FEMEN, a "sextremist" feminist group based in Ukraine and known for their topless protests, organized "International Topless Jihad Day" this past Thursday. A 19-year-old Tunisian FEMEN activist, Amina Tyler, had posted topless photos of herself on Facebook with the words "Fuck your morals" and "My body is my own and not the source of anyones honor" written on her naked torso. Reports reveal that Amina was committed to a mental hospital, and many high ranking Islamic figures have called for rather extreme violence in response to her photos. She has been reportedly hiding in a village a few hours from the Tunisian capital, fearing for her life and the lives of her family. Protests were organized by FEMEN all across Europe to show support for Amina.
I feel like I should first note that I just can't stress strongly enough how very much on the right side of this issue FEMEN is on, here. Anyone who believes that, in FEMEN's words, "killing a woman is more natural than recognising her right to do as she pleases with her own body" deserves our strong condemnation, regardless of whether they subscribe to a particular religion. Even though I find many photos from the protest to be brave and extremely powerful, I can't help but agree with Jezebel that many aspects of these protests were troublingly islamophobic.
The entire concept of "islamophobia" has been somewhat contentious lately, particularly since a handful of recent popular articles have painted many figureheads of New Atheism -- and New Atheism more broadly -- as proponents of this particular bigotry. Glenn Greenwald puts forward what I think is the strongest case for this, and Sam Harris has written a lengthy response to many of these charges. It may not surprise readers to learn that I fall closer to the Glenn Greenwald side when it comes to this issue, but I hope to make it clear that criticism of Islam is so obviously not what I or anyone else means, as far as I can tell, by the term.
I'll try to make it clear what I mean, then, by claiming that these protests have troubling undercurrents of islamophobia. It's not necessary to look past the image at top of the Jezebel post, and I hope it shouldn't take that much explaining. It's hard to see what kneeling topless, as if in prayer, while posing with a fake beard, a unibrow drawn on in eyeliner, and a towel fashioned into a turban achieves other than to exploit a crude Islamic stereotype.
When faced with legitimately condemnable actions on the part of Muslim radicals, it seems that the go-to reaction many Westerners have is to do little more than this: rush to find the nearest Muslim (don't think about it too hard, any local Muslim or mosque will do!) to stage a protest. That is, if the response isn't much worse. My friend Stephen Goeman wrote a compelling piece on islamophobia that highlights a few examples of people who were assaulted or murdered simply for looking Muslim.
But we've seen this tendency clearly with Everyone Draw Muhammad Day, where statements by Muslim radicals lead to atheist groups across the country drawing chalk Muhammads on their college campuses -- as if the already-marginalized Muslim students could somehow serve as appropriate stand-ins for hateful radicals -- and we see it now with FEMEN protesters from Paris to San Franciso taking to their local mosques to perform topless protests.
Imagine that, in response to the reported "secret squads" enforcing modesty in conservative Hasidic parts of Brooklyn, local activists protested topless in front of random synagogues across the country while dressed in crude caricatures of Hasidic men. How many hours, if that, do you think it would take the Anti-Defamation League to put out a press release? And do you think anyone would be wrong to think that there was some implicit, if not (extremely) explicit, bigotry going on?
On top of that, when presented with a counter-protest by Muslim women objecting to what they saw as imperialistic and patronizing attitudes of the FEMEN protesters toward Muslim women, the leader of FEMEN, Inna Shevchenko, told The Huffington Post UK that:
through all history of humanity, all slaves deny that they are slaves. ... They say they are against Femen, but we still say we are here for them. They write on their posters that they don't need liberation but in their eyes it's written 'help me.'
I hope this attitude speaks for itself, and that I don't need to add any more commentary to explain how wrong and condescending a view like that is. I can't deny that hearts are in the right places and heads are on the right side of this issue, but I just ask of FEMEN: please, slow down and make sure that your protests are respectful of whoever you're tying to help. There's no need to be patronizing or to exploit harmful stereotypes.
A version of this article originally appeared on NonProphet Status.