Flying carpet fallacy
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Logic and rhetoric
The "flying carpet" fallacy denotes the debating technique of inappropriately bringing up a stereotypical, racist, or exotic fantasy about the “Muslim world,” in order to shift the conversation away from a topic with more local relevance. It often boils down to a matter of false equivalence, and can be an inappropriate accusation of tu quoque or attempt to claim two wrongs make a right. The term was originally coined in an essay by blogger Jehanzeb Dar. The flying carpet fallacy is an informal fallacy.
How it goes
This often comes up in discussions about anti-Muslim discrimination or the struggles of Muslims in Western countries, and eventually someone invokes irrelevant comments to dismiss the concerns with a wave of their hand. They pull out a magic flying carpet, an orientalist device, and transport the conversation off into a stereotypical racist fantasy about the “Muslim world.” As the original author described it, the scenario goes something like this:
Person A, a Muslim, is speaking with a colleague at her university and says to Person B, “Hey, I’m presenting my project next week, you should come! It’s on Islamophobia and how it affects the social relationships and identities of Muslim-American emerging adults in post 9/11 America.” 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. Suddenly the participants get dragged into an unrelated discussion about life and politics overseas. They are not really transported to a Muslim-majority country, instead they're 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, as if 25% of the world's population is all identical in thought and action and viewed as uniquely foreign.
Often a third type of person may also be present to join the conversation. 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. 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 (e.g. Muslim-Americans in post-9/11 America). This is why Persons B and C love using the Flying Carpet: they send you far away from the original discussion and make it very difficult for the original topic to come back. The longer they keep you away, the more they ignore what you addressed.
There are many uses of this fallacy in discussions about Islamophobia in Western media and society (all actual comments):
- “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!!!”
- “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, they whine and try to end the freedoms of non-Muslims.”
- “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.”
- “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!”
- “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?”.
- “Get the [expletive] over it, whiny [expletive] baby. It’s a damn movie. I’m sure Arabic movies or whatever criticize Americans too”
Countering the fallacy
According to Dar, the key to countering the flying carpet fallacy, regardless of who invokes it, is to (1) not get dragged into orientalist stereotypes and (2) bring the conversation back 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 for example. The point is that comparative arguments are used to dodge an honest discussion about Islamophobia or Muslim civil rights or anti-Muslim discrimination in the post 9/11 world.
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 grateful to be here. If the original discussion is about Islamophobia or bigotry in the US or Europe, then the conversation should be centered on that and avoid diversions that may negate the experiences of stigmatized Western minority group. The same should hold true if we want to discuss the way minority groups are treated in a Muslim majority-country. As Dar said, "neither topic is 'more important' than the other; they deserve separate individual discussions 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."
In 2010, when controversy erupted over whether a mosque should be allowed to be built in downtown New York City, Newt Gingrich insisted that the city should bar it until Saudi Arabia allowed the construction of churches.
In 2010-2014, debate in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on whether to allow an Islamic center to renovate and expand received national attention when local Tea Party leaders invoked this fallacy, claiming that Muslims in Sudan and Saudi Arabia were hostile to Christians and thus the American Muslims in Tennessee should be punished.
In 2006, Congressman Keith Ellison won election as the first Muslim-American in the US House of Representatives, after his opponents made claims that Muslims overseas were trying to kill Americans. When he took his oath of office on Thomas Jefferson's Quran, Dennis Prager said it would be as disruptive to America's democracy as 9/11. Pundits on the Right opined that "Muslim countries" would not allow a Christian to do the same.
Abusers of this technique
Cousins of this technique
- False equivalence
- Tu quoque
- Two wrongs make a right
- Gish Gallop
- Just asking questions
- One-way hash argument
- Straw man
- Fatwa envy
The Flying Carpet Fallacy, by Jehanzeb Dar (used with permission from author via email under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.)