What is Islamophobia? Understanding the Anti-Muslim Sentiment through the Lens of Westerners (Updated 2023)
This article aims to look at the image of Muslim and Islam through the lens of the Westerners and to understand the anti-Muslim sentiment in analysis of the 2011 data gathered and published by Gallup, Inc., an American analytics and advisory company based in Washington, D.C.
Introduction: What is Islamophobia and what are the basic contentions regarding its definition?
The definition of Islamophobia has long been sitting at the center of the debate scene among scholars on the issue and some view it to an extent as problematic.
Even though Islamophobia has been a very well-digested concept — that is, it has been widely accepted and many have used it in the more general context provided by sources like Wikipedia and dictionaries, it still remains to be a complex and multifaceted concept.
According to Wikipedia and other various dictionary sources, Islamophobia is readily defined as “the fear, hatred of, or prejudice against the Islamic religion or Muslims generally, especially when seen as a geopolitical force or the source of terrorism.”
In recent years, Islamophobia has been the fear gripping Western societies but there have been contentions, first and foremost, on the portmanteau of words.
Islam refers to the Abrahamic monotheistic religion who teaches that Muhammad is a messenger of God (Allah) practiced by the Muslim community. This is now the world’s second-largest religion with almost 1.9 billion followers and is projected to healthily increase in the coming years rivaling the population of Christian followers.
On the other hand, there is the word phobia, “a Greek suffix used in English to form “nouns with the sense ‘fear of – – ‘, ‘aversion to – – ‘” and which according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, is defined as “an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation.”
The common issue pointed at the use of phobia is that as much as it classifies with fear – a concept or basically a feeling commonly associated with Islam primarily with connections to stereotypes of terrorism – it does not technically associate with discriminatory attitude or behavior which is also one of the major characteristics of Islamophobia.
In a commentary in jihad.org, it cites that Islamophobia “combines two unrelated thoughts in order to create a shorthand term that bypasses a lengthy explanation and intellectual scrutiny.”
One major contention that has arisen in the definition of Islamophobia is the consideration of this concept as a form of xenophobia or racism. Some scholars view both concepts as an overlapping phenomenon but some dispute the relationship primarily citing that religion is not a race which in technical definition can not be associated with each other.
The 20th-anniversary report of the 1997 Runnymede Trust’s report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All edited by Farah Elahi and Omar Khan advocates the definition of Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism.
“Islamophobia is any distinction, exclusion or restriction towards, or preference against, Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) that has the purpose or effect
of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”
In its 1997 report, the term was justified with the notion that anti-Muslim prejudice has considerably and rapidly grown in recent years. With that, a new item in the vocabulary is needed to incorporate this definition.
It also points out to the same “operating system” as racism, that is,
“Not simply as an attitude or prejudice, but by denying people dignity, rights, and liberties across a range of political, economic, social and cultural institutions.”
It also suggests that anti-Muslim hate, prejudice, and discrimination does not fully capture the image of structural ways that racial inequalities persist. Adding to that, it also sets that all forms of racism contain a cultural component such as religion.
The University of California at Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project also suggested a working definition.
“Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social, and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve ‘civilizational rehab’ of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise).
Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.”
The Image of Islamophobia in the West
In order to understand the anti-Muslim sentiment in the West, it is imperative that we dig int the events that have led to the gruesome image of Islamophobia today.
Although the causes of Islamophobia have not yet been mapped out in detail and like its definition is also undergoing many controversies, data reveal that one of the major catalysts for Islamophobia are terrorist attacks.
Among the terrorist attacks that have truly fueled the anti-Muslim hate crimes in the US (and also impacted other countries) is the September 11, 2001 attack, dubbed as 9/11, wherein 19 militants associated with Al Qaeda, the Islamic extremist group, hijacked four planes to carry out suicide attacks.
Two of the four planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, the third hit the Pentagon just outside Washington D.C., while the fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. During this attack, there were an estimated 3,000 deaths and had launched hate crimes against Muslims in the US.
Although Islamophobia is not a concept that has just been invented after this attack, this has obviously triggered and fueled the anti-Muslim sentiment. Data released had shown that prior to the 2001 attack, in 2000, there were only 28 recorded hate crimes in the US but after 9/11, the number jumped to 481.
Aside from that, anti-Muslim hate crime only accounted for the second-least religious bias incidents but quickly moved up to second on the list.
In the week alone of September 11, there were already 3 reported killings and in September 15, a Sikh by the name of Balbir Singh Sodhi was mistaken as a Muslim due to his turban and was killed. On that same day, two Muslims, Waqar Hasan and Vasudev Patel were gunned down in Texas to avenge the United States on the 9/11 attack.
Islamophobia surged again after the 2015 Paris attacks wherein coordinated groups of gunmen and suicide bombers hit the State de France stadium where France were playing Germany in an international football friendly game, another at Le Carillon bar, Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, La Belle Equioe bar in the rue de Charonne in the 11th district, Le Comptoir Voltaire restaurant, and the Bataclan concert hall simultaneously.
This “act of war” as described by then President Francois Hollande was organized by the Islamic State (IS) militant group and has killed 137 people.
After the attack, reports and pictures of vandalized mosques and restaurants owned by Muslims were received by the Collectif Contre L’Islamophobie en France (CCIF).
In the UK, according to Tell MAMA which is a Britain-based NGO that tracks hate crimes against Muslims, the number of crimes had increased threefold and 115 incidents were registered in just a week after the attack.
It was also in 2015 that the recorded anti-Muslim hate crimes reached its peak after 9/11 wherein 174 incidences of anti-Muslim violence and vandalism were reported. Additionally, more than 60 percent of these crimes were committed from September to December.
And today, Islamophobia has escalated from the streets (retaliation from attacks) into the political system. With the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, he issued an Executive Order that suspends and restricts immigrants and refugees coming mostly from Arab and Muslim majority countries.
There were about 60,000 to 100,000 innocents (students, visiting family members, businesspeople) whose visas were cancelled and they were also detained, interrogated, and many were deported back to their countries.
Another equally cruel act under the Trump administration is the reduction of the annual number of refugees admitted into the US, from 110,000 during the presidency of Obama to just less than 20,000. Coupled with the earlier immigration ban discussed, these policies had certainly impacted Muslims.
Understanding the Anti-Muslim Sentiment through Numbers
From the 9/11 attack to the retaliation on the streets to avenge the US and the numerous terrorist attacks in different parts of Europe, Islamophobia had definitely been high-alert on the maps.
Gallup, an American analytics and advisory company based in Washington, D.C., had collected and published data which details the public opinion in the West regarding Muslims and Islam. Through various research vehicles as well as global polling efforts, they were able to give a brief snapshot on the various aspects of respect, treatment, and tolerance relative to Muslims worldwide.
These data presented here are gathered from 2008 to 2011 and are presented with other research.
Respect and Fair Treatment
In an era of many different perspectives and beliefs, one thing that peacefully binds humanity is the ability to respect one another and provide fair treatment, especially when it comes to policies, regardless of gender, social class, religion, and many other social categorizations that we have developed today.
Under these terms, Muslims have reported that they do not feel respected by the West and this had been affirmed by Western societies like America and Canada where there was a significant affirmative response with 52% and 48% respectively. The UK, Germany, France, and Italy leaned more on a negative response that Muslims were generally respected by Western societies.
This data is supported by the May and June 2016 Brookings Institute polls which showed that 41% and 38% respectively of Americans have unfavorable view of Islam. This is partly rooted from the history of terrorist attacks claimed by Islamic extremists and had caused a stereotype among Muslims and generally those who identify with the Islam faith.
Additionally, research has shown that the representation of Muslims have been significantly more negative following the 9/11 attacks. This kind of media stigmatisation has led to a still significant third of American population to maintain that even though Islam is an inherently peaceful religion, it still encourages violence against non-Muslim.
This distrust and hostility against Muslim communities can also be explained through the lack of personal understanding towards the individuals and the religion. In a study, it was discovered that 6 out of 10 Americans do not know a Muslim personally.
Aside from a personal standpoint and understanding, another significant element that plays a role in the image of Muslims and Islam in Westerners (in terms of respect) is in the concept of differences whether it’s religion, culture, or the political interests.
According to the published article in Gallup, “Differences in culture, religion, and political interests may shape one population’s opinion toward the other. Definitions of Islamophobia tend to attribute fear or hatred of Muslims to their politics or culture, and to Islam and the religiosity of Muslims.”
In the 2008 data as seen above, those in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) nations as well as in the US and Canada point to both religion and political interests as primary causes of tensions. On the other hand, Sub-Saharan Africa weighs more heavily on religion while Europeans cite politics as the major driving force behind the tensions.
This is significant in identifying the root cause of Islamophobia — that is, if there is one or is it variable across countries. Both culture and religion are ingrained while politics is more variable to perspective.
Thus, for countries which cite religion and culture as the driving force between tensions, it is fair to conclude that there could be no major changes in perspective and Islamophobia will still continue to exist. And since politics is something that shifts, there could be a bigger room to improve perspective on each other (Muslim and the West).
As mentioned in the previous discussion of respect and fair treatment towards Muslim, a third of Americans believe that Islam encourages violence towards non-Muslims. The term “believe” points to a case of prejudice or a “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.”
In a report by the Center for American progress, there is a network of funded misinformation which actively promotes Islamophobia in America. Couple this with the stigmatised representation of Muslim in the media create both prejudice and consequently discrimination among the general population. Prejudice not only heavily impacts how Westerners view Muslims but also proliferates an anti-Muslim sentiment.
Gallup proceeded to examine prejudice against Muslims across the board of religions. In the US, major religious groups like Jews, Muslims, Unaffiliated, Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons on how prejudiced Americans are towards Muslim Americans.
Drawing from the data, in the US, the number significantly leans towards the response that Americans are prejudiced towards Muslim Americans with percentages ranging from 47% (Mormons) to as high as 66% for Jews and closely followed by Muslim-Americans themselves at 60%.
Additionally, Muslim Americans top the ranks of those who had experienced racial or religious discrimination with 48% which is a significantly high percentage compared to the least which are Protestants at 18%.
In a 2019 survey conducted by PEW Research Center, it has showed that there is a drastic increase in experienced religious discrimination against Muslim Americans.
From 48% in 2011, it has dramatically increased to 82% in 2019 (with 56% at the level of “a lot” and 26% at “some”). Muslim Americans have noted that they have experienced discrimination such as being treated with suspicion and being singled out by airport security, or called offensive names.
On another note, discrimination can also be seen in practical impact in terms of “ability to get ahead in the country” and according to another Pew Research Center survey conductedlast year, most Americans see Muslims as being disadvantaged with more than 6 in 10 US adults, or roughly 63%, say that being a Muslim hurts someone’s chances for advancement in an American society at least a little.
Islamophobia, although can be traced back as a product of terrorist attacks with data supporting the spike of hate crimes after these attacks like the 9/11 and the 2015 Paris attack, Islamophobia can not be generalized as an organic result of Muslims doing bad things.
It should also be noted that Islamophobia is proliferated through the media and at some point is manufactured news.
Media play an important role in shaping people’s perspectives and recent studies have shown that 90% of news about Muslim and Islam was negative and over the past years, they have been depicted more negatively than cancer or cocaine.
In order to abolish Islamophobia, individuals must first educate themselves and remove the filter out of their eyes. People do not understand because they do no take the necessary step and effort to do so which translates into a society that allows such discrimination.
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