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Islamophobia: Why we have to get over our fears

Rania Hafez


130756932 300x198 Islamophobia: Why we have to get over our fears

President of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS), Nicolas Blancho delivers a speech during a protest against 'islamophobia and racism' organized by the ICCS, on October 29, in Bern.

‘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.

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  • GeoffMSmith

    Well Rohit, you are just an Islamophobe, innit?

  • GeoffMSmith

    “Islam … is incompatible with the society that the Magna Carta helped us to fashion over 800 years.” So is much of what recent British governments have been doing in our name!

  • GeoffMSmith

    Hmm Evian, “ to (sic) many in rthe west have no clue about the teachings of the koran” – I trust you are aware that this includes you! 

  • GeoffMSmith

    GOB, the behaviour that you say was covered on “Dispatches” (I did not see it, but take your word for it) is clearly wrong and probably illegal, and those guilty should be brought to justice. Please, though, do not make the all too common error of saying a whole faith is wrong because some men who are supposedly of that faith do bad things. 
    I think you are misrepresenting the article on women converts: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/women–islam-the-rise-and-rise-of-the-convert-6258015.html It does not say that 75% convert for marriage, as you imply. For many “it is a conversion of conviction where they feel a calling and embrace the religion robustly”. It was a conversion of the heart and mind – they converted into a faith, not a community. This is one of the main problems facing Muslims, and not just converts – where immigrants have settled en masse they have emulated the communities from which they have come, automatically (and probably unintentionally) alienating those not from that background. One hopes that, in time, these communities will have the self-confidence to integrate more with the host community. Education, particularly tertiary is doing a great deal in this regard. Inter-marriage can only help. 

  • Guest

    This is the central point. Islam is an engine of segregation and division, because Muslims are quite specifically forbidden to marry non-Muslims. Note also the comment from one of the women in the article, who quite clearly states that embracing Islam has divided her from her family because, in part, she is no longer permitted to attend family functions such as weddings, christenings and funerals because she may not set foot in a church or licensed premises.

    Islam and the tribal, third-world cultures which tend to embrace it are not actually the same thing, but they are inextricably linked and in such cases, to say that regarding sexual relationships with under-age girls from outside the faith is a criticism of the culture, not the faith, is not entirely true and in any case, really only amounts to hair-splitting because the actual results are much the same.

    In many ways, Muslims don’t integrate in foreign cultures for much the same reason that Chinese and Japanese don’t; because they are conditioned not to from a very early age, speak a language not understood in their more-or-less unwilling host country and follow cultural practices which that host country may well not approve of or permit.

    Hence my original remark. The man-in-the-Oldham-street does not really care greatly that these incomers are Muslims per se. What he does care about, is that in a time of economic hardship, chronic mass unemployment and increasing pressure on housing and public services, the government continues to admit huge numbers of cultural aliens who not only do not integrate to any significant extent, but are favoured by the law of the land and paid for from taxes, for the sake of an ideology which he either rejects or finds completely incomprehensible.

    Islam is not the actiual cause of the problem but it is a major and inextricable component of it.

  • PatrickAinley

    It is rather a funny idea that the Swiss are demolishing minarets (or at least forbidding the building of new ones) and the French banning the burqua and niqab because ‘Fear of conviction, fer of free speech and fear of offence’!

  • http://twitter.com/mumaj25 um

    certinly not – islam the way it is practised and used as a political weapon is more the faith of despots – why even nazis will appear pacifist in comparison.. if we ever had to count the lives they have taken and the violence they have spread across the world over 12 centuries.

    The divinity and ethics of this religion is only for their own creed of believers, they are inhuman to those that are indifferent…what can be more racist than this..

  • liseaux

     i think freedom of speech is essential but can see why there is a knee jerk response to the freedom of expression of fundamentalist islamist belief. the fear is in response to the fact that it sees itself as above any law. also – moderate muslims are not always quick to publically decry and reject this part of islam. i would like to see moderate muslims take an agressive stance against militant fundamentalism within their religion. this might help non muslims see that islam isn’t at the mercy of wrong teachers or in fear of speaking honestly where there is error.


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