Islamophobia is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness
Muslimness is similar to commonly found expressions such as Englishness. It describes a family of overlapping and flexible features by which in a given situation something is seen as having the quality of being Muslim (very much like the way in which tea, real ale, a stiff upper lip and fish and chips are often associated with being English). Such features can range from the names people use to the clothes they wear, from the languages they speak to the foods they eat – or don’t eat. They include associations based on habitats (‘being from Tower Hamlets’) or habits (‘not socialising at the pub’), or verbal and gestural clues (of greetings, for example). These features are not fixed but rather are historical and contextual – some are long enduring (‘fatalism’, ‘fanaticism’), others recent (‘terrorism’), and many are not infrequently contradictory (‘sodomy’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘homophobia’ in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries). As with all stereotypes, it is not their truth that is at stake but their currency as a way of reading the world (thus Sikhs are attacked for wearing turbans, misrecognised as Muslims).
- Islamophobia is just a new made up word.
All words are made up, including antisemitism, racism and sexism. Occurrences of the term Islamophobia in French and English date back to the early twentieth century (Mussulmanophobia and Turcophobia date even further back, to the second half of the nineteenth century). In fact, the term racism only emerges in the 1930s, thus postdates the term Islamophobia.
The point is what work a word does. Islamophobia allows us to identify cruelties and injustices directed at expressions of Muslimness, actual or perceived, which otherwise would go unrecognised and thus unchallenged.
- Islamophobia is an incorrect term because phobia describes a psychological condition.
The meanings of words do not come from their etymology but their usage. For example, xenophobia and homophobia are commonly used terms without being considered to be descriptions of psychological conditions.
- Isn’t the term ‘anti-Muslim hatred’ less polemical and more accurate?
The term ‘anti-Muslim hatred’ does not incorporate the broader array of structural racial inequalities that Muslims face. Consider, for example, a Muslim facing discrimination at the workplace based on having the name ‘Muhammad’. This is not an example of hatred, necessarily, yet is clearly a type of racism and Islamophobic.
- How can I be a racist when neither Islam nor Muslims are a race?
Muslims are not a ‘race,’ but they are being racialised. A woman who decides to wear the hijab becomes subject to the effects associated with racism: from dirty looks to verbal abuse to actual bodily violence, regardless of what she looks like. This is because ‘races’ were never exclusively biological; they were always mixed with cultural and social elements. Culture, history and territory were mapped onto bodies to group socially fabricated distinctions in a violent hierarchy. Muslims are not a ‘race’ because there are no ‘races’ scientifically speaking, but they are treated as if they were a ‘race’. Despite Muslims being from diverse ethnic backgrounds, they are racialised and discriminated against based on their name, their cultural identity or perceived behaviour.
- I am critical of all religions, including Islam; does that make me an Islamophobe?
Being critical of Islam or religions does not automatically make you an Islamophobe. You are only an Islamophobe if you use the language of Islamophobia to express your views. There is a well-established, but mobile, repertoire of memes, references, turns of phrase and practices by which in any given context Muslimness is given Islamophobic expression.
- Are there some things that are Islamophobic in all circumstances?
No. Context is crucial. A good rule of thumb is to replace the word ‘Muslim’ in a statement with another minority – how does it look and sound? Context, however, is not a matter of private intentions, it is public and social: it depends on not only what is being done or said, and who is doing or saying it, but also on the consequences of such doings and sayings. The risk of Islamophobia is greater when the perpetrator is in a position of authority or influence and has a track record of making inflammatory statements (including politicians, someone writing in a national media outlet, or those with a significant following on social media). Similarly, as long-established discussions of comparable forms of racism have shown, the risk of Islamophobia will also be different depending on whether the perpetrators identify as Muslim, and how they comport themselves towards the expression of Muslimness.
- Some Muslims believe the niqab is an Islamic practice, others say it is an ‘expression of Muslimness’. Are those who challenge this particular expression being Islamophobic?
Having differences of opinion is not the same as being Islamophobic. One can challenge the idea that the niqab is Islamic without falling into Islamophobia. However, many contestations of the niqab at present are Islamophobic, and it is important that they can be challenged as such.
- FGM is practiced in some Muslim countries, and some argue it is an expression of Muslimness. Would laws prosecuting FGM be regarded as Islamophobia?
No. FGM is not an exclusively Muslim practice but a regional one. A law that only systematically prosecuted Muslims for practising FGM but allowed other groups to do so would be Islamophobic; laws that prosecute all instances of FGM without fear or favour would not be Islamophobic.
- Many mosques in the U.K. do not allow space for women to perform ritual prayers or access other services. Would action to promote gender equality for Muslim women be regarded as Islamophobia when some might argue denying women a space in mosques is ‘an expression of Muslimness’?
For something to be Islamophobic, it has to be a form of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness per se not merely different expressions of Muslimness. To be Islamophobic, it would have to be demonstrated that mosques are being singled out for greater gender equality relative to other comparable religious institutions, e.g. synagogues, temples, churches.
Frequently Ask Questions
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I am a scholar and want to have my research on islamophobia published. How can you help me?
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How useful is academic research on islamophobia?
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Isn’t Islamophobia is just a new made up word?
The use of the term Islamophobia in both French and English can be traced back to the early 20th century (with earlier versions like Mussulmanophobia and Turcophobia appearing in the late 19th century). Interestingly, the term racism itself emerged in the 1930s, making it a more recent addition compared to Islamophobia.
The key consideration is the purpose a word serves. Islamophobia helps us recognize and address cruelties and injustices directed at expressions of Muslim identity, whether real or perceived, that might otherwise go unnoticed and unchallenged.
Are there some things that are Islamophobic in all circumstances?
No, context is essential. A useful guideline is to substitute the word 'Muslim' in a statement with another minority and assess how it appears and sounds. Context is not solely about private intentions; it's a matter of public and social factors, taking into account what is said or done, who is saying or doing it, and the consequences. The risk of Islamophobia increases when the perpetrator holds a position of authority, influence, and has a history of making inflammatory statements, such as politicians, individuals writing for national media, or those with a substantial social media following. Discussions on comparable forms of racism also indicate that the risk of Islamophobia varies based on whether the perpetrators identify as Muslim and how they treat expressions of Muslim identity.
I am critical of all religions, including Islam; does that make me an Islamophobe?
Merely being critical of Islam or religions doesn't automatically categorize you as an Islamophobe. The label applies if you use language associated with Islamophobia to express your views. There exists a well-established but adaptable set of memes, references, phrases, and practices through which, in a given context, Muslim identity is expressed in an Islamophobic manner.