‘Seen as less human’: Why has Islamophobia surged amid Israel’s Gaza war?

Hate crimes and complaints are at record levels. Al Jazeera speaks to Professor John Esposito to better understand why.

A protestor holds a placard while taking part in the 'National March For Palestine' in central London calling for a ceasefire in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Protesters at pro-Palestine rallies across the United Kingdom were labelled as 'hate marchers' by the country's former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, in language suggested to be Islamophobic [Henry Nicholls/AFP]

Hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in the United Kingdom are up by 140 percent compared with this time last year, according to British police.

The United Kingdom anti-Islamophobia organisation Tell MAMA has received a sevenfold increase in reports of Islamophobia since October 7, when Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel, killing 1,139 people and taking 240 others captive, including women and children. Since then, more than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, including at least 8,000 children, according to health officials in the enclave.

In the United States, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group, said it had received 2,171 complaints of Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias since October 7, a 172 percent increase since the previous year.

Last month three men were shot in Vermont, and around the same period, Stuart Seldowitz, a former adviser to President Barak Obama, was captured on video taunting and threatening a fast food vendor in Manhattan with Islamophobic abuse.

While the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has a lengthier definition of Islamophobia (PDF), the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims uses the following definition: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

The incidents accompanying the recent statistics range from verbal harassment to violence against Palestinian human rights supporters and represent “an unprecedented surge in bigotry”, CAIR’s Research and Advocacy Director Corey Saylor said in a statement released to Al Jazeera.

“Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism are out of control in ways we have not seen in almost ten years.”

Saylor says that in the US, the last large wave of Islamophobia was during US President Donald Trump’s announcement in December 2015 of a ban on visitors from a set of Muslim-majority nations.

On October 15, six-year-old Palestinian-American boy Wadea Al-Fayoume was stabbed to death at his Illinois home by the apartment’s landlord in what police said was an anti-Muslim hate crime, reportedly in response to the Hamas attack on Israel.

The UK has witnessed anti-Muslim language being used at universities and schools, including people being called “terrorists”, reports Tell MAMA. Other incidents have included acts of vandalism.


Here, in conversation with Al Jazeera, John L Esposito, author of more than 50 books – including Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century (2011) – explains what Islamophobia is, and how Israel’s war on Gaza has led to an explosion in incidents.

Esposito is also a distinguished university professor of Religion and International Affairs, and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, in the US.

Al Jazeera: We have textbook definitions of what Islamophobia is, but what can it look like in daily life?

John Esposito: Islamophobic attacks can be anything from abusive language used against someone who looks visibly Muslim – like a woman wearing a hijab; or it could be more covert, like not hiring a fully qualified professional based on their perceived Muslimness. In the current climate, since Israel’s war on Gaza began in October, there have been growing incidents where people have had their employment terminated for showing their support for a free Palestine.

Islamophobia can of course escalate, in the killing of individuals like the young boy in Illinois, and as we’ve seen it violently play out in attacks on communities and mosques, like the [2019] mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. That’s just one example; there are so many more.

Al Jazeera: In your opinion, what would you say are the roots of Islamophobia?

John Esposito: The trigger for this narrative goes back to the Iranian Revolution [1979]. Remember that was when many people also finally had live TV [news], and would put on their TV every day. They’d see people in Iran shouting “Death to America”, which would lead viewers to think all Iranians, and then the wider Muslim world, must hold this belief.

But it was really 9/11 that became a major catalyst for Islam and Muslims to be seen as a global threat. We now saw the “Global War on Terrorism“, [Osama] bin Laden and al-Qaeda, which played a major role in the growth of Islamophobia, as Muslims and Islam came to be seen as violent and dangerous. Then of course most recently there was the Islamic State [ISIL, or ISIS], which had an enormous amount of media coverage, far more than it ever should have, essentially allowing a minority to falsely portray who Muslims are.

And now in this recent war in Gaza, we’ve seen Hamas being equated to ISIS, which somehow helps fuel attacks against Palestinians as they are being painted with the same brush as an extremist group.

The result has been Israel’s totally disproportionate war and genocide.

Al Jazeera: You’ve mentioned the media. What role does it play? 

John Esposito: I’d say it’s hugely responsible for the rise in Islamophobia.

The media has always cared about headlines. There’s a famous line that I often quote, “If it bleeds, it leads”, and news organisations’ focusing reporting on “terrorist” attacks has been exploited by far-right political and religious leaders and media commentators who are quick to speak out about Islam and Muslims, without checks or balances.

A great example of it is in the current war. Initial reports that were coming out of Israel mentioned the beheading of babies. [US] President [Joe] Biden withdrew his statement confirming its falsehood the day after, but by that point, the story had already been repeated countless times on mainstream media and social media.

I was told when I first came to Washington, “Remember, if you throw it up against the wall three times, it’ll stick”, and you know that’s what’s happened here. An unverified piece of news is repeated more than three times, and by the time it’s retracted, it’s already stuck in people’s heads, feeding into this Islamophobic narrative of who these people are and what they are capable of doing.

Al Jazeera: But you’ve also said it’s no longer just mainstream media that’s responsible?

John Esposito: Yes absolutely, there are also well-funded anti-Muslim social media campaigns.

There is a study by the Center for American Progress, called Fear, Inc. [August 2011], that documents $42.6m flowing from seven foundations over 10 years (the first decade of the century) to support Islamophobic authors and websites. Then there’s another by CAIR and the Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkeley. It’s called the Confronting Fear report [2016] and that concluded that between 2008 and 2013, 33 Islamophobic groups had access to $205,838,077 to reinforce their misinformation.

Al Jazeera: Is social media making it easier to be Islamophobic?

John Esposito: Social media has had an enormous impact. It can create a reality where any claims can be presented as a fact. I certainly see that now with regard to the war in Gaza, and the example I gave about beheading babies.

Al Jazeera: How has the current war between Israel and Hamas added, if at all, to the Islamophobic rhetoric?

John Esposito: Israeli politics has used the Islamophobic rhetoric to create a devastating impact in portraying Muslims and Arabs as the enemy and denying their fundamental rights, and so justifying an indiscriminate war whose victims are being viewed as less valuable than other human beings.

We know the October 7 attacks were carried out by members of Hamas, but [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu claims that these attacks represent all that Hamas is. In fact, Hamas has also been a major political movement that governed in Gaza for many years and continues to be a political movement.

Netanyahu and his Jewish fundamentalist government officials – as well as several European and Western governments, allies with Israel – even equate all Palestinian demonstrations and organised opposition with being supportive [of armed groups].

Unfortunately, the initial unwavering support of Israeli policies, by the US and UK as well as other countries, has added to the Israeli narrative that all Muslims and all Arabs are the enemy.

Early in the war, members of the Israeli government referred to Palestinians as “human animals“. Netanyahu even quoted from the Old Testament, describing Palestinians as the “Amalek”, the Jews’ archetypal enemy. (The Amalek could transform themselves into animals to avoid capture). He says this to justify his policy that has increasingly been labelled by many in the international community as genocide and war crimes.

All of these denigrating charges both reflect and feed the dangerous growth of Islamophobia in many parts of the world.

Al Jazeera: Are there any other reasons that may have led to spikes in Islamophobia?

John Esposito: Yes, Netanyahu’s government legitimates this all-out war in Gaza by simply comparing Hamas to ISIL [ISIS], which it is not. By doing this, Israel is feeding Islamophobia, by fuelling the notion that this is a war against a Muslim “terrorist” organisation, not Palestinian people.

ISIS was a transnational movement whose vision and mission was to create a caliphate in the Middle East, whereas Hamas’s roots and issues have been an integral part of the history of Palestinians.

It goes back to the violent displacement of 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction of 500 Palestinian villages, their society, culture, and political rights. The result was the Nakba, the catastrophe. How can people in the world understand what today many Palestinians refer to as the Second Nakba if they have no knowledge of it?

The international community’s inability to respond to, and object to, Israel’s continued absorption of Palestinian territory that has created an apartheid country must be recognised and rectified.

Al Jazeera: Are there ways to stop Islamophobia from escalating?

John Esposito: There needs to be better education, not just in our schools and universities and seminaries, but also of our political leaders, our policymakers.

It’s important to be educated enough to be able to distinguish between the teachings of Islam and mainstream Muslims and the actions of the militant fundamentalist minority, like al-Qaeda and ISIS [ISIL].

There are people who are very well educated – I’m talking about professionals who are doctors, dentists, lawyers, et cetera – but their understanding of Islam is limited to what they’ve seen on TV.

But conversations are being had and understanding is shifting.

People are now paying attention.

In addition, inter-faith programmes and dialogue today are increasing a multi-faith perspective and understanding and this can lead to a reduction of anti-religious violence, hostility and crimes. Although the internet has been a significant source of Islamophobia, it also has been and can be a source for understanding, tracking and countering Islamophobia. This is why our centre at Georgetown created The Bridge Initiative: Protecting Pluralism and Countering Islamophobia. We track and provide information on the globalisation of Islamophobia every day.

Al Jazeera: Is education enough?

John Esposito: It’s a start, but other changes need to include what our leaders say and how they say it. This matters tremendously.

Governments and political leaders are in a position of trust, and if they make anti-Muslim statements, as we’ve seen in the language used in this war by Netanyahu and his allies – or create domestic and foreign policies that imply Muslims are the enemy, as we’ve seen across Europe in France, Austria, Germany and the US – then it will only continue to fan the flames of Islamophobia.

In the case of the current war in Gaza, it is imperative to remember that “those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it”. That’s what we are seeing now.

Source: Al Jazeera