Islamophobia – what’s in a name?

A recent special issue of the scholarly journal Patterns of Prejudice dedicated to the study of Islamophobia past and present provides a welcome opportunity to reflect both upon current usage of the concept and the academic research into the phenomena in question.

As the editors of this special issue – Damir Skenderović, Christina Späti and Daniel Wildmann – rightly note in their introduction, it is only since 2000 that Islamophobia has become a subject of sustained academic interest.

The last couple of years has however seen a virtual explosion of monographs and articles in which the term Islamophobia is referred to, leading the Oxford philosopher Brian Klug, himself one of the more prominent contributors to the field, to assert with some confidence that the term Islamophobia has finally ‘come of age’.

And arguably it has: The term has by now featured in book titles by academic scholars ranging from John L. Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin via Andrew Shryock,  Salman ‘Bobby’ Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil, Chris Allen, Deepa Kumar  Nathan LeanArun Kundnani, Ineke van der Valk, to my own modest contribution to the genre.

There have been special issues in leading social science journals such as Ethnic and Racial Studies and Politics, Religion and Ideology.  There is a US-based Islamophobia Today online newsletter and website followed by over a hundred thousand people worldwide,a Loonwatch website dedicated to exposing and documenting Islamophobia in a satirical form (and yes, there are Islamophobes on both the ‘loony right’ and the ‘loony left’!), an Islamophobia Studies Journal, and an Islamophobia Research and Documentation Projectboth based at the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley in the USA.

The U.S Democrat-leaning Center for American Progress has tracked the funders of what it refers to as a right-wing ‘Islamophobia network’ in the USA,  and Oxford Islamic Studies Online has separate pages dedicated to the topic.

The would-be scholar of Islamophobia – who in most cases have ample empirical material to draw upon – even in societal contexts in which Islamophobia in the absence of any significant presence of actual Muslims (such as in the case of homogeneous and overwhelmingly Catholic Poland) exists in the form of a ‘platonic Islamophobia’ in Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska’s memorable term – can now attend a fair number of international scholarly conferences dedicated to the research on and the study of Islamophobia in its variegated contexts and forms. Most recently in the form of a conference on Comparative Approaches To The Study of Islamophobia in the  Austrian city of Salzburg in September 2014, which is the first such conference I myself have attended.

It was not always thus. For if anything – and much like any other nascent analytical concept which has both descriptive and normative (or if one prefers, denunciatory properties  ) – and which as Erik Bleich has underlined in the 1990s re-emerged as a concept aligned with activist initiatives designed to highlight increasingly hostile and antagonistic attitudes towards Muslims in various social and political contexts in the Western hemisphere  – Islamophobia has been a contested term throughout its latter-day existence. And so in many societal contexts – not the least in my native Norway – academic scholars using and willing to use the term have often faced both public and media opprobrium for so doing and had to face down the risk of scholarly marginalization, if not downright excommunication. Take a few cases in point: In 2011 a secularist-feminist cultural affairs editor of Aftenposten, Norway’s most influential liberal-conservative newspaper, by the name of Ingunn Økland greeted the publication of  the first monograph on Islamophobia in Norway, written by Prof Mattias Gardell at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, by rather sneeringly declaring that Norwegian Muslims who complained about the prevalence of Islamophobia in Norway were like ‘spoilt children’ exaggerating in order to obtain certain favours from their parents.

Another reviewer of the book in question, Arne Dvergsdal at the liberal daily newspaper Dagbladet declared that as he was unable to find the term Islamophobia in his dictionary, the implication was that the phenomenon to which the term referred did not exist . Leaving the intellectual mediocrity and mendacity on display in these reviews aside, these views are by and large symptomatic of hegemonic liberal elite responses to the term and its usage in the Norwegian societal context.

As a consequence of this state of affairs, I along with many other scholars working in this field have often had to spend as much time on defining, refining and defending the concept and its usage in a contemporary context as I have done in actually undertaking inquiries into Islamophobia and its contemporary articulations in various social fields. That is of course most unfortunate, in that people who experience racism and discrimination (and Islamphobia is of course, as Ali Rattansi has pointed out,  in its ‘harder’ and more ‘cruder’ forms a form of racism, and entails discrimination on the basis of a real or perceived religious identity) in their everyday lives have little interest in following an endless theoretical-academic seminar on terminology, and in that such terminological debates (which are by all means needed in order to refine the concept) all too often draw attention away from any effort to develop ways of measuring Islamophobia, its forms and prevalence in any given societal context.

But at the risk of stating the by now obvious for anyone interested in the topic of Islamophobia and its study, we need to return to the genealogy – in the Foucaultian sense – of the concept of Islamophobia. And to date, there is in my view no better guide to this than the Spanish historian Fernando Bravo López.

Bravo López traces the term back to the work of two French West Africanist scholars and colonial administrators by the name of Maurice Delafosse and Alain Quillien, who introduced the term in French scholarship around 1910. When Bravo López work on tracing the genealogies of the concept remains so crucially important, it is due to the fact that far right and Islamophobic activists in both Western Europe and the USA have in recent years spent much time and energy on trying to discredit the term by creating the most inventive fictive genealogies for the term. It is quite some time since I myself gave up collecting data on the various fictive genealogies of the term available from the plethora of far right and Islamophobic websites: Among the more hilarious propositions of its genealogy is the Norwegian-based US-born ‘Eurabia’ author Bruce Bawer’s suggestion that it was a term introduced by the Islamist Muslim Brothers [jamaat al-ikhwan al-muslimin, established in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna in Ismailiya in Egypt], the French secularist-feminists Cathrine Fourest and Fioretta Venner’s suggestions that it was introduced by Iranian Khomeinists after the Iranian revolution in 1979 in order to crack down on non-chador wearing and non-Islamist Iranian feminists, or the Norwegian polemicist Walid al-Kubaisi’s suggestion that the term was introduced by none other than Prof Tariq Ramadan at the University of Oxford [sic]. What all these fictive genealogies of the term have in common is of course that they are mutually incompatible, and put forward by their enterprising author-inventors without reference to any credible sources whatsoever, in the belief that lay and expert readers are ready to believe any old nonsense being propounded.

It is however clear from Bravo López fine study of the historical genealogy of the term that the current scholarly usage of the term is quite different from that of Delafosse and Quillien. The first recorded usage of the term in academic texts in English Bravo López traces to an essay entitled ‘Orientalism Reconsidered’ by the late Palestinian-American academic Edward W. Said (1935-2003), first published in response to Said’s Orientalist and latter-day neo-con nemesis Bernard Lewis in 1985.

The first recorded usage of the term in the English language in the Western media dates from the early 1990s.

The popularization of the term in media as well as scholarly discourses, however, stems, as Chris Allen duly notes in his 2010 volume, from its usage in a report by the anti-racist UK NGO The Runnymede Trust in a 1997 report into Islamophobia. Allen’s critique of the ‘lack of clarity’ about the term Islamophobia in the 1997 Runnymede Trust Report (the report basically used the term as a shorthand for ‘fear and hostility towards Islam and Muslims’), which in Allen’s view implied that the report ultimately ‘essentialized both Islam and Muslims’ is in my view a valuable starting point. Much conceptual water has passed under the bridge since then, and recent definitions of Islamophobia proposed by inter alia Erik Bleich and Mattias Gardell are both more nuanced, refined and more useful in empirical research on the phenomena and their ramifications.  Gardell defines Islamophobia as “socially reproduced prejudices and aversions against Islam and Muslims, and actions and practices which attack, exclude and discriminate against people on account of these people either being, or being presumed to be Muslim, and to be associated with Islam” (my translation).For Bleich, Islamophobia references “indiscriminate negative attitudes towards Islam and Muslims.”

Gardell’s definition has the advantage of highlighting that Islamophobia – similarly to the ways in which other potentially or actually racist formations function – is not only about ideas and attitudes, but also about practices, and that people of Muslim background – regardless of whether they are practicing or not, or regardless of whether they actually identify with the signifier ‘Muslim’ or not – in the Islamophobic imaginaries through processes of racialization and essentialization may be reduced to the category ‘Muslim’. As in ‘a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim’ – and as if his or her faith, ideas and actions are somehow mysteriously over-determined by ‘Islam’ – as if that was all we ever needed to say or think about any particular Muslim.

I don’t know how many times I as a researcher in Norway in recent years have heard complaints from Norwegian-Iranians, who (unsurprisingly, given their parents’ or their own background as refugees from the horrors of Khomeinist Iran in the early to mid-1980s) according to available statistics are among the least religious among citizens of Muslim background in Norway, about how sick and tired many of them are of having to answer to their work colleagues to the latest terrorist outrage perpetrated by some Muslims somewhere in the world, or for that matter to forced marriages, or female circumcision.  Bleich’s definition, on the other hand, whilst in certain respects failing to take account of Islamophobia qua practices, has the advantage of highlighting the fact that negative attitudes towards Islam and Muslims must reach a certain threshold of generalization before we can refer to them as expressive of Islamophobia in any meaningful sense. If I as a non-Muslim happen to think that mainstream interpretations of gender and sexuality among contemporary Muslims stand in a problematic relationship with norms of gender equality and women’s rights in a liberal and secular context, that hardly makes me Islamophobic. Nor is it necessarily an expression of Islamophobia (though it may in some cases in fact be) if I as a non-Muslim would happen to have concerns over mosques popping up in my immediate neighbourhood.

And so the often expressed view that the term Islamophobia ‘pathologizes’’ skepticism about Islam and Muslims and that its usage represents ‘an attempt to stifle criticism of Islam’ is a proverbial non-sequitur.  This does not mean – of course – that we should not guard against abuses of the term – as we would guard against abuses of similar, but not necessarily analogous terms such as anti-Semitism or homophobia. I would for example not look kindly upon any Saudi state official were he to characterize non-Muslims who criticize the country’s rampant human right abuses and infringements of women’s rights as acting out of Islamophobic motivations.   A complicating factor here is of course that Muslims themselves often generalize and essentialize their own faith: An often overheard comment from the audience at academic seminars in Western Europe in recent years has been that ‘as Muslims, we need to confront Islamophobia by explaining what the ‘real’ Islam is.’ The ‘real Islam’ of this construction is always and inevitably what the interlocutors often render as ‘moderate Islam’ or the proverbial ‘Islam means peace’. But as  John R. Bowen notes in a recent and very good introduction to the anthropology of Islam, we need to “take seriously the idea that Islam is best seen as a set of interpretive resources and practices” which individuals of Muslim background “grapple with” and “shape.”

So where to now for studies and research into Islamophobia?

In his latest contribution to the theorizing of Islamophobia, Brian Klug asserts with characteristic and sarcastic wit that “̒Islamophobia’ has caught on. No one can be compelled to use it, but it is too late for a committee of academics to veto it. Like it or not, we are stuck with it. Rather than pursue a fruitless debate over the felicitiousness or otherwise of the word, which I shall continue to use, better to pay attention to the concept, for the concept has arrived.”

As the theoretical debates over the concept, its usage and applicability in scholarly circles now hopefully recede into the past, as scholars with an interest in this field we need to act upon Prof Erik Bleich’s recommendations with regard to finding ways to operationalize the concept and to make it amenable to comparative research and empirical data collection across and within different societal contexts, and over time. The academic scholarship in Islamophobia is still in a formative phase, and I want to conclude by making some provisional and tentative recommendations about how to further research and studies into Islamophobia from my personal vantage point.

  • Though we now have studies and research from various societal contexts, the predominant focus is still, and for obvious reasons, a ‘Eurocentric’ one: Though it has certainly existed elsewhere and for a long time, there are to my limited knowledge a limited number of studies making use of the term and the scholarly literature on Islamophobia in for example the context of present-day and Hindutva-dominated India,  in Buddhist-nationalist Myanmar (Burma) or Sri Lanka. Etc. etc.
  • Moving beyond a ‘Eurocentric’ perspective on Islamophobia also means undertaking research on the ways in which Islamophobic tropes move across time and space, to and from and within the Western hemisphere.
  • Very little research on Islamophobia has hitherto been truly comparative, as Irfan Ahmad has argued in a recent and important article in which he compares Islamophobia on the European continent and in India.
  • Stereotypes, forms of prejudice and racist attitudes often come in clusters. We know from surveys undertaken by the HL-Centre in Norway for example that apart from the Roma, Norwegian-Somalis happen to be the minority group to which Norwegians express the highest level of social distance and negative attitudes at present.  Yet it is not clear whether this may be reflective of, say, traditional anti-black racism, Islamophobia or both. Research and studies on Islamophobia need to ascertain in which ways Islamophobia interacts with other forms of prejudice, stereotypes and racism.
  • Islamophobia being in the present world a transnational phenomenon, and as Farid Hafez has recently argued,  the ‘great unifier’ among far-right political formations not only in Europe and the USA, but also elsewhere, we need to know more about how and through which channels Islamophobia ‘travels’ and is made amenable to various nation-state contexts. These nation-state contexts are, as Paul Silverstein and others have argued, still more relevant to people’s everyday lives in most parts of the world than transnational bodies and organizations.
  • The argument that Islamophobia is integral to both liberalism and the national security state has increasingly been made in academic scholarship in recent years from scholars such as Arun Kundnani to Liz Fekete. Whatever one’s view of the argument (and self-declared card-carrying liberals are of course likely to disagree vehemently) there is an urgent need to explore the myriad ways in which state initiatives in the fields of counter-terrorism, counter-radicalization, surveillance etc. are generative of general societal optics in which Muslims tout court are cast as threatening ‘others’ in the national and international order.

So for now – back to work.

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