What is Islamophobia?

Okay, so this is in no way going to be a complete discussion of the concept of Islamophobia, but there are several interesting aspects that I think it’s worth considering.  Frankly, when  I first thought to write this post, I was a bit surprised to discover that I hadn’t written anything on it yet, even though the term appears regularly in my blog.

But here’s the thing – that’s sort of how the concept of ‘Islamophobia’ works – it’s pretty obvious what the term means linguistically, but, like with my earlier discussion of ‘Judeo-Christian values,’ defining specific examples gets to be a little tougher.

Despite this complexity, UNESCO has just released a new set of recommended guidelines for teachers and trainers on “Countering Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims.” The 67-page publication is intended to help “support educators in countering intolerance and discrimination against Muslims” (p. 13).  UNESCO, being UNESCO, handles these complexities carefully, noting,

“These Guidelines use the general term “intolerance and discrimination against Muslims”, as this is the most widely used by intergovernmental organizations, including the OSCE, UNESCO and the Council of Europe. There are other terms that similarly refer to intolerance and discrimination against Muslims, including “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism”. “Islamophobia”, a term which is widely used by NGOs and frequently appears in the media, tends to denote fear, hatred or prejudice against Islam and Muslims. “Anti-Muslim racism” places the issue of intolerance against Muslims in the broader framework of racism and implies the racialization of a religious category. The term stresses the multi-dimensional aspect of intolerance against Muslims, which can be based on factors beyond religion. Although these various terms are not synonymous and they address different aspects of the problem, they are often used interchangeably” (p. 17).

I agree with those definitions, at least broadly, but I think for all three terms, they side-step one of the central questions of Islamophobia – how much is Islamophobia really about Islam?

In terms out its outcome, the answer is pretty clearly ‘very little.’  The xenophobia which is attached to Islam has, in the past two decades, been turned against Sikhs, Hindus, Paris, or anyone of Arab, Central Asian or South Asian descent.  In terms of the violence and hatred it produces, there is nothing about Islamophobia that is confined to Muslims, and so from this point of view, that the UNESCO guidelines focus heavily on education about Islam may be misguided.  I would also be inclined to argue that the UNESCO teaching is excessively exotified – teaching kids about the Muslim contributions to Western societies is a nice idea, but taken in isolation only serves to emphasize a distinction between “Western culture” and “Muslim culture.”

However, Islamophobia is very much about Islam in terms of its roots, and I think it’s here that the larger problem becomes apparent.  Adding material to your normal teaching in order to address bullying or discrimination against a given group should, in and of itself, be a sign of the problem – part of the reason why Muslim children, and for that matter, minority children in general, as well as LGBTQ children, are ostracized is because their experiences, and really their very existence, falls outside of the norm to which we educate and socialize children.  It negatively impacts minority children that the majority of history as taught in schools is Eurocentric.  It negatively impacts LGBTQ children that the majority of history is taught as hetero-normative.  And, sure enough, it negatively impacts Muslim children that the history of the Muslim world is largely ignored in the modern teaching of history.

I admit, I know this in part from personal experience – one of the reasons I ended up in Islamic studies is that I loved history, but by the time I started college, I was incredibly bored of American and European history, having been taught it over and over again for years.  I started studying Arabic, because I like languages, and was amazed to discover that there was an entire section of the world that I had *never* studied, except through occasional references to the Crusades or British imperialism.  Admittedly, I grew up in Arizona, which has one of the worst educational systems in the US, but I’m guessing the story isn’t very different everywhere else.

We shouldn’t be teaching Muslim or Middle Eastern history to stop kids from getting bullied.  We should be teaching it because in a globalized world, it’s part of our history.  How do you feel about algebra?  Astronomy?  Silks?  Spices?  Virgil and Aristotle?  Even if you, as a person, are entirely and exclusively of European descent, your history is still tied to the larger world.

And it’s here that my real pet peeve comes out – UNESCO has included an opt-out option (p. 34).  Excuse my language, but screw that.  After a decade of working in religious studies, I find that I have no patience left for people who fear infection from foreign ideas, particularly in terms of religion.  Guess what?  I’ve spent a decade of my life studying religions.  I’ve studied and worked with members of two major religions, and a few dozen denominations of each, many of them religious leaders.  And I still haven’t converted.  I’m still the agnostic I was ten years ago.  I’m just a better educated agnostic.

More to the point, the opt-out option is *itself* Islamophobic, unless you gave Muslim students the option to opt out of the whole of European and Western history.  If Western history can be academically of importance to Muslim students without threatening their personal religious identity, then, by definition, the same must be true of the non-Muslim students.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m really happy that the issue of teaching about and against Islamophobia is on the table, and not just because it means there might be more jobs for me and my colleagues in the future.  But I still think the underlying assumptions of the program need to be scrutinize every bit as much as the phenomenon it’s trying to address, if it’s going to have any chance of being successful.  And giving kids the option of learning about Islam, while focusing on the prejudice and repression Muslims face in the modern world, rather than discussing Muslim history as what it is, a fundamental aspect of the evolution of the modern world, is probably not the best option.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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2 Responses to What is Islamophobia?

  1. John Rgood says:

    You didn’t address the part regarding rational phobia. There are things about religions, and ideologies, that are valid and rational to fear. Incitement to violence, misogyny, and orders to hate found in the Quran and Hidith.

  2. Pingback: Tone and trolling | askanislamicist

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