A New Islamophobia

Ilan Halevi


December 16, 2008
By Ilan Halevi
Islamophobia is a growing phenomenon in Western countries. Drawing on prejudices against Islam that have deep in roots in Christian European history and thought, the phenomenon has reached unprecedented heights in the post-9/11 political discourse. Its particular power and danger is its potential to forge a broad alliance of otherwise opposed political forces: Muslims and Islam serve as the embodiment of the ultimate enemy for conservatives and right wingers striving for Western hegemony and racial purity – and for progressives standing up for freedom of expression, rationality, human rights, and the rights of women. In this way, today, islamophobia serves similar purposes as anti-Semitism did in the past: It is a convenient scapegoat and a battle cry to distract and rally those who see their livelihood and their way of life threatened by the forces of globalisation and global capital.

A phobia implies hatred of a given object. Etymologically, it is the desire to avoid that object. In its current usage, it refers to an aversion, a compelling and irrational fear, or a disgust – something beyond personal taste or distaste, a collective phenomenon akin to ideology. Xenophobia, the hatred of foreigners, is a term commonly used for all forms of racism: negrophobia for racism against Blacks, judeophobia for racism against Jews, homophobia for hating homosexuals, etc.

The term “islamophobia” made its appearance less than two decades ago, mostly as an accusation levelled by Muslims against various forms of anti-Islamic utterances, attitudes, or practices. In August 2001, in Durban (South Africa), at the “3rd World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and all forms of related Intolerance”, organised under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Commission, the phenomenon of islamophobia was, for the first time, officially recognised – and condemned and outlawed. On paper, the Durban conference was a turning point: Besides denouncing islamophobia, Durban also condemned the Atlantic slave trade, slavery and colonialism as crimes against humanity.

Condemnations - on paper

These solemn condemnations, nevertheless, had no effect. The US Administration and its Israeli ally and protégé had taken care to discredit the conference in advance, claiming that it had been “hijacked” by the Palestinians and their Arab and Muslim brethren. Furthermore, the results of the Durban conference were overshadowed by the attacks of September 11, which took place only a few days after it had ended. As a result, any criticism of “The West” was rendered next to impossible, and any defence of Islam became highly suspect.
At the same time, it was precisely these events that brought Islamophobia to unprecedented heights, to an extent that it appears justified to speak of a new era of islamophobia: The new global enemy – “terror” – now has a face and a name, that of Al Qaeda and its alleged mastermind Osama Bin Laden.
On a formal level, of course, this is a war waged against a transnational “axis of evil”. Yet, after the rehabilitation of North Korea, this war appears to target almost exclusively states with Muslim majorities, or groups and individuals hailing from Muslim societies.

Terrorism (a technique, criminal indeed, but not an ideology) is basically the use, for political ends, of violence against civilians. The day after the 9/11 atrocities, the US rushed through the UN an international convention on “terror and suicide bombings” defining the former as “unauthorized violence”. Yet, this is still too vague and impersonal a term to serve as substitute for the “Evil Empire” that Communism represented. Hence the necessity to back up the global security discourse by notions of a cultural “crusade”, as the American president initially called it.
Against this background the multiplication of events invoking the dialogue of cultures, tolerance, interfaith encounters, and other forms of “cultural diversity”, only emphasises the reality of that rift – the reality of a dominant discourse that defines Islam and Muslims as the enemy.

Historic seachange

This new hostility to Islam is an inversion of the older European and Euro-American vision of the Muslim world. The victors of World War I had supported Ottoman legitimacy, and with it the Islamic Caliphate, against the Kemalist revolution in Turkey and its modernising, secular, and nationalist ambitions. Between the two world wars, when France and Great Britain shared control of most of the Islamic world (with the exception of Indonesia), the colonial powers’ main fear had been the emergence of modern nationalism. As a consequence they pursued alliances with traditionalist sectors of society, including religious circles.

The Cold War reinforced this alignment of colonial or ex-colonial powers with religious and traditionalist forces, liable to counterbalance the influence of modern and “secular” liberation movements, which had the tendency to look towards the Eastern Block. This was the golden age of the US-Saudi alliance, a time when oil interests and strategic designs converged. Thus the 1973 Israeli-Arab war, and, in its aftermath, the Arab oil boycott, led to a wave of arabophobia, particularly in the American media. Yet this did not develop into outright islamophobia until much later – when the Soviet “common enemy” had disappeared.

The turning point seems to have been the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It gave political Islam international visibility – yet it coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As all of this still took place during the Cold War, the Western reaction to the Soviet invasion spawned the last wave of old-style politics – here, as often in history, two eras overlapped. For a decade the US supported, financed, armed, and trained the Afghan Mujahideen, religiously inspired guerrilla fighters, against the Soviets, and gave its blessing to the international recruitment of Islamic volunteers. In a futile attempt to counter Iranian influence, it subsequently supported the very same Taliban which it toppled a decade later. The reversal of ideological alliances was delayed until the Soviet Empire dissolved, and Bush’s Axis of Evil replaced Reagan’s Evil Empire.

One final caveat: Even though islamophobia is on the rise everywhere, the geopolitics behind its ascendancy, its particular traits and features in a given setting, are determined by the cultural patterns, intellectual traditions, and specific prejudices of each particular country or region.

Islamism and Islam

Outright and unabashed islamophobia, as displayed by American evangelists and neo-conservatives, or by an alarming number of European intellectuals, is largely absent from mainstream political discourse. The reason is that it would be politically incompatible with efforts to win Muslim allies for the “War against Terror”. Hence, the official consensus behind the new global war is that the problem is not Islam as such, but certain manifestations of it branded “political Islam”, “radical Islam”, “jihadism”, or, more recently, “islamo-fascism”. This position, however, clashes with a number of facts. Islam is, according to its own definition, Din, Dounia, wa-Dawla, i.e. “religion, world, and state” – and thus there is no such thing as an apolitical Islam. In addition, the claim that radical Islam is more specifically and more radically evil than radicalism in general, logically implies that moderate Islam is moderately evil.
“Jihadism” is a category invented by Western orientalists and islamologists, one that Moslems do not recognise. “Islamo-fascism” suggests a particular and essential connection between Islam and fascism that does not correspond with any tangible reality. “Fundamentalism”, a term derived from Protestantism, and “integrism”, with its origin in the French Catholic Church, can hardly be applied to movements in the Muslim world, and most certainly not to the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, the ancestor of most Islamic political movements. The apparently neutral terms “Islamism” and “Islamists” do not really help to overcome the contradictions, as the Arabic language itself does not differentiate between Islamist and Islamic (Islami would be the translation for both), except to reproduce the European concept (Islamiyye or Islamawiye, Islamiyyoun, etc…).
In short, there is serious trouble in defining both Islam and Islamism, which accounts for the semantic confusion. At any rate, those who are labelled Islamists do not perceive of themselves as such; they claim to simply represent true Islam – and not a current, a school, or a sect. There are, however, many signs that the (silent) majority of Muslims does not endorse or support this claim, even if many of them are not insensitive to the Islamic political discourse, especially when it is opposed to Western hegemony, to repressive states, or to foreign occupation.

Houllebecq and the Pope

In contrast, many European and American intellectuals, journalists, and “experts”, including some “self-critical Muslims”, free from diplomatic imperatives and constraints, do not hesitate to go further and incriminate Islam itself. This is particularly the case with the famous scholar Bernard Lewis, or, in a more vulgar fashion, the hatemonger and propagandist Daniel Pipes, whose anti-Islamic diatribes are a favourite reading of President George W. Bush. This is also the case with journalists like Oriana Fallaci, writers and intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq, with the Tunisian writer Abdel Wahab Meddeb, or the Egyptian-Italian journalist Magdi Allam, who recently, with much media fanfare, converted to Roman Catholicism – a step he orchestrated with a series of accusations against Islam. Last but not least Pope Benedict XVI recently quoted anti-Islamic statements by a Byzantine pontiff from the times of the Ottoman siege of Konstantinopel, thus aligning the Vatican with the evangelical tenant of the White House.

Of course, all such anti-Islamic feelings thrive on a substratum of Christian hostility to other religions in general, and towards Islam in particular. From the crusades to colonial wars, from the Spanish Reconquista and the russification of Tatar lands to the post-colonial problems linked with migration, the European collective imagination has viewed Islam as the archetypical enemy, the irreducible Other. Yet, as we have seen, this perspective is also very much in tune with the present international political situation – with the need, after the demise of the Soviet bloc, to find a new global adversary.

In the typology of islamophobic discourse, a special chapter should be devoted to islamophobia within the Muslim world. First of all, there are the governments of Muslim countries, well aware of the fact that for Europeans and Americans, once “terror” has been identified as the problem, democracy and human rights take the back seat. Saddam Hussein was the first ruler in the Middle East who understood this and thus enjoyed considerable US and European backing for his aggression against Iran. More than a decade later, the Algerian Government was to enjoy similar support in its struggle against the Islamic Salvation Front. The governments of Tunisia and Egypt, both faced with Islamic opposition, know that their democratic legitimacy will be little scrutinised by the West. The rulers of Syria have long since abandoned the secular discourse of Baathist ideology – today they repress Islamic currents while trying to make clerical authorities their allies.

A Sunni - Shia rift

The Sunni - Shia rift adds further confusion. In Lebanon, for instance, some Sunnis use the West’s anti-Iranian stance to attack the Shia Hizbullah. Their Shiite opponents retaliate by claiming that Sunnis make common cause with the Taliban. To make matters even more confused both also accuse each other of being pawns of Israel.

Individual “Muslim” islamophobes fall into various categories. There are the collaborators, good pupils of their colonial masters. Some speak out of conviction – which brings us close to what Zionists call “Jewish self-hatred”. Yet, this is a treacherous concept, as it implies some form of compulsory tribal solidarity – the claim that it is unacceptable to reject one’s own people, whatever the circumstances. It is not always easy to draw a clear line between rational, even passionate criticism of one’s own group and the tendency to denigrate it because one identifies with another, typically a dominant group. Was Voltaire a self-hating Frenchman when he wrote, at the time of the Calas Affair, that France was the most barbarian country in Europe? Was Nietzsche a self-hating German when he wrote that the Mediterranean shores of Europe marked the northern border of civilisation? Was Lenin a self-hating Russian when he called the Russian empire a “prison of peoples”?

Finally, some modernist, often non-Muslim and vehemently secular and westernised intellectuals within Muslim societies have a tendency to flirt with islamophobia. Some defenders of women’s, gay and lesbian’s, and other human rights fall into this category. Although they claim that they are not responsible for possible malignant use others might make of their legitimate concerns, they are, in reality, ready to serve as witnesses against Islam. Due to their intimate connection to and knowledge of the object of their phobia, they are, in the West, considered to be especially credible sources.

Here legitimate and necessary criticism – including collective self-criticism – faces the test: What will happen when it is being used for unintended purposes? A poignant example is the 2003 UNDP Report on Human Development the Arab World. Written by independent Arab researchers who, out of a sense of positive concern, were interested in the truth, it gave a dim picture of the area. There is no doubt that the authors’ purpose was to serve their people. Yet the report became a favourite point of reference for the US president and Washington neo-cons because it provided them with the evidence they needed to justify their military interventions and aggressive diplomacy. This, however, is a permanent dilemma. Some thirty years ago the late Maxime Rodinson acknowledged that the critique of African dictatorial regimes could indeed be used by anti-black racists – but that that was no reason to keep silent. Yet, one cannot be totally “innocent” of the instrumentalisation, or even hijacking of one’s work. The balance between the need to tell the truth and the consideration of possible misuse must therefore be struck in each particular case.

Paradoxical categories

If Islamism is a paradoxical category, the same is true for islamophobia. The most vociferous denouncers of Islam deny, as do most racists, that they are prejudiced. For them, their criticism of Islam is founded on what they consider to be irrefutable facts, i.e. a rational assessment of the truth. Many of them even pose as heroes for daring to challenge the supposed political correctness of multicultural approaches, thus suggesting that complacency towards Islam is in fact submission to Islamist terror.

In fact, many paradoxical Islam-bashers do not only claim that they are innocent of the charge of islamophobia. They also insist that islamophobia is an invention of Islamists, fabricated so that they may pose as victims.
However, one basic assumption they all have in common is the belief that the behaviour of Muslims, and particularly of Muslim terrorists, is not derived in any way from their experience with the West but from something intrinsically Islamic. For George W. Bush this means hatred of freedom, women, and Jews. For Alain Finkelkraut the hatred of Jews has nothing to do with Israeli practices and policies, but rather reflects the frustration of people who always used to hold Jews in contempt and who are now forced to deal with them as a strong and powerful community!

French exceptionalism

There is, in this context, an aggravating French “exception” – the uniquely French understanding of “laïcité” that goes far beyond secularism and the mere separation of church and state. This has contributed to making France a hotbed of islamophobia. The French Republic, after all, is heir to a revolution which burned thousands of churches and monasteries and put hundreds of “counter-revolutionary” clerics to death. It is therefore no wonder that, over twenty years ago, France witnessed the first public uproar against the wearing of the hijab (the headscarf derogatorily called “Islamic veil”) by schoolgirls. The lone teacher, who, in the name of laïcité, took it unto himself to exclude a pupil from class, was followed by others – which led to a debate concerning the compatibility of Islam and the French Republic. The result was an extensive anti-hijab legislation –  and soon other European countries followed suit.
The said teacher who broke ideological ground for a new alliance between left and right against an alleged Islamic threat turned out to be a radical leftist. In France the left and parts of the extreme left are at the forefront of militant islamophobia. In regard to them one is tempted to repeat what, over a century ago, the German socialist August Bebel said about anti-Semitism – that it is the “socialism of fools”!

Historically, anti-Semitism in Europe until World War II drew its particular virulence from the fact that it was a consensus cutting across class divides, a terrain, where the old conservative right, for which Jews were low-down immigrants, cosmopolitan revolutionaries, and enemies of the existing social order, met with popular anti-capitalist perceptions, which saw in them a caste of exploiters and identified them with the evil power of money. It is precisely here where the particular danger of present-day Islamophobia resides: in its potential to create common ground, even consensus, between classes and ideological camps supposedly at odds with each other.
The headscarf issue has revealed the depth of the cultural identity crisis in French and European societies. The range of attitudes vis-à-vis the admission of Turkey to the European Union also shows an axis of consensus between the old “Christian” right, which clearly affirms that a Muslim country cannot be part of Europe, and democrats who oppose it in the name of Turkish women, Kurds, and Armenians.

To be sure, the polemic about headscarves does not reflect a genuine concern for the women of the Muslim world. A knowledgeable observer of the French scene, Paris-based ex-Yugoslav scholar Rada Ivekovic, in a paper presented to the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004, expounded that the message of the furore surrounding headscarves is one that men convey to other men through women, using women’s body as an instrument.

The case of Germany

The case of Germany is quite revealing in this context. Culturally speaking, Germany has probably less islamophobic traditions that most other European countries. Goethe was a well-known “admirer” of Islam, and imperial Germany was allied to the Ottoman Empire. Germany built the Hejaz railway and eventually entered into a military alliance, first with the Ottomans and subsequently with the Young Turks. Also, Germany never had colonies in the Muslim world, and since the end of the crusades, the only hostile Muslims to figure in the collective memory of the German-speaking territories were the Ottomans besieging Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries – a fact however that was eclipsed by the 19th century rapprochement. Yet, as elsewhere in Europe, islamophobia is clearly on the rise in Germany – undoubtedly an effect of the rise of global islamophobia.

Germany has had its own headscarf debate – a teacher was banned from teaching for refusing to take off her headscarf. While Germany may be more “liberal” in allowing students to wear the headscarf in class, it does not seem to see a problem in banning one religious symbol from school while allowing others: After all, Islam is the problem, not religion per se. A further recent example for religious bias is Germany’s intention to restrict immigration of Iraqi refugees to Christians.
Yet, there are other factors at play – namely the size of the Turkish community in Germany, which is comparable to that of North African origin in France. This accounts for Germany’s staunch opposition to Turkey’s accession to the European Union and it gives islamophobia the role of an ideological discourse intended to make sense out of a social contradiction, a conflict of power between groups defined as ethnic, cultural, and religious.

Having said this, one cannot ignore the fact that both “conservative” and “radical” Islamic authorities, be they religious or political, have contributed to the escalation, for instance by turning the hijab into a central battleground over principles and values. They thus had their share in transforming a somewhat marginal issue, an issue chosen by the “other side”, too, into the symbolic core of a complex and comprehensive conflict rooted in multi-dimensional historical grievances and political contradictions. This promptness to overreact in all the wrong places seems to have become a trademark of “radical conservatives”. Two decades before 9/11 some Pakistani clerics issued a fatwa (religious legal opinion) against the Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie for his supposedly blasphemous novel “The Satanic Verses”, thus turning the author into a victim, exacerbating his islamophobic tendencies, and transforming him into a living symbol of Islamic intolerance.

In many ways, the Rushdie affair laid the ground for a view of Islam as archetypical enemy of “freedom”. For Western public opinion this was the first “shock” encounter with politicised Islam, and it has set the stage for categories that, after 2001, became hegemonic.

The Danish caricatures

The same pattern was played out in the case of the Danish caricatures. In September 2005, the newspaper Jyllands Posten, with links to the xenophobic, anti-immigrant extreme-right, published a series of cartoons “making fun” of Islam and Muslims. The Muslim community in Denmark protested, singling out as particularly offensive a cartoon depicting a man from whose turban protruded a stick of dynamite. While in no way obvious in the drawing itself, the protesters considered the man to be a representation of the Prophet himself, and the cartoon not only as grossly offensive to Muslims but also in violation of the Islamic ban to depict the Prophet. Pushed by outraged public opinion among Islamic communities in Europe, eleven ambassadors from Islamic countries asked for an audience with the Danish Prime Minister – head of a conservative government that sent Danish troops to Iraq. Yet, he flatly refused to receive them, and through the media replied that Denmark was a democracy, and that therefore his government could not interfere with the press.

It was only several weeks later, after anti-Danish demonstrations all over the Muslim world, after Danish diplomatic missions had been attacked throughout the Middle East, and after boycotts against Danish products, that the government apologised and distanced itself from Jyllands Posten. By then the battle had moved on to other European countries, particularly to France, where several newspapers, including some publications identified with the left, reproduced the Danish caricatures in the name of freedom of expression or even, as they made clear, as a statement in the struggle against Islamic obscurantism and totalitarianism.
In the meantime, the Iranian president, who rarely misses an opportunity to provide his enemies with ideological ammunition against his country, argued that the very same Europeans who champion freedom of expression when it comes to Islam have enacted laws to prevent the denial of the holocaust. As a reaction he called for an international gathering of deniers of the holocaust in Teheran. In France, several Islamic associations, supported by some anti-racist organisations, tried to indict the libertarian weekly Charlie Hebdo, which had printed the cartoons, but they failed miserably – the French judges upheld the rights of the paper.

In Denmark itself the police announced the arrest of three men, a Dane of Moroccan origin and two Tunisians, who had allegedly plotted the assassination of the cartoonist. A few weeks later, the former was released and the latter two were expelled from the country, all of which seems to indicate that the case against them was shaky. Yet in the meantime, and in the face of such an unacceptable threat against Danish democracy, an outcry of islamophobic rage had united part of the Danish “radical left” with its political adversaries on the right.

Limits to the criticism of religion?

One can, of course, regret that so many Muslims let themselves be provoked and manipulated, both by islamophobes and by Islamic groups, into waging marginal battles over purely symbolic issues, while, at the same time, there are so many substantial issues to do with the relation between the Muslim world and Europe that remain untackled.
For Europeans it should be clear that while criticism of religion in general and of one’s own in particular, is indeed perfectly legitimate, the criticism levelled at one religion by the followers of another should be non-inflammatory. The issue here is not one of defending or exalting Islam as a system, but of respect for Muslims as human beings. More generally, the critique of religious thinking and institutionalised religions can only be credible, if it is conducted with criteria and values that apply universally, not selectively.

The parallel with judeophobia (rather inaccurately called anti-Semitism) seems particularly poignant. Both are cases of what Maxime Rodinson has described as an “ideological delirium”, and in both cases the classical and/or colonial racism of a conservative upper class meets and merges with a “socialism of fools”, thus catering to the need to find a scapegoat for social discontent and resentment. It is this what gave “anti-Semitism” its particular virulence, and all signs seem to be pointing to the fact that today, in Europe and the US, islamophobia does play a similar role. The widespread fears associated with globalisation and its social effects only reinforce the parallel. Let us hope that the outcame will not be the same.

Against essentialism

In our analysis, in thinking, speaking, and writing, it is crucial that we reject essentialism, generalisations, and the intellectual laziness on which they rely. We have to look at the specific circumstances, conditions, and contradictions: In Iran, for instance, the reformist movement, the human rights movement, and the women’s movements are all formally “Islamic”, if certainly not “Islamist” in a political sense. With all its shortcomings, the present Islamic government of secular Turkey is the first to abolish the death penalty.
The list of facts that contradict the clichés is long: Let us recall that Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the Lebanese Hizbullah, explicitly condemned the 9/11 attacks, while a short while ago Al Qaeda denounced Hamas for “accepting democracy”! More recently Al Qaeda has even embarked on an all-out anti-Shia campaign – against the Shiites of Iraq, against Iran, and against Hizbullah in Lebanon.

In the political as well as in the cultural arena one has to oppose the terminology of a clash of civilisations. Both “East” and “West”, in this sense, have become dangerous concepts. It is much more useful to emphasise the cultural dynamism that has connected both sides of the Mediterranean for centuries, the exchanges and emulation.
In the interaction between different systems, dialogue and peaceful co-existence must be the guiding principles – and that without falling into the trap of cultural relativism: There are some basic human rights that have to be universally recognised. Nobody should be subjected to inhuman, degrading treatment, whatever cultural system involved. This, maybe, is the difference between the headscarf and female genital mutilation, a practice that has nothing to do with Islam, but that is widespread in some Islamic societies.

The stakes are much higher than the dignity and welfare of over a billion followers of Islam. Islamophobia is a cancer that may devour Europe and America and push them into an abyss that will make the last world conflict look like a mere rehearsal.

Ilan Halevi is a writer and political activist. He has been the representative of Palestine in the Socialist International since 1983, was a member of the Palestinian delegation in the Madrid and Washington negotiations (1991-1993) and Assistant Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Palestinian Government (2003-2005).