The problem with the term Islamophobia

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In this post I begin with the term ‘Islamophobia’ which poses significant problems, both political and religious. As a reminder, the APPG proposed definition goes: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

The problem with the term ‘Islamophobia’ is:

a) it weakens our ability to robustly deal with anti-Muslim hatred as there is broad societal aversion towards it,

b) it inserts Islam into issues that aren’t necessarily faith related. And if the APPG intends this to be about racial hatred then inferring religion by the term “Islamophobia” supports the widespread conflation that Islam is about ethnicity. (I’ll deal with point (b) in later posts)

Concentrating on (a), I want to highlight the politically problematic nature of employing the term ‘Islamophobia’ and question its feasibility in achieving “widespread acceptance”:

1. It doesn’t seem a developed and weighed strategy and ever since its usage in the popular realm the term has been contentious, and resistance to it has grown substantially. What intuitively comes to mind is two words: lslam and phobia, which has confused many people, including Muslims. Much of the resistance is generally based on the following propositions (putting their veracity aside):

  • religions ought to be open to criticism and ‘Islamophobia’ hinders the freedom of detractors to criticise the faith,
  • phobia denotes an irrational fear of something but criticism of Islamic doctrine/practices is based on reason, the focus ought to be on racism and hatred against Muslims rather than legally protecting the faith.
  • religious views/ideas should have no special protection.

As the last objection shows, many critics of the term uphold the need to combat anti-Muslim hatred, but we get caught up debating terminology instead of enlisting their confidence and maintaining a clear focus on anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice. Opposition to a clear definition of anti-Muslim hatred has used ambiguity around the word Islamophobia to galvanise others against it, and given the current political climate, the job of antagonists has been very easy. Logic and maturity tells us that substance is key and that terms are inconsequential if the substance can be realised in other ways. Not only do we see this with the Prophet’s guidance on the text of the treaty of Hudaybiyyah, but even Islamic jurists have coined maxims such as لا مشاحة في الاصطلاح (no contention over terminology) and العبرة للمقاصد والمعاني لا للألفاظ والمباني (the consideration is on purpose and meaning, not wording and structure) to this effect.

2. We can easily use terms such as ‘anti-Muslim hatred/prejudice’ in its place. Ironically, the APPG paper itself darts between the terms Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred, and tellingly, whenever clarification to ‘Islamophobia’ is required the APPG describes it as anti-Muslim hatred. This is because ‘anti-Muslim hatred’ is self-explanatory, yet by the APPG’s own demonstration ‘Islamophobia’ requires a drawn-out explanation which clearly makes it unfeasible in the public realm. It makes little sense to so staunchly advocate for a term that is unclear and will be lost on most people, and a simple branding exercise would have made this clear. Furthermore, adopting a clearer term helps to demarcate those with a terminology problem but sincere in fighting anti-Muslim hatred from those who subversively engage in semantics because they deny that this type of intolerance exists. Failing to enlist the majority over a superficial battle against a minority (the latter) is irresponsible.

3. It makes no sense to expend so much energy in arguing and debating one term when another more assuasive one is present, and at the expense of actually dealing with the prejudice. It is basic logic that using a more appealing term removes initial barriers and circumvents unnecessary opposition, both of which is far more likely to attract consensus or widespread acceptance. Besides justifying its adoption on the basis of ‘precedence’ or perceived ‘capital’, wider considerations – a few of which have been mentioned here, seem to be overlooked. As future posts will show, this is a continuous theme on a range of issues. In any other context (such as marketing, business strategy, political strategy etc.) the term would have been swiftly set aside for one far clearer and more disarming, so the commitment is mystifying. Many public personalities sympathetic to the plight of Muslim communities tend to avoid the term Islamophobia and opt instead for ‘anti-Muslim hatred’ – aversion to the term isn’t simply the domain of the political right, across the spectrum there is unease at the term Islamophobia.

4. I believe an insistence on the adoption of ‘Islamophobia’ is one thing amongst many that evidences the shortcomings of the APPG’s general approach which Muslims need to be cognisant of. But I don’t mean to condemn the APPG; it’s simply not in its remit to shape a definition that also, and necessarily, antagonises over strategic concerns and operative factors that Muslims ought to know will have a significant impact on desired outcomes. Resultantly, many political considerations (let alone shar’ī ones) simply haven’t been made, and doubtlessly won’t be. Well-meaning politicians probably won’t fully get these contentions because their interests lie in being seen as doing the right thing, so they will back anything that seems to address the issue (especially with colleagues urging them to do so) unable to identify its limitations. It’s admirable but it won’t suffice our predicament. And as we’re already seeing, we cannot be blinded by a small and superficial ‘win’ (getting the public backing of some politicians for a Muslim cause) at the expense of the actual battle, as seems to be a habit.

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