Islamophobia and beyond

You don’t have to be Muslim to be the target of Islamophobia.

Members of the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism hold a rally in Melbourne, Australia in 2015 [Getty]
Members of the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism hold a rally in Melbourne, Australia in 2015 [Getty]

Islamophobia has become an established term in the English language. Your automatic spell-checker will not mark it with a red line underneath in the text. For some of us, this is part of the test of the lexical naturalness of this concept and its meaning in society.

A greater degree of naturalisation will come when your automatic spell-checker ceases to underline in red derivatives of Islamophobia, such as Islamophobic, Islamophobe or Islamophobisation. The software on my computer is out-of-date, so maybe I am lagging behind.

The term has also entered Arabic and is used without definition or explanation in the language. This is another test of naturalness, but now across cultures.

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Islamophobia refers to stereotypical and negative attitudes by non-Muslims towards Islam, Muslims and what is popularly known as Islamic culture.

As a phenomenon, Islamophobia is a rough and ready attitude with little tolerance for complexity and diversity. In its totalising form, it admits no rough edges. In fact, one does not have to be Muslim to be subject to Islamophobic attitudes.

Islamophobic slurs

After the London attacks in July 2005, Sikh men were subjected to Islamophobic slurs, even attacks, because they were thought to be Muslim.

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In the public imagination, certain items of attire, such as the turban, are assumed by some to be an expression of Muslim-ness. The beard is developing similar meanings, especially when one’s complexion is thought to be a sign of the same.

It is true that Islamophobia has been on the rise since 9/11, but its date of birth precedes this criminal event.

To counter Islamophobic attitudes, two of my University of Cambridge colleagues, a Christian and a Muslim, started an outreach programme of public engagement to explain as neutrally as possible what Islam stood for.

The main part of this programme consisted of school visits in and around London. In one primary school in South London they showed a set of pictures to ten-year-olds.

One picture showed a group of men from different ethnic backgrounds. In the middle stood the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, with his black cloak, white hair and beard and a medium-size cross hanging down from his neck.

The pupils were asked to identify who was Muslim in the picture. To the surprise of my colleagues, every pupil circled the Archbishop’s figure as Muslim.

When they were asked why they thought he was Muslim, they all pointed to his beard and long black cloak. When later directed to the cross the pupils were surprised by how signs of Muslim-ness had overridden signs of being Christian in their response.

A man holds up placard during an anti-Islam protest in Prague, Czech Republic [Getty]

Stereotypical view of Muslims

While this misrecognition does not speak of Islamophobia, it does point to, possibly, a stereotypical view of the Muslim man as one who wears a beard and long, loose-hanging clothes.

It is possible that signs of difference like these led to Sikhs being misrecognised as Muslims and, as a result, subjected to Islamophobic slurs in London.

It is true that Islamophobia has been on the rise since 9/11, but its date of birth precedes this criminal event.

I remember how, in the 1990s, I accompanied the head of what was the Palestinian delegation (ambassador) in London on a visit to what was, by all accounts, a friendly church meeting.

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In fact, I knew a good number of the church leaders who supported the Palestinian cause in different ways, including divesting from all companies that supported the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

The ambassador, an urbane man, was well-known for being a good and effective public speaker. At the end of the presentation, he fielded a number of questions, which I thought he answered eloquently.

Then a member of the audience put his hand up and gave a mini speech in which he tried to rebut the ambassador’s argument, ending up with the accusation that the ambassador’s anti-Israeli stance was a reflection of his Muslim faith.

Islamophobic anatomy

The ambassador responded by telling the questioner that he was against Israeli policy for lots of reasons, but none of them had anything to do with Islam. The questioner was not prepared to have any of it. He ranted for a while and sat down.

The ambassador then told him he was in fact a Christian of the Roman Catholic faith and that he was happy and honoured to be speaking in a non-Catholic church. It is at this point that the questioner’s Islamophobic premise really came to the fore.

Addressing the ambassador, he said: “You don’t have to be Muslim for your head to be filled with Islamic poison.”

Keeping his composure, the ambassador rounded on him, telling him that he did not need a lecture on Islam and Christianity from someone like him: “Let me remind you that Jesus Christ was not born in London or New York. He was a Palestinian, and in comparison with you I am a prehistoric Christian. Christianity belonged to my ancestors before it belonged to yours.”

The Islamophobic anatomy of this encounter is easy to dissect. Palestine is an Islamic cause. If you stand up for this cause and you are of brown colour you must be Muslim, either literally in terms of faith or metaphorically through ailment or infection by this same faith.

So, you don’t have to be Muslim to be the target of Islamophobia. In this respect, Palestine provides a litmus test of how Islamophobia works. If you are for it, you are Muslim. If you are for it and you are not Muslim, then Muslim blood must run through your veins. Either way, you are damned by the Islamophobes.

Yasir Suleiman is acting president of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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