One of the earliest major documents to popularise the word ‘Islamophobia’ was the Report ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All’, published in 1997 by the Runnymede Trust in England. But that Report itself acknowledged the problems associated with the word, and its analysis of the underlying issues was also flawed. I suggest, partly on the basis of this report, that the word ‘Islamophobia’ should be replaced with the term ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’.
The Runnymede Trust is a think-tank that researches policies for a multiethnic Britain. It is named after the field of Runnymede in which the Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215. In 1996 it established a ‘Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia’ which published its report in 1997. The summary described the overall intention of the Commission as twofold:
“(a) To counter Islamophobic assumptions that Islam is a single monolithic system, without internal development, diversity and dialogue; and
(b) To draw attention to the principal dangers which Islamophobia creates or exacerbates for Muslim communities, and therefore for the well-being of society as a whole.”
Ideally such a campaign would be described less ambiguously, and would be part of a wider campaign to support robust civil debate about all religious and nonreligious beliefs and world-views, while opposing prejudice against the people who hold any of those religious or nonreligious beliefs.
Problems with the word ‘Islamophobia’
The Runnymede Report itself acknowledges the problems with the word ‘Islamophobia’, which it defines in two different ways.
“In recent years a new word has gained currency. The word is ‘Islamophobia’… The word is not ideal, but is recognisably similar to ‘xenophobia’ and ‘Europhobia’, and is a useful shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” (page 1)
This definition firstly combines two different attitudes (‘dread’ and ‘hatred’) towards Islam (which is a religion and/or ideology), then makes an unjustified leap from that conflation to ‘fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’ (who are people, not a religion or ideology). Some people who dread or hate Islam might also fear or dislike all or most Muslims, but it does not necessarily follow.
“The term Islamophobia refers to unfounded hostility towards Islam. It refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities, and the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs.” (page 4)
This definition is slightly different. It says that the term refers to ‘unfounded hostility’ towards Islam (which is a religion and/or ideology), then says that it also refers to the practical consequences of that hostility for Muslims (who are people, not a religion or ideology).
“The term is not, admittedly, ideal. Critics of it consider that its use panders to what they call political correctness, that it stifles legitimate criticism of Islam, and that it demonises and stigmatises anyone who wishes to engage in such criticism… The word ‘Islamophobia’ has been coined because there is a new reality which needs naming: anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new item in the vocabulary is needed so that it can be identified and acted against… We believe (the word ‘Islamophobia’) can play a valuable part in the long endeavour of correcting perceptions and improving relationships.” (page 4)
Ironically, this part of the introduction could have led the Commission to write a far more useful report. It identifies the problems with using the word ‘Islamophobia’, then it describes the new reality that it is trying to describe as ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’. Well, what better term could you use to describe ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’ than ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’? And why try to ‘correct perceptions’ by using an ambiguous word that you know is not ideal, when you could instead use the accurate and unambiguous term ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’?
Problems with the word ‘Muslim’
The Runnymede Report also uses an unreasonable definition of the word Muslim.
“Throughout (this report) we use the term ‘Muslim’ to refer to people who describe themselves as Muslims, or who were born to families where Islam is the household faith. Such a definition does not assume that all Muslims are observant in their religious practice to the same extent and in the same ways. On the contrary, it acknowledges that Muslims vary in the ways they interpret and practice their faith and that Islam has non-observant adherents just as do all other religions.” (page 4)
But people ‘who were born to families where Islam is the household faith’ is not a reasonable criteria for defining Muslims. That includes people who have deliberately chosen to leave Islam, some of whom explicitly and publicly reject the assertion that they are Muslims.
“An analogy may be drawn with the situation in Northern Ireland, where to refer to someone as Protestant or Catholic is to refer to their identity within a broad cultural tradition and community, not necessarily to their personal religious beliefs and practice.” (page 4)
This analogy is appropriate, but it conveys the opposite lesson to that which the report thinks it conveys. It refers to one of the practices that has exacerbated the problems in Northern Ireland. Referring to people using religious labels based on tribal identities rather than religious beliefs is inaccurate and harmful, whether applied to Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or to Muslims to Britain.
Also, later in the Report, in responding to a comment by Peregrine Worsthorne, the Commission says:
“First, a semantic point which may at first sight seem rather trivial but which is in fact of considerable importance. Mr Worsthorne appears to use the word ‘Islamic’ as a synonym for ‘Muslim’ – not only are all ‘Islamic people’ Muslims but also, in his view all Muslims are ‘Islamic people’. If this is indeed his meaning his key statement is simply false.” (page 8)
I agree with the principle behind this distinction, with some caveats. However, as we will see, the Report itself repeatedly falls into the trap of conflating the concepts of Islam and Muslims.
Criticisms that are not ‘Islamophobic’
The Runnymede Report has a section describing criticisms that it does not consider ‘Islamophobic’.
“It is not intrinsically phobic or prejudiced, of course, to disagree with or to disapprove of Muslim beliefs, laws or practices. Adherents of other world faiths disagree with Muslims on points of theology and religious practice. By the same token agnostics and secular humanists disagree with Muslims, as with all religious believers, on basic issues.
In a liberal democracy it is inevitable and healthy that people will criticise and oppose, sometimes robustly, opinions and practices with which they disagree.
It can be legitimate to criticise policies and practices of Muslim states and regimes, for example, especially when their governments do not subscribe to internationally recognised human rights, freedoms and democratic procedures, or to criticise and condemn terrorist movements which claim to be motivated by Islamic values.
Similarly, it can be legitimate to criticise the treatment of women in some Muslim countries, or the views and attitudes which some Muslims have towards ‘the West’, or towards other world faiths. Debates, arguments and disagreements on all these issues take place just as much amongst Muslims, it is important to recognise, as between Muslims and non-Muslims.” (page 4)
However, in general discourse, the word ‘Islamophobia’ is not accompanied by these qualifications, and this can create the impression that these types of criticisms are considered ‘Islamophobic’. This is particularly so when the Organisation of Islamic States encompasses these types of criticisms in its usage of the word, which I will address in a later article. All of these ambiguities could be avoided by simply using the term ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’ instead of the word ‘Islamophobia’.
Open and Closed views of Islam
The Runnymede Report then asks how can one tell the difference between legitimate criticism and disagreement on the one hand, and ‘Islamophobia’, or unfounded prejudice and hostility, on the other?
The report draws a distinction between ‘closed’ views of Islam on the one hand, and ‘open’ views on the other hand. It says that phobic dread of Islam is the recurring characteristic of ‘closed’ views, and that legitimate disagreement and criticism, as well as appreciation and respect, are aspects of ‘open’ views.
It draws eight distinctions between closed and open views of Islam, but only four are about Islam, and the other four are about Muslims. These are:
1. Whether Islam is seen as monolithic and static, or as diverse and dynamic.
2. Whether Islam is seen as other and separate, or as similar and interdependent.
3. Whether Islam is seen as inferior, or as different but equal.
4. Whether Islam is seen as an aggressive enemy, or as a cooperative partner.
5. Whether Muslims are seen as manipulative, or as sincere.
6. Whether Muslim criticisms of the West are rejected, or debated.
7. Whether discriminatory behaviour against Muslims is defended, or opposed.
8. Whether anti-Muslim discourse is seen as natural, or as problematic.
Distinction 1: Islam as Monolithic/Diverse
“Closed views: Islam seen as a single monolithic block, static and unresponsive to new realities.
Open views: Islam seen as diverse and progressive, with internal differences, debates and development.” (page 5)
Reasonable people should not apply either the ‘closed’ view or the ‘open’ view to Islam as a whole. Islam is not a single monolithic block, and it is diverse with internal differences. However, the supposedly ‘open’ view says that Islam is progressive. Actually, the very diversity of Islam includes progressive, neutral and regressive elements. Parts of Islam are open to debate, and parts are static and unresponsive to new realities. That is the essence of not being monolithic. You cannot argue that islam is not monolithic, and also argue that it is monolithically progressive.
Distinction 2: Islam as Separate/Interacting
“Closed views: Islam seen a separate and other – (A) not having any aims or values in common with other cultures (B) not affected by them (C) not influencing them.
Open views: Islam is seen as interdependent with other faiths and cultures – (A) having certain shared values and aims (B) affected by them (C) enriching them.” (page 6)
Again, reasonable people should not apply either the ‘closed’ view or the ‘open’ view to Islam as a whole. In particular, part (C) of the supposedly ‘open’ view suggests that where Islam affects other cultures, it enriches them. In reality, parts of Islam can enrich other cultures, and parts of Islam can harm and corrupt other cultures. The Report itself acknowledges that making such a legitimate criticism is not ‘Islamophobic’, yet it does not reflect that nuance in this distinction.
Distinction 3: Islam as Inferior/Different
“Closed views: Islam seen as inferior to the West – barbaric, irrational, primitive, sexist.
Open views: Islam seen as distinctively different, but not deficient, and as equally worthy of respect.” (page 7)
Yet again, reasonable people should not apply either the ‘closed’ view or the ‘open’ view to Islam as a whole. Parts of Islam are gentle, rational and modern. Parts of Islam are barbaric, irrational and primitive. Parts of the Quran are sexist, where it treats men and women differently based solely on their gender. Also, while we should respect the right to hold Islamic beliefs, that does not mean that we have to respect the content of Islamic beliefs. As one example, the part of the Quran that says that a man can beat his wife in certain circumstances is not equally worthy of respect as the Western liberal democratic view that a man can not beat his wife. Again, the Report itself acknowledges that making such a legitimate criticism is not ‘Islamophobic’, yet it does not reflect that nuance in this distinction.
Distinction 4: Islam as Enemy/Partner
“Closed views: Islam seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, engaged in a clash of civilisations.
Open views: Islam is seen as an actual or potential partner in joint cooperative enterprises and in the solution of shared problems.” (page 7)
Yet again (are you noticing a pattern emerge?), reasonable people should not apply either the ‘closed’ view or the ‘open’ view to Islam as a whole. Parts of Islam are peaceful, kind, pleasant, rejecting of terrorism, and wanting to see Islam spread by consent. Parts of Islam are violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, and engaged in a clash of civilisations. Parts of Islam are conducive to joint cooperative enterprises. Parts of Islam can make shared problems worse. In all of the distinctions so far (with the exception of the statement that Islam is not monolithic) both the supposedly ‘closed’ and ‘open’ views are caricatures from opposite perspectives of the reality of Islam.
Distinction 5: Muslims as Manipulative/Sincere
“Closed Views: Islam is seen as a political ideology, used for political or military advantage.
Open Views: Islam is seen as a genuine religious faith, practised sincerely by its adherents.” (page 8)
Yet again, reasonable people should not apply either the ‘closed’ view or the ‘open’ view to Islam as a whole. For some Muslims, Islam is a political ideology, used for political or military advantage. For some Muslims, Islam is a genuine religious faith, practised sincerely by its adherents. Most Muslims are ordinary Sunnis or Shias whose priority is to live normal lives. Some piously follow their religion, while some in the West drink alcohol and don’t wear veils but consider themselves culturally Muslim. Some are persecuted Shia or Ahmadi or female or gay or reformist Muslims.
Some lead Islamist regimes that impose Sharia by force on other Muslims and religious minorities, including the Wahhabi Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia with its religious police and a law that defines atheism as terrorism, and the Shia regime in Iran where a psychotherapist was executed in 2014 for publishing innovative interpretations of the Quran and having sex outside of marriage. Some are international terrorist groups, from the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon with its aim of obliterating Israel, to the Sunni ISIS who promote their supposed Caliphate by murdering concertgoers in Paris.
Again, the Report itself acknowledges that making such a legitimate criticism is not ‘Islamophobic’, yet it does not reflect that nuance in this distinction.
Distinction 6: Criticism of West Rejected/Considered
“Closed views: Criticisms made by Islam of the West rejected out of hand.
Open views: Criticisms of the West and other cultures are considered and debated.” (page 10)
Both of these views should be treated reciprocally by people of all cultures. Non-Muslims should consider and debate criticisms of our cultures, and Muslims should consider and debate criticisms of their cultures. Note the plural ‘s’ on the end of the word ‘cultures’. That said, nobody should expect automatic respect for the content of their beliefs simply because they do or do not believe in a god or gods. Ideas about how to run society should be debated based on their merits, based on applying reason to the currently best available evidence, and taking into consideration common human traits such as compassion, empathy, cooperation, reciprocity, fairness and justice.
Distinction 7: Discrimination Defended/Criticised
“Closed views: Hostility towards Islam used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.
Open views: Debates and disagreements with Islam do not diminish efforts to combat discrimination and exclusion.” (page 9)
Here, reasonable people should agree with the Commission that the ‘closed’ view is wrong and unacceptable and that the ‘open’ view is right and ethical. Whatever your views about Islam, they should not be used to justify discriminatory practices against Muslims. Muslims should not be collectively seen as a race or as immigrants, and even you do unjustly see them in this way, people of different races and immigrants should not be discriminated against on that basis anyway. There should be one law for all citizens, democratically agreed and impartially enforced. This also means that Islamists should not be allowed to discriminate against Muslims in their own communities, including women Muslims, gay Muslims, dissident Muslims, and Muslims with different Islamic beliefs. Also, legitimate criticism of Islam should always be combined with efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination against Muslims as people.
Distinction 8: Islamophobia seen as Natural/Problematic
“Closed views: Anti-Muslim hostility accepted as natural and normal.
Open views: Critical views of Islam are themselves subjected to critique lest they be inaccurate and unfair.” (page 10)
This distinction goes to the heart of the problem of the word ‘Islamophobia’. The title of the distinction refers to ‘Islamophobia’, the ‘closed’ view refers to anti-Muslim hostility, and the ‘open’ view refers to criticism of Islam. But the Report itself repeatedly makes a distinction between Islam and Muslims that it sometimes forgets.
So this distinction should read either:
“Closed views: Anti-Muslim hostility accepted as normal.
Open views: Anti-Muslim hostility is itself subjected to critique…”
Or else it should read:
“Closed views: Critical views of Islam accepted as normal.
Open views: Critical views of Islam are themselves subjected to critique…”
But jumping from one to the other is comparing apples to oranges. I suggest that the Commissioners should have considered another option:
“Usage of the word ‘Islamophobia’ is itself subjected to critique lest it be inaccurate and unfair.”
Let us recall the purpose of these eight distinctions. They are to enable us to distinguish between legitimate criticism and disagreement on the one hand, and ‘Islamophobia’, or unfounded prejudice and hostility, on the other. But the ambiguities and conflations of Islam and Muslims make it impossible for the distinctions to carry out that task.
The remainder of the Report addresses prejudice towards and discrimination against Muslims in Britain, media coverage of Muslims and Islam, proposals for moving towards an inclusive society, violence against Muslims, education policy, proposals for inter-community projects and dialogue, recourse to law, and concluding recommendations.
These are important issues, but discussing them is made more difficult by using the ambiguous word ‘Islamophobia’, when the perfectly accurate term ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’ could have been used instead. It would be far easier to build a broad coalition of people with very different views of Islam as a religion and/or ideology, but who would actively support a campaign to oppose anti-Muslim prejudice.
Ideally such a campaign would be part of a wider campaign to support robust debate about all religious and nonreligious beliefs and world-views, while opposing prejudice against the people who hold any of those religious or nonreligious belief.