The Idea of ‘Islamophobia’

“Ideas,” wrote the German sociologist Max Weber, have often, “like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.” In the governments of Europe, the idea of “Islamophobia” is the “track” along which much thinking about extremism runs.

In 1997 the Runnymede Trust set up the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, chaired by Professor Gordon Conway, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex. Its highly influential report, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, launched by Home Secretary Jack Straw, established a new orthodoxy: that “Islamophobia,” defined as a “dread or hatred of Islam and therefore ... the fear and dislike of all Muslims,” was widespread.

Yet today, many commentators agree with the French writer Pascal Bruckner that “Islamophobia” is a word we Europeans should “delete from our vocabulary.” What explains this turnaround?

First, it has become clear that the word tends to reinforce the Islamist narrative by cladding Muslim identity in the rendering of resentment. When married to a bureaucratised notion of “multiculturalism,” the message conveyed is that non-Muslim cultures (not individuals) are pathologically inclined to loathe Islam and Muslims. The result is a kind of hysteria. To take one example, in 2006, Tahir Abbas, director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture at the University of Birmingham, said the UK was “under the grip of rampant Islamophobia” supported by a “geopolitical campaign to undermine, destabilise and effectively remove the ever-growing presence of Islam.” He even accused the UK state of a “legal, social and cultural assault on Muslims.” (In 2006 and 2007, Abbas was paid by the Foreign Office to carry this message to Indonesia, Singapore, and Pakistan: a case of “Down With Us!”)

Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, points out that the notion of “Islamophobia” is often used “not to highlight racism but to silence critics of Islam, or even Muslims fighting for reform of their communities.” Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist at the Independent newspaper and the founder of British Muslims for Secular Democracy says that “all too often Islamophobia is used to blackmail society.”

The idea of “Islamophobia” helps to create an environment in which the Islamists’ narrative thrives. It encourages identity politics, hampers integration, and stokes the grievance culture. It diverts attention from the need for self-criticism within Muslim communities and it echoes the Islamists’ own call for the pious to separate themselves from the “Dirty Kuffar.”

The idea of “Islamophobia” is being questioned for a second reason. We have gained the self-confidence to politely point out that the word does not describe reality. As ex-extremist Ed Husain points out, “outside a few flashpoints where the [British National Party] is at work, most Muslims would be hard-pressed to identify Islamophobia in their lives.” There was no post-7/7 backlash in the UK. Only 12 people were prosecuted for religious hatred in England and Wales in the month after the bombings, and of those only six were connected to the murder of 52 people in London by Islamists.

Indeed, Kenan Malik calls Islamophobia-talk “hysterical to the point of delusion,” offering as an example the claim of Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the former leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, that “95–98 percent of those stopped and searched [by police] under the anti-terror laws are Muslim.” Malik shows the true figure is 14 percent. Muslims make up 6 percent of the population, but 12 percent in London, where two-thirds of terrorism stop-and-search operations took place.

However, the backlash against the idea of “Islamophobia” carries a danger — we may forget that certain ways of talking about Islam do segue into racism. For example, when Salman Rushdie denounces “Islamophobia” as “a wretched concept” because it “confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatisation of those who believe in it,” he forgets that the two are not always so easily separated.

Forget the unhelpful word coined by the 1997 Runnymeade Trust report and attend to the set of dangerous assumptions its authors highlighted: that Islam is timeless, a single monolithic system without internal development, diversity, or dialogue. That it is essentially separate and other, lacking any aims or values in common with us, inherently violent and supportive of terrorism. This “Islam” is not really a faith at all, but only an alien political ideology. (In fact, this assessment of Islam mirrors the Islamist narrative, merely substituting criticism for praise.)

When any religion is treated as a fixed dogma, conceived in wholly negative terms as alien and threatening to “us,” and as reflecting the essence of its adherents, then the line between criticism of religious belief and racism can blur, and we may slide into excluding and denigrating an entire group of people.

To talk about Islam in this way — as some European commentators and politicians do — risks fostering what Alan Posener, replying to Pascal Bruckner, has called “a kind of xenophobia wrapped in religious terms,” a discourse that harms the struggle against Islamism just as McCarthyism damaged the struggle against Communism:

Being Anticommunist was, in the 1950s, not only honourable; critical and Antifascist intellectuals had to be Anticommunists if they did not want to compromise their ideals. McCarthy and his henchmen, however, turned Anticommunism into a hysteria and the rationale for a witch hunt. Something similar is being attempted with Islamism today, and it is here that criticism of religion and religious politics morphs into Islamophobia.

Yes, the idea of “Islamophobia” is often unhelpful in the fight against extremism. But so too is a way of talking about Islam that sees only an exotic, unassimilable and alien threat. In the terms of Max Weber, we just have not laid down the right track yet.

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