Fear, Muslims and Islam: reconsidering Islamophobia

Is it politically incorrect to say that one ‘fears’ Muslims? Does it deserve public condemnation? In other words, should have Juan Williams been sacked for his remark about fearing Muslims dressing in ‘Islamic garb’ on planes? Are these instances of Islamophobia?

Let me start with an anecdote which took place in London in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks. I was waiting for the next tube train with my friend Hakim, a Pakistani born and raised in London who wore clothes considered to be Islamic attire and sported a very long beard. When the train arrived, we were lucky enough to find a seat. At the next stop, another young Pakistani, attired in western clothes and shaved to perfection, entered the train and after freeing himself from a bulky and heavy black backpack, which he positioned in front of him, sat a couple of seats from Hakim. We had a long way to go yet.

When the train started to move I could see Hakim becoming nervous and start to fiddle with his beard. Before the subsequent stop he took my arm and told me in my ear: “we alight now”. From his voice I knew that I did not have any choice, so I followed him. When we alighted on the platform, he continued, ‘Have you seen him? Did you see his massive backpack? He looked nervous; he was putting his hands in and messing about in there, I saw… he was nervous”, and then in a tone of voice that suggested he was stating the obvious, “…and he was dressed so western and so shaved… Do you think that we have to tell the police? You know…’

Hakim, my very ‘Islamically dressed’ Muslim friend, feared for our lives. He feared the behavior of another (presumably) Muslim and had just profiled a fellow Pakistani as a potential terrorist. And he was not completely wrong, since the 7/7 bombers resembled more the western-dressed Pakistani passenger than my friend Hakim.

Was Hakim Islamophobic? Was Hakim’s fears of Pakistanis/Muslims an example of self-hatred? Of course, nobody would reach those conclusions. Hakim’s brain had simply done the right job: enhance survival chances by not taking unnecessary risks. Since Hakim had in his memory the description of the suicide bombers provided by newspapers and since we were on the Tube, the location of previous attacks, one element stuck out in Hakim’s consciousness: Pakistani guys in Islamic attire have not yet committed a suicide attack in London but Pakistani guys in western attire indeed have.

The bulky backpack and the nervous behavior of the subject did the rest: Hakim’s brain gave in to fear and we were now waiting for the next train. So, should we condemn fear? I suppose that in this case few would disagree that Hakim’s actions, although perhaps too apprehensive, were nothing sinister.

Hence, I think that today it is very important to have a clear idea of what Islamophobia might be because it is undeniable that Muslims in western countries (but increasingly in Asia too) face increasing discrimination and are frequently demonized for acts that are committed by a few. However, my relationship with the term Isamophobia has never been an easy one since today there is much confusion and even natural fear can be easily identified as Islamophobia, as not dissimilarly criticism of Israel may be presented as anti-semitism.

On the Runnymede Trust web site (www.runnymedetrust.org), in accordance with their 1997 publication Islamophobia — A Challenge for Us All, we read that Islamophobia is ‘unfounded hostility towards Islam, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’, but it is important to observe that the term was ‘coined to refer …to anti-Asian racism in general and anti-Muslim racism in particular’.

In other words, Islamophobia is seen as a special, sophisticated, form of racism. Yet some scholars, though rejecting the idea that Islamophobia could represent a direct attack against Islam as faith, define Islamophobia as fear of Muslims; for instance Halliday’s observes, ‘The attack now is against not Islam as a faith but Muslims as a people, the latter grouping together all, especially immigrants, who might be covered by the term’ (1999: 898)

Goldberg (2006) has strengthened this point by suggesting the existence of different forms of racism. He suggested that ‘the relational frame for thinking through race in the European context has usually been ordered in dualistic terms’ but today ‘there is a third major artery’, the Muslims, which as a group Bleich has argued (2006: 17), have ‘all the earmarks of classic racialization’ since they are classified often as ‘inherently dangerous and inferior’(2006:17).

Should we read Islamophobia, as the term suggests, as a ‘thing’, the label of a phenomenon? Or should we, as I tend to assume, differentiate and understand the negative attitudes towards Muslims by acknowledging dynamics and contexts. If this is the case, that which has been called Islamophobia can be understood as racism, xenophobia, fear of differences, political opportunism, and many other aspects.

However,  one of the most pernicious phenomena that affects Muslims today is extremely similar to that which affected, for instance, Jews: chimeria. Klug has argued that Anti-Semitism means hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’. In other words, the inverted commas tell us that the anti-Semites’ Jews exist only in the anti-Semites’ minds and not on our streets. Langmuir has coined the neologism chimeria to define this characteristic of anti-Semitism. The main characteristic of chimeria is that ‘Chimerical assertions have no “kernel of truth” while xenophobic ones have’ (Langmuir 1990b: 334). In other words, xenophobic stereotypes manipulate real-life elements.

We can see how Klug’s observation can be relevant to many of the perceptions of Muslims (which are not solely xenophobic, racist or so on) in which the hostility is directed towards Muslims as ‘Muslims’: a representation of Muslims, as a monolithic entity, which has no “kernel of truth”. A good list of chimeria affecting Muslims can be found in the recent failed attempt by Rutherford County residents to stop the construction of a mosque and put Islam on trial – action fully supported by Frank Gaffney.

Chimeria are surely a more serious threat to the lives of Muslims than xenophobia, racism, and stereotypes. The reason for which they pose such a high degree of danger to Muslims does not need much explanation, since all of us know the suffering that many Jews had to historically endure because of similar chimeria.

In conclusion, I suggest that it is important to deconstruct the label ‘Islamophobia’, which is too general and encompassing. We also need to avoid the criminalization of genuine fear, where it exists, and address it through understanding and logic. To do so we need to acknowledge the various dynamics of discrimination affecting Muslims with an even greater effort to recognize and oppose the most wicked of all, chimeria.

6 thoughts on “Fear, Muslims and Islam: reconsidering Islamophobia

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  1. Is it an overstatement to say that primary language for expressing xenophobia in the contemporary UK (and beyond) is anti-Islamic which, as you suggest, overlaps with or belies other fears and racisms? The English Defense League – 60,000 followers on Facebook – claim to be only against extreme/violent/political Islam although, buried in their chatrooms, these carefully chosen words are forgotten and replaced with ‘Pakis’, ‘Muzzos’, etc.

    What a trap they’ve laid! Of course I’m not an advocate of ecumenical ‘violent Islam’ – anymore than I am for globe-straddling ‘violent Protestantism’, say. Am I in the EDL, but don’t have the courage to say? This compounds the jarring fact; Islam, like Buddhism, is not a race. It is not, therefore, a racism to say that one is ‘anti-Islam’. We cannot, therefore, use the weapon-word ‘racism’, at least not in its usual sense.

    ‘The anti-Semites’ Jews exist only in the anti-Semites’ minds and not on our streets’ ; this is close to Zizek’s use of Lacan to describe anti-Semitism. The imagined Other (objet petit a) exists in the mind of the beholder, can take any form – ‘the wandering Jew’ as enemy in Nazi Germany, the fears of state-based Judaism in contemporary Iran – and is affective; a latency that manifests in violence.

    For me, the task is to differentiate, as the EDL claim to, but cannot (they are today’s anti-Semites, who’ve learned not to sneer at Indian Sikhs, for example, just like the French colonialists preferred Arab Muslims to Animist Black Africans). To see that Islam can be used for reasons that are anathema to another believer, in the same way that the memory of Churchill can be used to justify pograms, or to stop them.

  2. by the modern ideological frame work ,muslims are in alienation.today ,in any context ,muslim are defined as not acceptable and not transparent.the main way of alienation by the media discourse is to exhibit muslim symbols as ‘other’off society…..

  3. Ps How do you stop them joking about you being their third wife :p
    The only scary Muslim I ever met was a whiteboy convert who screamed at me to cover my arms in the name of Islam . Fear the converts!!
    Daily mail readers are knobheads

  4. But then I sat next to a (practising) muslim at school and I eat with “Muslims” ( non practising ) so perhaps I’m less stereotypical. Problem is first defining Muslim … Never pray and drink alcohol? Dont really believe it? Still Muslim?

  5. Thanks , really intelligent article. I dislike all religious fundamentalism but even I know some findies are nice really. Just a bit mad. Problem is if you criticise any aspect of Islam people apply the islamophobic label to shut you up. We won’t get far by silencing genuine researched criticism.

  6. My own view on Islamophobia is that it is nothing to do with fear. It’s simply racism tranformed. The Islamophobia I witness looks and smells just like old-style 1970s racism, the kind that compelled me to march on the Rock Against Racism demos. The language has changed, and sometimes its more middle class and polite, but it’s the same “them” and “us” message. And I’m definitely one of the “them”.

    As Poole (2002) pointed out, the overwhelming majority of Brits learn about Muslims from the media. The tabloids in particular are constantly regurgitating the old “them” and “us” message, with the Muslims always “them”. Tabloid Watch and a host of other blogs have been chronicling this constant drip drip racism for years.

    To use an anecdote of my own – my spouse is a Nursing Home Manager. Most of the Care Staff she manages who read a paper read tabloids, and she’s heard plenty of instances of white care staff regurgitating the us/them message to their colleagues. It gets around, it creates suspicion. And so the divide slowly but surely seeps deeper into society. The EDL are a direct product of that effluent.

    Islamophobia isn’t something I need to define. It’s something I see happening. And it’s not going away.

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