The term Islamophobia (literally “fear of Islam”) refers to bigotry, discrimination, prejudice, and violence affecting Islamic institutions, communities of Muslims (people who follow Islam), and various other religious, ethnic, and racially defined groups. This term became popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, during an apparent increase in concern about Islamophobia in many nations across the world. By the late twentieth century, Islamophobia had been discussed as a significant factor Page 360 | Top of Articlein political and social trends in some North American and European countries, as policy proposals and statements by political leaders referred to the purported threats coming from Islamic societies and Muslim groups. Some experts argue that, in addition to Islam and Muslims, Islamophobia affects an even wider range of ethnic, national, and religious communities because it is often an expression of racism. However, other experts believe that Islamophobia should not be seen as a major concern, arguing that the term is overused in an effort to silence legitimate criticism of Islam, Muslim cultures, and related political movements.
Many of the root causes of the phenomenon that today is often called Islamophobia began centuries ago in some of the early contacts between peoples living in southwestern Asia (or the “Middle East”) and Europe. Even before Islam was founded, there were many connections between peoples living in these regions, involving both peaceful interactions and war. After Islam was founded in the seventh century CE, the religion quickly gained many new believers. By the eighth century, some existing powerful empires in the region, including the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, had significant contacts with Muslim peoples. Many of these contacts were peaceful, but there were also various wars, some of which are remembered today as the Crusades. It is from these early contacts, hundreds of years ago, that ideas started and continue to exist in a different form today, in the argument that Islam and Muslims pose major threats to European societies.
That concept of a threat from Islam and Muslim-majority societies played an important role in the European colonization of Africa and Asia in the seventeenth century and beyond. By the 1600s, Europeans began to lay claim to parts of Africa and Asia, where many Muslim communities had lived for one thousand years. The idea that Europeans could and should take over those distant lands required an understanding of the world as “us” versus “them,” with Muslims often seen by Europeans as dangerous and inferior. By the twentieth century, many former colonies became independent countries, forming Muslim-majority nation-states in northern Africa and southwestern Asia, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the old, well-established bigotry that Muslim peoples were somehow all the same, inferior, and threatening remained influential in European culture and politics well into the 1900s and 2000s. Still, because of the many cultural and economic exchanges that existed between these countries, diverse Muslim communities began to grow in Europe, including vibrant and sizable groups in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.
A similar history played out in North America, where immigration policies in the United States and Canada became more accepting of Asian and African migrants after World War II. This led to a growing number of immigrants from formerly colonized places, including many more Muslims than had chosen to migrate to North America ever before (the first Muslim migrants to North America were Page 361 | Top of Articleenslaved people brought across the Atlantic Ocean in the sixteenth century). Meanwhile, ideas about “us” versus “them,” already widespread in North American culture, led to the mainstream establishment of Islamophobic bigotry and stereotypes by the twentieth century. Then, around the turn of the twenty-first century, the United States led several major military campaigns into southwest Asia, actions that were perceived by some to reinforce the centuries-old idea that peoples in that region are dangerous. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, some experts argued that Islam and Muslim-majority countries now presented the greatest threat to North America and Europe. These ideas became more influential after several violent terrorist attacks, many of which were led by militant organizations claiming to represent Muslim causes. Although terrorist attacks are perpetrated by all sorts of groups, a lot of attention was given to these “Islamist” terrorist attacks, again contributing to the false idea that Muslims are somehow predisposed to violence.
In the first decades of the 2000s, Islamophobia was called a major concern by many world leaders, as the numbers of reported hate crimes in Europe and North America went up. Simultaneously, social and political trends in Europe and North America included many anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim elements. Some scholars noticed that Islamophobia affected non-Muslims as well; for example when Sikhs (followers of Sikhism, a religion originating in South Asia) faced violent attacks and many anti-Muslim slurs. This happened because, in some places, socially constructed racial categories lumped Muslims together with many other ethnic and religious communities.
The concept of Islamophobia has been criticized by many experts, who worry that it is counterproductive or even harmful. One line of criticism is that the concept of Islamophobia is imprecise. For example, some experts dislike that the term includes the suffix -phobia, which means “irrational fear.” These experts say that Islamophobia is not necessarily caused by fear but rather is brought on by racism, culture, and politics. Yet another concern is that legitimate discussion and debate about Islam might be censored if it is wrongly labeled as Islamophobia. Even some Muslim scholars and activists argue that Islam, Muslim cultures, and the politics in Muslim communities must not be immune from criticism. Despite these concerns over the concept itself, Islamophobia has been frequently discussed in scholarship, in the news media, and in popular culture in recent years.
See also: Islam : Boston Marathon Bombing (2013) ; Charlie Hebdo Attack (2015) ; “The Clash of Civilizations?” (Huntington, 1993) ; 9/11 and al-Qaeda
Love, Erik. 2017. Islamophobia and Racism in America. New York: New York University Press.
Runneymede Trust. 1997. Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All. London: Runneymede Trust.
Runneymede Trust. 2017. Islamophobia: Still a Challenge for Us All. London: Runneymede Trust.
Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.
Shryock, Andrew, ed. 2010. Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX8061600133