Notes on Islamophobia

Islamophobia is a new form of cultural racism, and not a mere persistence of Orientalist motifs. [1] This is not to say however, to take the British context, that Muslims haven’t experienced more familiar forms of racism like colour-racism and the application of older folk devils to them, the demons of the public imagination that threaten to overthrow the social order, like that of the “mugger” that was once applied more exclusively to African-Caribbeans. The point is to isolate what’s specifically new about Islamophobia.

Islamophobia is specifically the fear of the return of political Islam, commonly referred to as “Islamism”, perceived as not only intolerant of what Islamism sees as today’s post-modern permissiveness, tolerance and anti-essentialism, but of wishing to overturn it all in favour of a stern theocracy. It is a phobia inasmuch as it denotes an incapacity to deal with difference as well as similarity. Islamism is feared because it is imaginatively linked with Europe’s own pre-modern Christianity and its history of violent sectarianism, the Crusades and the Inquisition. Thus Islamism, viewed as a purely retrogressive and atavistic force, threatens to turn the clock back and reverse the triumphs of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. As Pnina Werbner colourfully puts it—the folk devil of Islamophobia is the “Grand Inquisitor” who is “upfront, morally superior, openly aggressive, denying the validity of other cultures” and thus threatens to reverse European modernity. [2]

The figure of the Imam, in one of the dream sequences of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, is reminiscent of this new folk devil of the Grand Inquisitor, and indeed of the Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989), who must surely have been the inspiration:

The Imam was a massive stillness, an immobility. He is living stone. His great gnarled hands, granite-gray, rest heavily on the wings of his high-backed chair. His head, looking too large for the body beneath, lolls ponderously on the surprisingly scrawny neck that can be glimpsed through the grey-black wisps of beard. The Imam’s eyes are clouded; his lips do not move. He is pure force, an elemental being; he moves without motion, acts without doing, speaks without uttering a sound. [3]

This elemental figure of the imam: immobile, stone-like, implacable, who sets his face against Western modernity itself, achieved by an idolatry of the sacred text that denies human reason and progress, and the role of historical context. Rushdie’s Imam argues that:

History is the blood-wine that must no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies – progress, science, rights – against which the Imam has set his face. History is a deviation from the Path, knowledge is a delusion, because the sum of knowledge was complete on the Day Al-Lah finished his revelation to Mahound. [4]

This fear of reversal is primarily endorsed by fearful elites in Western countries (and is not peculiar to Britain as such), whose strident anti-fundamentalism lends credence to the more lumpen forms of colour-racism, whose proponents may then add the usual insults used against all racialized minorities, that they are violent, licentious, dirty and so on. This defence of rational secular values against Islamism goes across the political spectrum from Polly Toynbee’s “In Defence of Islamophobia” to Charles Moore’s provocations against Islam in a defence of free speech. [5] Moore contended that any ban on hate-speech against Muslims qua Muslims in the government’s current incitement to religious hatred bill (a watered-down version is due to be enacted in 2007) would merely make people more amenable to the British National Party’s claim that in the hands of some Muslims, Islam is “less a religion and more a magnet for psychopaths and a machine for conquest”. [6] The fear underlying any such concession is precisely this dread of reversal, which Rushdie calls the “Untime of the Imam”, of the return of empowered fundamentalism – again a term originally coined to describe reactionary American Protestantism in the early twentieth-century and now used mostly as a synonym for Islamism.

This probably explains why the arguments made and mostly formulated in Britain in favour of Islamophobia since the turn of the 1990s have not really gained wide acceptance. Leaving aside the right who remain more sceptical, preferring the culturalist explanation that Islam itself is the problem, even the liberal-left remains conspicuously divided between anti-racist and multiculturalist positions. [7] These positions embody two types of egalitarianism: the first was the classic culture and colour-blind notion of civil rights in the 1960s, and the second which emerged in the same decade but has become increasingly important over time has been the notion of equality as the recognition of difference in the public sphere, spearheaded by the feminist movement, but taken up by other stigmatised social groups later on. It was this affirmation of difference in the public sphere that informs equality in the multiculturalist position.

The common finding in the sociology of religion is that religious identity usually functions as a collective, cultural identity that is not defined strictly speaking by piety alone but by certain religio-cultural markers (like eating halal meat or observing Eid) and, perhaps increasingly, by the logic of a generalised political sentiment, expressed mostly as a non-ideological attachment to Muslim believers around the world (but certainly not as an attachment to the political ideology of Islamism per se). Thus the fact that much of the belonging as a Muslim has something to do with the social membership of a community, and not just with conviction driven by personal faith, is deemed an inconvenient argument by both religiously-minded community leaders and by their secularist opponents. The argument that British Muslim belonging may have more to do with cultural filiation than religious affiliation is seen as just a clever ruse by opponents, and reflects also a suspicion of the anti-humanist tendencies found within some forms of post-structuralist sociology as well. [8]

However, the most important reason is that Muslims are judged to be insufficiently secular in their outlook to gain protection against forms of cultural racism, and so they must be sufficiently educated in liberal mores and properly integrated before they might receive the cultural and legal recognition afforded to another form of cultural racism – anti-Semitism. This helps to explain the lingering suspicion of British Muslim leaders that they are really seeking a new blasphemy law by the back door. [9] But it may also denote that Islamophobia relates to an ongoing process of redefinition in British Muslim communities that are gradually supplementing (and in some cases supplanting) traditional theological definitions of “Muslimness” for political and cultural ones, which would obviously have an impact upon the reception, and therefore the explication, of the prejudice experienced. The contestation over Islamophobia reflects this tension of emphasis from anti-Islam sentiment to anti-Muslim hatred, or from ideas to persons, or from blasphemy to cultural racism. In a striking parallel, it was Hannah Arendt who noted the precondition of secularity to explain the emergence of both anti-Semitism and Zionism.

A comparative look at the causes of modern European anti-Semitism, provides serious food for thought in pondering why Islamophobia came to be coined, at least in English, around 1991 (its usage in French is much earlier, dating back to the early twentieth century to the period of France’s late colonial rule). The explanation lies, Arendt suggests, somewhere between the scapegoat theory, which is a purely circumstantial and unserious response underlining the essential innocence of the victim, and the theory of eternal hostility in this case which relegates historical causes to mere happenstance. [10] Islamophobia emerges decisively as a concept, around 1991, at the point when Muslim minorities have become politically active in Western Europe, in the midst of religio-political revival in the Muslim world, and at the ending of the Cold War. [11] (It is interesting to note in passing the coining of anti-Semitism in Europe in 1879, after the legal emancipation of European Jewry and during their social assent at the height of European nationalism. [12]).

While it is certainly true that a global discourse against “Islamic fundamentalism” emerged after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, with continuous reference made to Islamic violence and terrorism, this commentary was not particularly focused on the Muslim Diaspora in Britain or against Western Muslims generally. They were politically invisible as Muslims until the late 1980s, but that changed, particularly with the Rushdie Affair of 1988-89. This meant that expressions of Islamophobia in Britain had a demonstrably cultural emphasis with some political undertones until 9/11 when thereafter it seems as though the political content of cultural Islamophobia in Britain has become much stronger.

The Rushdie Affair was a cultural imbroglio with has had long-lasting political outcomes that persist until today. It has had a decisive impact upon the cultural expression of Islamophobia in Britain. The key controversy, now being played out again in the debate of whether to legislate against incitement to religious hatred, was whether the novel’s offensiveness, directed towards what was seen as a racialized minority group, was an act of creative self-liberation from religious fundamentalism or a reckless literary lampoon (or deliberate blasphemy depending on one’s point of view) that came, for whatever reason, to serve the cause of vituperative cultural racism?

Even some years on, direct discussions seem to have reached an impasse, but one common thread is perceptible. Several commentators have remarked that the Rushdie Affair was beset as such by anxieties about postmodern relativism that were particularly prominent in that period in intellectual and literary circles. For liberal Muslim intellectuals, the nub of the argument has been that postmodern fiction like The Satanic Verses (1988) represents part of the end of a long process of colonization: “Postmodernism is about appropriating the history and identity of non-western cultures as an integral facet of itself, colonising their future and occupying their being.” [13] Ziauddin Sardar argues that postmodernism reduces the depth and meaning of non-Western cultures to mere speculative relativism, ridicule, irony, play and satire, while leaving intact global disparities of power. It is seductive, soft power, cultural power, which also commodifies cultural difference for the purposes of marketable diversity. For Sardar, Rushdie in his post-fatwa essays “Is Nothing Sacred” and “In Good Faith” ends up paradoxically sanctifying the omnipotence of secular values in the name of postmodern relativism. He sees The Satanic Verses as an anti-Qur’an with a mission to set up a new liberating, assertive and transgressive counter-narrative in which the stubborn particularities of Islamic Otherness are erased. [14]

The counter argument is that such a “confessional criticism” is only a “measured (yet problematic) inoculation of orthodox rationality from one’s irreversible dependence on the largely anti-foundationalist vocabulary of contemporary postcolonial criticism”. [15] While there is merit to this counter-criticism, it should be noted that any anxiety about the loss of truth was equally shared by Rushdie’s supporters, i.e. the frightening prospect that liberalism is also just another set of contingent, historical beliefs, and thus the anxiety that very little separates religious and secular fundamentalism, except crude disparities of power, and so the need for the mutual anathematisation and self-assertion that defined the Rushdie Affair. This anxiety was most marked amongst the modernist critics who seemed to spend as much time attacking the dangers of postmodern relativism as they did Islamic fundamentalism such as Ernst Gellner. [16]

One legacy of the cultural fallout from the Rushdie Affair (although this was also noticeable earlier after the Iranian Revolution too) has been that major literary travelogues and novels on Muslims or Islam appear to have concentrated on recreating in an Islamic milieu the struggle for freedom against religious orthodoxy, the metanarrative that defines the birth of European modernity, a motif that has carried much cultural caché as a result. Hanif Kureishi has explictly argued this point in his essays and novels since the Rushdie Affair. In his second novel, The Black Album, he plays out the standoff generated in the Rushdie Affair between Liberal and Islamic fundamentalism through a contest for the mind, heart and body of a young Muslim student, Shahid, caught between his seducing lecturer and a fundamentalist peer group. The novel starts off more subversively by highlighting some similarities of control and manipulation, but does not fulfil its promise. The Muslim characters never escape Western stereotypes of young Muslim fundamentalists: they are to a man dim-witted and looking to Islam as an escape into simplistic certainty from societal racism. But the relationship with the lecturer, Deedee, deepens and she becomes more humane and less manipulative, less of a Liberal Fundamentalist, just like the protagonist, Shahid. One critic acutely suggests that:

The Black Album suggests that Muslims cannot experience “innumerable ways of being in the world” within the framework of Islam. Instead, they are moulded into one large and lumpy, mentally challenged, cliché. The Hollywood style ending only offers one alternative to this unattractive representation of Muslimness: a romanticised and secular embrace of ‘undecidabilty’. [17]

In this sense therefore The Black Album reiterates most acutely the dilemmas of the Rushdie Affair in literary form. In some other recently lauded fiction on British Muslims, the predominant motif of escape from traditional Islamic society and family through personal liberation and freedom only to be truly experienced in wider society, e.g. in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane or Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, seems to have become the story to be told in contemporary fiction about British Muslims.

An interesting theme that runs through contemporary literary commentary on Muslims is that the fear and dislike of religious fanaticism and fundamentalism is felt as a sense of bodily revulsion that is often projected back into negative descriptions of the oft-described “claustrophobic” Islamic environment into which the intrepid explorer has ventured. V. S. Naipaul, Nobel Laureate for Literature (2001), in his travel narratives Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998), uses the literary techniques of nineteenth-century “gothic horror”, in which conflict is internalised bodily or projected onto the surrounding environment. Islamic literature, although he cannot read the Arabic letters, appears “oppressive”, an Islamic library seems full of choking “stale, enclosed air”; similarly the Muslim call to prayer (adhan) leaves him “choked” and gasping for air such is his horror of these things. Prayer in the mosque involves “hesitant scraping sounds” and “subhuman” chadored women are “muzzling themselves”.

Hanif Kureishi also experiences similar feelings when visiting the homes of “young ‘fundamentalists’”: “I found these session so intellectually stultifying and claustrophobic that at the end I’d rush into the nearest pub and drink rapidly, wanting to reassure myself that I was still in England.” [18] He also states something close to a theorization of this physical aversion to Islamic fanaticism as noted by Wendy O’Shea-Meddour. The artist must represent the forbidden, of “dark and dangerous things” in order to avoid “tyranny and madness” and thus “the dehumanisation of others”. Artistic self-censorship is not only to become complicit but is a denial of the words inside the body, which thus becomes the source of authentic, untrammelled free speech. [19] Thus free talk is also the liberation of the body, and as fundamentalist Islam denies the natural body and the free mind in this view, as expressed by Naipaul and Kureishi, the liberal body experiences its disquietude.

For Naipaul, Islam essentially mimics Western technology and achievements without understanding the conditions that have brought them about and as such are fundamentally parasitical. Such objective descriptions earned Naipaul the status of being an expert on Islam and have not impugned his literary stature in the slightest. His first Muslim travelogue in 1981, appearing so soon after the Iranian Revolution, had a great impact in the United States (he made the cover of Newsweek) and has been lauded ever since as a great authority on Islam. Naipaul’s second Muslim travelogue, betraying an even more sinister theme, shows clearly his debt to V. D. Savarkar, the founder-ideologue of Hindutva nationalism, who shares Naipaul’s concern with inauthentic turncoat “converts”: Islam does not convert but “possesses” the souls of people in lands of “cultural depression” in which, among non-Arab convert peoples, “history has become a kind of neurosis”. [20] A similar thesis about Islam as an alien convert religion staining the purity of ethno-national sentiment was similarly expressed by Ivo Andrić, the South Slav writer, another Nobel laureate, whose condemnations of Balkan Muslims as “traitorous seed” lent a distinct cultural impetus to the rise of Muslim ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

After 9/11, there has been a shift in the cultural representations of Muslims towards more direct political themes and about the use of terrorist violence. In particular, there has been the emergence of a shared political rhetoric, particularly between Washington and London, that is central to “war on terrorism”. Two new elements are noticeable. Firstly, there is an attempt to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Muslims, a differentiation that is part of a post-colonial project of assimilation, replacing older, colonial discourses of blanket and distancing rejection. Or in other words, Islamophobia should also be understood to describe part of a condition internal to the post-colonial state, which has replaced Orientalism, a metaphor of spatial segregation in an earlier age of imperialism. [21] In its crudest form, this goodness is tied explicitly to the dictates of nationalism and anti-terrorism. George W. Bush’s “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists” was echoed by Dennis MacShane, then the Minister for Europe: “It is time for the elected and community leaders of British Muslims to make a choice: it is the British way – based on political dialogue and non-violent protests – or it is the way of the terrorists against which the whole democratic world is now uniting.” [22]

If Naipaul and Kureishi feel enervated by Muslim persons and symbols, others have extra-sensory antennae specially developed for detecting fanaticism in recent times. In his travelogue-investigation into the reasons for the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street reporter, in 2002, Bernard-Henri Lévi claims to be able to sense disguised fanaticism in seemingly assimilated European Muslims, a useful skill in the post-9/11 age. Gilles Kepel sees the fanaticism behind Tariq Ramadan’s seductive and suave appearance: “a white shirt with a Mao-style collar, worn slightly open…a thin, piously trimmed beard that combines a reference to Islam with seductive elegance. His white shirt belongs at the intersection of several fields of meaning: the revolution (Iranian or Chinese) but also the media-savvy intellectual….” [23] This sort of bifurcation of complicated Muslim subjectivities into either moderates or extremists appears at present to have little end in sight. The open-endedness of the war on terrorism, with its policing, legal strictures, and military ventures abroad offers up the prospect of social re-engineering on a grand scale.

The scale of the response to 9/11 is largely due to the deregulation of large-scale capacity for violence and destruction out of the hands of the nation-state that the new al-Qaeda global terror franchise represents. And also the sheer inability to place the motives of this new terrorism with a traditional framework of nationalist self-determination, and is in fact part of generalised emergence of globalised political protest movements, like the anti-globalisation movement, two decades or so after the emergence of a global neo-liberal economic order. [24] This of course devolves into a generalized anxiety that opposes simultaneous loyalty to the nation and to the ummah (the Muslim supernation). The other feature is fear of unrestrained and apparently motiveless violence, which is stripped of historical context and is reduced to ideology, which casts a pall of fanaticism over all British Muslims.

This sort of binary opposition between the Muslim pacifist and Islamic terrorist has emerged over the last quarter century since the Iranian Revolution, chiefly through the mass media. Edward Said noted that Islam became a scapegoat, a catch-all explanation for various disliked social and political ills, even if in the overall schema the Muslim world’s status as a potential bulwark of anti-communism was still useful. [25] The most ironic moment was the greeting of the Afghani mujahidin as “freedom fighters” against the Soviets by Ronald Reagan in 1983; its pop cultural equivalent was Rambo III, when Sylvester Stallone sides with the mujahidin against the Soviets. With the falling of the Berlin Wall, however, a new Muslim enemy comes to be constructed by right wing academics, policymakers and politicians associated with the neo-conservative wing of the Republican party. The story is too well-known to be rehashed here.

But, briefly, the two key figures who give the idea proper substance are Bernard Lewis, the British-American Middle East studies specialist, who in a 1990 article coins the term “the clash of civilizations” which is subsequently popularised by the political scientist, Samuel Huntingdon, in which ideological clashes in global politics are replaced by civilizational ones. The chief antagonists for the West are now Islam with its “bloody borders” and Confucian China. After 9/11, not only has a distinction been made that is internal to the nation-state, but a sub-theme has been that there is not a clash between civilizations but within Muslim civilizations. This discourse is truly global in extent and has taken up with various nuances according to local contexts. In July 2005, Washington redubbed the “war on terrorism” as the “war on extremism”, indicating a greater ideological emphasis perhaps than the direct military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have hitherto suggested.

In sum then, Islamophobia is a new form of cultural racism whose novelty resides in its fear of a return of empowered religion that will take away cherished freedoms and reverse the European story of progress. It is also an anxiety about the weakening of integrative civic and national identities in an age of globalisation. It is the presumption of cultural and now political fanaticism that makes a racialised monolith of a set of very culturally diverse Muslim communities, most of whom do not adhere to some totalitarian or blood-thirsty vision of Islam but work with multiple sets of contextualised identities like the rest of us, and who are inconveniently prone to recall the calculated redesignations of Muslims as either allies or enemies.


[1] As Elizabeth Poole, Reporting Islam: Media Representations of British Muslims, London: I.B. Tauris, 2002, sometimes appears to argue, e.g. p. 251.
[2] Pnina Werbner, “Islamophobia: Incitement to religious hatred – legislating for a new fear?”, Anthropology Today, 21/1, February 2005, pp. 5-9.
[3] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, London: Viking, 1988, p. 210.
[4] Ibid. Pnina Werbner also argues that the Imam stands for faith with compassion and religion with love, who despite his integrity can only respond to change with violence, see her meditation on The Satanic Verses in her Imagined Diasporas among Manchester Muslims (Oxford: James Curray, 2002).
[5] Polly Toynbee, “In Defence of Islamophobia”, Independent, 23rd October 1997; Charles Moore, “Is it only Mr Bean who resists this new religious intolerance?”, Daily Telegraph, 11th December 2004, in which he starts with the calculatedly provocative question: “Was the prophet Mohammed a paedophile?”.
[6] Charles Moore, ibid., citing the BNP website.
[7] See Madeleine Bunting (ed.) Islam, Race and Being British, London: Guardian Books, 2005, which captures the liberal-left debate around the recognition and accommodation of Muslim identity in the public sphere, particularly pp. 43-73.
[8] As made recently by Tariq Modood, Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain, Edinburgh: University Press, 2005, pp. 16-17, and by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, Islamophobia: issues, challenges and action, Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books, 2004, pp. 35-36.
[9] Polly Toynbee, “Last chance to speak out”, Guardian, 5th October 2001; Charles Moore, “It is Muslims who have the most to fear from Islamists”, Daily Telegraph, 18th December 2004.
[10] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, San Diego: Harvest, 1968 (reprint), pp. 5-7. For a recent example of the scapegoat theory see Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, London, I.B. Tauris, 1995, and for a statement of the eternal anti-Muslim hostility thesis see Ziauddin Sardar & Merryl Wyn Davies, Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair, London: Grey Seal, 1990, pp. 34-75.
[11] The exact provenance of the term “Islamophobia” is still a matter for further research. The first English usage found so far was in the American journal, Insight, 4th February 1991, p. 37. The earliest example in a British publication (that I’ve found so far) is from a book review dated 16th December 1991 in the London Independent by Tariq Modood reproduced in his Not Easy Being British: colour, culture and citizenship, Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books, 1992, p. 76, and not June 1994 as stated by Malcolm D. Brown, “Conceptualizing Racism and Islamophobia” in Jessica Ter Wal and Maykel Verkuyten (eds.) Comparative Perspectives on Racism, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000, pp. 73-90.
[12] Briefly outlined in Esther Banbassa & Jean-Christophe Attias, The Jews and Their Future: a conversation on Judaism and Jewish identities, trans. by Patrick Camiller, London: Zed, 2004, pp. 62-73.
[13] Ziauddin Sardar, Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture, London: Pluto, 1998, p.13.
[14] Sardar, Postmodernism, pp. 181-197.
[15] Youssef Yacoubi, “‘How much does it cost for reason to tell the truth?’: Salman Rushdie and his Confessional Critics”, Culture, Theory & Critique, 46/2, 2005, pp. 115–129.
[16] Ernst Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, London: Routledge, 1992.
[17] Wendy O’Shea-Meddour, “Fundamentalism, Robots and Postmodern Epiphanies in Kureishi’ The Black Album” in Catherine Pesso-Miquel and Klaus Stierstorfer (eds.), Fundamentalisms and Literatures in English: An Assessment, London: Palgrave and MacMillan, forthcoming.
[18] Hanif Kureishi, The Word and the Bomb, London: Faber and Faber, 2005, p. 99.
[19] O’Shea-Meddour, “Fundamentalism”.
[20] Wendy O’Shea-Meddour, “Gothic Horror and Muslim Madness in V. S. Naipaul’s Beyond Belief: ‘Orientalist’ Excursions among the Converted People”, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 21/1, pp. 57-72; Rob Nixon, “Among the Mimics and the Parasites: V. S. Naipaul’s Islam” in Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells (eds.) The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, pp. 152-169; Mujeeb R. Khan, “The Islamic and Western Worlds: ‘End of History’or ‘Clash of Civilisations’?” in Qureshi and Sells (eds.), pp. 170-201.
[21] Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, New York: Pantheon, 2004, pp. 15-16, 22-24, 260.
[22] Guardian, 28th November 2003.
[23] Bernard-Henri Lévy, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, translated by James X. Mitchell, London: Duckworth, 2003, p. 91; Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, translated by Pascale Ghazaleh, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2004, p. 279.
[24] Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad, London: Hurst, 2005, Chapter 1.
[25] Edward Said, Covering Islam, new edn, London: Vintage, 1997 [1981], p. lv.


Comments Off on Notes on Islamophobia

Filed under Culture and the Arts, Islamism, Racism and Islamophobia

Comments are closed.