Updated: Jan 4, 2021
Islamophobia – what is it? Whilst the word ‘phobia’ makes us think of an irrational of fear of something like spiders, that is not what Islamophobia is.
The term properly emerged with the publication of a report by the Runnymede Trust in 1998 which referred to:
unfounded hostility towards Islam
the actual consequences on individuals and communities, and
exclusion of Muslims from social and political life.
This shows us the wider scope of Islamophobia, but it is important that we do not view it as merely ‘unfounded’ as the report suggests. Instead we should recognise its foundations.
Racism, in its modern-day form, is not some natural, instinctual dislike of people who look differently to ourselves, but has been shaped by structures, institutions and individuals.
Where did Islamophobia come from?
The driving force behind Islamophobia, in all the ways it shows itself, has always been our
conception of European/western identity. Why? Because Christianity has been understood as an integral part of what it means to be European – Europe is built for Christians. In this sense, Islamophobia can be seen in a similar light to antisemitism as Jews have also served as Europe’s ‘other’. For this reason, both Muslims and Jews have been portrayed as a sort of civilisational threat across Europe.
To show just how ingrained this is, we can take a look at Henry VIII’s rule: in 1518, the Treaty of London was signed by the prominent European nations to promise non-aggression and to come to each other’s aid if under attack. The driving force behind this?
Concern about the Ottoman Empire (Islamic) and its potential threat to Europe’s Christendom.
Nowadays, increasing globalisation is creating an identity crisis across Europe as maintaining this pure Christian front becomes less and less achievable. In addition to this, terrorist incidents such as the 9/11 attacks have enabled this extremely generalised perception of Islam as an existential threat to Europe to be fortified and be expressed in new and toxic ways.
Why are Muslims the targets?
Framing Islam as the ‘other’ allows Muslims to be homogenised, meaning they are seen to share characteristics and are spoken of and treated as a collective rather than as individuals, despite the huge diversity among Muslims. This has two effects:
it allows (often unfavourable) emblems to emerge which are seen as representations of what Islam is.
it allows negative aspects of some Islamic societies to be seen as uniquely Islamic issues and consistent across the entire Muslim world.
Let’s look at the first bullet point. These ‘emblems’ can be physical things (e.g. the burqa, beards), actions (e.g. genital mutilation, forced marriage) or people (e.g. terrorists). Unfortunately, only controversial things receive enough attention to gain this ‘emblem’ status and the homogenisation of Muslims as the ‘other’ means that they are seen as issues of Islam or Islamic culture, rather than just issues more generally.
For the sake of comparison, we should recognise that Christianity is, correctly, not seen exclusively through the lens of colonisation, paedophilia and patriarchy, despite the possibility for association.
So, what makes Islamophobia such a threatening force right now?
Put it simply: it is being rationalised. By this, I mean that it has transformed from socially unacceptable rhetoric on the fringes of society to a force in mainstream politics, represented by formal organisations/political parties and in everyday conversations. ‘But why and how?’, I hear you scream. Well, there are a number of ways.
1. Islamophobia is legitimised by separating it from other forms of racism despite it involving the same processes of homogenisation and ‘othering’ of a particular group. On top of this, Islamophobic discrimination is often based on appearance, with anyone vaguely ‘Muslim-looking’ being susceptible to being targeted. It is often argued that being anti-Islam is different from being anti-Muslim as the former is not against people, but rather ‘an ideology’. This is extremely damaging because it attempts to separate Muslims from Islamophobia, thus legitimising it, even though it inevitably has devastating effects on them. On top of this, it denies Muslims a victim status by separating them from other victims of racism and suggesting that attacks on their identity are merely legitimate ideological concern.
2. Muslim identity is understood as a choice. This is a misunderstanding of what religion means for many people. Whilst you can choose to not be a practising Muslim or be agnostic/atheist, you might still feel that Islam is a part of your identity if you have grown up around it, still celebrate Islamic festivals, and your closest relatives are Muslims.
3. Finally, Islamophobia is rationalised through an overly simplistic interpretation of real differences. For example, it is undeniable that those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage have lower employment rates in the UK. However, we can all choose whether we think that shows that South Asian Muslims are just lazy, or if it’s a reflection of the following:
the nature of recent globalisation which places South Asia away from global economic hubs (North America, Europe and East Asia). Relative poverty in South Asia has led to over 50% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children in the UK growing up in poverty,
colonial India’s function as the backbone of the British Empire, during which its GDP fell from 80% of Britain’s to just 15% (1600-1871),
discrimination from employers. For example, a German study found clear evidence that having a Turkish name and/or wearing a hijab decreased job applicants’ chances of being invited to an interview.
What other impacts does Islamophobia have on Muslims?
Well, I could write pages on this but to keep it short we’ll look at two areas: resisting community issues and mental health. Inevitably, Muslim communities are faced with issues, just as any other community is. However, whilst considerable effort and resources are dedicated to showing women’s rights issues as representative of the ‘backwardness’ of Islam, less attention is given to constructively engaging and solving the issues. The role of the European-style patriarchy, as exported via colonialism, is also neglected and all this means that progress is slowed down.
Regarding mental health, various studies have found hate crime to have a greater effect on victims than regular crime since it has the secondary dimension an attack on the victim’s identity. Among ethnic minorities, those reporting to have suffered a physical racial attack are also three times more likely to experience depression, although explicit recognition of one’s own experiences of racism correspond to higher self-esteem. A clear example of the impact of denying Muslims victim status with regards to racism.
For more content on racism in society, take a look at our Racism, Islamophobia & Anti-Semitism section.