Denying Islamophobia is the New Islamophobia


In recent months, election-season rhetoric has triggered a spike in Islamophobia. Presidential candidates and swaths of the general public alike have directed animus at the American Muslim community, which is this year (as in years past) an electoral wedge issue. In addition to amplified rhetoric and threat or acts of violence, a more subtle yet equally pernicious form of prejudice has burgeoned: the denial that Islamophobia even exists. It has manifested itself within the discourse of politicians, political pundits, and bloggers. Its danger is that it dismisses the gravity of continued acts of violence that target Muslims, and in some cases mocks a phenomenon that has had deadly consequences for that group.

Denying Prejudice Isn’t New

The truth is that the denial of prejudice is not new. The denial that Islamophobia exists is simply the latest example within a lineage of similar rejections.

During the height of the civil rights movement, a time when African Americans fought back against institutionalized and other practices and policies that discriminated them, there were voices from within the American populace that rejected the notion that the persistent mistreatment of racial minorities was a problem, and the notion that it was systemic enough to constitute a moral crisis.

The same is true of anti-Semitism. Throughout the 19th Century, as European Jews were subjected to discriminatory policies and widespread prejudice, those responsible for such things not only denied that anti-Semitism existed, but in doing so laid the groundwork for what eventually became the epitome of anti-Jewish prejudice: Holocaust denial.

These ideas percolate through social discourse still today. Pew Research Center reports, for instance, that despite the prevalence of racially motivated crimes and other acts targeting African Americans, half of all white Americans report that they see no racism around them. And instances of Islamophobia denial abound, too.

“Islamophobia Isn’t Real”

Critics of Islamophobia often attack the term itself, suggesting that its prefix and suffix render it etymologically deficient. But beyond a general revulsion over the word, some have mocked the overall existence of a form of prejudice that targets Muslims, calling it “Islamofauxbia” instead, as if to suggest that there is something fake about it. A Google search result of that coinage generates more than 5,000 results. Among them are the anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller and the Internet’s popular alternative to Webster: the Urban Dictionary.

Other tactics used to discredit anti-Muslim prejudice include the use of quotation marks around it, which communicates an air of illegitimacy, or in the case of some authors, sarcastically deriding those who point out unquestionable and indisputable instances of anti-Muslim violence.

Former presidential contenders Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have scoffed at the idea, too. Cruz called into question the characterization made by Attorney General Loretta Lynch that anti-Muslim rhetoric is increasing, while Rubio asked, rhetorically, where the “widespread evidence” is that Muslims are discriminated against.

American blogger Robert Spencer denies the existence of widespread prejudice targeting Muslims, and argues that there is a “false narrative that Muslims are treated unjustly in this country — a false narrative constructed so as to deflect scrutiny from jihad terror plotting and to intimidate people into thinking that resisting jihad terror will harm innocent people.” Still more, famed atheist Sam Harris spells out denial unambiguously: “There is no such thing as Islamophobia,” he writes.

What Does This Mean?

Social psychologists have suggested that those who deny prejudice seek to inoculate themselves from charges of bias, and that by denying that such a form of prejudice — in this case Islamophobia — exists, they feel more empowered to express views that would otherwise be “unsayable.” To accomplish this, Martha Augoustinos and Danielle Every argue that people who harbor prejudice towards a particular group often present their criticisms of that group as reasonable observations of their behavior. This is precisely how a figure like Robert Spencer operates. By pointing to example after example of violence on the part of Muslims, he is able to shield himself from accusations of prejudice, adding that “those who have a low opinion of Islam have it because of jihad violence, despite the Islamic supremacist propaganda industry’s desperate attempts to claim that that low opinion is the result of ‘Islamophobia.’”

Denying that Islamophobia exists also seems to be a defense mechanism of sorts on the part of those who advance the idea. As national and international conversations about Islamophobia have grown in recent years, so too have proclamations that it is imaginary. That relationship signals that there is a mounting consensus among Americans and others about the real threat of anti-Muslim prejudice, and that is concerning to those who would deny it. It also calls attention to the idea that those who deny that Islamophobia exists appear more concerned about fending off accusations of prejudice than acknowledging the widespread reality prejudice and discrimination.

Even in their victimhood, some would deny Muslims an opportunity for their suffering to be recognized, named, and ultimately combatted. Arriving at a place where Islamophobia is alleviated and eventually swept into the trash bin of history therefore involves educating the public about just how prevalent, prominent, and dangerous this pernicious form of prejudice actually is.

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