defends Assertion That ‘Islam Is the Motherlode of Bad Ideas’, Media ITE, 13 October 2014, commenting on an episode of Bill Maher’s show.
[10] Take a look at the Global Terrorism Database, though this article by the BBC clearly shows a recent, sharp, increase in terrorist attacks, mostly of an extremist Islamic nature.
[11] Let’s be honest, Islam has a problem right now, by F. Zakaria, Washington Post, 9 October 2014.
[12] The Communist Manifesto, by F. Engels and K. Marx, Project Gutenberg.
[13] Russian Revolution, Wiki entry; Chinese Communist Revolution, Wiki entry.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K. D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His background is in evolutionary biology and the philosophy os science, though he has recently developed a keen interest in Stoicism. His most recent book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. His other writings can be found at Plato's Footnote.