Islamophobia: The Right Word for a Real Problem

The history of American and European interactions with Muslims around the world is long and complex. Over time, geopolitical events abroad — wars, conflicts over natural resources including land and oil, and domestic security threats posed by violent extremists — have defined that relationship and engendered Western narratives that portray Islam as the source of violence and despair.

Writing at the time of the Crusades, Peter the Venerable referred to Islam as a “heathen” religion spread by the sword — one whose prophet, Muhammad, was of the “most foul and false” lineage and whose “utterly laughable and insane fables” rendered him not a messenger of God but rather “the Devil’s chosen disciple.”[1]

More than half a century later, during America’s first military battle as an independent nation with Barbary pirates along North Africa’s coast, imagery depicting Muslim men as violent and sexually perverse captors of oppressed women circulated in literature, theater and other media.[2]

Eliza Bradley's An Authentic Narrative of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Mrs. Eliza Bradley, Wife of Captain James Bradley of Liverpool, Commander of the Ship Sally, which was Wrecked on the Coast of Barbary In June 1818. [American ed.] Boston: Printed for J. Walden, 1823.
Eliza Bradley’s An Authentic Narrative of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Mrs. Eliza Bradley, Wife of Captain James Bradley of Liverpool, Commander of the Ship Sally, which was Wrecked on the Coast of Barbary In June 1818. [American ed.] Boston: Printed for J. Walden, 1823.

Today, as the edges of the so-called “Muslim world” have blurred — thanks to continued economic and military involvement and conflict abroad, terrorism at home, and new waves of Muslim immigration to Europe and the United States — Muslims and Islam occupy even more attention in the minds of Western leaders and ordinary citizens.

But this closer proximity has come with costs.

In recent years, anti-Muslim prejudice in the West has intensified, becoming manifested in physical attacks, mosque vandalism, government profiling, Qur’an burning, and even murder. In the past three decades, this increase in prejudice and discrimination has prompted discussions about what to call this new, troubling phenomenon.


The Need for a Term

Prejudice towards and discrimination against Muslims is a persistent problem that often goes unnoticed and unchallenged in Western societies. That’s why a term to describe it is needed.

An important part of the movements to fight anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia in this country was the development of terminologies to identify these biases. The stigmatization of Jews, African-Americans, and the LGBTQ community existed long before we had words to describe it, but the formulation of these words — anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia — and their usage by prominent figures, was a critical step in communicating to the public the serious prejudice and discrimination these groups faced.

In this essay, we make a case for why the word “Islamophobia” is the best choice to describe prejudice and discrimination directed at Muslims. First, we show how “Islamophobia” already has gained wide currency in public discourse; then, we describe the origins of the word and its earliest definitions; and finally, we review the scholarly uses of the word “Islamophobia” in contemporary academia. We also address linguistic criticisms of the term, and alternative words or phrases suggested by others.


Islamophobia in Public Parlance

Though many in the general public are still unfamiliar with the word “Islamophobia,” it has gained wider currency in recent years.

Scholars Steve Garner and Saher Selod found that, from 1980-2014, “Islamophobia” appeared in the titles of 1,212 books, magazines and newspaper articles, the latter of which comprised the majority of its uses — 1,121. Since 2003, 38 books have been written that feature the term as part of their title.[3] Significant upticks of the term’s use in newspaper headlines can be seen from 2005 (28) to 2006 (90), a 221% increase, and from 2009 (72) to 2010 (208), a jump of 188%. Interestingly, these jumps in usage correspond to notable events relating Muslims in the West: the 2005 release of the film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West; the run-up to the 2006 midterm election, which resulted in the election of the first Muslim Congressman; and the 2010 controversy over the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan.

Since 2010, we find notable instances where journalists, politicians, and other opinion-shapers have used the term.

A 2010 Time magazine cover story, “Is America Islamophobic?” discussed the swell of opposition to mosque construction across the country, epitomized by the controversy over the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan, and the uptick in vandalisms and assaults that targeted Muslims and their houses of worship.[4] A July 2014 article by Newsweek, “Islamophobia in America on the Rise, Poll Shows,” cited a decline in favorable opinions of Muslims but also argued that the online circulation of caricatured images depicting cartoon characters as Hamas militants evidenced underlying prejudice.[5]

The first months of 2015 witnessed major media personalities and political leaders employing the term. In an interview with American Muslim basketball star Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd used the word twice, saying, “Islamphobia is on the rise in America, is it not?”[6] At the 2015 World Economic Forum, held immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “There’s no room for sectarian division, there’s no room for anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.”[7]

In each of these examples, the journalists and politicians don’t explicitly define Islamophobia, but they use the word in a context that implies its intended meaning: prejudice toward and discrimination against Muslims.

Web searches of “Islamophobia” yield dozens of news items that reference prejudice or discrimination. Think thanks, government commissions, and civil and human rights groups have described it within that framework as well.[8]

The public already uses “Islamophobia” like it uses “racism,” “anti-Semitism,” or “homophobia”: to describe prejudice and discrimination against a particular group — in this case, Muslims.

While other terms or phrases have been used to describe this prejudice and discrimination —“anti-Muslim hate” and “anti-Islam bias,” among others — “Islamophobia” is the most widely recognized and employed.


The Origins of the word “Islamophobia”

Though the word “Islamophobia” only entered public lexicon in recent years, its origins date back to the turn of the 20th century, where it was understood as a form of prejudice.

It is not known who coined the term “Islamophobia,” but archival research provides an array of clues about its earliest appearances and definitions. Fernando Bravo Lopez is widely credited within academia as unearthing the initial use of the term in print.[9] In 1910, two French works discussed what the authors called “Islamophobie” in the context of Western colonization of Africa.[10]

In the first example, an article entitled “L’etat Actuel de l’Islam dans l’Afrique Occidentale Francaise,” Africanist Maurice Delafosse describes “Islamophobie” as “a principle of indigenous administration.”[11]  The opposite of “granting preference to Muslims,” Islamophobie was about how Muslims were perceived and treated by the French colonizers.

Its second occurrence comes in the pages of a doctoral dissertation by Allan Quellien, an official in the French foreign ministry, whose description of the word and its roots may well form the first proposed definition. “Prejudice against Islam has always been widespread among the people of Western and Christian civilization and still is,” Quellian writes.[12]

“For some, the Muslim is the natural and irreconcilable enemy of the Christian and the European; Islam is the negation of civilization, and barbarism, bad faith and cruelty are the best one can expect from the Mohammedans … This prejudice against Islam would appear to be slightly exaggerated; the Muslim is not the European’s natural born enemy but he can become [his enemy] as a result of local circumstances and notably when he resists armed conquest.”[13]

Lopez draws out two important features of Quellien’s definition. First, his use of the word “prejudice” seems to indicate that viewed Islamophobia as neither the “fear of Islam” nor the critique of its religious tenets, but rather as a form of hostility towards Muslims on the basis of their religion, which is viewed as “an implacable enemy.”[14]

For Quellien, Islamophobia is about “the indissoluble union between fear and dislike of Islam and fear and dislike of those who are its most obvious incarnation: Muslims.”

Next, Quellien posits that people are not born with prejudices (in this case towards Muslims), but that instances of interaction between the Christian West and Muslims — usually precipitated by Western conquests of Muslim territories — may foster them. Quellien’s definition calls to mind flashpoints across history — events like the Crusades, the Barbary Wars, Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt, the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine in 1948, the Gulf Wars, the War on Terror, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — that have served to entrench Muslims as “enemy” in the minds of Westerners.

The term “Islamophobie” appeared in other works during the 1910s and 1920s. The French painter (and Muslim convert) Étienne Dinet and his Algerian colleague, Sliman Ben Ibrahim, used it regularly over a period of two decades, first in their 1918 biography of the Prophet Muhammad, then in their 1921 text, L’Orient vu de l’Occident. In that work, Dinet and Ibrahim use “Islamophobie” to describe the intentional misrepresentation of Islam “in the hope of bringing Islam down once and for all.”[15]

Étienne Dinet and his Algerian colleague, Sliman Ben Ibrahim,
Étienne Dinet and his Algerian colleague, Sliman Ben Ibrahim,

For them, Lopez says, “erroneous representations of Islam, however far from the truth, do not amount to Islamophobia. Nor do degrading or humiliating representations of Islam and the Prophet constitute Islamophobia per se. Islamophobia is, on the other hand, the motivation underpinning these types of misrepresentation of Islam and its prophet.” It connotes an inherent bias, or prejudice, in an author’s treatment of Islam. Though Dinet and Ibrahim fail to provide a concrete definition in this article or a later work about “Europe’s hostility toward Islam,” Lopez concludes that “They perceived Islamophobia as a hostile attitude towards Islam, a desire to do away with it and consideration of Islam as an enemy to be fought.”

These earliest usages suggest that Islamophobia was coined not to simply connote “fear of Islam” but to point to something deeper in Western societies: prejudicial attitudes towards Muslims (and in some cases discriminatory treatment of Muslims) on the basis of a singularly negative appraisal of their religion.

Using the word “Islamophobia” to label prejudice and discrimination of Muslims is not a new practice, but is consistent with the earliest uses of the term.

Other writers deployed the word “Islamophobia” to describe prejudice towards Muslims throughout the 20th century, though in primarily French or other European languages. It was not until the later years of that century, though, that the term gained ascendancy in English language sources. Edward Said’s use of the word in 1985 is considered to be among the first instances of its use, albeit in an academic journal, Race and Class, where it was shielded from popular consumption.[16]

A decade later, in 1995, the Boston Globe became the first American newspaper to use the word in the headline of an article, “‘Islamophobia’ in Europe Fuels Tensions, Isolation.” The article misidentified Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal as having coined the term “Islamophobia” to describe European attitudes towards Muslims on that continent.[17]

The term’s watershed moment came in 1996 with the creation of the “Runnymede Trust Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia” and in the following year with the publication of its influential white paper, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All. It marked the first time that a government had ordered a study of the issues facing Muslim communities within its borders, and chose to use Islamophobia to describe the growing social reality of prejudice and discrimination against European Muslims.[18]


“Islamophobia” in Academia

Depending on their field of study, academics define “Islamophobia” differently, but most of them use it to describe prejudice and discrimination. Though some scholars still object to the term, more and more have adopted it in recent years.

Edward Said’s use of the term “Islamophobia” in 1985 inaugurated its subsequent prevalence within contemporary academia. Garner and Selod indexed the term’s use in scholarly articles from 1980-2012 and discovered that between 1980 and 1989, it appeared in the title of just one work, and was included in the text of 50 pieces. Between 1990 and 1999, 24 works included the term in their titles while it appeared within the text of 287.[19] Usage of “Islamophobia” in articles increased rapidly in the mid-2000s, appearing in over 6,000 in articles from 2010 to 2012 alone. Overall, between 1980 and 2012, the word “Islamophobia” appeared in the titles of 556 articles and within the text of 12,227 works.[20]

Many contemporary scholars have employed the term Islamophobia when discussing instances of prejudice and discrimination targeting Muslims. We examined 15 scholarly definitions of Islamophobia and found that 12 reference either 1) prejudice (in this case, reducing Muslims to a singular and oppositional identity group by fixating on generalized, negative traits believed inherent to their religion) or 2) discrimination (treating a person unfavorably— in speech or action — on account of his/her identity).

Many public opinion-shapers have accepted Islamophobia to describe prejudice toward and discrimination against Muslims, as have many in academia.


Addressing Objections

Some scholars and members of the public prefer alternative words to describe the prejudice and discrimination facing Muslims (Some of these alternatives were mentioned above). They argue that because of its linguistic shortcomings, the word “Islamophobia” should not be used. Prejudice and discrimination, they say, is more than “fear of Islam”—the sum of the word’s etymological components.

However, this objection ignores two important realities. The first is that “Islamophobia” has already gained wide traction in public discourse, and is the most concise and recognizable term currently used to describe prejudice and discrimination.

The second is that words like “anti-Semitism,” “racism,” and “homophobia” — all of which have linguistic or conceptual problems — are widely accepted descriptors of the prejudice facing Jews, African-Americans, and the LGBTQ community, respectively. Both academics and the general public have left behind qualms about these terms’ linguistic shortcomings, and use them freely to identify prejudice and discrimination against these groups.

The term “anti-Semitism,” for example, literally means “an oppositional attitude towards Semites” — those who speak Semitic languages like Arabic, Hebrew, and other ancient tongues of the Middle East. Yet in common parlance, the word has come to mean something more specific: anti-Jewish bias.

Additionally, it’s important to note that though Islamophobia isn’t simply about “fear of Islam,” this fear of Muslims’ religion plays an important role in engendering prejudice and fueling discrimination. As the earliest uses of the term “Islamophobia” suggest, views about Muslims’ religion inform the public’s attitudes and actions toward Muslims.


Conclusion

Prejudice and discrimination against Muslims in the West is not a new phenomenon. But today, efforts to address Islamophobia are needed more than ever before. The Peter the Venerables of the past have become the Pegida movements of today. In many Western countries, attacks against Muslims, their businesses, homes and houses of worship are at all-time highs, but because of a lack in media coverage, many citizens are unaware of this uptick. In the United States, most Americans heard about the shooting deaths of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, but the five shootings of Muslims that followed received little to no national media attention.

It’s time for the public to embrace the name that’s been given to prejudice and discrimination facing Muslims.

This was also the case for the words that came to describe prejudice and discrimination facing Jews, African-Americans, and the LGBTQ community.

Though these words were coined long after prejudices became entrenched in society, their formulation and usage by prominent figures were crucial in informing the public about the prejudice and discrimination that these groups faced.

Prejudice towards Jews, for example, has always been a problem in Western societies, but only in the 19th century did the word “anti-Semitism” come into common parlance. Benjamin Harrison was the first American president to use the term following the expulsion of Jews from Moscow in 1891.[21] Fifty-two years later, compelled by the social reality of anti-Jewish prejudice festering in Nazi Germany and elsewhere, Franklin Delano Roosevelt denounced Argentina’s suspension of Jewish newspapers as “anti-Semitic.”[22] Today, anti-Semitism is a widely accepted term, and though anti-Semitic attacks and prejudice still persist, anti-Jewish sentiment is often met with scorn and disapproval.

Similarly, views described today as “racist” existed well before the emergence of the word “racism” in the early 1900s and certainly before Harry Truman became the first American president to use it in 1952. As the Civil Rights Movement increased public awareness of injustices facing black Americans, the word became increasingly accepted in public discourse. The same is true for the term “homophobia.”

Though prejudice against the LBGTQ community has been an ever-present reality, it was not until the AIDS awareness movement in the 1990s, and a revived national conversation about homosexuality, that the term “homophobia” gained widespread currency. In 1995, Bill Clinton became the first American president to use the term. While racism and homophobia are never issues that will go away, the public is now more conscious of the unjust realities facing the black and LGTBQ communities, and the coining of terms was crucial in awakening the American consciousness.

We’re not there yet with the word “Islamophobia.” Though it has gained wider usage in recent years, no sitting American president has used the term. President Obama seems to intentionally avoid it.

If we, in pluralistic societies, want to break down prejudice and end discrimination against Muslims, the first — and perhaps most important — step is agreeing on its name. “Islamophobia” is the right choice.


[1] See Robert Allison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[2] Peter the Venerable, “Summaries of All the Heresies of the Saracens,” in Paris, Arsenal Manuscript 1162, fol. 111; also see Reinhold Glei’s Petrus Venerabilis Schriften Zum Islam, Corpus Islamico-Christianum, series Latina I: 2-22.

[3] This survey was conducted on July 23, 2014 using Georgetown University’s OneSearch database, which compiles records of publications from hundreds of other databases. When duplicate titles were found, they were omitted from the results. If one article was published in multiple outlets, we included it as this indicates subsequent publications.

[4] Bobby Ghosh, “Is America Islamophobic,” August 30, 2010, Time.

[5] Taylor Wofford, “Islamophobia in America on the Rise, Poll Shows,” July 31, 2014, Newsweek.

[6] Chuck Todd, “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Full MTP Interview,” January 25, 2015, Meet the Press, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/middle-east-unrest/kareem-abdul-jabbar-meet-press-islam-religion-peace-n293201.

[7] Warren Strobel, “Kerry calls for more resources in anti-extremist fight, warns of Islamophobia,” January 23, 2015, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/23/us-security-kerry-davos-idUSKBN0KW27P20150123.

[8] See the Center for American Progress, The Runnymede Commission, and the European Muslim Initiative for Social Cohesion, among others.

[9] Fernando Bravo Lopez, “Towards a Definition of Islamophobia: Approximations of the Earliest Twentieth Century,” Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34, No. 4 (2011): 556-573.

[10] The translation over time of the French “Islamophobie into the English “Islamophobia” follows a pattern set earlier by “Judeophobie” (later Anti-Semitism) and “xenophobie,” which emerged in the late 1880s and early 1990s, respectively.

[11] Abdoolkarim Vakil, “Is the Islam in Islamophobia the same as the Islam in Anti-Islam; Or When is it Islamophobia Time?” in S. Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil, eds., Thinking Through Islamophobia, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 38.

[12] As cited in Lopez, 563.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Étienne Dinet and Sliman Ben Ibrahim, L’Orient vu de l’Occident: Essai Critique, (Paris: H. Piazza, 1925), 176-183.

[16] Edward Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” Race and Class 27, No.2 (1985): 1-15.

[17] Elizabeth Nueffer, “‘Islamophobia in Europe Fuels Tensions, Isolation,” Boston Globe, June 20, 1995.

[18] Runnymede Trust, Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All, Report of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, London, 1997.

[19] Steve Garner and Saher Selod, “The Racialization of Muslims: Empirical Studies of Islamophobia,” Critical Sociology 40, No. 4 (2014): 2.

[20] Ibid.

[21] According to The University of California at Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project database.

[22] Ibid.

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