Islamophobia: Why we have to get over our fears
‘Islamophobia is the new racism’ is now a seeming truism, or so Baroness Warsi and many others would have us believe. She claims that Islamophobia has ‘passed the dinner table test’ and that anti-Muslim prejudice is now normal and uncontroversial in respectable society. Warsi’s views are echoed by many British Muslims, who claim to experience such prejudice daily.
Like many a clever coining, the term ‘Islamophobia’ remains undefined and its existence uncontested. The first recorded use dates back to 1990 in the American magazine Insight, although its etymology can be tracked to the mid 1920s. Since then after being a sociological concept largely restricted to Britain its use increased exponentially when it was declared a new form of global racism by the UN in 2001.
In its simplest form, and just going by the term itself, ‘phobia’ can be defined as ‘an intense but unrealistic fear that can interfere with the ability to socialize, work, or go about everyday life, brought on by an object, event or situation’. Adding the prefix ‘Islam’ therefore implies that this irrational fear is triggered by Islam and directed at Muslims.
But are we conflating run of the mill prejudice that a few may encounter with a national epidemic of irrational hatred against Muslims? Or is the cry of ‘Islamophobia’ simply a way of deflecting legitimate criticism of certain backward ideas associated with religion in general; and conservative Islam in particular? When we talk about Islamophobia, what is it we are really talking about?
Neither the simple definition nor the forensic academic investigation of the concept help to explain what we are really dealing with. Both mask the real issues behind Islamophobia. The easy appropriation of psychoanalytical approaches to fear suggest that indeed fear is the key issue. However, ‘Islamophobia’ expresses not a primitive fear of Muslims and Islam but several deeper anxieties that dominate British and Western political culture.
The first of these is a fear of conviction. Contemporary ‘post-modern’ morality encourages us to reject certainty in ourselves and others. We fear to confidently state our own convictions in case we are accused of bigotry, and we are anxious about others expressing their beliefs in case they are forced upon us. We may repeat the mantra that all perspectives and philosophies are equal, including beliefs held by others, but we shy away from a close examination of these beliefs for fear of losing the moral high ground of being non-judgemental.
In this cultural climate, Islam presents the West with a double challenge. Its adherents display a remarkably strong and not the slight bit ‘post-modern’ conviction in their faith, and its tenets seemingly contradict social and political Western values. Unwilling and unable to engage either with the faith or its followers, Islamophobia becomes a useful subterfuge.
This fear of strong ideas is connected with another fear. Fear of free speech.
There is no doubt that there is a deep-rooted ‘phobia’ in our society, but it is not of Islam. The fear that has gripped people is a fear of open debate and free speech. Across the spectrum, politicians may advocate for liberty and freedom of speech, but with caveats and ever stricter limits.
Both sides of the Islamophobia debate have argued for curbs on freedom of expression and free speech. The free speech of Muslim ‘extremists’ is curtailed in the interest of community cohesion. And the freedom to criticise Muslim fundamentalists or even Islam is chilled by charges of Islamophobia.
Fundamental to the fear of free speech is the fear of giving offence. We live in a culture where giving offence is deemed worse than grievous bodily harm. Some even argue that ‘hate speech’ itself harms the very being of those at whom it is directed. This doesn’t just betray the fear of argument and debate, but also the diminished view of individuals and groups particularly Muslims as not being capable of rational argument.
Not immune from the same fears, some British Muslims have jumped onto that very bandwagon, seeing it both as a useful way of deflecting criticism and an avoidance of defending their ideas. Much easier to hide behind the charge of Islamophobia! The danger for them is that in rejecting argument and debate they start to lose the ability the express their ideas with conviction and claim a legitimate public space for their beliefs.
Fear of conviction, fear of free speech and fear of offence are the hidden fears in the cry of ‘Islamophobia’. Overcoming these fears is the real challenge to all of us: Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Rania Hafez is a teacher educator and academic and founder and director of Muslim Women in Education. She produced the session Islamophobia: the new racism or liberal angst? at the Battle of Ideas festival.Tagged in: faith, islam, Islamophobia, opinion, prejudice, racism, Religion
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