Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim prejudice, is increasingly becoming a dominant feature of public discourse and the Muslim collective experience in the UK and the rest of Europe.
In Europe Islamophobia is channelled through draconian policies which have resulted in restrictions on the public display of Islam; as in the case of France with the hijab and veil ban and the banning of building of minarets in Switzerland.
There have also been a number of populist far-right groups such as Geert Wilders Party of Freedom in the Netherlands. This party has called for the banning of the Quran. In the UK, demonisation of Islam and Muslims has led to the emergence of the English Defence League.
Many groups like the EDL are popping up all over Europe. Such groups have also appeared in America and have joined protests against a proposed mosque near New York's Ground Zero.
Brief history of Islamophobia
Ideas which give oxygen to current expressions of Islamophobia can be traced back to the early years of Islam. Many Medieval European writers responded to the rise of Islam as a global force with polemical literature against the Quran, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Muslim creed. Pope Urban II's speech at the start of the Crusades provides great insights into the height of enmity towards Islam in Medieval Europe. The literature on the early perception of Islam is vast. Particularly useful on this subject is Normal Daniel’s (1997) Islam and the West: The making of an Image.
The current wave of suspicion towards Islam can be traced back to the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. Many people replaced their fear of the ‘red flag of communism' with the ‘green flag of Islam’. Events such as the 1979 Iranian Revolution added to the impression that political Islam was somehow replacing the old threat of the communists. One can see the change mirrored in a number of blockbuster Hollywood movies with the ‘bad communist’ replaced by the ‘angry Muslim’. Those interested in how this particular period of history was reported on should read Edward Said’s Covering Islam.
Key features of contemporary Islamophobia
It should be clear that current negative images of Islam have a historical precedent. Issues such as the Danish cartoons are nothing new, but rather form part of continuing legacy of deliberately portraying Islam in a negative way.
Whilst there are a number of similarities with the historical model of Islamophobia, there are a number of new key features in contemporary forms of anti-Muslim prejudice.
The problem of contemporary Islamophobia was first highlighted by a report by the Runneymede Trust called Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.
Following terrorist attacks such as 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 there has been an increase in discrimination and harassment faced by Muslim communities.
Islam is often seen as different to the west. The west is portrayed as modern, whilst Islam is seen as static, unchanging, barbaric and different. Islam is seen as an enemy and not part of the 'Judeo–Christian heritage’ of Europe. This ignores the 700 year legacy of Muslim heritage in Spain which is eloquently documented by Salma Jayyusi’s The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Salim Al-Hassani’s 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in our World is also worth reading.
Muslims are seen as part of an expansionist 'jihadi' network. The emphasis is placed on the idea that Muslims are out to implement a global uniform caliphate system. The terrorists' use of violence and the killing of innocent people is seen as a means to achieving this system. The raft of anti-Muslim groups which have recently emerged to ‘stop Islamification of' or 'stop Islamization of’ Europe or America use this idea as their central argument.
Professor Tahir al-Qadri’s recent fatwa against terrorism is an erudite piece of work which counters many of the above points. This is a highly important document which needs to be discussed and disseminated widely in forms of conferences with the media and universities to ensure this research has maximum circulation.
Politicians and the media address issues relating to Islamic extremism by linking them to Islam rather than to the individuals involved in extremism. It then comes as no surprise that many groups with Islamophobic attitudes tend to argue that ‘we have no problem with Muslims but it is Islam that we have difficulty with’. This particular view is advocated by popular writer and blogger Pamela Geller, the co-founder of Stop Islamization of America and a strong opponent of the proposed Islamic Ccentre in New York.
As I have tried pointing out above, Islamophobia operates in two ways – both of them are connected. Firstly, it has the ‘sophisticated’ and ‘intelligent’ form which misrepresents knowledge of Muslim history and religion to create ignorance and spread misinformation. Secondly, far-right political movements then exploit that ignorance and fan the politics of hate.
Islamophobia is essentially a multi-faceted beast which cannot be dismissed as a Jewish conspiracy or part of the Freemasonic plan. In fact, many Jewish academics, such as Noam Chomsky and others have written and campaigned against Islamophobia. Moreover it is wrong to assume that all non-Muslims are against Islam and Muslims – in reality things are more complicated.
Muslims in the UK are in a privileged position to counter some of the many misconceptions that are constantly churned out in the media and by various groups. Muslims are faced with the task of challenging these ideas with creative ideas and well-articulated counter arguments.
This will require us to overcome our minor differences and work with other Muslim and non-Muslim groups. Islamophobia like other forms of prejudice such as racism and anti-Semitism need to be challenged by using effective and strong mediums such as the law, media, art, politics and a whole host of web-based methods.
* Shamim Miah is a Senior Lecturer in Religion & Education at the Huddersfield University