Semantics: Islamophobia is stupid

Semantics: Islamophobia is stupid October 20, 2010
Missing the point

“Surely, you will follow the ways of those nations who were before you, in everything as one arrow resembles another, (i.e. just like them), so much so that even if they entered a hole of a sand-lizard, you would enter it.” – (Recorded in Sahih Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

My initiation into community activism was in late 2001, when I got my feet wet at the helm of the fourth largest chapter of America’s leading Muslim civil-rights organization in Houston, a city at that time with well over 90 Islamic centers and an estimated 300,000 Muslims. As a messaging and public relations consultant, I can assure you that our community has been contemplating Islamophobia for quite some time. It is indeed a stupid phenomenon, but perhaps not in the way one might think. My analysis of the term has dramatically changed since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I believe there is a better way forward.

If the latest news-cycles’ focus on the growing distrust and fear of American Muslims has taught us anything, it has clearly shown that as a society we are still struggling to deal with the trauma of 9/11. We are balancing the threat of terrorism and the resulting cataclysmic cycles of violence, war and new security policies eroding all peoples’ civil liberties.

The intensity of today’s anti-Muslim hysteria is noticeably different. It is more widespread and most alarmingly, it seems more palatable to the public at large. The vocal extremists who are spreading fear and hostility are not just making the news; they are in fact creating an environment that nurtures their hate. Without rehashing the headlines, we must ask what has changed and what is behind the increased spread of anti-Muslim fear? And are we contributing to the problem?

A partial understanding to this rise in anti-Muslim sentiment can be found in lessons learned from the disaster response world. While dealing with long-term recovery efforts, emergency managers have documented trends surrounding “significant anniversaries” of tragic events. People tend to relive such events. It should be noted that next year will mark a full decade since 9/11. So don’t be fooled when we see a brief cooling off period after Election Day, November 2. The industry of “harbor fear and contempt for Muslims” has not begun to peak – yet.

Poll after poll has shown that anti-Muslim sentiment continues to rise, and as a community we seem to be stuck doing what we have always done, and expecting different results. A key part of this insanity is what I like to call “comfortable activism.” Comfortable because it is familiar, because it is what other communities have done and because it gives us a sense of self-gratification that we acted against our foe while protecting our moral high-ground.

Part of that is our reliance on the term “Islamophobia.” Isn’t it past time that we consider reevaluating it? Are there implicit activist approaches that it requires? If so, are these approaches beneficial? Is our community stuck in modus operandi? What about other communities that we interact with or belong to? does our current trajectory effect them in a beneficial way?

Defining Islamophobia

What does the term Islamophobia mean? A common use of the term is to call out anti-Muslim bigotry. However, the term literally means a fear of Islam. The false equation that results: Islam (religion of 1.5 billion people – 1 person of every 5 – on the planet) + Phobia (an irrational fear) = anti-Muslim bigotry.

Because, linguistically, the term Islamophobia focuses on Islam, it exacerbates confusion of the words Islam and Muslim. This point is tremendously important, not merely because it annoys us to be called “Islamics,” but because when any derivative or English language adaptation of the word Islam is created, the resulting phrase sends the message that ALL Muslims and our faith itself are implicated in the term’s new meaning.

The key example of this was on Aug 10, 2006 when President George W. Bush used the phrase Islamo-fascists. It would, at this point, be a chicken and egg conversation to explore what came first between terms like “radical Islam” and “Islamic terrorism” or the labeling of people as Islamophobes. What should be crystal clear is that one feeds the other.

How accurate is this term?

Based on etymology of the term, it can be considered very accurate in an academic or theoretical sense by describing some peoples’ fears and/or ignorance about Islamic doctrines and theology. The groups that support this view break down into three groups, each with progressively less support for the idea of fear of Islam itself and they move toward the idea of fear of Muslims as well.

The first group contends that, due to Islam’s rapid, vast, and successful expansion, its eclipsing of the early expansion of Christianity caused a deeply rooted bias against Islam. They suggest that this was seen as countering a “proof” or manifestation of the Christian faith. Some of the very early Christian communities took the “miraculous” spread of Christianity as a demonstrated victory over the pagan and Jewish communities and as a evidence of the validity of their faith.

The next group contends that Islam is not defined or rooted by its source texts and traditions, but rather it is what Muslims do. While on scholarly level I can appreciate this where the rubber meets the road approach, I also believe it is very dangerous. This view lends public credibility to any agenda-driven group that wishes to redefine, re-interpret or change the established orthodox, textual and traditionally held views of the vast majority of Muslims.

Defining Islam by the actions of some Muslims rejects time-honored traditions of Islamic scholarship. It allows any Muslim – qualified or not – to define Islam. This applies equally to all fringe groups; from those that promote or justify violence to those that want to change the religion in other ways. This also ignores the broad and overwhelming consensus of Muslims who embrace Islam as a living tradition; that is, rooted in the traditional sciences and orthodox understandings of Islamic sources. This is important because it can serve to stifle positive and effective refutation of extremist groups by equating unequal voices by making them appear equally authoritative.

The third group sees the term Islamophobia in light of another term and therefore not entirely accurate. They argue that the fear is really a part of the larger trend of xenophobia of “others,” and in this case of Muslims. This is why many definitions of the Islamophobia describe Muslims as a monolith.

Who defines Islamophobia?

The commonly accepted definition of Islamophobia is a “hatred or fear of Muslims or of their politics or culture.” In 1996, the Runnymede Trust, a UK-based organization, issued a report titled, “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All” and expanded the definition of the term as “an outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination.” By 2007, the Journal of Sociology defined Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism and a continuation of anti-Asian and anti-Arab racism.

First of all, Islam is not a race. Muslims are not members of a particular race. And the accuracy angle misses the boat altogether. The inherent problems of an unclear definition are only one piece of our conundrum. Not having clear goals for our communities’ progress is another major concern.

Our task is to earn the respect of larger society and to integrate while maintaining our faith, our identity and our Godly way of life. Along the way we will have to stand against injustice, but those stances only require partnership and cooperation; not that we adopt other community’s models of generational struggle as our own. So why are we as members of a religious community copying models of non-similar communities’ activism in our struggles to counteract bigotry and fear?

To truly discuss these issues we will need to examine some related concepts like race, ethnicity and culture. Using the term Islamophobia is, in politically correct and activist terms, calling out bigotry. But non-Muslims, often is see the use of the label as something else, something unjust. To see this from their perspective we have to digress for a moment.

In the modern age it is against nearly all accepted understandings of human morality to be against a whole group of people. However it is and will always be acceptable to be against an ideology, political system, theory and/or even a belief. It is socially accepted to say ‘I fear Communism’ or to be anti-communist, but it is bigotry to be anti-Russian, anti-Cuban or anti-Chinese.

This is why Islamophobia is so grossly inadequate when compared to terms used to combat bigotry against of other groups.. The dehumanization of Muslims is so strong because we have failed not only to communicate what the vast majority of Muslims believe, but perhaps more importantly we have failed to communicate the distinction between Islam and Muslims. This failure encourages the ridiculous view that all Muslims are mindless Automatons, waiting for the next “Islamic” order that we will blindly follow.

Ethnicity and culture

As a society, Americans are averse to racism, but not necessarily ethno-centrism. The terms “ethnicity” and “ethnic group” are derived from the Greek word ethnos, normally translated as “nation” or commonly said people of the same race that share a distinctive culture. The term “ethnic” and related forms were used in English in the meaning of “pagan/ heathen” from the 14th century through the middle of the 19th century.

The key here is the ending of the definition that uses judgemental words “pagan/ heathen.” As Americans we are a patriotic people. However, extreme nationalists go beyond pride and often end up throwing the baby out with the bath water in their desire to preserve the good qualities of our nation with the obfuscation of racial and ethnic superiority.

A brief anthropological definition of culture is the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another. The word is also defined as a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period.

American Muslims are identified as a “blended identity” in the 12th edition of Racial and Ethnic Groups. The same text defines blended identities as “the self-image and worldview that is a combination of religious faith, cultural background based on nationality, and the status of being a resident of the United States.” A key message that must be made clear to non-Muslims is that Islam is not incompatible with the positive aspects of American culture that we all want to preserve. In fact that Islam encourages these same values.

We give a lot of lip service to the value of our community’s diversity; however it is painfully obvious that we are not a race or even one ethnic group. The tie that binds us is faith, not ethnicity. Culture, however, is a larger concept . A key to understanding the utility of the term Islamophobia is in examining if its usage is consistent with Islamic values and the type of culture that we wish to craft for our next generation.

Divisive tactics?

We often sweep entire groups of neighbors and countrymen under the label of bigotry. Whether a specific incident may be accurate or not does not matter. Calling an entire demographic a derogatory term normally intensifies opposition and acts as a lightning rod that rallies people. Why should we antagonize fellow citizens by making them feel like their ethnicity, their values and their beliefs are being broad-brushed by Muslims?

This is the mirror image of the sweeping indictment style of treatment that we oppose when it used on our community. This is a race-card tactic that is often seen as extortion. We must confront hate and injustice; however, confrontation alone does not bring people together.

Furthermore without instilling a sense of collective guilt that is acknowledged by the vast majority of the society — like the tragedies of the Holocaust or a vivid awareness of our nation’s history of slavery — it becomes clear American Muslims are at a severe disadvantage in using these types of techniques.

Contrast what most Americans know about Islam and Muslims with that of what we know about other minority communities. It is clear that many non-Muslim Americans know very little about us. It is also true that many anti-Muslim activists purposely misguide our fellow citizens toward fear and contempt for our communities. They key is to find ways to discredit those individuals while not to rallying more support for them.

Muslims make up about 2% of the U.S. population. We simply can’t on our own rally enough people for an effective confrontation against fear-based xenophobia especially with a concurrently active terrorist threat. When you combine ignorance of and a lack of exposure to Muslims and Islam, it should be very clear that fear is a easy outcome to manufacture. What we may not have also realized is that how we respond to this fear may actually reinforce it.

Other community examples may not work

Anti-Semitism for example linguistically means against Semites. Note that the term is focused on a grouping of people AND not only on a concept, theory, movement or religion. Anti-Semitism, at its core, is about humans (true, it is used with reference to Jewish religion, culture and ethnicity but not at the expense of the people). The racism and bigot labels work because they are also focused on members of a human grouping.

Our community needs to use terms that humanize Muslims. We need to embrace more sophisticated methods of communication that will separate bigoted leadership from the masses. Our efforts and tactics should include education, outreach, de-escalation of tensions and relationship building. We certainly do not need more or deeper confrontation.

What I am asserting is that Islamophobia is already defined in the public mind as a lame version of “racist” or “anti-Semite.” The shock value of the term as an undesirable label is now lost. Many opinion leaders view it as a technique to not deal with criticism or a dodge the issues that they are concerned with. In other words the term is ineffective and politicized.

The civil rights movement, Jewish activism and other minority groups’ successes have a lot to teach us. However as Muslims in the west with all our unique attributes including our multicultural, multi-ethnic and our various internal religious groupings it is clear that we need custom tailored approaches that focus on listening to and getting to know the “other,” dissipating hate, discrediting at a substantive level misinformation and allowing non-Muslims to easily recognize fear-mongering.

Iesa Galloway is a Muslim convert, a Texas native and a messaging strategist. His professional background is in public relations, Muslim community advocacy and interfaith relations. This piece is adapted from an ongoing series where he blogs at

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