Why ‘Islamophobia’ is relevant

A front page from the Daily Express, a British tabloid, proclaiming "Now Muslims demand: Give us full Sharia Law".I’ve had an ‘Islamophobia’ category on this blog for as long as I can remember (my first post in it was about Oriana Fallaci in September 2006). Much of my work in writing it has been to attack Islamophobia, to counter Islamophobic narratives and policies. But the term has had its critics over the years, some of them Muslims and some not. One of the most common criticisms is that it’s terminologically inaccurate as it doesn’t really refer to a fear as such but to hostility. Another is that opposition to Islam is usually a cover for hostility to non-whites or “others”, and it is sufficient to call it racism. I’m not convinced by either argument.

To take the first argument (about terminology): for whatever reason English tends to use Latin and Greek, or a clumsy hotch-potch of the two, for neologisms yet we have stopped teaching either in schools, other than high-end private schools and some Catholic schools were Latin is still taught because Mass used to be said in it and a lot of church literature is written in it. The upshot is that we don’t have the language to coin a neologism for hostility to a group of people as opposed to fear. It’s often explained with the claim that such hostility often is based on fear, at least partly — fear of the unknown, fear stemming from hysterical and biased press reporting, for examples — but the hatred and malice is often very obviously stronger than the fear. But in any case, the misuse of ‘phobia’ has spread way beyond this — we see phone screens described as having ‘oleophobic’ coatings which are simply oil-resistant and cannot fear as they are inanimate objects.

The second argument was put by a Facebook friend (an African-American) a couple of weeks ago. She said that people who hate Islam are simply racist, that they view Islam as a “non-White” religion even if the Muslim in question is White and that Islam is seen as a threat to the maintenance of White supremacy and hegemony. While I believe this is true of some American racists who hate Muslims, it is certainly not true of others; there are, for example, atheists who have particular loathing for Islam because it still has adherents who believe in it as it is, rather than changing it to suit modern sensibilities and fashions. There are Zionists who have hitched their wagon to that of the White hegemonists because they support Israel with weapons and money. In the years I’ve been running this blog, some of the most racist material I’ve read about Muslims has come from those people.

Europe has a history of persecuting religious minorities and they have included both White and non-White minorities. Europe’s main minority for generations was the Jews, who were presumed to have loyalty more to each other than to the kingdom they lived in, they regarded their law as superior to the law of the land and they regarded their homeland as the Middle East, not Poland, Spain or anywhere else in Europe. In the 19th century, Judaism was ridiculed as a reactionary ‘fossil’ which oppressed women, kosher slaughter was condemned as ‘cruel’ and countries started outlawing it. Later, with the discovery of genetics, racists appeared who characterised the Jews as a race, with non-practising Jews and atheists and even Christians of Jewish descent being targeted for suspicion and, during the Nazi era, murder. The fact that eastern European Jews were white, that they looked the same as anyone else, was of no consequence. Race as characterised by colour, where common religious belief was of no consequence, was found more in the USA and in the colonial world than it was in Europe. In France today, there are Muslims of every colour, and there are light-skinned as well as Black Muslims living in the suburban ghettoes and suffering discrimination and poverty while white feminists berate them for clinging to ‘patriarchy’ and cheer on headscarf bans everywhere, insisting the women must be doing it because they are either coerced or brainwashed.

I don’t know if it originated in the UK, but I remember first hearing it in the late 1990s at a time when Muslims were fighting to be recognised as a group separate from Asians which is how they were usually bracketed; discrimination was always presumed to be on grounds of race and no structures existed to protect anyone from discrimination on religious grounds; it had to be filtered through race. I recall a letter in the Observer’s advice column from a Muslim parent whose children were not being allowed religious dress at school and the reply contained the phrase “if you are in a minority” at least once. If you weren’t an ethnic minority, you were not protected from religious discrimination. Similarly, people were protected from incitement to hatred based on race, but not based on religion. Meanwhile, well before 9/11, the media frequently featured material focussed on Islam that manifested ignorance, fear and stereotypes about misogyny and terrorism — a work as dubious as Jean Sasson’s Princess could get an extract in Amnesty International’s magazine, for example. This had to change.

A front page from the Daily Express, a British tabloids, featuring a small picture of a woman wearing a black head and face cover with the headline "Ban the Burkha: Even Muslims don't want it".Racism still exists, of course, but at least in Europe it is a separate issue from hatred of Muslims based on religion which has a lot in common with old-fashioned anti-Semitism. In the post-9/11 period (and particularly the period since the 2005 bombings in the UK), Islamophobia has manifested as the ‘securitisation’ of any behaviour regarded as distinctly Muslim that may have nothing to do with national security; the demands to “integrate or else”, the obsession on the part of the authorities with FGM, which they are convinced is being carried out clandestinely on a large scale despite the paucity of evidence, and the tabloid campaigns against the niqaab, prompted not by anything a Muslim woman did but by a politician’s speech. Some of this has a connection with racism but not all of it, and some people have difficulty admitting that the nature of racism and prejudice has changed. “Muslims”, used by bigots, does not always mean “Pakis” anymore.

So, as clumsy and perhaps inaccurate as the term is, it still has relevance and is still a thing distinct from racism. It would not be helpful to say to someone expressing Islamophobic views and pushing for bans on the hijab, for example, because they might not actually be hostile to anyone based on their skin colour alone and may regard like-minded Black or Asian people as allies or even have them for allies. In other parts of the world, Black Christians and Asian Hindus and Buddhists have massacred Muslims of the same complexion, much as White Serbs massacred White Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. There are many reasons people are prejudiced against Muslims and “not as white as us” is only one of them, and not always the most important.

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  • George Carty

    Doesn’t Islamophobia have at least as much in common with anti-Catholicism as with antisemitism? For example, both Muslims and Catholics have been accused of seeking to out-breed the majority with their high birth rates, and Catholicism too has been accused of being an anti-democratic and misogynistic religion.

    It’s notable that both Catholics and Muslims view the Virgin Mary as a role model for women.

  • Perhaps, especially as Islam is a major world religion that (in the past) was tied to foreign powers (the Arab Caliphates and later the Ottoman empire) but it’s also a heavily law-based religion, as Judaism is and Catholicism isn’t. The legal aspects of Catholicism that every Catholic must follow are very light compared to Islam (let alone Judaism). The Virgin Mary is not a major role model for women in Islam. We know relatively little about her other than that she gave birth to Jesus, peace be upon him, as a virgin. The principal role models for women in Islam are the female Companions.