by Anna Borshchevskaya

On  October 29, 2013,  UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion  Heiner Bielefeldt   will present his annual report  to  the United Nations.  On the heels of this event, The Venn Institute, Jubilee Campaign, International Christian Response, and International Christian Voice co-sponsored a panel discussion in New York City on October 28, The Persecution of Women and Girls in the Middle East.

One of the three panelists was Sabatina James, founder of a non-profit Satabina e. V. which assists Muslim women in Germany threatened with honor killing, forced marriage or other abuse. James raised the issue of Islamophobia during the discussion.

Before founding Satabina e. V., James had escaped a forced marriage in Pakistan, and converted to Christianity. She suffered abuse as a teenager in Austria, but the Austrian police were of little assistance to her, even suggesting that she convert back to Islam to escape abuse.

James subsequently wrote two books about her experience, and many Muslim women expressed gratitude to her for discussing problems often considered culturally taboo.  But Muslim radicals accused her of “insulting Islam” just for telling her story.  She is still labeled as an “Islamophobe” by certain radical groups, some of which even advocate murdering her.

Islamophobia implies hatred of or racism against Muslims but in practice, too often more extreme elements use accusations of Islamophobia against both Muslims and non-Muslims to restrict free speech—the most fundamental and cherished of all democratic values.

The problem runs deep.  Many journalists, James said, are afraid to write about abuse Muslim women face, out of fear of being labeled “Islamophobic” by certain Muslim groups. Politicians too are afraid to discuss the intersection of religion, culture, and women’s rights  when it comes to Islam.

Ultimately, restrictions on free speech make it harder to fight radicalism, which threaten both Western democracies and the development of democracies in the Muslim world. Radical groups label speech Islamophobic in order to avoid addressing real issues at the heart of their own extremism. The main victims of the “Islamophobia” debate are moderate Muslims and free speech.

Anna Borshchevskaya is Communications Director at the American Islamic Congress