What does the word ‘Islamophobia’ mean? Whatever you are having yourself

I wrote an article last week about about the harm caused by the propaganda word ‘Islamophobia’. Here I will examine further the confusion surrounding the word, even among people of goodwill, and the lack of any agreed coherent definition. I will refer to three recent books about ‘Islamophobia’ by Todd Green, Chris Allen and Deepa Kumar. I will also highlight how Maryam Namazie shows that opposition to the word is not restricted to the political ‘right-wing’.

I showed in last week’s article the flaws with the recent Demos Report, and the lack of any agreed meaning for the word in seven academic sources cited by one of the Demos report’s authors. More importantly, I showed how the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation uses the word as a propaganda term to silence criticism of Islam, and to buttress vicious human rights abuses against Muslims and non-Muslims alike in Islamic regimes. Please also read that article.

In a previous article I showed how even the influential 1997 Runnymede Trust report, with which many proponents of the term begin their arguments, acknowledged that:

“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.”

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’?

Three recent books on ‘Islamophobia’

Todd Green is Associate Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and author of the 2015 book ‘The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West.’ Todd introduces ‘Islamophobia’ as ‘hatred, hostility and fear of Islam and Muslims, and the discriminatory practices that result,’ and also as ‘anti-Muslim bigotry.’ He also acknowledges that:

“The term has plenty of critics. Some scholars, sympathetic with the need to analyse and combat anti-Muslim prejudice, maintain that the very word ‘Islamophobia’ is a misnomer. They argue that a literal interpretation suggests that the primary object of fear or discrimination is religion (Islam), when in fact the prejudice in question is best understood under a different framework, such as racism or xenophobia. Other critics reject the word because they believe it stifles freedom of speech and the freedom to criticise the beliefs and practices of a particular religious tradition or community.”

Chris Allen is a Research Fellow in the Institute of Applied Social Studies, University of Birmingham, UK, and author of the 2010 book ‘Islamophobia.’ Chris proposes a new definition of ‘Islamophobia’ as “an ideology, similar in theory, purpose and function to racism and other similar phenomena, that sustains and perpetuates negatively evaluated meaning about Muslims and Islam.” Along the way he argues that:

“Islamophobia remains something of an ambiguous entity and this becomes apparent in some sources more so than others, not least the Home Office Report into Religious Discrimination and the Parekh report. Whether focusing on usage, definition or conceptualisation therefore, across a range of different reports so an uneasiness and contestation about Islamophobia emerges: about its lack of clarity; what Islamophobia is; its spread and voracity; its problematic nature; and notwithstanding, whether Islamophobia exists.”

Chris also addresses the United Nations intervention on ‘Islamophobia’, and that of the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, the precursor to today’s European Union Fundamental Rights Agency:

“In accrediting Islamophobia with international recognition, it might be expected that the UN would have afforded such an accreditation with some definition or meaning. Unfortunately, and like many others before them, no definition or meaning of Islamophobia was put forward by the UN leaving Islamophobia once more open to interpretation and contestation.”

“Yet throughout, rarely has the EUMC attempted to define Islamophobia. Instead, as it sets out in its 2007 Manifestations Report, it prefers internationally agreed standards on racism. Is Islamophobia therefore equivalent to racism or is it something different? In each of the EUMC’s publications, Islamophobia is used in an assumptive way, one where the reader is presumed to fully understand and adequately know what Islamophobia is and possibly more importantly, what islamophobia is not. And all this despite the fact that islamophobia is apparently a new and increasingly problematic phenomenon across Europe. The question then is why an organisation that is so committed to addressing Islamophobia chooses not to adequately define it.”

Deepa Kumar is associate professor of media studies and Middle East studies at Rutgers University, and author of the 2012 book ‘Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire’. Deepa describes ‘Islamophobia’ variously as ‘anti-Muslim racism,’ the ‘Muslim enemy,’ and ‘anti-Muslim prejudice consciously constructed and deployed by the ruling elites’. She also acknowledges that:

“There is some debate on whether the term ‘Islamophobia’ is adequate to denote the phenomenon of cultural racism against Muslims. While it does have some limits, I continue to use this term not only because it is now widely accepted but also because in this book I study specifically the fear (and hatred) generated against the ‘Muslim threat’.”

So all three authors acknowledge that decent people, with no anti-Muslim agenda, have legitimate concerns about how the word ‘Islamophobia’ is used. All three authors acknowledge that there is no agreed definition, and each uses or proposes their own preferred meaning. We saw the same outcome in my previous article, when I looked at the seven academic studies that Carl from Demos put forward to justify the Demos use of the word: none of them shared an agreed definition.

I suggest that the reason for this consistent failure to agree is that people are working the wrong way around. Instead of studying phenomena and trying to accurately name them, they are trying to crowbar definitions into a word that simply does not suit that purpose. But the word does suit the purpose for which Islamic regimes use it through the OIC: to silence criticism of Islam, by conflating it with anti-Muslim prejudice, and thus to buttress vicious human rights abuses against Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Left-wing opposition to the word ‘Islamophobia’

Outside of academia, some people seem to believe that opposition to the propaganda use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ comes only from the political ‘right-wing’. And it is true that many on the political ‘right-wing’ do oppose the word, and many on the political ‘left-wing’ do use and promote the word.

But you will find people across the political spectrum, ‘left,’ ‘right,’ and ‘centre,’ who abhor the human rights abuses inflicted by Islamic regimes, and indeed within some Islamic communities in other countries. As a social liberal in the economic centre, I can put aside my political differences with other ethical democrats as we campaign together to protect fundamental human rights.

One of Atheist Ireland’s strongest political allies in opposing the harm caused by the propaganda term ‘Islamophobia’ is Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for the Council of Ex Muslims of Britain, and the anti-Sharia advocacy group One Law For All. Atheist Ireland is proud to host these groups’ websites, along with Maryam’s personal website, on our server.

Maryam has been banned from speaking at Warwick University and Trinity College Dublin amidst allegations of ‘Islamophobia,’ before successfully overturning those bans. When she spoke about blasphemy at Goldsmith University in London, students disrupted the talk and accused her of being an ‘Islamophobe’.

Maryam is a communist, and has served on the Central Committee of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran. She actively opposes ‘right-wing’ politics, which she sees in some cases as similar to Islamism. Her courage and campaigning debunks the idea that opposition to the word ‘Islamophobia’ comes only from the political ‘right-wing.’

The more you investigate the word ‘Islamophobia,’ the more it emerges as a moving target of whatever you are having yourself, conflating anti-Muslim prejudice (which is bad) with criticism of Islam (which is good). I continue to argue that the word should be replaced with the more accurate term ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’. I will return to this topic again soon.

What does the word ‘Islamophobia’ mean? Whatever you are having yourself

4 thoughts on “What does the word ‘Islamophobia’ mean? Whatever you are having yourself

  1. The Left, as it stands today, has a schizophrenic relationship with islam. Especially the US left (which seems to encompass Atheism and Secularism as far as the internet goes).

    While they’ll be more than happy to shoot down the christian faith (and probably deservedly so), they show an almost humorous lack of balls when it comes to islam and its vile ideological subsets.

    Personally, I don’t think trying to fight them head-on is worth the hassle anymore. Better leave them to their own delusions. They’ll learn, eventually…

  2. Michael sensibly suggests eliminating the ambiguous term “Islamophobia” in favor of the more accurate term “anti-Muslim prejudice.” The clarification neatly conforms to the democratic project to grant equal rights, opportunity, and dignity to all people regardless of religious belief or the absence thereof.

    Unfortunately, Islam has not developed along a path of secular assimilation like Christianity in western nations. Muslims do not recognize the moral authority of freedom of conscience, civil law or
    universal human rights and liberties. For centuries after its founding, Muslims were for the most part forbidden to live in non-Islamic countries where every aspect of life was not authorized by the oppressive dictates and sanctions of the Quran, Sharia law, the Caliphate, and the umma (Muslim community) under the directives of the imam.

    Today many westernized Muslims have abjured theocracy and jihadism. Others have not. The dilemma faced by Europeans is how to tease out devout Islamists from those who are humanist Muslims often “Muslim” in name only -cultural Muslims if you will. Sadly the process has descended into a shouting match about which group constitutes the “vast majority.”

    I see predominant expressions of the core beliefs and practices of Islam by Muslim nations (theocracies without separation of mosque and state) arrayed in opposition to those of free civil societies and therefore one of the great threats to humanity in our times. Until the religion undergoes radical reforms, we have justified reason to fear Islam and most devout Muslims.

    The need for vigilance in no way justifies either physical violence, verbal abuse or taking oppressive and discriminatory measures against Muslim people. Democracies must pursue the middle way by keeping faith with democratic principles while challenging the fundamental faith that is Islam.

  3. “Michael sensibly suggests eliminating the ambiguous term ”

    How will that be done? It’s no more or less subject to misuse that equivalent terms.

  4. I find the endorsement of Namazie at little bit cringe-worthy.
    This might be an example of the presumption that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Something Maryam herself has warned against in her myriad declarations that everyone and their uncle are ‘right-wing’; that term is not used by her to indicate fiscal and social conservatism but rather it is deployed in the same sense as ‘bigot’

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