Is “phobia” the right term for religious intolerance?
Parliament in Britain has scheduled a debate on Christianophobia for Wednesday and interest in it seems to be almost zero. It’s on the parliamentary agenda and the BBC has done a story on it. But the usual Google searches find no other articles about it and few blog entries (for example here, here, here or here).
OK, it’s not the hottest topic right now and there’s a much bigger religion story out there today — the return of “teddy row teacher” Gillian Gibbons from Sudan. But that’s not all.
Christianophobia doesn’t seem to be catching on as a useful term denoting a clear injustice to Christians. There was disagreement about it among Christians when the Vatican led a successful drive about three years ago to have it recognised as a social evil equivalent to the hatred of Jews or Muslims. The United Nations adopted the term and reports regularly on cases of Christianophobia, but these reports have little impact.
Human rights groups regularly document clear cases of persecution of Christians in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to mention only the most frequently cited offenders. Christians such as British MP Mark Pritchard, who initiatied the parliamentary debate, express concern about the way Christian traditions such as Nativity plays are being sidelined in western societies. This recalls the criticism of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI that Europe is forgetting its Christian roots .
All this is happening, but is a word ending in “-phobia” the right way to describe it? A phobia is an irrational fear. Fear can certainly be one of several motivating factors in anti-Christian views. But aren’t we really talking about prejudice, discrimination and persecution here? Aren’t those who persecute Christians or try to keep Christianity out of the public sphere doing this out of their cold calculation of their own interests?
In Pakistan, for example, cases of blasphemy against Christians — charges that they cursed the name of the Prophet Mohammad or tore pages out of a Koran — are often brought by Muslims who have quite practical reasons to want to discriminate against them. Sometimes there are disputes over water rights or use of a parcel of land, for example. Sometimes it’s something personal, like a dispute with a Christian. Accusing the Christian of blasphemy gets him thrown into jail and out of the accuser’s hair. This is not a phobia, it is a calculated act of discrimination by a member of the majority against a member of a minority.
Speaking of Islam, is Islamophobia the best term to describe prejudice, discrimination and persecution when Muslims are the targets? It’s taken hold more successfully than Christianophobia, but I’m not sure it’s the best word to use. Any suggestions?