Over the last two decades or so, ‘Islamophobia’ has become quite a common word in conversations about the experience of being Muslim in the UK and elsewhere in the West. In conditions of runaway globalisation we’ve also become quite conditioned to importing news of ‘Islamophobia’ from abroad, from places as far as Australia. News of an arson attack on a mosque or a Muslim man stabbed to death from a little known place often arrives on our shores in near real time, naturally heightening the feeling of vulnerability nearer to home. Casting aside this subtle psychological amplification of our own local context, there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that incidents categorised as ‘Islamophobia’ have increased in the last 20 years. According to the Runnymede Trust’s 20th anniversary report published today, this has also led to a growing negative impact affecting Muslims and the direction of society at large.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that a number of macro variables come into play when it comes to comparing the size of ‘Islamophobia’ over time. Firstly, awareness and reporting of ‘Islamophobia’ has dramatically improved over this period. In 2015 the Government introduced a new category for Police forces to report anti-Muslim hate crimes. We also have well-oiled organisations like Tell MAMA and MEND which do a huge amount of work to improve reporting and raising awareness. But, in between these organisations there are questions about duplication of reporting, and alignment of standards and criteria used to validate reports.
Secondly, what is perceived to be ‘Islamophobia’ has shifted. In the 1980s and early 1990s attacks against men or women on their way to a mosque or hurls of abusive tirade like ‘Paki out’ or ‘go back to where you came from’ would have been more likely counted under racism, not ‘Islamophobia.’ And so, it’s not that the attacks or unfair discrimination in workplaces didn’t take place, some of it was counted but under different categories (if reported).
Thirdly, with the advent of social media, it’s become very easy to hurl abuse sitting behind a screen. A lot of it is just raw and impulsive emotions hurled at others, similar to what often happens in a football stadium. And equally it’s become very easy to share news of abuse and unfair obstruction on social media.
Fourthly, as focus on Muslims has increased in the wake of 9/11, 7/7 and others, many ‘Islamophobia’ subject matter experts in public bodies and universities have often tended to focus on the macro picture of: (1) political mobilizations against Islam and Muslims by far-right groups; (2) problematic ‘counter-terrorism’ agenda of Government; and (3) media-led discussions of them, which have played into people’s already-held perceptions.
Perceptions and reporting issues aside, we’ve ended up calling it ‘Islamophobia’ despite the fact that the idea of ‘fearing Islam’ neither conveys any sense of criminality, malevolent intent or immoral sentiment. Nor is it describing the actual phenomenon on several fronts.
Firstly, as a believer, there is no Islamic legal (fiqhi) argument that makes it impermissible (haram) or disliked (makruh) for non-believers in Islam to hold irrational fears about Islam. The general principle is that non-believers are afforded such liberties about personal beliefs, anxieties, fears and values. Whether it is in the Makkan context where Muslims reside as a minority within a majority non-Muslim population with non-Muslim political authority or in a Madinan context when Muslims have political authority but may or may not have been a majority, in either of them, there is nothing documented in the annals of Islamic legal textbooks to suggest a moral value least of all to criminalise non-believers who held, supposedly, irrational fears of Islam. In fact, it is the believer who is tasked by God to be a source of ease and security to others, including those who fear Islam, which is all the more relevant today given that there is so much misinformation about Islam, and religion is generally perceived as unreasonable or an oddity.
Secondly, if, for argument, we set aside the above point and take the view that it is impermissible for non-believers to have ‘irrational fears of Islam’ but caveat it with ‘only if it leads to hatred,’ expressed as vitriol, abuse, bullying, unfair discrimination in the workplace or opportunities in life, or violence etc., we then have to question who it’s directed at. If it’s against Muslims on the basis of a visible identity marker (such as a ‘Muslim sounding’ name, clothing, not drinking alcohol etc. etc.) it does beg the basic question why not call it ‘anti-Muslim hatred,’ given that doing so would better identify the object of hatred, which is the person who gets abused or unfairly obstructed in some way.
Thirdly, it just so happens that ‘Islamophobia’ in the meaning of ‘fear of Islam’ is conveniently wedded to the cognitive dissonance that pervades the contemporary Muslim experience of many whereby they simultaneously hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. Making it out that the wider challenges Muslims face in modernity is the result of a ‘phobia of Islam.’ It then becomes much easier to pacify actual activities and insular conventions of Muslims in their own day-to-day lives. Few then see the need for outreach and bridging activities, or re-evaluating the extent to which we can do more to engage and convey for the cultural imperative to root into British society out of what God teaches.
In comparison to the Judaic tradition, (which is arguably the closest to the Muslim situation), it is a little odd that the accepted and widely used term isn’t ‘Jewdaismphobia’ or even ‘Jewishphobia’ but ‘anti-Semitic hatred’ or ‘anti-Jewish hatred.’ These terms are much more truer to the phenomenon; the object is Semitic people, in other words people of the Jewish faith. In this sense, the Runnymede Trust’s recommendation to call it ‘anti-Muslim racism’ whilst it brings something different to ‘Islamophobia’ in that it recognises how race and religion can cross-over and conveys a sense of ‘otherising,’ it seems to be going down yet another pigeonhole in mixing the boundaries between race, religion and historical understandings of the two, in a way that seeks to bring attention to ‘anti-Muslim’ through the vernacular of ‘racism.’ In doing so, it may be unwittingly diluting the significance of more core issues of racism. After all, it’s possible to hurl hatred at Muslims from white English ethnicities. Race isn’t always necessarily implied. Being Muslim isn’t a race. And, socio-economic disparities in the UK are not simply a function of race or about being Muslim or not, but transfuse multitude of factors (as socio-economic problems naturally do) across religions, levels of cyber literacy, structural imbalances in the economy, levels of educational attainment, employment levels, immigration histories, implementation of integration policies etc. etc.
Whilst it’s fair to say that we’ve all tended to use ‘Islamophobia’ as the primary term – they are of course socially constructed and used in context, as I have argued here, if we’re going to change the label, then the compelling rationale would be to completely and exclusively switch to using the term ‘anti-Muslim hatred,’ not ‘anti-Muslim racism’ unlike what the Runnymede Trust have called for.