Is Islamophobia a Form of Racism (And Does it Even Matter)?
Department of Sociology, Baker University
A couple of weeks ago, Ben Affleck called out Bill Maher for being a racist because of his views of Muslims. In a world still healing from the racism of the pre-civil rights era, in a world of Ferguson and Michigan, being called a racist is no laughing matter. Sadly, we live in a society where more Americans sit up and take notice when a Hollywood actor makes a statement than when the president of the United States does. What is Islamophobia? Is it related to racism? How does Islamophobia relate to sociology?
Edward Said, the patriarch of oriental studies and the first mainstream scholar to publish on western perspectives of Islam, explained the term in Orientalism (as did Daniel Norman in Islam and the West: the Making of an Image). According to these scholars, the origins of Islamophobia go back to colonization periods and even to the Crusades. Today, the concept of Islamophobia is phrased in post-9/11 terminology and couched as anti-Islamic and pro-secular western rhetoric. In simple terms, Islamophobia is a fear or hatred of Muslims or the religion of Islam, although due to its relatively new arrival on the social sciences scene, a fully acceptable and unanimous decision on the definition has yet to be reached.
Why and how one can define this seemingly complicated concept as racism, then, may seem an insurmountable problem. It is a problem that needs to be addressed because of the term’s incessant use in the news media. After all, from Muslim activist groups to cable news talking heads, everybody seems to be using the word Islamophobia to mean different things.
Here’s what it isn’t: Islamophobia is not a criticism of Islam the religion, nor is it a stated hatred of Muslim terrorists, Islamists or any other group associated with Islam. In many ways, though, that is exactly what Islamophobia has become in the minds of many Americans, including those who are Muslim. Experts or academics who defame Islam as a religious ideology or raise their voices against the injustices perpetrated by authoritarian Islamic governments are called Islamophobes by Muslims themselves, as well as in the news media.
For most academics and sociologists, however, Islamophobia is a prejudice against the average Muslim because of his or her religion. Britain and France, with their higher populations of Muslim immigrants than the United States, are in the forefront of defining Islamophobia and working towards its eradication. The British Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) uses the phrase "intolerance and discrimination against Muslims" as does the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.
This explanation rightly reflects the focus on relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims within Europe rather than on Islam as a religion in the world. OSCE’s provisional definition is that “the term intolerance and discrimination against Muslims refers to behavior, discourse and actions which express, in OSCE states where people of Muslim heritage live as minorities, feelings towards them of hatred, hostility, fear or rejection.”
Is this racism? For many the fear and hostility is reminiscent of racism against other groups such as African Americans or Jews. In fact, many writers equate Islamophobia with anti-Semitism and American Muslim activism with a form of modern-day civil-rights movement.
Muslims make up so many diverse ethnicities, but there are many similarities between Islamophobia and racism. Islamophobia leads to many of the hallmarks of racism, such as stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination and persecution. As a result, calling it a form of racism may have benefits. By rephrasing or modifying the term Islamophobia in relation to racism, sociologists can better understand the multi-layered levels of discrimination encountered by Muslims in America and Europe.
For instance, Fear Inc. a report by the Center for American Progress, details some of the ramifications of this form of racism, and which groups are benefitting from this kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media. At the same time, viewing Islamophobia as strictly religious hatred may preclude us from considering non-religious forms of discrimination or prejudice. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explains how hundreds of Muslim women who wear the hijab are treated unfairly in the public sphere as a result of their faith, and the Equal Opportunity Commission writes about the more than 90 lawsuits against employers for harassment or employment discrimination since 9/11.
A discussion on whether Islamophobia is racism in its purest form may or not may be irrelevant today; the fact remains that its effects are felt by not only American Muslims but by others in society as well. One report by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia delineates societal issues such as structural inequalities and inbuilt pervasiveness; others discuss the overall decline in well-being and lack of social prosperity.
Until we look at the issue, determine the causes and work towards a more pluralistic society, fear and hostility towards Muslims is bound to grow. Ben Affleck may be a prominent voice calling attention to this form of bigotry, but the problem is long-term and systemic and needs attention from more than Hollywood actors. Addressing Islamophobia as a sub-set of racism is be the first step.