Defining Islamophobia today: the state of the art

The emergence of “Islamophobia” as an English-language neologism could be dated to around 1991, although earlier occurrences can be found in Edward Said’s essay “Orientalism Reconsidered” in 1985 and from the early twentieth century in French.[1]  This emergence coincided with the moment when Muslim minorities 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.  The parallels with the coining of anti-Semitism in Europe in 1879 are striking, occurring as it did after the legal emancipation of European Jewry and during their social assent at the height of European nationalism.  The Runnymede Trust report on Islamophobia in 1997 helped to internationalise the term, denoted by the fact that the United Nations made Islamophobia a theme at the 2001 Conference against Racism in Durban and held a further seminar in December 2004.  Today Google records over 600,000 references on the internet and nearly 4800 scholarly citations.

Yet, despite the term’s rising ubiquity, the editors of two forthcoming scholarly collections – S. Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil’s Thinking Through Islamophobia and Maleiha Malik’s Anti-Muslim Prejudice in the West – recognise that Islamophobia and/or anti-Muslim prejudice remain controversial and curiously ill-defined terms.[2]  Both collections seem to make a virtue of multi-disciplinary and comparative approaches in attempting to remedy this – recognising that greater scholarly rigour may help to eliminate some of the vagaries and hence disputation around the concept.  In ways recognisable in their Jewish counterparts, Muslim intellectuals seem to wrestle over how much weight to give respectively to historical continuities or present-day discontinuities in patterns of prejudice.  For instance, Malik in her introduction argues “the topic of anti-Muslim prejudice in the West…has to be placed in its historical context by considering the extent to which the mediaeval period is a forerunner to contemporary forms of prejudice….”, while Sayyid asks what is to be gained by employing Islamophobia as a concept instead of racism or Orientalism?  What might prove productive, he suggests, is a series of reflections on the emergence of a very contested “Muslim question”.[3] Another forthcoming monograph by Chris Allen is equally concerned to address “whether Islamophobia can be seen as a continuum of historical anti-Muslimism or anti-Islamism, or whether Islamophobia is an entirely modern concept”.[4]

There is also the problem of etymology, or lexical deconstruction.  Some people see “Islam” plus “phobia” and define the term “Islamophobia” as the sum of its parts.  They object to the idea that a religion can’t be criticised without accusations of racism or that their well-founded rational objections should be recast as irrational or phobic.  Some critics therefore argue that “anti-Muslim prejudice” serves as a less contentious and clearer alternative than “Islamophobia” because essentially it’s people not ideas that need defending.  This would seem to ignore the findings of critical race theory which has charted the shift in emphasis from classical biological racism to cultural racism, including in Britain.[5]  This shift is not denied in Malik’s collection which, to the contrary, is concerned to chart the relation of ideas like secularism and liberalism to historical and contemporary manifestations of prejudice against Muslim persons. Malik’s preference for “anti-Muslim prejudice” is rather predicated on the argument that a focus on “prejudice”, which is at least subject to rational analysis, has more utility than a concentration on “phobia”, which is less amenable to such analysis and refers instead to deeper psychological roots and to the irrational.[6]

The other strategy is to recognise that “Islamophobia” itself, as Sayyid argues, can no longer be simply defined as “fear of Islam (and its cognates)”, and so, as it has wide currency, it should be made a sharper and more wide-ranging analytical tool.  In short, “Islamophobia” should become more than the sum of its etymological parts.  This point is well taken, and is one that I have some sympathy for. After all, “Islamophobia” as a neologism takes its inspiration from “homophobia” and “xenophobia” – which no-one defines so narrowly as to exclude prejudicial rationales – rather than from the fear of the outdoors, enclosed spaces or spiders.  And whichever term is preferred – anti-Muslim prejudice verses Islamophobia – advocates of both terms recognise that there is a complex combination of biological and cultural racism at play here.[7]  Perhaps what is at stake here is not so much one’s preferred choice of terminology but one’s politics, with its attendant questions about tactics, strategies, alliances and goals and, therefore, rhetorical preferences.  Above and beyond that it is surely a healthier state of affairs that a more careful consideration of definitions serves the broader goal of enhancing critical theory in this neglected area.

A final point of more than passing interest is that all the three editors and several of the contributors are British Muslim intellectuals, academics or commentators.  It is tempting to speculate as to why this might be the case.  The first reason is that the pioneering intellectual and policy framing for Islamophobia was laid down in Britain – in the form of the Runnymede Trust reports of 1997 and 2004.[8]  This is reflected in the fact that nine out of the ten most cited scholarly references are by British academics.  A second point is that British Muslims like Khalida Khan, Maleiha Malik, Nasar Meer, Tariq Modood, Ziauddin Sardar, Bobby Sayyid and others did much to lead the debate on Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice throughout the 1990s and 2000s; and this was an expression, perhaps, of the political confidence and dynamism of British Muslims more generally.  That Britain has led debate on the merits and demerits of the term “Islamophobia” is also reflected in the fact that its most prominent critics – like Fred Halliday and Kenan Malik – have also been British.[9]  It therefore seems appropriate that these two serious attempts to give the term analytical credibility should have a British impetus as well.

Notes

[1] Abdoolkarim Vakil, “Is the Islam in Islamophobia the same as the Islam in Anti-Islam; Or, When is it Islamophobia Time?”, Thinking Thru’ Islamophobia seminar, University of Leeds, May 2008.

[2] S. Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil (eds.), Thinking Through Islamophobia (London: Hurst, 2010) and Maleiha Malik (ed.) “Anti-Muslim Prejudice in the West: Past and Present”, Patterns of Prejudice (special issue), 43/3-4, July-September 2009, also to be published as a stand-alone volume by Routledge in 2010.

CONTENTS: Thinking Through Islamophobia (eds.) S. Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil

1. Introductory Note/S. SAYYID; 2. Are Unicorns Muslim?/S. SAYYID; 3. Islamophobia and the Crusades/J. RILEY-SMITH; 4. Is the Islam in Islamophobia the same as the Islam in Anti-Islam; Or, When is it Islamophobia Time?/A.K. VAKIL; 5. The Problem With Parables/K.B BROWN; 6. Islamophobia: from K.I.S.S. to R.I.P./C. ALLEN; 7. The Voyage In: Second Life Islamophobia/Y. ISLAM; 8. Islamophobia and the Racialization of Muslims/N. MEER AND T. MODOOD/ 9. ‘No Innocents’/M.G. KHAN; 10. ‘Flooding the embankments’: Race, biopolitics and sovereignty/D. TYRER; 11. Sexualising the ‘War on Terror’: Queerness, Islamophobia and globalised Orientalism/A. KUNTSMAN, J. HARITAWORN AND J. PETZEN; 12. Governing Muslims after 9/11/Y. BIRT; 13. Neoconservative narrative as globalizing Islamophobia/C. HAŞIMI; 14. Asking the Law Questions: Islamophobia, Agency and Muslim Women/S. BANO; 15. Fear of small numbers? Debating face-veiling in the Netherlands/A. MOORES; 16. A Short Geneology of Russian Islamophobia/M. TLOSTNOVA; 17. Culturalism, Education and Islamophobia in China/L. YI; 18. Islamophobia and Auto-coloniality: The Case of Turkey/Y. AKTAY; 19. Reclaiming the Turk’s Head/M.S. SEDDON; 20. Islamophobia and Hellenophilia: Greek Myths of Post-Colonial Europe/R. TZANELI; 21. Troubled by Muslims: Thailand’s Declining Tolerance?/D. MCCARGO; 22. “Breaking the taboo of Multiculturalism”: The Belgian Left and Islam/N. FADIL; 23. ‘Sikh Islamophobia’/K. SIAN; 24. Islamophobia: A new racism in football?/P. MILLWARD; 25. Fundamental Fictions: Gender, Power and Islam in BrAsian Diasporic formations/R. RANASINHA; 27. Generating Islamophobia in India/D. ANAND

 

CONTENTS: Anti-Muslim Prejudice in the West, Past and Present (ed.) Maleiha Malik

Introduction/MALEIHA MALIK; Britons and Muslims in the early modern period: from prejudice to (a theory) of toleration/NABIL MATAR; Anti-Turkish obsession and the exodus of Balkan Muslims/SLOBODON DRAKULIC; Can the walls hear?/GIL ANIDJAR; The crusade over the bodies of women/SONYA FERNANDEZ; Muslim headscarves in France and army uniforms in Israel: a comparative study of citizenship as mask/LEORA BILSKY; Revisiting Lepanto: the political mobilisation against Islam in contemporary Western Europe/HANS-GEORG BETZ AND SUSI MERET; Refutations of Racism in the ‘Muslim question’/NASAR MEER AND TARIQ MODOOD; ‘Get shot of the lot of them’: election reporting of Muslims in British newspapers/JOHN E. RICHARDSON; Where do Muslims stand on ethno-racial hierarchies in Britain and France? Evidence from public opinion surveys, 1988-2008/ERIK BLEICH; Confronting Islamophobia in the United States: framing civil rights activism among Middle Eastern Americans/ERIK LOVE

[3] I am indebted to the editors of both volumes for forwarding to me their – as yet unpublished – introductions.

[4] Christopher Allen, Islamophobia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).

 CONTENTS: 1. Introduction; 2. Tracing history: the seedbed of “Islam” and “the West”; 3. The Re-emergence of the “Other”: the Iranian revolution and the spectre of fundamentalism; 4. 1989 and beyond: the birth of a phenomenon; 5. 11 September 2001: culminating the past, defining the future; 6. Global Perspectives: modern medias and Islamophobia; 7. Western Muslims: new identities and shifting proximities; 8. Suspicious minds: between the enemy within and model Americans; 9. Endemic or epidemic: a historical continuum or a contemporary phenomenon; 10. Re-evaluating Islamophobia

[5] For example, Tariq Modood, Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain (Edinburgh: University Press, 2005).

[6] This last point was made by Maleiha Malik, private email communication, 2nd September 2009.

[7] Elsewhere Ash Amin argues that a new racism has emerged on top of biological and cultural antecedents – phenotypical racism – “which thrives on quick-fire judgements of surface bodily features, read as proxies of race [and being]… flexible and mobile, allowing more and more telltale signs to be added, without much need for explanation and accuracy. The beard, the skull-cap, the ruck-sack, the hennaed hair, the baggy trousers: each is enough to signal the racial even if none of the markings has anything to do with race. On most occasions, these evaluations generate watchfulness towards the new racialised stranger. But in times of charge public anxiety towards the stranger such as the present – with world affairs interpreted as a war of civilisations and cultures – the evaluations come charged with devastating mischief. On these occasions, the racialisation of everything threatens to encamp and destroy minorities, strangers, asylum seekers, races invented by the day; bearing the full force of phenotypical, biological, and cultural racism.”, see Ash Amin, “The Racialisation of Everything” in Asha Amin and Michael O’Niell (eds.) Thinking About Almost Everything (London: Profile, 2009), pp. 43, 46. What seems promising about this distinction – phenotypical racism – is that it constitutes a hybridised bio-cultural racism, which racialises cultural markers of difference and it further highlights an embedded symbolic code for racism beyond “race”. This seems to me, however, to occur not only with respect to visual markers but also in the deployment of euphemisms in public discourse as well, see Chris Allen’s “‘Down with multiculturalism, book-burning and fatwas’: the death of multiculturalism and its implications for Muslims”, Culture and Religion, 2007, 8/2: 125-138. I’ll have to think more about the utility of this term.

[8] Islamophobia: a challenge for us all (London: Runnymede Trust, 1997) and Islamophobia: Issues, Challenges and Action (Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books, 2004), in which the inspiration and drive of the anti-racism campaigner Dr Richard Stone played a large part in bringing them into being.

 [9] F. Halliday, “Islamophobia reconsidered”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22/5, September 1999, 892-902; K. Malik, “The Islamophobia Myth”, Prospect, February 2005.

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