The Witch Hunters: how shaming accusations of bigotry are used to shut down legitimate debate

March 4, 2016

One thing we lefty liberals particularly fear is being thought bigoted. Call me dumb, naive, greedy, and selfish if you like – I can take it. But accuse me of being a bigot and I’ll immediately collapse into a period of mute soul-searching while I check my privilege.

We also know many of us are more bigoted than we realize. So most of us will take any suggestion that we’re being bigoted seriously. ‘Am I being bigoted?’ we’ll wonder when the accusatory finger is pointed at us. ‘Maybe I am!

Unfortunately, this is a trait that can be exploited by our opponents. On realising we’ve made a pretty good criticism of their views, they may point a finger at us and say, ‘You only say that because you’re [insert relevant word here]-phobic! You’re prejudiced! You should be ashamed!’

Let me be very clear: sometimes these charges of [insert relevant word here]-phobia really are merited. I’m not denying thing that. There certainly are Islamophobes, anti-semites, homophobes, and so on among those who consider themselves liberal and left-leaning.

However, it’s also increasingly common to level such charges of bigotry and prejudice on flimsy or even non-existent grounds in order to stifle legitimate debate.

Take the charge of ‘Islamophobia’. Dare to suggest Islam has played some significant role in in oppressing women and gays, and you can be pretty confident someone will accuse you of Islamophobia. Suggest Islamism is a significant problem in the UK and you will likely be deemed Islamophobic. You may also be labelled Islamophobic if you merely defend the right to free speech of someone like Maryam Namazie (a UK-based critic of Islam who has, as a result, been no-platformed in some British Universities), or if you believe Islam is one root cause of terrorist violence.

Some critics of Islam and Islamism really are Islamophobic – they’re guilty of an irrational prejudice against all Muslims, period. However, Islam, as a belief system, is not above criticism, and it’s not Islamophobic to point out that it has been, and continues to be, responsible for some ghastly oppression. Still, terrified that we’ll be accused of Islamophobia, many of us prefer to bite our tongues rather than point this out.

Many are justifiably annoyed at the way the charge of ‘Islamophobia’ is used to silence critics. They claim free speech is being suppressed. The complain that the Witch Hunter’s shriek of ‘Islamphobia!‘ is being used to pressure us into gagging not only others, but also ourselves.

But here’s the irony: some of these self-styled defenders of free speech are guilty of witch hunting themselves.

So, for example, among those critical of Islam and Islamism you’ll find some who, whenever Israel is criticised, or whenever the merits of boycotting Israel are discussed, will habitually play the anti-semitism card on the flimsiest of evidence or even no evidence at all. Now yes, some who oppose Israeli policy and support a boycott really are anti-semitic. But not all. Those who complain about being labelled Islamophobes when they criticise Islam and Islamism, but are quick to accuse any and all critics of Israel or supporters of a boycott of being anti-semitic, are doing precisely what they themselves complain about. They’re using shaming accusations of bigotry to try to stifle debate and silence dissent.

Yes, we should be policing ourselves for signs of prejudice and bigotry. I’m sure I’m bigoted in ways I’m unaware of. We should dig out and reflect on our own often less-than-noble motives and biases. But that shouldn’t lead us to self-censor on these issues. For then we become fodder for the Witch Hunters: those who use shaming accusations of bigotry to shut down what is often entirely legitimate debate.