WHAT IS ISLAMOPHOBIA?
As a researcher on Islamophobia, I have spent years monitoring and analyzing anti-Muslim racism, investigating how it manifests and impacts Muslims and wider society. Over the years, I’ve often received the same question when I tell people about my work: “What is Islamophobia?”
To put it simply, Islamophobia is a form of racism that targets Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslim) and results in the infringement of their human rights. While Muslims are not a race, they have been racialized. As Jordan Denari Duffner explains in her book, Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (and Do) About Anti-Muslim Discrimination, this means that society has constructed Muslims as sharing a set of physical and cultural traits that are natural to them. An easy way to understand this racialization is to examine what image comes to mind when you hear the word “Muslim.” More likely than not, the image will be of an individual of brown skin with a long beard, or wearing a headscarf or face veil, or wearing a turban. While none of these things are exclusive to Muslims, they have come to define them in Western imagination.
"ISLAMOPHOBIA IS OFTEN PROMOTED BY THE MEDIA, WHICH OFTEN RELIES ON SENSATIONALIZED CONTENT TO GRAB VIEWERS' ATTENTION. THIS ROUTINELY INVOLVES THE PROMOTION OF MISINFORMATION THAT AMPLIFIES STEREOTYPES AND FEEDS FEAR."
This generalization of what a Muslim looks like is often accompanied by negative stereotypes and behaviors such as violent and misogynistic Muslim men and oppressed Muslim women. These characteristics along with other negative attributes, such as intolerant, backward, and untrustworthy, are imposed on Muslims as natural traits. These negative and harmful generalizations result in the dehumanization of Muslims, meaning that it deprives Muslims of their positive human qualities and instead only views them as a faceless and threatening group.
Islamophobia is often promoted by the media, which often relies on sensationalized content to grab viewers’ attention. This routinely involves the promotion of misinformation that amplifies stereotypes and feeds fear. Viewers who watch these news programs or read such newspapers can internalize these prejudicial views and in turn support policies that negatively impact the rights of Muslims.
It is important to note that Islamophobia does not include criticism of Islam. Critical engagement, study, and debate about religion is lawful and protected under the right to free expression. However, many anti-Muslim voices and groups have used this right as a cover for their prejudicial views and harmful goals. Take for example how a number of anti-Muslim voices have publicly burned the Qur’an, the holy book for nearly two billion Muslims around the world. Individuals who have engaged in this act often aim to provoke and antagonize individuals, seeking to disrupt social harmony by engaging in a hateful act. It is often used as a symbolic call for violence against Muslims, and it is motivated not by critical engagement but simply by bigotry.
"IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT ISLAMOPHOBIA DOES NOT INCLUDE CRITICISM OF ISLAM. CRITICAL ENGAGEMENT, STUDY, AND DEBATE ABOUT RELIGION IS LAWFUL AND PROTECTED UNDER THE RIGHT TO FREE EXPRESSION."
Islamophobia can manifest in various forms, such as hate crimes as well as discriminatory policies. One example of the deadly consequences of Islamophobia is the horrific 2019 Christchurch massacre in which a White nationalist opened gunfire at two mosques in New Zealand, killing fifty-one worshippers. An example of discriminatory policies is the ban on the hijab in a number of European countries and in the Quebec province in Canada. Politicians who support hijab bans often defend their views by claiming the hijab goes against “Western values.” However, freedom of religion and expression are enshrined in our laws. Further, hijab bans actually result in social and economic isolation for Muslim women who are forced to choose between their education/careers and their faith.
"POLITICIANS WHO SUPPORT HIJAB BANS OFTEN DEFEND THEIR VIEWS BY CLAIMING THE HIJAB GOES AGAINST 'WESTERN VALUES.' HOWEVER, FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND EXPRESSION ARE ENSHRINED IN OUR LAWS."
Islamophobia impacts Muslims’ civil and human rights and causes great fear within the community. It also impacts wider society due to the sowing of hatred and mistrust, which leads to polarization and fractures in social cohesion. Meaningful education and engagement, tackling misinformation promoted by the media and politicians, and defending the human rights of every individual are some of the ways in which we can tackle Islamophobia today.
Mobashra Tazamal is the associate director of The Bridge Initiative, a research organization on Islamophobia at Georgetown University. Her work focuses on the impact of the war on terror discourse and state-sponsored Islamophobia around the globe. Given her expertise, she serves as a resource for educators and journalists, and her analysis has been cited in global media outlets such as the New York Times, NBC, Salon, Washington Post, and Al Jazeera. In addition to publishing articles and reports for Bridge, her work has also been published in The Independent, Al-Jazeera, Truthout, Middle East Eye, Byline Times, and The New Arab. She holds a master's degree from SOAS, University of London.