The expression “Islamophobia” to describe anti-Muslim hostility in Europe and North America is becoming increasingly common. Even though the use of this expression is still not quite as trendy as a Lady Gaga song, one can already find numerous books, articles and websites that expound on the phenomenon of “Islamophobia”. The views on “Islamophobia” are quite diverse, ranging from people on one end of the spectrum who do not believe that there is any significant anti-Muslim hostility in Europe and North America and no need for the term “Islamophobia”, to those on the other end of the spectrum who frequently invoke the term “Islamophobia” to describe perceived hostility towards Muslims or Islam.
During the last few months at least three books on the topic of “Islamophobia” have been published by academics and scholars: Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims by Stephen Sheehi, Islamophobia by Chris Allen and Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century edited by John L. Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin. These books discuss a variety of topics related to the phenomenon of “Islamophobia”, such as its various manifestations in politics and the mass media, its historical roots and development, the overlap of “Islamophobia” with racism and how “Islamophobia” relates to colonialism and imperialism. The actual definition of “Islamophobia” is not discussed in much detail. Most of these books use the term “Islamophobia” to describe various types of fear, prejudice, discrimination or hostility directed against Islam and Muslims, in part basing this vague definition of “Islamophobia” on the 1997 report of the Runnymede Trust in the U.K., which was one of the first documents to use the actual expression “Islamophobia”. Chris Allen’s book devotes one whole chapter to develop a new definition for “Islamophobia”, but even the proposed new definition of “Islamophobia” remains understandably vague, since the numerous manifestations of prejudice cannot be easily captured in a short definition.
While so many examples of what constitutes “Islamophobia” are presented, little effort is devoted to clarifying what does not constitute “Islamophobia”. As the widespread usage of the expression “Islamophobia” is increasing, the danger of a vague and broad definition becomes apparent. Without a reasonable effort to delineate what is and what is not “Islamophobia”, this term could be easily used to stigmatize or suppress legitimate criticisms of Muslim society, culture or theology. Not every rejected mosque building permit is necessarily a form of anti-Muslim discrimination, not every criticism of Muslim society, culture or religion is necessarily a manifestation of an “Islamophobic agenda”. Academic scholars that use the expression “Islamophobia” are likely aware of the need to use this term in a narrow sense, so that it refers to true prejudice or hostility towards Muslims and is not abused to suppress legitimate critical views of Muslim society, culture or theology. However, for the expression “Islamophobia” (or any other expression that describes anti-Muslim prejudice and hostility) to be used in a meaningful manner by the wider public, there is a need to clearly formulate what does not constitute “Islamophobia”.
In addition to the vagueness of the “Islamophobia” expression, another troubling aspect of this neologism is the fact that it invokes the psychiatric concept of “phobia”. Phobias fall under the category of anxiety disorders and describe pathological fears; while many know the term from the infamous expression “arachnophobia” (pathological fear of spiders), many different types of phobias have been observed in patients. The standard manual of the American Psychiatric Association is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR) and refers to “Specific Phobia” as a:
“Marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation (e.g., flying, heights, animals, receiving an injection, seeing blood).”
There are additional criteria that characterize a phobia, but I find the following one extremely interesting: “The person recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable for discussing the term.”
This is quite important since not every fear is automatically a “phobia”; the psychiatric term “phobia” is reserved for cases when the fear is excessive or unreasonable. If the patient does not recognize the fear as excessive or unreasonable, it becomes very difficult to actually prove that the fear is indeed excessive and unreasonable and thus the term “phobia” is not applicable. When neologisms with the word “phobia” are formed, this requirement should be considered. I myself use the term “porkophobia” to describe my own ridiculous and unreasonable dislike of pig products that by far exceeds any religious prescriptions. My understanding is that most people who are accused of having “Islamophobia” do not really think that their fears are excessive and unreasonable. Therefore, anti-Muslim fears, hostility or prejudice do not really constitute a “phobia” in the psychiatric sense and thus the use of the neologism “Islamophobia” may need to be re-evaluated.
Lastly, I have encountered multiple Muslims who have likened present-day “Islamophobia” in Europe and North America to Anti-Semitism. My obvious response is that this is an absurd comparison since European Anti-Semitism resulted in the murder of millions of Jews in concentration camps and death camps during the Holocaust while no such camps were ever built to murder Muslims. The counter-response I have then gotten is that present-day “Islamophobia” may be similar to the pre-Holocaust Anti-Semitism in Europe. However, even this comparison contains a number of key flaws. A thoughtful analysis of this comparison can be found in Matti Bunzl’s book Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Hatreds Old and New in Europe, which points out that there are some parallels between “Islamophobia” and Anti-Semitism in Europe, such as the fact that the far-right political parties have traditionally used Anti-Semitism as a means of creating a unified base of voters, but that these far-right parties are now replacing Anti-Semitism with anti-Muslim hostility to achieve that same goal. However, Bunzl goes on to show how different the roots and development of Anti-Semitism and “Islamophobia” are. Importantly, he suggests that Anti-Semitism developed as a form of racial hatred of Jews in the 19th century, but that it had been preceded by centuries of Jewish persecution by Christians on religious grounds. On the other hand, Bunzl proposes that present-day “Islamophobia” is neither a true theological hostility nor a racial hatred like Anti-Semitism, but instead represents a perceived clash of civilizations.
The increasingly common usage of the expression “Islamophobia” requires a thoughtful and clear definition of what does and does not constitute anti-Muslim prejudice and hostility, a re-evaluation of whether “Islamophobia” is truly the most appropriate term to describe such perceived anti-Muslim prejudice and hostility and an avoidance of inappropriate blanket comparisons between anti-Muslim hostility and Anti-Semitism.
Jalees Rehman is a German Muslim scientist currently on faculty at the University Chicago as an Assistant Professor of Medicine working both as a stem cell biologist as well as a cardiologist. In addition to his work in the biomedical sciences, he has also studied the boundaries between religion and science and is currently trying to understand the clash between modernity and postmodernity.