All kinds of different forms of discourse, speech and acts: The problem of understanding and defining Islamophobia

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Islamophobia is a relatively new word for a relatively new concept; it was first used in print in its contemporary guise a mere twenty years ago. In this twenty year period, the term has been changed, manipulated, contested and dismissed in equal measure. Given its relative newness, some argue that Islamophobia – or any other form or manifestation of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam hatred – is little more than a legitimate and rational response to the events of 11 September 2001 (9/11) and other similar events that have punctuated the decade of urgent history that has followed those tragic events. But as the landmark publication of the highly determinative and influential 1997 report from the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia (CBMI) highlighted, Islamophobia was distinctly not a post-9/11 phenomenon. Islamophobia existed as much on the 10 September 2001 as indeed it did on the 12 September 2001. As the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) noted in its report on Islamophobia across fifteen European states following the attacks on New York and Washington, “Much of what occurred post-September 11 drew heavily upon pre-existent manifestations of widespread Islamophobic and xenophobic attitudes”[1]. It went on, 9/11 merely “gave a pre-existent prejudice a much greater credibility and validity”[2].

There can though be little doubt about the significance and impact of 9/11 and the way in which similar incidents since have continued to shape and determine how not just Islam and Muslims have been perceived, but more so the phenomenon of Islamophobia. At whatever level – national, political, institutional, community – the legacy of 9/11 is never far from view. So too is there little doubt about the way in which 9/11 and its legacy has fed the growing spectre of Islamophobia and with it, the rising incidence and proliferation of anti-Muslim hate crimes. Without the past decade – and not because of it, it has to be stressed - it is right to question whether the atrocities committed by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway would ever have taken place. Yet this same decade has been one where the very notion of Islamophobia – at times, even the merest recognition – has been routinely derided and dismissed, rarely if indeed ever being given the credence and seriousness of concern that such a dangerous phenomenon clearly deserves. Perceiving Islamophobia in the way that it has for the past decade has allowed detractors and those who simply do not care to make simplistic assumptions: stop terrorism and the Islamophobia will also stop. Sadly, such simplistic views are far from helpful, not least because rationale underpinning them is flawed.

It would be wrong to suggest that nothing has been done to try and counter Islamophobia. Some countries have implemented different legislative measures and policies, undertaken various political debates and a number of Europe-wide reports have been commissioned amongst others. So too have other initiatives been established, by Muslim groups and organisations, by other faith groups and communities concerned by the rise in religious-driven hatred and hostility, and by those who campaign for greater equality and for the protection of human rights. Others too have been receptive to the threat of Islamophobia. Whichever way one reflects upon the outcomes and events which began with the publication of the CBMI report and duly accelerated by 9/11, it cannot be argued that the language, discourse, and concept of Islamophobia has failed to acquire a contemporary British, European and global relevance: the latter emerging in particular following the debates around the ‘Ground Zero’ mosque and the proposed burning of the Qur’an by the American Christian minister Terry Jones, both in 2010.

There would also appear to be a concurrent process being played out, where despite Islamophobia either discursively or conceptually becoming increasingly referred to and spoken about, there also appears to be a distinct lack of clarity and understanding about Islamophobia: about what it is, what it is not and what can be done about it. Asking these questions has resulted so far in further contestation and confusion: about definition, usage, meaning and ownership. There remains therefore a clear need for further investigation not least about what is ‘Islamophobia’. This chapter builds upon earlier writings to contribute to this debate: to consider the way in which Islamophobia has developed both as a name and as a concept; to consider the main emergent theories and discourses; to consider what is known of Islamophobia and of its contested nature.

In the beginning: a cultural sickness

In terms contemporary usage, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests Islamophobia was first used in 1991 in the American periodical, Insight. In its contemporary guise, Modood also used the term in 1991 despite having written about the issue of an anti-Muslim, anti-Islamic phenomenon a number of times in preceding years albeit without naming it as ‘Islamophobia’[3]. For Modood it was a term which referred to the socio-political British Muslim experience: ‘a cultural sickness’ as he put it[4]. A few years later in 1994, the first British ‘non-Muslim’ acknowledgement of Islamophobia was made in the Runnymede Trust report, A Very Light Sleeper: the Persistence and Dangers of Anti-Semitism[5]. Incorporated under the heading, ‘Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism’, the report somewhat bizarrely preferred to overlook all ‘other forms of racism’ and focus solely on Islamophobia. This report became the catalyst to establishing the CBMI, and the publication of its report in 1997, not only significantly influenced the way in which Islamophobia was understood but also ensured that Islamophobia was afforded public and political recognition. Preceded by a consultation document in March 1997[6], it was the first source to posit a firm definition of Islamophobia: the “shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike all or most Muslims”.[7] The report argued that that the new term was necessitated by a new phenomenon that needed naming.

At the heart of the report was the notion that Islamophobia could be understood through a series of ‘closed’ and ‘open’ views. So important were these views that the report changed its definition of Islamophobia to reflect them: Islamophobia became the recurring characteristic of closed views that presented Islam as monolithic and static; as ‘other’ and separate from the West; as inferior; as enemy; as manipulative; discriminated against; as having its criticisms of the West rejected; and where Islamophobia ultimately becomes natural. Whilst the closed views were useful in helping to identify Islamophobia in certain given situations, as for example in the media, they failed to explain how the phenomenon functioned and might in other equally important situations, in employment, education and the provision of goods being just a few of these. With hindsight, this meant that the CBMI failed to offer a clear explanation and argument for a distinct and different Islamophobia. So instead of focusing on how Muslims were discriminated against, it preferred instead to focus on Pakistanis or Bangladeshis on the basis of ‘race’ or ethnicity.

So whilst the report established an understanding of Islamophobia – and indeed brought the term into the contemporary lexicon – it failed to gain the socio-political credibility that was necessary. Consequently, those with influence considered the argument for a specific anti-Muslim anti-Islamic phenomenon as weak and thus there was no immediate legislative or other policy response. It is worth stressing that this is in the British context alone: beyond Britain, at the time, very little attention was being paid to the issue of Islamophobia. Therefore, the report and its definition of Islamophobia established a simple premise from which those who wanted to detract from or dismiss Islamophobia could easily do so by merely suggesting that if ‘closed views’ signified Islamophobia, then the ‘open views’ must signify Islamophilia.

In the wake of the CBMI report however, Muslim organisations in Britain became more proactive. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) began to voice its concern, as did others such as the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC). Potentially more relevant in mapping the history of Islamophobia however was the establishment of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR) in 2001 and its niche remit of specifically tackling Islamophobia. A first of its kind, FAIR was initially set up to reflect the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) albeit with a greater emphasis on addressing Islamophobia rather than improving relations.[8] Whilst FAIR had some initial success, many of its strategies were significantly disrupted following 9/11 which happened soon after the organisation’s formal launch. Despite this, just days before 9/11, both FAIR and the IHRC joined numerous other groups and non-governmental organisations in Durban at an event that has since become somewhat ‘lost’ in recent history. This ‘lost’ event included the formal recognition accredited to Islamophobia by the United Nations (UN), formally acknowledging it as a global phenomenon - alongside racism and anti-Semitism – because of its rapid proliferation in different parts of the world.[9] Again, this ‘rapid proliferation’ was before the events of 9/11. As the conference proceedings noted, Islamophobia was becoming increasingly normal,[10] a point reaffirmed by the British Member of Parliament, John Denham who denounced the cancer-like spread of ‘normative’ Islamophobia in British society a few weeks later.[11] In accrediting Islamophobia with international recognition, it might be expected that the UN would have afforded such an accreditation with some definition or meaning. Unfortunately, no definition or meaning of Islamophobia was put forward by the UN leaving Islamophobia once more open to interpretation and contestation.

Within a decade of its first use in print, Islamophobia had made the transition from socio-economic and somewhat pragmatic grassroots experience, to a phenomenon attributed with, somewhat independently rather more so than inter-dependably, global, historical and racial dimensions: something that was clearly bolstered following the attacks of 9/11. But throughout all of this – and indeed since – there was little clarity about exactly what Islamophobia might and might not be. Without doubt, the phenomenon is extraordinary and extraordinarily complex as indeed Maussen points out:

‘“Islamophobia” groups together all kinds of different forms of discourse, speech and acts, by suggesting that they all emanate from an identical ideological core, which is a “fear” or a “phobia” of Islam. However, we should distinguish between different kinds of discourse, for instance between academic discussions on the relations between Islam and modernity, public discussions on whether Islam recognises the principle of separation of state and church, public outcries about Islam as “a backward religion” or as a “violent religion”, and the forms of hate speech one can find on internet forums and in newspapers, such the speech of the late Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who systematically called Muslims “goat-fuckers”. It may well be that these different kinds of discourse and speech are related and feed one another, but we cannot simply equate them all and treat them as comparable illustrations of a core ideology named “Islamophobia”’[12]

How then might this phenomenon - all these different forms of discourse, speech and acts - be better defined and understood?

Fit for purpose?

Clayton identifies that in many locations, Islamophobia is referred to – and is preferred to be described – by different names: ‘anti-Islamism’, ‘anti-Muslim racism’ or even ‘racism’ or ‘xenophobia’ more generally[13]. Indeed Halliday had begun to question the appropriateness of Islamophobia as a name for the phenomenon even before the CBMI report had been published. [14] Suggesting ‘anti-Muslimism’ as being more appropriate, Halliday argued that what with the phenomena being almost entirely anti-Muslim, naming it ‘Islamophobia’ was both misleading and inaccurate. Post-CBMI, Halliday re-examined this,concluding that:

“Islam as a religion was the enemy in the past – in the Crusades of the reconquista. It is not the enemy now…the attack now is against not Islam as a faith but against Muslims as people…”; “…the term ‘Islamophobia’ is…misleading. The rhetoric is ‘anti-Muslim’ rather than ‘anti-Islamic’. The rhetoric is against people, not religion”[15]

Whilst it might be true to suggest that ‘anti-Muslim’ incidents and events were more prevalent than those which might be ‘anti-Islamic’, both anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim incidents occur; at times it is extremely difficult to differentiate between them.

Miles and Brown air similar concerns albeit from a different perspective[16]. Whilst Halliday argues that Islamophobia is inappropriate because of the foci, Miles and Brown suggest that ‘Islamophobia’ might only be appropriate where there is a specific and identifiable hatred of the theology of Islam. Miles and Brown add that there is no need for any separation of identifying, defining or conceptualising ‘anti-Muslimism’ as this can be incorporated and framed within existing theories of racism or xenophobia, similar to anti-immigrant phenomena[17]. Likewise for Halliday, Miles and Brown, it is the linguistic meaning that is problematic: neither appropriate in defining nor improving understanding. Both arguments identify a real weakness in the term Islamophobia. What one must ask therefore is whether ‘Islamophobia’ can cover all forms of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam phenomena, including those which specifically target the religious and theological tenets of Islam, or might it be that the phenomena being referred to is merely another form of racism and does not require any new or differential naming?

A further consideration is more pressing: by naming the phenomena a ‘phobia’, anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic phenomena become ‘pathologised’. Diminishing the more active and aggressive elements and activities that underpin it, those who perpetrate Islamophobic acts or ideas, are implicitly – if not immediately – exculpated by way of such phenomena being seen to be some form of ‘disease’ or ‘illness’. Islamophobia therefore becomes something that is entirely naturalised through the implication that as it is pathological: those that perpetrate it can therefore be ‘cured’. Not only does this reinforce the simplistic approaches many have adopted towards Islamophobia, but so too does it veer towards an understanding which is biologically framed. In this context, Islamophobia can become perceived and understood as being something that exists quite naturally and to some extent, beyond the control of its perpetrators. Within these frames, the phenomenon fails to become the fault of the perpetrator but a condition, neither founded nor unfounded, but biological and natural.

Considering the alternatives

As there is a real argument for Islamophobia not being the best term to describe the phenomena, it is necessary to consider alternatives. The first is ‘anti-Muslimism’. Whilst acknowledging that it is perhaps more appropriate because it names the target of the phenomena more accurately, evidence has repeatedly shown that both Muslims and Islam, especially their material entities, have become targets of Islamophobia[18]. Evidence elsewhere also exists to suggest that in targeting Muslims, this also targets the religion of Islam, its beliefs, theology and practices[19]. If that which targets Muslims is therefore ‘anti-Muslimism’, so the concurrent phenomena targeting Islam needs to be ‘anti-Islamism’. Because ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islamist’ are both extremely value-loaded terminologies in the contemporary landscape, so these particular terms are rendered inappropriate. So whilst it might be correct to stress a greater emphasis upon ‘Muslims’ rather than ‘Islam’, this particular terminology and its derivatives appear to be unworkable, especially when the term Islamophobia has already achieved some discursive permeation.

Likewise with ‘anti-Muslim racism’, is especially problematic when nameing and identifying ‘anti-Islamic’ racism, if it even exists. More so, the appellation of ‘racism’ could be problematic. ‘Racism’ used in this way would appear to be rooted in the conceptualisation of race and racism prevalent across mainland Europe as opposed to that which exists in the British context. Across Europe and elsewhere in the world, ‘race’ is far less rooted in notions of ‘colour’ as is the case in Britain, where the concept of ‘racism’ is far less rigidly defined and much more transient. Consequently, whilst this approach to naming Islamophobia may be useful and relevant, it may not have the same relevance or functionality everywhere. In Britain this could be especially problematic with ‘race’ being a legal concept that ‘Muslims’, because of their multi-ethnicity are not incorporated within. Given that the term emerged from Britain, this becomes even more understandable. Whilst it is essential to note that ‘anti-Muslim racism’ might therefore be inappropriate, this should not be confused with the clear correlation that exists between Islamophobia and racism, both of which are completely different things.

Whilst acknowledging the weaknesses of the term Islamophobia, there is not a suitable alternative that is ‘ready-made’ or can be suitably substituted. None appear to offer anything more in the way of better naming, improving understanding or providing meaning. Whilst acknowledging its failings, one advantage ‘Islamophobia’ has over its alternatives is that it has already established a place in the wider social and political lexicons, something that any alternative – albeit suitable or otherwise - would also need to achieve. Given that it has taken twenty years for the current term to establish itself, the pressing nature of Islamophobia and the need to understand and define it here does not allow this luxury. Definitions and understanding are needed now rather than at some time in the future. Were there a concerted effort to remove Islamophobia from the lexicon and replace it with an alternative, further contestation and confusion would ensue. This is not to suggest that the term Islamophobia can only ever be employed to name and describe such phenomena, but to acknowledge that at the present time, there is not a suitable alternative. Because of this, it would seem that Islamophobia, despite all its weaknesses and inadequacies might be the best, if not only, option at this present juncture. How then can we improve understanding: what is Islamophobia?

What is Islamophobia?

Improving understanding cannot merely be a process of constructing an equally simplistic and substitutive set of criteria that hope to identify whether or not something is Islamophobic. If defined too broadly, then Islamophobia will escape censure where meaningless definitions and conceptualisations will become over-inflated and remove any concretised or empirical grounding. If the definition is without grounding, then discourses that would otherwise be regarded as socially unacceptable will begin to attain social legitimacy as well as political agency. Through political agency, Islamophobia might then become implicitly shrouded beneath the cover of nationalism and national belonging for instance, in preference of explicit or overt manifestations of racism or Islamophobia, even though the resultant consequence or impact might be very much the same. Likewise, if overly simple definitions and conceptualisations are put forward, overly simple – and overly inadequate - solutions will ensue, culminating in a similar situation to that which has already been established. In addition, both the definition and purported solution obscures the specificity and complexity of the phenomenon; undermining, hindering and even negating the problem whilst supporting further contestation.

Any means to improving understanding about Islamophobia must therefore be able to identify and accommodate ‘Muslims’ in such ways that they are neither essentialised nor reduced, nor made out to be a homogenous collective identified by indiscriminate or inappropriate markers or appellations. This would mean being able to accommodate the inherent diversity of ‘Muslims’, whether in their practice, race, ethnic heritage, or indeed any other marker of difference that might occur, whilst also accommodating those ‘Muslims’ that have been earmarked ‘problematic’. In addition, no apportioning of blame or attributing certain Muslims with any lesser status – of being ‘bad Muslims’ for instance - must occur. The religion of Islam and its theological tenets would also require similar accreditation, overcoming how Edward Said suggested Islam became essentialised through the lens of Orientalism theory. Similarly, Islam cannot be deployed as a common denominator beneath which all Muslims can be conveniently unified. Consequently, what is being suggested here is that any conceptualisation must accommodate the reality and diversity of Muslims and Islam, and not merely reduce all to an imposed or self-grandiose ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ Islam.

A new definition

Recognising the complexity of this, recent research has put forward the suggestion that Islamophobia is a threefold ideological phenomenon, one where Islamophobia becomes conceived and evident in the form of systems of thought and meaning as well as through systems of signifiers or symbols which pertain to influence, impact upon or inform the social consensus about ‘the Other’[20]. Employing this model, Islamophobia is not necessarily restricted to any specific action, practice, discrimination or prejudice but instead gives meaning to that which is widely accepted as natural and normative of Muslims, Islam or both. As Clarke explains in terms of the function of ideology, this “creates a form of order, who we are, or perhaps more precisely who we are not, by the stigmatisation, marginalisation and intolerance associated with this’[21]. On the basis of this ‘form of order’, so discrimination and prejudice can be duly founded upon inaccuracies, misunderstandings and misrepresentations as indeed it can upon accurate, correctly understood and true representations of Muslims or Islam: all become seen to be ‘normative truths’ whether that be the case or not[22]. If a ‘form of order’ is therefore created that establishes Muslims and Islam as being ‘who we are not’, it would appear that this would be Islamophobia.

If Islamophobia is ideological, and thereby the first component of the broader phenomenon, then it must function as such, where ideological content – meaning about Muslims and Islam – must be disseminated to the public and private spaces: through a vast range of different actions, utterances, images and texts that are recognised and digested as meaningful by its recipients. In this instance, both dissemination and reception are as equally important. To achieve this, the second component of Islamophobia is the ‘modes of operation’ through which meaning is sustained and perpetuated. It is imperative to stress though, that modes of operation are not equitable with the symbolic forms through which Muslims and Islam are either identified or recognised. These modes and strategies nor are neither concretised nor unchanging, and so new modes and strategies may at some stage appear whilst others may similarly disappear, be replaced or substituted: this can occur also in different geographical, cultural, social and so on settings. Neither the modes nor strategies are in themselves ideological: they only sustain ideological meaning, whether intentional or otherwise. The final component of Islamophobia is exclusionary practices: practices that seek to disadvantage, prejudice or discriminate against Muslims and Islam in social, economic and political spheres. Exclusionary practices must also include the subjection to violence as a tool of exclusion.

Closing thoughts

Many of the words and concepts we use in our everyday lives we assume we ‘know’: that is, ‘know’ what they mean and what they are, where they come from, and what meaning underpins our use of them. In this context, we assume we know ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’. Similarly but less obviously, the same applies also to the use of the word ‘Islamophobia’. Despite it being ever increasingly used and employed, as this chapter highlights, the reality is that we ‘know’ very little about it, and what we do is far from clear. This confusion has unfortunately caused contestation to the detriment of addressing Islamophobia and related phenomena. In considering this in more detail and challenging the meanings, understandings and very notions of what we think we ‘know’ can only be a positive: to inform and shape the way in which we employ and utilise these words and concepts in order that they are more meaningful and more relevant.


[1] p.16,Chris Allen & Jorgen Nielsen, Summary report on Islamophobia in the EU after 11 September 2001 (Vienna: European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, 2002).

[2] p.42, ibid.

[3] Modood wrote about the subject matter of hostility towards Muslims and Islam in a number of articles throughout 1990 and 1991 in particular, the Independent, 5 February 1990, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 30 March 1990, and the Independent, 19 June 1990. His first recorded use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ was in the Independent, 16 December 1991. For all articles, see: Tariq Modood, Not easy being British, (Stoke on Trent: Runnymede Trust & Trentham Books, 1992), 69-78.

[4] Modood, (1992) 69.

[5] Runnymede Commission on Anti-Semitism, A very light sleeper: the persistence and dangers of anti-Semitism, (London: Runnymede Trust, 1994).

[6] Runnymede Trust: Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia (1997).

[7] p.1, ibid.

[8]For more information about CAIR see, http://

[9] World conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, 31 August, Durban, South Africa (8 September 2001).

[10] United Nations, World conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance: declaration and programme of action (New York: United Nations, 2002).

[11] John Denham, “Keynote address”, Exploring Islamophobia Conference, 29 September 2001 (University of Westminster: London).

[12] Marcel Maussen, Anti-Muslim sentiments and mobilization in the Netherlands. Discourse, policies and violence (Challenge: Paris, 2006), 100.

[13] Clayton (2002).

[14] Halliday (1996), chapters 4 & 6: 109 & 160-165 respectively.

[15] Halliday (2002), 128 & 206 respectively.

[16] Robert Miles & Malcolm Brown, Racism (2nd edition) (London: Routledge, 2003).

[17] ibid, 166.

[18] Allen (2010).

[19] Chris Allen, “Justifying Islamophobia: a post-9/11 consideration of the European Union and British contexts”, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, vol. 21 no.3 (Summer 2004): 1-25.

[20] Allen (2010).

[21] Simon Clarke, Social theory, psychoanalysis and racism (London: Palgrave, 2003 15)

[22] Allen (2010).