Femen: Are these naked breasts Islamophobic?

"I'm not an Islamophobe but a religiophobe," tweets Inna Shevchenko, leader of Femen France. After all, she attacks the Christian religion as well – naked from the waist up.

Such accusations, argued some Femen supporters, are aimed merely at deflecting secular critique of the religion. "Only fools think criticism of Islam = 'Islamophobia'," tweeted Richard Dawkins, a prominent critic of Islam. "But there are enough fools to ensure 'Islamophobia' accusation is effective propaganda."

The heated debates about Femen mirror wider debates to do with the "new atheism" of Dawkins, Sam Harris and the like. Shevchenko, by the way, tweets approvingly to and about Dawkins. Femen France has a close relationship with the French journalist Caroline Fourest, one of the 12 signatories of the "Manifesto against Islamism", which equates the struggle against "Islamism" with that against Nazism – as a battle for civilisation.

With a prominent academic like Dawkins describing Islam as the "greatest force of evil today", what qualifies as acceptable secular critique?

The British-based Runnymede Trust distinguishes between "closed" (Islamophobic) and "open" views of Islam, based on a set of criteria. Briefly, the closed view tends to characterise Islam as: (1) monolithic and static; (2) separate from, not interacting with other ­cultures; ­(3) inferior to Western culture, as ­barbaric, irrational or sexist; ­(4) violent, aggressive, terroristic; and (5) as a manipulative political ideology. They also tend to (6) reject critique of the West out of hand; (7) defend discrimination against Muslims; and (8) view Islamophobia as natural.

University of Bonn researchers used the Runnymede framework and psychometric methods to distinguish empirically between Islamophobia and "open" critique of Islam in the field. The first five Runnymede criteria can be used for a rough analysis of Femen's "Islam critique", based on their public utterances:

  • "What does actually mean this gesture of Tunisian prosecutors – the Eastern trick or step towards democracy" (3 and 5 on the Runnymede list);
  • "What can be more stupid then Ramadan? What can be more uglier then [sic] this religion" (3);
  • "This religion is anti-woman, is anti-human, and this religion cannot be there in the 21st century" (1, 2, 3);
  • "So, sisters, (I prefer to talk to women anyway, even knowing that behind them are bearded men with knives)" (1, 3, 4);
  • "Sisters, we don't care how many times your men are praying, but we care a lot what do they do in between. We care a lot about violence and aggression, we care a lot when your fathers, brothers and husbands are raping and killing, when they call to stone your sisters, we care a lot when they burn embassies etc, and all that for Allah!" (1, 3, 4, 5);
  • "I don't understand when there are extremists, based on your religion, I don't understand how, with so much pride, you can wear your scarf, like it is the hat of Che Geuvara [sic] or something. You understand that it symbolise blood and all crimes that are based on your religion even when you don't support it" (1, 3, 4);
  • "Muslim women who consider themselves feminists, who consider themselves free, take it [the scarf] off, when it will not be a symbol of death" (2, 4); and
  • "Your breasts will become a symbol of civilisation and a weapon against wild Islamism. If we keep silence today then tomorrow each woman in North Africa will be stoned" (1, 2, 3, 4).

One can argue about minor issues here, but it is utterly uncontroversial to call Femen Islamophobic. The fact that some "fools" make propagandistic use of accusations of Islamophobia is moot. This is not "progressive" protest, but reactionary language, sprinkled with various species of inductive fallacy – generalising from the basis of nonrepresentative samples, for one.

Femen's ignorance is brilliantly exposed by Shazia Bashir, a lawyer based in New Zealand, in her detailed treatment of the diversity and complexity of the Islamic world. Femen, in its arrogance, simply does not know what it is talking about.

Particularly striking is its dismissal of Islamic feminists and the agency of women in the Islamic world. This is a narcissistic kind of blindness, one that is probably impossible to cure. One can only oppose it.

Femen has not responded to any questions or requests for interviews.

Conrad Steenkamp is a freelance writer

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Conrad Steenkamp
Dr Conrad Steenkamp is the chief executive of the Afrikaanse Taalraad

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