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Islamophobia

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

The term 'Islamophobia' has only very recently been coined, as recent as the mid-1990s. It is one of a whole range of expressions that has grown out of the 'politically correct' ethos of the 1990s. The spirit of multiculturalism and pluralism was the climate that enabled the birth and circulation of the term. But unlike other terms born at this time it has not become household currency; Muslim organisations alert to discrimination against Muslims appear to be the only users of the term, and there has been no shortage of occasions to use it.

But it is not merely another in the range of fashionable words made up in the West during this period - such as PC or 'politically correct' itself. The wholly negative attitude towards Islam in the West has a very long history and has a palpable feel more than ever at the moment. Islamophobia is alive and well.

The mass media, popular culture and the leading forces in world politics are all mostly hostile to and in their representations of Islam and Muslims. The evidence for this is ample and can be demonstrated by reference to reportage on Islam in the British press for instance. If you are a Muslim reading this in Britain you will need little demonstration, however. Everyday experience is sufficient. The Runnymede Trust document on British Muslims and Islamophobia (released in 1998)* contains numerous examples from the media and other evidence while also being a comprehensive account of the problem in British society. It is a commendable Report that governments and civic groups in Europe and North America should learn from and produce similar Reports on their situation. But issuing a Report does not change a bad situation. Thus the depiction of Muslims and Islam has seen no change since then.

However, the term 'Islamophobia' does not adequately express the full range and depth of antipathy towards Islam and Muslims in the West today. It is an inadequate term. 'Phobia' is Greek for dread or horror. In the light of the present discussion, the term xenophobia - the original word on which Islamophobia is based - simply means fear of foreigners or dread of strangers. Attitudes and policies towards Muslims in Britain and Europe have a mixture of dread (phobia) and outright racism. Thus attitudes towards Muslims combine fear and active hostility. Islamophobia does not capture this marriage of fear and hostility, of dread and discrimination, of horror and harassment.

A more accurate expression would be 'anti-Islamic racism' for it combines the elements of dislike of a religion and active discrimination against the people belonging to that religion. The discrimination is racist because it is based on the belief that no matter what such a person does s/he will never be an acceptable to or in the West. But if there is still little awareness of and sensitivity to 'Islamophobia' then 'anti-Islamic racism' stands even less of a chance of widespread usage and acceptance in the mainstream media and among politicians. But the struggle is as much over discourse as over actual experience and therefore no effort should be spared to focus on every aspect of what some may call Islamophobia and others anti-Islamic racism.

* Islamophobia: a challenge for us all. Report of the Runnymede Trust Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, 1997.