The Flying Carpet Fallacy

Talking about Islamophobia in the United States can get tricky.  Similar to discussions about racism, raising awareness about Islamophobia often result in fallacious flip tactics, where the ignorant non-Muslim fellow turns the tables and accuses you of being divisive, confrontational, and even racist.  This reaction occurs, I believe, because such discussions about racism and prejudice not only address social problems that we’ve been largely conditioned to think are “not real,” or “not as prominent,” but also generate the perception and fear that you are trying to create conflict.  And people don’t like conflict, especially about these issues.

I’ve noticed a pattern when talking with certain non-Muslim individuals about this issue (and they may or may not be Islamophobes; sometimes they’re actually well-intentioned, but just misinformed).  You may be talking to them about Islamophobia and the struggles of Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America, but their responses often mystify you because they’re completely irrelevant to what you’re talking about.  They pull out a magic flying carpet, an orientalist device, and transport the conversation off into a stereotypical, racist, and exotic fantasy about the “Muslim world.”

It goes something like this:

Person A, a Muslim, is speaking with a colleague at her university and says, “Hey, I’m presenting my project next week in the banquet room, you should come!”  The colleague, Person B, lights up with excitement, “Awesome!  I Love research, what’s your project on?”  Person A replies, “It’s on Islamophobia and how it affects the social relationships and identities of Muslim-American emerging adults in post 9/11 America.”  Person B’s smile fades.  “Oh,” he says.  Person A shares a bit of information from her research, but then Person B shifts the focus of the conversation and says something like, “Hey, it’s not as bad as the way Christians are persecuted in Arab countries!”

Before she knows it, Person A finds herself on a flying carpet and sent to some random Muslim-majority country.  It’s like, “Whoa, wait a minute, how the heck did I end up here?!  I was talking about–” and then she gets dragged into a discussion that wasn’t even what she was talking about in the first place.  But she is not really transported to a Muslim-majority country, she is sent to an orientalist fantasy of the “Middle-East,” which only exists in person B’s imagination — a flawed imagining of  “Arab countries” that is consistent with the stereotypical and often racist discourse perpetuated about Islam and Muslims in mainstream American media.  Person B is poorly equipped with the knowledge and experience to hold an intelligent discussion about Islamophobia and Muslim-majority countries, and his magic carpet takes you to a place that blurs the distinction between Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, Turks, Afghans, and the various nations and regions they belong to.  That is, what he terms as “the Muslim world,” is simply a single entity in his mind, sort of like an “Indian shop” I know in a nearby suburban town that sells Middle-Eastern and South Asian clothing, belly dance outfits, and plays Far Eastern and New-Age music over the radio for customers.  Yeah.

But Person A may also run into Person C.  Unlike Person B, Person C is quite informed about the social and political dynamics of certain Muslim-majority countries and has actually traveled to one or two.  However, he resorts to the same fallacy, but only after showing off his “credentials” first.  Regardless of how intelligent and articulate he may sound, he still makes the error of using comparative arguments to negate the experiences of the initial group (Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America).  This is why Person B and C Love using the flying the carpet: they send you far away from the original discussion and make it very difficult for you to come back.  The longer they keep you away, the more they ignore what you addressed.  You may have heard variations of these flying carpet fallacies before when talking about Islamophobia in western media and society (feel free to add to the list):

1.  “Dude, While I want America and the West to live up to their proclaimed ideals, it would be nice to see even a hint of reciprocity in Muslim countries. Defamation of Islam? Please! There is defamation of Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Bahai, and Judaism going on everyday in Muslim countries, even sponsored by the governments!!!” (real comment)

2.  “However, while you are complaining of “stereotyping” and “harassment” and “ignorant White people” I would like to consider what you and Muslims do. In case you don’t know, or more likely, you don’t care, Muslims persecute and discriminate everywhere they dominate. Where they don’t dominate, the whine and try to end the freedoms of non-Muslims.” (real comment)

3.  “You cannot be a real Muslim and a feminist.  The true representation of Islam is to kill the infidel and oppress women.  Just look at the Middle-East.” (real comment)

4.  “Try traveling to a majority Muslim country and see what they have to say about other religions. really, dude, Christian majority countries are hardly the only ones on earth!” (real comment).

5.  “By the way, in my knee-jerk American way, I have to say, I am so sorry you are discriminated against here, but have you any, any idea how even Pakistani Christians are discriminated against in Pakistan?” (real comment).

6.  “Get the [expletive] over it, whiny [expletive] baby.  It’s a damn movie.  I’m sure Arabic movies or whatever criticize Americans too” (real comment).

If you encounter Person D, then you’re really in for it.  Person D is the Islamophobe.  Person D hates Person A solely because she is Muslim.  Prepare to be taken to a place where bearded, scimitar-wielding mullahs chase non-Muslims around from dusk till dawn, where a man wakes up early in the morning and then decides to strap a bomb to himself because “the Qur’an told him so,” and where oppressed, veiled Muslim women await their White non-Muslim male saviors to liberate them (depending on Person D’s ideology, the savior for the “Muslim world” may not just be Western civilization, but also Jesus, peace be upon him).  Person D is only concerned about demonizing you and your faith; there is no compassion in his heart.  Person D wants to get under your skin and is so hell-bent on vilifying Muslims that he often comes looking for you, whether on your blog, Facebook page, at CAIR events, or even in your classroom.  If I were to describe Person D theatrically, he’s the guy with the sword shouting, “Fight me!”  There is no point in wasting your time with someone who spends the lot of his time reading hate-literature just for the sake of using that propaganda to argue with Muslims and bully them.

The key to countering the flying carpet fallacy, whether it’s used by Person B, C, or D, is to (1) not get dragged into their orientalist fantasies and (2) bring the conversation home.  One can also refute the fashion in which the said Persons use their comparative arguments and then bring the discussion back to your original point.  Countering this fallacy does not mean that you reject, deny, or ignore the real problems that exist in Muslim-majority countries, whether they concern minority groups or the rights of women.  The point is that comparative arguments by Person B, C, and D are used to dodge an honest discussion about Islamophobia in post 9/11 America.

Often times, when discussing race, we hear people say, “Racism exists everywhere, no matter where you go in the world!”  Yes, it does exist everywhere, but that does not make everything “ok.”  The statement behaves as if it is futile to do anything about it and that we should just “not talk about it.”  Similarly, when we talk about Islamophobia and someone responds with a point about minority groups being mistreated, stigmatized, or persecuted in a Muslim-majority country, the implication is that (1) it’s worse “over there” for “people like me” and (2) Muslims should be “more grateful” to “be here.”  If we’re going to talk about Islamophobia in the US, then let’s keep the conversation centered on that and avoid diversions that may negate the experiences of stigmatized Muslim-Americans.  The same should hold true if we want to discuss the way minority groups are treated in a Muslim majority-country.  Neither topic is “more important” than the other;  discuss them separately and individually instead of comparing.

Bring the discussion home.  Don’t get on the magic carpet.  Take it home with you and use it for fun stuff.  But be warned, when you emphasize and stand by your point, the person using the fallacy may get impatient, frustrated, and even rude with you.  He may start hurling insults and personal attacks at you (especially true for Person D).

Stay calm and don’t get discouraged.  Because when someone demonstrates their inability to engage in civil and mature discussion/debate, they simply expose how ignorant and close-minded they really are.  It is my hope that in most cases, raising awareness about Islamophobia doesn’t result in personal attacks and racism, but in dialogue and understanding.


23 thoughts on “The Flying Carpet Fallacy

  1. I think I’ll start using the “flying carpet fallacy” term for any time anyone diverts a conversation to what they think they know about a topic mildly related to it. Like “whoa why are we talking about this … ?” It’s kind of like the religion/fundamentalist secularism debate. It inevitably turns to Muslims, and then I’m like wait I thought we were talking about religion and secularism. My point for godsake is to explain how fundamentalist secularism / the New Atheist movement in particular operates on the same rhetorical methodology as the more hate-inspiring religionist-activists – instead I am sitting here having to explain that Muslims are normal people that aren’t really inclined more than anyone else to blow things up… thus reinforcing my original point.

    It’s so unfortunate in cases of Person C, that you would think traveling opens people’s minds, but I realize that it doesn’t as much as I’d think it would. There are many people, I suspect, that travel, looking for and paying for the exotic experience, not even trying to learn the language, and overlooking everything else. Host cultures feed into it cuz they want the cash, so increasingly we could be getting this out of everyday travelers and not just the guy that works for the Saudi oil company or that did a brigade tour in Afghanistan.

    Who would say to the persecuted American black person, “Just imagine what it’s like in Africa,” or even worse, “Hey, at least there’s no more slavery !” .. ?

  2. Outstanding post, and thanks for identifying the strategy and then the alternatives.

    I have met persons D mostly in blog comments, as well as the very frequent person C. The result is that I have been accused of being everything from a salafist propagandist to the great shaytana. Projection as a psychological defense mechanism means that persons B-D are free to project on to one, whatever genuine or false fear, interpretation they have or just to use you to get their points in.

    I have to say that although I could quote many comments, Ann Coulter’s “performance” at the Waterloo University in Ontario, leading to the cancellation of her University of Ottawa appearance thanks to concerted efforts by the MSA and other students to protest the event (peacefully) and “security risks” is the topper, especially since she specifically said that all Muslims were terrorists, shouldn’t be allowed to fly, and should take their own flying carpets instead–to a 17-year-old Muslimah student!

    I did a post on it: Ann Coulter, American Freedom of Speech, Canada’s Right to Exist and Cancellation at the University of Ottawa–Relevance to Saudi?

    Which itself drew Islamophobic comments that I had to (for the first time) poof. There is also an excellent comment with a link to a European Union study showing that the vast majority of terrorism was from nationalistic European terrorist groups eg ETA. This comment from a Muslim Person A is what drove the Islamophobic Person D, who had been keeping himself in check, to cross the line and have his comments poofed. He kept trying to bait person A as one of “those people” who couldn’t read or do math, but person A wasn’t taking the bait.

    Person D also took the issue to another blog where we both comment and tried to discredit me there as a blog moderator and as, not for the first time, a closet Muslim, who in the particular instance where he used a comment I made to twist my words, a baby butcher.

    That is the modus operandi of the Person D: bait, twist, and attack (personally).

    The other modus operandi is to invoke American style freedom of speech to cross the line into inflammatory or hate speech a la Ms Coulter.

    Again great, and inspiring post!

  3. Great post. I hope I can use it to help deal with future conversations about Islamophobia and racism.

  4. Admin note: Jay, your comment was deleted because it does not fit within the guidelines of my comment policy. Using ad hominem fallacies and making insulting and Islamophobic generalizations will not fly here. Figure out what your own personal issues are before commenting here. Thanks.

  5. Mast Qalander, I am quite convinced that you are brilliant. This is an excellent post.

    I have often had discussions that prompted some versions of your collection of retorts to deflect away from focusing on US racism and Islamophobia. I realize that my counter tactic has been to ‘bring the conversation home’ as well. I will say something like

    “How can you compare the US, the richest and most powerful nation on earth, which can afford to be socially just, and which has a social history of striving for equality (though we have not yet succeeded), has had a Civil Rights movement, and a growing anti-racism movement to a country like ‘Insert Muslim Majority Nation here,’ which has a history of colonialism, poverty, dictatorship, a social system that perpetuates inequality because privilege is very hard to come by and very easy to lose without being corrupt, etc. The two are false parallels.” I really believe that comparing the US to say, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia is just not a realistic comparison. However, somewhere in the back of my mind, I feel that when I go this route in bringing the convo back to the US, I am somehow cheerleading for the US and putting down the Muslim country. I can’t explain it…

    Anyway, I recently had just such a conversation on a food-oriented website that I frequent often, the issue of Islamophobia came up when a poster described a situation that involved a restaurant manager being exceptionally rude to a hijabi classmate when the class met at this diner…I brought up Islamophobia, and the mods deleted my contribution to the discussion and closed the thread o.0

    It really IS hard to have these convos with people. I do think though that when you bring this stuff up to them, they will go on and on arguing just because it is hard to lose face and say “Hey, you know what, you ARE right! How silly of me to compare the US and Pakistan!” That isn’t human nature. But maybe that person will go away from the convo and think about what was said, and hash out the issue more in her/his head, and a seed of insight could have possibly been planted. I dunno.

  6. I run into Person B’s so often–people who know nothing about topics which I am passionate and knowledgeable about, and therefore bring in misinformed stereotypes in order to argue with me about why my position is somehow wrong. If the argument continues, these are usually the people who will respond to assertions of facts with: “I don’t know what that means,” expecting me to stop the debate to tell them what’s up, or assume that I believe something which I do not believe because they do not understand the issue.

    After getting into an argument like this back in December, I basically decided that I wouldn’t be debating people who knew nothing about ‘my issues’ again. If they want information, I’ll give it, if they want a debate, they had better know their facts first.

  7. Once again, excellent post! My downfall is that I sometimes get on to the magic carpet and let these people take me to whatever place they find suitable. It’s much easier to play the blame-game when it comes to a lot od “debators” who may not be too fond of Islam or whatever topic is being discussed. It’s so frustrating trying to reason with people who do not want to cooperate and it feels like you are talking to a brick wall. I will definitely keep the Flying Carpet Fallacy in mind when this happens :).

  8. I read this a while back and I never got around to posting that it is one of the best things I have read on the internet in a long long time.

    Thank you! It really hits the nail on the head and I wish I could download it into people’s brains!!!

    1. Hi Seffi!

      Thank you for your supportive comment! I actually saw your comment on Muslimah Media Watch and how you referenced the “flying carpet fallacy” in response to Bill Maher’s Islamophobia and ridiculous comparative arguments. It’s great to know that you find this term useful! 🙂

  9. Wonderfully written, but I was hoping you could have provided more specific examples on how to respond. Maybe you could edit each of your examples to include what to say to each Person B, C, D etc.

  10. Brilliant post! I can’t tell you how often I meet people like this in Holland. You can’t criticize a single thing about the Dutch/Europeans/westerners without them making it about the backwards Arabs/Muslims, who have it so much worse.
    Can I share on FB?

    1. Thanks, Sara! It’s unfortunate that this is such a shared experience. I think it has a lot to do with the otherizing of Muslims, i.e. regardless if those Muslims were born and/or grew up in the west, they are always linked to what happens in Muslim-majority countries. Because through that orientalist lens, Muslims “aren’t compatible” with the west. Feel free to share on Facebook, I’m glad you like it!

  11. Really liked what you wrote here…am not a Muslim and but have still been in Person A’s situation (sort of). How would you suggest responding to this – the flying carpet fallacy is no fallacy – the two discussions are inter-related. Islam has been responsible for countless atrocities to non-Muslims in Muslim-dominated nations – so now they are getting their comeuppance in the US/West…first fix the situation there and start treating other religions with respect, the respect will come back to you.
    You can see someone making this point right – especially probably Person D. A tit for tat kind of thing…is walking away in frustration the only response? I get it – yes that situation needs to be fixed too – but how about working out the issue we have in front of us right now? No use – it circles back to – fix those problems and this will fix itself!

  12. Someone added the text of this post to RationalWiki as an article; it was deleted as a copyright violation. Was this you? If so, please say so 🙂 And if not, would you consent to its release under CC by-sa 3.0? Cheers 🙂

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