Muslim & Gay
There’s an old saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.” Like many old sayings it’s nonsense of course. Names may not cause physical harm, but they can certainly enhance prejudices and create division in societies and between individuals.
Amongst ancient peoples knowing the name of someone mattered. Moses at the burning bush wanted to know the name of the person he was hearing. Was it the deity? Was it a messenger from the deity? Who was it? He feared that if he did as he was told, and went to Egypt to tell the slaves they would be freed, he would not be believed if he could not identify who sent him. Knowing the name would have given him a handle on the person, a bit of knowledge, perhaps a bit of authority. We do the same today. We label people we meet or hear about. Why? Because we believe that if we know their defining characteristic it will help us to understand them. If we can categorise them, we believe we know quite a bit about them. We can put them in their place in our view of the world. The trouble is, sometimes our labels are misleading, and sometimes very dangerous.
Some people are homosexual. The popular name for them is “gay.” Being “gay”, however, is unlikely to be their defining characteristic. Are there circumstances where a person’s sexual orientation might be relevant in any description of them? Clearly it would be relevant if a heterosexual were seeking a partner with a view to marriage and family. But would it be relevant in any other set of circumstances? Might not talking about another as “gay” show a degree of prejudice against homosexuality? Might it not display a degree of judgmentalism? Might it be a means of saying the person was “different”? Might it be that describing someone as “gay” is a means of diminishing that person? Worst of all, might it not be based on assumptions about “gay” people that have little or no validity?
Why, too, is it necessary to use an ethnic or religious label when it comes to describing terrorists? Terrorists break the law. They terrify people. They kidnap, kill, extort, rape, brutalise and destroy. Does their ethnicity or religion really matter? If we call a terrorist a “Muslim Terrorist” does not that give the law-breaker some degree of validity for what he/she has done? Does it not mitigate the offence in the terrorist’s eyes? Might it not mitigate the offence in the eyes of some co-religionists and make joining the terrorists an attractive proposition? Might it not alienate many Muslims from the rest of society because they feel non-Muslims are tarnishing them by implication? Worst of all, might it not simply increase the degree of Islamophobia already prevalent in society?
What’s to be done? Do we simply avoid using the words “gay” and “Muslim”? Of course not. We ought, however, to ensure that when we do use them the labels are relevant and provide useful information. Take the word “Christian” for example. What exactly does the word convey? Hoteliers were in the news recently. They called themselves “Christian” and because of their “Christian” beliefs, refused two men in a civil partnership a room with a double bed. The judge found that they had broken the law, and fined them. To many other “Christians” the hoteliers’ brand of Christianity would be regarded as a very inadequate application of Jesus’ teaching. (See the article on Homosexuality in this website). The description “Christian” tells us very little about anyone. Its meaning is extremely vague. This lack of clarity regarding the definition of “Christian” helps explain why labelling can be at the very least misleading and at its worst, pernicious. Using a word with limited meaning to describe someone tells us very little indeed.
“Gay” tells us one thing only about a person: their sexual orientation. It says nothing about their morality, or personality, or spirituality, or trustworthiness, or creativity, or any other thing that might matter about them. Their being gay might be the least interesting thing about them. What purpose other than prejudice is gained by labelling someone “Gay”?
As for Muslims, there are as many varieties of them as there are of Christians. The label is no more and no less useful. It tells us hardly anything about the person. Shylock's heartfelt plea (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 1) might be spoken today by a Muslim. The degree of Islamophobia in society may not be as great as was anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s day, but it is growing and is increasingly dangerous.In a harmonious society people who are “different” are treated with respect and not assumed to be the enemy. Those who seek to cause harm to others must be dealt with, but we must not confuse the issue by using unnecessary and unhelpful words to describe them. Potentially inflammable words in particular must be used with great care.