Islamophobia – The origins of a confusing concept

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Islamophobia – The origins of a confusing concept

The term ‘Islamophobia’ has played a central role in the public debate surrounding immigration, Islam, and multiculturalism. It is often used as an accusation of the same severity as antisemitism or homophobia. What few seem to question, however, is whether the term describes reality accurately. In other words, which problem is being described by this term, and is ‘Islamophobia’ the best description for that problem?

Gilles Kepel: did the Muslim Brotherhood invent the term?
In order to answer these questions, we will have to look at the origins of this rather new phrase, which has a short but interesting history. While the term was first used in 1922, it only became a significant part of our vocabulary in the 1990s.[1] Besides the famous Runnymede Report in 1997, which increased public awareness about the challenge of ‘Islamophobia,’ there was another important source for this new word. According to Dr. Gilles Kepel, an expert on the Middle East and Islam in the West, the term was first popularised by the Muslim Brotherhood (aka Ikhwan): an Islamist organisation that seeks to create a state that is governed by Islamic law (Shari’ah).[2] He claims they publicised the term as an attempt to criminalise any criticism of their religious and political beliefs by implicitly comparing it to antisemitism. According to Kepel, this deceptive “symmetry” with antisemitism allowed them to gain moral advantages from the resulting victimhood status, and even turn them against Israel and Zionism.[3]

What do other scholars say about Kepel’s theory?
Now, we have to consider the possibility that Kepel’s origin story is a speculation that is an expression of the ‘Islamophobia’ that people are so worried about.[4] It is the case however, that to the best of my knowledge, none of the academic reviews of his book criticise or even address his claim that the Brotherhood invented the phrase. On the contrary, many other scholars have made the same observation.[5] Dr. Lorenzo Vidino even argues that the Western wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is still actively using this term to accuse anyone who criticises their organisations, members, or aims.[6] Dr. Martyn Frampton also showed how the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), which according to a 2015 government inquiry was “dominated” by the Muslim Brotherhood, organised a large protest against the Danish cartoons using banners saying “United against Islamophobia and United against Extremism.”[7]

The meeting where the term was invented: a witness
The way we know that the Brotherhood origin story is almost certainly true is that we have a witness to confirm the actual event. Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a former Islamist, claims he was present at the meeting where members of the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT) decided to “emulate the homosexual activists who used the term ‘homophobia’ to silence critics.” That the IIIT and Muslim Brotherhood are allied was later proven by FBI reports. They revealed that several of the IIIT founders and directors were Brotherhood members.[8] Hence the term ‘Islamophobia’ was born.[9]

What does the Muslim Brotherhood want?
One of the two main goals of the Muslim Brotherhood is “The introduction of the Islamic Shari’ah [Islamic law] as the basis controlling the affairs of state and society.”[10] This goal grew out of their discontent with the imposition of Western legal, economic and social systems on the Middle East during colonial times. The Brotherhood now wants to restore the rule of Islam over the state and society as a whole, rather than merely governing the private life of the individual. The Brotherhood argues that calling this project ‘political Islam’ is a misnomer, because Islam has always had a political dimension. The Brotherhood claims that the rulings of such an Islamic state would not apply to non-Muslims, and would guarantee their freedom of belief and opinion.[11]

Does this mean Islamophobia does not exist?
It is definitely fair to say that forms of prejudice, bias, and discrimination against Muslims exist in many countries around the world. Much of this is certainly centralised in Western nations, but not exclusively, because in many (partially) Islamic countries, there is also discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims, and among Muslims themselves. For example, the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party of India and many of its adherents have been discriminating against Muslims since the late 1990s, and continue to do so today.[12] Also, the mutual opposition between Sunni and Shia Muslims has been causing (violent) conflicts for centuries, even though they have known many periods of peace.[13] It therefore remains an interesting question whether Muslims have actually suffered the most from the ‘Islamophobia’ of other Muslims (from different denominations). However, this article mainly questions whether we should call such discrimination ‘Islamophobia’ to begin with.

The conceptual problems with ‘Islamophobia’
Given the fact that the term ‘Islamophobia’ was almost certainly invented by the Muslim Brotherhood as an ideological weapon to silence critics, it begs the question of whether we want to continue using their language. While understanding the origins of the phrase is very instructive, it does not change the conceptual problems with the term itself. The main problem is that it fails to distinguish between prejudice and discrimination against Muslims as people, prejudice against Islam, and informed criticism of Islam or Islamism as a set of ideas and practices. Freedom of speech and thought allows anyone to criticise an ideology, but not to discriminate against people on the basis of their religion. A second problem is that ‘Islamophobia’ is often defined as a form of racism directed toward Muslims.[14] The issue here is that Muslims are not a racial group, and that people of all ethnicities can be Muslims. A third problem, which was recognised by the editor of the Runnymede report on Islamophobia in 1997, is that the suffix ‘phobia’ implies a delusional or irrational fear that is analogous to a mental illness.[15] Attacking the person in this way, rather than their argument, is a classic ‘ad hominem’ (attacking the person) fallacy.[16] A fourth problem is that we rarely use these phobia terms to protect any other religion. We practically never describe atheists who make jokes about Christianity as ‘Christophobics,’ or describe critics of mindfulnessmeditation as ‘Buddhophobics.’ Both terms have almost never been searched on Google in the past 15 years.[17] One potential solution to these conceptual problems, which was put forward by the UK think-tank Policy Exchange, is to describe the problem as “bias against Muslims,” which acknowledges the existence of real bias against people, while distinguishing it from informed criticism of an ideology.[18] May the debate continue.

Timo Pieters

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[1] The Muslim Brotherhood in the West: Evolution and Western Policies. p. 29.
[2] The Principles of The Muslim Brotherhood.
[3] Kepel, Gilles, and Antoine Jardin. Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West. Princeton Studies in
Muslim Politics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017. p. 17.
[4] An example of the more general debate about Kepel’s interpretation of both Islamism and jihadism can be found here (The Grand French Debate – Radicalization of Islam or “Islamization of radicalism”?), where his positions are set against those of Dr. Olivier Roy.
[5] These scholars include Dr. Martyn Frampton, Dr. Tony Costa, Dr. Roger Scruton, Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, and others.
[6] Vidino, Lorenzo. The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West. Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. p. 234-235.
[7] Frampton, Martyn. The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018. p. 401, 435
[8] Examples include: Dr. Jamal Barzinji (IIIT Seminar Honoring the Legacy of Dr. Jamal Barzinji – IIIT; Documents) and Ahmad Totonji, who also founded the Brotherhood-allied MSA (ISNA Convention speakers list; IIIT Turkey Summer School; MSA: A Little Taste of History; EXHIBIT 003-0003; UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. HOLY LAND FOUNDATION FOR RELIEF AND DEVELOPMENT ET AL NORTH AMERICAN ISLAMIC TRUST).
[9] Moderate Muslims Speak Out on Capitol Hill.
[10] The Principles of The Muslim Brotherhood.
[11] The Principles of The Muslim Brotherhood.
[12] Halliday, Fred. “’Islamophobia’ Reconsidered.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 22, no. 5 (2001): 892–902. p. 8. How Hindu supremacists are tearing India apart | World news; India: Hate crimes against Muslims and rising Islamophobia must be condemned; What’s Next for India’s Muslims After Delhi Riots?.
[13] Chronology: A History of the Shiite-Sunni Split.
[14] Yes, Islamophobia is a type of racism. Here’s why | Wes Streeting.
[15] Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism – or what? – concepts and terms revisited.
[16] Ad Hominem | Definition of Ad Hominem by Oxford Dictionary on also meaning of Ad Hominem.
[17] Google Trends: Islamophobia, Christophobia, Buddhophobia.
[18] On Islamophobia. p. 90.