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What is Islamophobia?

Anti-Muslim bigotry is on the rise. To confront it, the starting point must be a definition of Islamophobia that has legal standing, writes Manal Lotfy in London

Manal Lotfy , Tuesday 25 Feb 2020
What is Islamophobia?
People leave the London Central Mosque in London, after an attacker stabbed a 70 year old prayer leader (photo: Reuters)
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“The United States and India are firmly united in our iron-clad resolve to defend our citizens from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism,” said US President Donald Trump to a huge crowd in the Motera Stadium in New Delhi during his maiden visit to India Sunday. Beside Trump was the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Hindu right-wing nationalist leader.

While Trump was delivering his gushing speech paying tribute to Modi as an “exceptional leader... and a man I am proud to call my true friend”, deadly protests continued to engulf India’s capital, as Hindu and Muslim protesters, alongside armed mobs, wreaked havoc on the streets resulting in seven deaths and tens injured.

The main spark for the protests was the enshrining of a citizenship law that granted expedited naturalisation in India for migrants of every significant South Asian religion except Islam. Many Indians lack the documents needed to prove citizenship, and Muslims are in the firing line and are terrified of being deported.

The loose language Mr Trump used to talk about the “threat of radical Islamic terrorism” comes only few days after a suspected far-right extremist killed nine people in attacks on two shisha bars in Hanau, a city in western Germany.

Federal prosecutors in Germany are treating the case as terrorism as authorities examine a video that appears to be from the suspect, posted online days before the attacks, in which he expresses right-wing conspiracy theories, and xenophobic and Islamophobic views.

The attack comes amid growing concerns about far-right violence in Germany.

A day later, a man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after a stabbing inside London Central Mosque, near Regent’s Park.

There is not a single country in Europe where Islamophobic attacks are not on the rise. From France to the UK, and from Germany to Italy there is an average increase of 30 per cent in religiously motivated attacks against Muslims.

Europe has an Islamophobia problem and there are many reasons behind it. Some would say it is the constant negative coverage on news coming from Muslim countries. Some would say it is the immigration crisis of 2015 and its effect on Europe. Others would say the phenomena is perpetuated by a poorly regulated media and sustained by agenda-driven think tanks and self-professed experts who brazenly deny the existence of anti-Muslim bigotry.

All valid explanations, but in the light of the recent attacks some argued that for Europe to really fight  back against Islamophobia it is not good enough to just call the phenomena “Islamophobia”. Why not racism? Why not discrimination?

There is no legally binding European or international definition of Islamophobia. What is Islamophobia and what are some practical examples in daily life?

A watertight definition of Islamophobia, along with other measures, is essential to fight back against the phenomena.

In its very general definition, Islamophobia is the fear and hatred of, or prejudice against, the Islamic religion or Muslims generally, especially when seen as a geopolitical force or the source of terrorism.

According to The Oxford Dictionary, the word means “Intense dislike or fear of Islam, especially as a political force; hostility or prejudice towards Muslims.” It appeared in English as early as 1923, quote the French word islamophobie found in a thesis published by Alain Quellien in 1910 to describe it “a prejudice against Islam that is widespread among the peoples of Western and Christian civilisation”. The expression did not immediately take root in the vocabulary of the English-speaking world, however, which preferred the expression “feelings inimical to Islam”, until its re-appearance in an article by Georges Chahati Anawati in 1976. 

The term did not exist in the Muslim world and was later translated in the 1990s as ruhab al-Islam — literally “phobia of Islam”.

The meaning of the term continues to be debated.

There are a number of other possible terms which are also used in order to refer to negative feelings and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims, such as anti-Muslimism, intolerance against Muslims, anti-Muslim prejudice, anti-Muslim bigotry, hatred of Muslims, anti-Islamism, Muslimophobia, demonisation of Islam or demonisation of Muslims. In German, Islamophobie (fear) and Islamfeindlichkeit (hostility) are used. The Scandinavian term Muslimhat literally means “hatred of Muslims”.

What is lacking in all these loose expressions are specific and contemporary examples of Islamophobia in public life, the media and workplace.

The same problem used to face several international organisations working on fighting anti-semitism in Europe. Their answer was to agree on a definition of anti-semitism, including examples in daily life.

On 26 May 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) agreed a definition. IHRA experts determined that in order to begin to address the problem of anti-semitism, there must be clarity about what anti-semitism is. 

According to the non-legally binding working definition of anti-semitism: “Anti-semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The IHRA definition listed contemporary examples of anti-semitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace and in the religious sphere, including but not limited to:

— Calling for, aiding or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.

— Making mendacious, dehumanising, demonising or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as a collective; such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.

— Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.

— Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (eg gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).

— Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.

— Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

— Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.

— Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

— Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-semitism (eg, claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterise Israel or Israelis.

— Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

— Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.

This anti-semitism definition with its examples is very controversial, widely debated and many view it as problematic. It is very difficult to agree a definition to complex political, social, cultural and religious phenomena such as anti-semitism and Islamophobia. Nonetheless, the flaws in the definition of anti-semitism should not prevent us from trying to establish an agreed international definition of Islamophobia, as the lack of any specific and working definition makes any fight against the phenomena only lip service.

When Islamophobia is identified in racism, hatred and discrimination terms it is much easier to legally confront it.

A rare attempt to put forward a working definition of Islamophobia comes from the University of California Berkley’s Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project. It has suggested this working definition: “Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalising the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve ‘civilisational rehab’ of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.”

According to this definition, calling Islam a religion of violence or a violent political ideology is Islamophobic, and racism against Muslims, and not merely an opinion or instance of freedom of expression, as many from the far-right say, to justify de-humanising Muslims, hatred of Islam and violent attacks against them.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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