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Defining Islamophobia

By Alice Aslan - posted Thursday, 8 January 2009

In his opinion piece “What’s wrong with Islamophobia” in On Line Opinion recently, Professor Nick Haslam, an academic psychologist, suggests that the term “Islamophobia” along with homophobia and xenophobia are misleading and inappropriate terms. Based on psychological research, he argues that prejudices are “not individual pathologies”, and not born out of emotions such as fear and anxiety, but are “collectively shared and organised phenomena”. Therefore describing such social phenomena as “phobia” equates it with mental disorder.

First of all, English dictionaries describes “phobia” not only as fear and anxiety, but also as aversion and dislike. Also Islamophobia is not meant to be a psychological term that examines individuals’ emotions and attitudes towards Muslims and Islam. Although it might sometimes draw on psychology, it is mainly an anthropological/sociological term that points to contemporary racism against Muslims. If we remember that all racism is born out of specific social, political, economic and historical circumstances, Islamopobia embodies all these complex issues.

After World War II, it became unacceptable worldwide to discriminate against migrants and minorities based on their race. And since the 70s a new form of racism emerged in Western societies that legitimises discrimination against migrants based on their cultural differences. (Stolcke, Verena (1995) “Talking Culture: New Boundaries, New Rhetorics of Exclusion in Europe”, Current Anthropology, February 1995, Volume: 36, No:1.)


From an anthropological/sociological perspective, Islamophobia is a new form of cultural racism that refers to the marginalisation and exclusion of Muslims based on their cultural and religious differences. (Birt, Yahya (2006) Notes On Islamophobia.) The term “Islamophobia” was coined in English around 1991 when a religious-political revival began to emerge in the Muslim world with the end of the Cold War, and when around the same period Muslim minorities became more politically active and more visible in Western Europe.

Social anthropologist Pnina Werbner suggests that Islamophobia contains “a very post-modern kind of fear”. (Werbner, Pnina (2005) “Incitement to religious hatred-legislating for a new fear?, Anthropology Today, Volume 21, No:1, February.) This is the fear of the spread of political Islam, which is generally known as “Islamism”, in Europe and in other Western countries, and the fear of the triumph of Islamism over democratic, liberal and secular values.

It is feared that Islamism might eventually destroy the progressive outcomes of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and erase all the rights and values that the permissive societies in the post-modern Western world enjoys today such as anti-essentialism; cultural relativism; tolerance of difference; freedom of speech; secularism; separation of state and religion; sexual permissiveness; human rights; women’s rights; homosexual rights; minority rights.

In the end, Islamic theocracy and religious law sharia might replace the liberal and secular democracy making the free individuals of Western societies suffer under the iron fist of mullahs, Muslim religious leaders.

Werbner underlines that racism is an incapacity to cope with resemblance as well as difference. In a similar vein, Islamophobia does not only arises from the differences of Islam; but in Western societies, the political Islam conjures up the domination of the Church over the soul and its stranglehold over the body for centuries in European history.

Islamism evokes the ghost of puritanical Christianity and its constant attacks on the permissive society; the Crusaders; European sectarian wars; the Inquisition; moral crusades. Thus the opposition to Islam and Muslim minorities in Europe and in other Western countries is in fact resistance to the return of puritanical Christianity and the Church - metaphorically the Grand Inquisitor- which the Europeans struggled against for a long time and made tremendous sacrifices to overthrow, in the form of political Islam.


Islamophobia is a unique form of racism since Muslims, who are perceived as a Trojan horse that might help Islamism conquer the Western societies from within, are feared across classes and nations unlike in other main types of racisms in the West such as the racism against Blacks and Jews.

Although Blacks and Jews are perceived as a threat mainly among the uneducated working class and lower middle class, the fear of Muslims is not confined to only these parochial classes. It also overtakes the intellectuals and elites in Western societies. These intellectuals and elites displace their fear of Islam on all Muslim minorities with the discourse they generate against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, despite the fact that most Muslim migrants appreciate and enjoy the rights and freedoms in the West and do not share the fundamentalist Islamic views.

Such an anti-Islam discourse constructs an image of the Muslim folk Devil as the Muslim religious fanatic and the Muslim violent terrorist - which Pnina Werbner calls “the Islamic Grand Inquisitor”- who is aggressive, upfront and morally superior unlike the so-called subservient Blacks and assimilated Jews. And Islamophobia unites intellectual elites, consumerist masses and the real violent racists against this very different post-modern Muslim folk devil.

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About the Author

Alice Aslan is an artist, thinker and activist passionate about arts, culture, ideas, justice and wildlife.

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