Understanding Islamophobia: Text and Context

Understanding Islamophobia: Text and Context
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By Muhammad Yaseen Gada
Today Islamophobia is a global phenomenon. The term “Islamophobia” was first used in print in 1991, and popularized and articulated as a concept in a 1997 report by the Runnymede Trust, a British think tank specializing in ethnic and racial diversity issues. The report defined Islamophobia as “an unfounded hostility towards Muslims” or “…a useful shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and therefore a fear of all or most Muslims” as well as “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”.  The introduction of the term was warranted by the report’s assessment in the context of Muslims in the UK in particular and Europe in general that “anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new item in the vocabulary is needed” so that this form of prejudice—a serious social problem can be identified and acted against.
In Britain, the anti-Muslim sentiment had grown considerably following the events:  the Salman Rushdie affair (1988-1989), the first Gulf War (1990–91), the 9/11, the Madrid bombings (2004), the London bombings (2005), the Danish cartoon controversy (2005-2006), and the Charlie Hebdo—a French satirical magazine with a history of ridiculing Islam—event (2015). All these incidents stoked the flames of Islamophobic acts—physical assaults, verbal abuse, and damage to property, and had fomented and alienated British Muslims, “turned them into a viable political constituency, but one widely viewed as alien in its values and desperately in need of national incorporation”.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks have only brought a significant change in the Western imagination and perception of Islam so much so that “Muslim men are so dehumanized that since 9/11 they have become less than zero… stripped of all legal rights afforded under US domestic and international law, force-fed like animals”, writes Sophia Rose Arjana (Muslims in the Western Imagination). Moreover, considering Carl Ernst’s statement, “It is safe to say that no religion has such a negative image in Western eyes as Islam”, and thus has surprised many even in this age of post-modernism.
Anti-Muslim and anti-Islam propaganda has a venerable history in Western culture. The Runnymede Trust’s first report has cautiously suggested “a continuous line from the Crusades of the medieval times through the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism to the Islamophobia of the 1990s’”. Many contemporary western scholars such as John L. Esposito, Vincent J. Cornell, Tomaz Mastnak, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jonathan Lyons, to name a few, believe that historical dynamics are reproduced in contemporary postcolonial environments. Why is this so? How have the relationships between the Muslim world and Western Europe and the United States impacted perceptions of Islam, in the past and the present? How the anti-Islam discourse took formation, and who and why is it produced and perpetuated; and who benefits from its survival and consistency? These are some but important questions, which have been raised by many scholars.
A number of factors led to its success as a dominant discourse while subsiding otherwise legitimate, positive, and actual historical facts and figures. Central to this discourse run a thread of interrelated themes and narratives distorting the actual thought and practice of those against whom the discourse functions. Importantly, there is a well-knitted cohort of “pseudo-scholars” and civil society groups pre-disposed to demonization of Islam propaganda. The ring of “pseudo-scholars” and authors are supported by a verifiable 40-million-dollar-a-year Islamophobia industry in the United States with an increasingly global reach.
Many surveys show that Europeans consider Islam to be incompatible with Western values. Prejudiced perception that Islam has no values in common with other cultures, is inferior to the West, and is a violent political ideology rather than a religion as such, is irrational and anti-modern, anti-women and sexually pervasive surround the western perceptions of Islam and Muslims. The supposed historical incompatibility of European and Islamic values is central to Islamophobia.
In addition, the negative stereotypes against the Muslims are not mainly or only found among racists, conservative and evangelical Christians, and right-wing nationalists, but also among the secular and liberal intelligentsia as well as the wider non-religious public. However, the main actors shaping the current cultural Islamophobia is driven mainly by American neocon stars: Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer, David Yerushalmi, Glenn Beck, Pamela Geller, Paul Wolfowitz, David Horowitz, Frank Gaffney, Thomas Friedman, Martin Kramer and Fared Zakaria as well as native informers Walid Shoebat, Walid Phares, Wafa Sultan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Ibn Warraq, Brigitte Gabriel, Tawfik Hamid, and Zuhdi Jasser. Among them are some self-styled Islam and terrorism “experts” have attained a good calibre in the US’ administration. Nevertheless, the native informers are welcomed on the pretext of being the Muslim insiders for they would possess “real” knowledge of Muslim.
In a summary, while racism, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments have a long history in the Western Christian European starting from the Crusade wars at the end of the eleventh century, legalized and systematic persecution against them took institutional form in the twentieth and twenty-first century. The same anti-Islam sentiments and anti-Muslims propaganda have served the needs of the emerging global powers post-Cold War phenomena. But, the irrational and exaggerated fear of Islam (Islamophobia) reached a fever pitch of hysteria in post 9/11, which, if not addressed, arrested, and combated immediately would further exacerbate the gap between Islam and the West to an irrecoverable retreat.

—The author is a Senior Research Fellow, Islamic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached at myyaseenm2@gmail.com

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