After the Brexit referendum, back in June 2016–I remember the moment when I realised that Leave was going to win: I was in a restaurant in Lima, Peru, with my wife’s family, following the news thanks to their Wi-Fi–I felt to urge to be more involved in politics. I had followed politics for a while, but the anger from the result of the referendum–I could almost hear people saying “we don’t want you here”–demanded more. Needless to say this initial reaction was unfair and imprecise, and I feel somehow proud of realising that those that voted for Brexit are not simply “racist” earlier than most people I know (someone I know asked for a different cab driver once he realised that he had voted for Leave). Yet I became a member of the Liberal Democrats Party.
Why the LibDems? At the moment, it seemed like they were the only party empowering the values of reason and rationality; the values of the Enlightenment. They were in the right side of legalising gay marriage, they seemed sensible in terms of economic policies–I might be found more to the right but barely dogmatic on that front,–and they were, obviously, unambiguously pro-remain. For three years I have been a member, even though I did not share part of the strategy in the Brexit topic. I happen to believe that Brexit has to occur, and the only way it should be stopped is if there are elections and a party promising to stop the departure from the European Union wins most seats; in other words, I don’t share the idea of a second referendum. But this was not my reason to leave the party. The reason was my commitment to secularism.
I see secularism as a key foundation of any liberal democracy. Religion cannot be granted any special right in the public sphere. There are no greys here–granting religion any concession (for instance, shielding it from criticism) is a defeat of reason. I should have maybe paid more attention to it when I joined the party: Tim Farron, its leader back then, ended up resigning because he was “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.” It turns out that your beliefs do influence your politics after all! But, as I said, he resigned, which seems a good development. But in the last months the party has shown, again, that its commitment to secularism is fading.
What is Islamophobia? Going with the Wikipedia page, it is the “fear, hatred of, or prejudice against the Islamic religion or Muslims generally.” The term conflates two different things: hatred / prejudice of Islam and hatred / prejudice of Muslims. The term is, hence, not very useful. Is someone who hates religion in general Islamophobic? According to the definition, yes. Yet I would hypothesise that this is not what people refer to when using this adjective. But recently an all party parliamentary group studying this issue has proposed a new (or complementary) definition for the government to adopt: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.“
This seems a clear case of setting up the stage for the logical fallacy that if A implies B, then B implies A. It is true that those that hate Muslims (and this is, crucially, what we want to combat) also hate “expressions of Muslimness”, such as the hijab. But it does not follow that those that hate the hijab, for instance, also hate Muslims. A hatred towards certain religious practices need not be rooted in racism. In a secular society, the freedom to criticise especially religious practices is, yes, sacred–obviously not sacred in the religious sense, but in the sense that it is a defining block of such society. Attacking religious practices is foundational in a secular society.
The LibDems, among other parties, adopted the definition and urged the government to do the same. This is, by all means, a departure of its Enlightenment values. An open letter asking the government not to adopt the definition can be found here. It explains in more detail the dangers of such definition. It saddens me, really, to see elements of the left–in this case, by far its best party–capitulating to religious ideologues like this. I think that this explains my early-20s attraction towards a more libertarian position; I have always suspected that part of the left is less committed to individual rights that what they claim to be. Good examples of this can be found in the cases of Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
I attended a recent gathering of atheist and ex-Muslim Youtubers (I am technically a millennial so I am allowed to do these things). Someone (white and with no Muslim background) asked an ex-Muslim in the panel what he could do to help given the fact that charges of Islamophobia were sure to follow any criticism of the religion, especially by a white person. The answer was illuminating: white people are not special on this regard either. The charge of Islamophobia is also levied against ex-Muslims or even Muslim liberals who criticise certain practices of the religion. My conviction that I did the right thing cancelling my membership to the LibDems was strongly reinforced.