Islamophobia or Anti-Muslim Racism — Or What?

Robin Richardson

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Islamophobia or Anti-Muslim Racism — Or What?

by Robin Richardson

Introduction and summary

There is an international cluster of terms and phrases referring to hostility towards Muslims. The most widely known member of the cluster is Islamophobia. But competing with it in certain contexts, countries, international organisations and academic institutions, there are several other terms. They include ‘intolerance against Muslims’, ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’, ‘hatred of Muslims’, ‘anti-Islamism’, ‘anti-Muslimism’, Muslimophobia’, and ‘anti-Muslim racism’. There is a similar range of terms in other languages, not just in English. In German, for example,  there is a contest between Islamophobie and Islamfeindlichkeit, the latter implying hostility, not fear. In French, the contest is in part between islamophobie and racisme anti-arabe and racisme antimaghrébin, the latter two phrases indicating that the phenomenon is primarily to do with racism directed towards immigrants from parts of the former French Empire.

Such differences in terminology reflect, but they do not exactly correspond to, differences of understanding and focus. For example, they reflect different views of causes, influences and drivers, and therefore different kinds of proposal and practical agenda. This paper reviews the conceptual and semantic issues raised by the diversity of terminology and understandings.

What is it, the paper asks, we are talking about –

attitudes and behaviour towards ‘Islam’ or towards ‘Muslims’?
attitudes of fear or attitudes of hostility?
issues in one’s own country or issues in the world as a whole?
something quite new or something going back many centuries?
something distinctive, or a sub-set of something else?
essentially, none of the above?

One appropriate way of proceeding with these questions is to start by discussing the most common word in the cluster of competing phrases, Islamophobia.

The history of a word

The word Islamophobia was presumably coined on an analogy with xenophobia, but exactly when and where and by whom, and with what particular purposes and concerns and subject-matter in mind, is not certain. The first known use of the French word Islamophobie appeared in a book by Alphonse Etienne Dinet, a painter who was a convert to Islam, written in 1916 and published some two years later. [1]  In an English version of his book, the word was translated as ‘feelings inimical to Islam’, not as Islamophobia. Dinet’s biographer, Denise Brahimi, used it in 1984 as if it was now established and accepted. The first use in English in print appears to have been in an article by Edward Said in 1985. [2]

The next recorded use of the word in English was in an American journal in February 1991, referring to anti-Muslim hostility in the former Soviet Union. [3] In the UK the word occurred in a book review by Tariq Modood in The Independent on 16 December 1991.

Modood used the term twice, but on neither occasion with the implication it needed explanation or definition, or that it was his own coining. It did not appear in the book he was reviewing, Sacrilege and Civility: Muslim perspectives on The Satanic Verses affair, published by the Islamic Foundation, Leicester.

In October 2003 the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences in the UK was informed in oral evidence that the word had first been coined by Dr Zaki Badawi, at that time principal of the Muslim College in London, or else by Fuad Nahdi, founding director of the magazine Q News. [4] The date of the coining by either of these would have been the late 1980s. The context would have included the campaigns led by MuslimWise, the predecessor of Q News, and by the An-Nisa Society, a community organisation based in Brent in north-west London, to counter anti-Muslim hostility not only in society at large but also, and more especially, amongst people working in the field of race relations. The latter included the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) nationally and race equality councils locally; also it included race equality officers and units in local authorities. All these were perceived to be insensitive and indifferent to the distinctive forms of ignorance, intolerance, discrimination and violence experienced by Muslims.

Years later, the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia suggested that the failure of the CRE to take serious account of Islamophobia was itself an example of institutional Islamophobia. More recently, the legal term ‘discrimination on grounds of religion or belief’ seems to reflect and reinforce a failure to understand and recognise the specificities of Islamophobia.

The word has increasingly been used since about 2000 in the deliberations and publications of international organisations, including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA, previously the European Monitoring Centre, EUMC)) and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The word is now widely used in the UK media, though occasionally it still appears in inverted commas, to imply the meaning is not clear, or – in the author’s view – not as clear as others claim. A further implication of the inverted commas is that there is in reality no such thing as Islamophobia: it is merely the figment of a paranoid or politically motivated imagination; or constructed out of a desire to perpetuate a siege mentality and sense of victimhood amongst Muslims, or to put an end to legitimate criticism, or to engage in lazy abuse. [5] 

Incidentally, the word is much commoner in Europe than in the United States. In 2007 it was used hundreds of times in The Guardian but on only twenty-six occasions in the New York Times. [6]

Objections to the term Islamophobia

The disadvantages of the term Islamophobia are significant. Some of them are primarily about the echoes implicit in the concept of phobia. Others are about the term Islam. For convenience, they can be itemised as follows:

1 Medically, phobia implies a severe mental illness of a kind that affects only a tiny minority of people. Whatever else anxiety about Muslims may be, it is not merely a mental illness and does not merely involve a small number of people.

2 To accuse someone of being insane or irrational is to be abusive and, not surprisingly, to make them defensive and defiant. Reflective dialogue with them is then all but impossible.

3 To label someone with whom you disagree as irrational or insane is to absolve yourself of the responsibility of trying to understand them, and of seeking through argument to modify their views.

4. The use of the word Islamophobia on its own implies that hostility towards Muslims is unrelated to other forms of hostility, for example those based around physical appearance and skin colour; or around immigrants, migrants and people seeking asylum; or around religion and so-called fundamentalism [7]; or around class, power, status and territory; or around military, political or economic competition and conflict.

5. The term implies there is no important difference between prejudice towards Muslims within one’s own country and prejudice towards those who are in other countries, particularly countries where Muslims are in the majority and with which ‘the West’ is in military conflict or economic competition.

6. The term is inappropriate for describing opinions that are basically anti-religion as distinct from anti-Islam. ‘I am an Islamophobe,’ wrote the journalist Polly Toynbee in reaction to the Runnymede 1997 report, adding ‘… I am also a Christophobe. If Christianity were not such a spent force in this country, if it were powerful and dominant as it once was, it would still be every bit as damaging as Islam is in those theocratic states in its thrall… If I lived in Israel, I’d feel the same way about Judaism…’ [8]

7. The key phenomenon to be addressed is arguably anti-Muslim hostility, namely hostility towards an ethno-religious identity within European countries, rather than hostility towards the tenets or practices of a worldwide religion. The 1997 Runnymede definition of Islamophobia was ‘a shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’. In retrospect, it would have been as or more accurate to say ‘a shorthand way of referring to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims – and, therefore, dread or hatred of Islam’.

Despite its disadvantages, the term Islamophobia looks as if it is here to stay – it cannot now be discarded from the lexicon. So the task is to define as clearly as possible what one means by it, and does not mean, and to complement or replace it with other terms when appropriate. It is helpful to recall in this respect that it is recognisably similar to terms such as homophobia, xenophobia and europhobia, none of which imply mental illness, and that it not infrequently happens, in the history of language, that words are coined that are less than ideal. The word antisemitism, for example, is grammatically nonsensical since there is no such thing as semitism; and in any case not all Jewish people are so-called Semites, nor are all so-called Semitic people Jewish. [9] The word has been around long enough now (about 150 years), however, for it to be generally accepted as unproblematic. The same kind of acceptance is apparently being accorded to Islamophobia, despite the problems and disadvantages outlined above.

‘Anti-Muslim racism’

It is sometimes argued, in view of the objections outlined above, that the term ‘anti-Muslim racism’ is clearer than the term Islamophobia. [10] An obvious objection is that Muslims are not a race and that therefore hostility towards them cannot be a form of racism. But, as is well known, the human species is a single race and distinctions between so-called races have no basis in science. From a scientific point of view it is as nonsensical to say that Africans, Asians or Chinese are races as to say that Muslims are.

In legal parlance in the UK, the term racial group is ‘a group of people defined by their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origin’. This is an extremely broad definition and clearly encompasses groups that are not normally thought of as races. If the term religious were to be added, or if the term ethnic were understood to encompass ethno-religious, then certainly Muslims would be defined in UK law as a racial group and the full force of race relations legislation would be brought to bear against hostility towards them. Either way it would need to be understood that Muslim identity is not necessarily or universally to do with holding distinctive beliefs or engaging in specific practices – it can be primarily to do with a sense of belonging, or of being perceived to belong, to a broad cultural tradition.

It is relevant in this connection to note that the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) emphasises entirely explicitly that, so far as combating intolerance is concerned, the categories of race and religion are in certain respects interchangeable. Their definition of racism is: ‘… the belief that a ground such as “race”, colour, language, religion, nationality or national or ethnic origin justifies contempt for a
person or a group of persons, or the notion of superiority of a person or group of persons.’ [11] It is arguably very unfortunate that European anti-discrimination legislation, unlike ECRI, sees ‘race’ and ‘religion or belief’ as entirely separate strands, with separate legal terminology and mechanisms of enforcement.

At the UN world conference on racism (WCAR) in August 2001 the word racism was used as a shorthand abbreviation for a much longer phrase: ‘racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’. Similarly the long phrase has been in use in 2009 at the Durban Review conference held at Geneva. At the very least, Islamophobia is clearly a form of ‘related intolerance’. Confronting and eliminating it involves the same range of measures – legal, structural, educational, attitudinal – that are required for the removal of all other kinds of racism. The WCAR’s deliberations and reports have the potential to shift public understanding of the connections and similarities between Islamophobia and other forms of prejudice. So far, however, this potential has not been realised.


Academic writers sometimes use the word Muslim in inverted commas, to signal that it means different things to different people and does not necessarily imply religious observance. [12]  Tariq Modood points out: ‘The South Asia I am from is contoured by communal religious identities. It has nothing to do with belief. If you assert “I am an atheist”, people will still think it meaningful to ask, “Yes, but are you a Muslim, a Hindu?’ [13]  Belonging to a religious tradition or community, to repeat, does not necessarily have to do with holding certain religious beliefs or engaging in certain religious practices. By the same token, hostility towards a certain ethno-religious community has nothing necessarily to do with hostility towards any specific religious beliefs. Consider, in this latter respect, antisemitism – Jews who are secular, atheist and non-observant may nevertheless be targets of anti-Jewish prejudice and in recent history were victims of the Holocaust. A key distinction must be drawn, this is by way of saying, between ‘belief’ and ‘affiliation’. Intolerance against Muslims, like antisemitism and like sectarianism and factionalism throughout the world, attacks certain people because of their affiliation, or assumed affiliation, not because of their beliefs.

The French scholar Etienne Balibar has suggested the term Muslimophobia is preferable to Islamophobia, since it more obviously refers to hostility based around ethno-religious heritage rather than to certain theological beliefs and explicitly religious practices. [14]  In India the term ‘anti-Muslimism’ is sometimes used and it has been proposed in Europe by, amongst others, Fred Halliday. [15]

‘Intolerance against Muslims’

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) uses the term ‘intolerance and discrimination against Muslims’. So does the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. This formulation reflects the views outlined above that the focus should be on relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims within Europe rather than on Islam as a religion in the world as a whole. The inclusion of the term discrimination is a valuable reminder that there is a behavioural component as well as an attitudinal one. (In international English, though not in UK English, the term discrimination refers to a wide range of behaviour, not just actions that are unlawful under equal opportunities legislation.)

OSCE’s provisional definition is as follows:  “The term intolerance and discrimination against Muslims refers to behaviour, discourse and actions which express, in OSCE states where people of Muslim heritage live as minorities, feelings towards them of hatred, hostility, fear or rejection.” [16]

A definition such as this is a helpful start, arguably, for disentangling several different, though inter-related and overlapping, sets of phenomena. Intolerance against Muslims, as defined by the OSCE, is similar to the following, but is definitely not the same:

a. racism, xenophobia and xenoracism, particularly the forms of racism directed against the communities which migrated to western Europe after the second world war from the Caribbean, North Africa, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Turkey; towards the communities which formed from 1990 onwards as a result of movements of refugees and people seeking asylum; and the even more recent communities formed by migrant workers within the European Union.

b. prejudices against Arab and other Muslim cultures which developed in the Iberian peninsula and South East Europe from the eighth century of the common era onwards, linked in due course to orientalism – the ways in which knowledge about Muslims and Islam was constructed and transmitted from about 1750 onwards, both in academia and in popular representations – and the colonisation of most Muslim-majority regions of the world by European powers, including Russia. [17]

c. the demonising of military and economic rivals, particularly since the first Gulf War and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

d. fears, insecurities, scapegoating and moral panics relating to national identity which arise essentially from globalisation, multiculturalism and pluralism, not from encounters with Muslims or Islam.

e. the pursuit, prosecution and punishment of terrorist organisations which claim legitimacy by, in part, appealing to Islam.

f. critiques of Islamic theology.

g. critiques of the human rights records of certain countries where Islam is a feature of the dominant culture.

The unsettling of Europe

In the light of the discussions above, it is appropriate to move from consideration of semantics to discussion of the causes of the phenomena for which terminology is being sought.

‘In many influential circles in the EU,’ notes the political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh, ‘it is widely held that its over 15 million Muslims pose a serious cultural and political threat’.  He continues: ‘Sometimes this view is stated explicitly; but more often it takes the form of an attack on multiculturalism for which Muslims are largely held responsible and which is a coded word for them. It cuts across political and ideological divides, and is shared alike, albeit in different degrees and for different reasons, by right-wing nationalists, conservatives, liberals and socialists.’ [18]  Parekh then proceeds to show that most anxieties about Muslims in Europe reflect misunderstandings not primarily about Muslims but about Europe. It follows that combating Islamophobia involves looking at us/them relationships, and therefore at ‘us’ (non-Muslims) in the first instance rather than ‘them’ (Muslims). More generally, it is about issues of identity, anxiety and mutual tolerance in a globalised world.

A similar point is made by Tariq Ramadan:  “While European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic …At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalising, migratory world, “What are our roots?”, “Who are we?”, “What will our future look like?”, they see around them new citizens, new skin colours, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed. [19]

The concept of anxiety, rather than – for example – phobia, means there can be measured reflection and deliberation around questions such as these:

· Is an anxiety rational and legitimate?
· Or is it based on insufficient or inaccurate information and misperception?
· Is anxiety correctly described by those who feel it?
· Or are the principal reasons for anxiety different from those which are advanced?
· If so, what are the real or additional reasons for an anxiety?
· Where misperception and wrong description exist, what factors influence this?

In the light of the answers to such questions there can be debate about sensible measures, as distinct from panicky, harmful or self-defeating measures, to remove or reduce anxiety. Ethical responsibility for opinion leaders lies in seeking to acknowledge and understand anxiety but in not pandering to it, and not inflaming it into panic.

The Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, chaired by Bhikhu Parekh in the period 1998–2000, noted that racisms in the modern world arise in part from what it called the ‘unsettling’ of nation states. With regard to the unsettling of Britain the commission referred not only or primarily to post-war immigration but also to globalisation, industrial re-structuring and consequent unemployment and underemployment, loss of Empire, devolution of decision-making power, moral and social pluralism, decline of national influence, and increasing closeness to the rest of Europe. In unsettled and unsettling situations human beings look around for scapegoats or, in a different metaphor, for lightning conductors with which to name and channel their anxiety and ensuing anger. Liz Fekete refers strikingly to this phenomenon across Europe in the title of a recent book about Islamophobia: A Suitable Enemy. [20]

Parekh and Fekete are concerned with relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims within Europe. The historian Timothy Garton-Ash writes principally about geopolitics and the world stage and in this connection outlines six grand narratives – six big pictures, six explanatory paradigms – in competition with each other. Like Parekh he is at least as much interested in ‘us’ (non-Muslims) as in ‘them’.21 It is striking in this connection to note the title that he (or perhaps a sub-editor) gave to his article: ‘What we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves’. His six narratives are not, he stresses, mutually exclusive. It is logically impossible, however, for someone to operate with all six with equal assurance. Introducing them in 2005, he observes:

Four years after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, which were perpetrated in the name of Allah, most people living in what we still loosely call the west would agree that we do have troubles with Islam. The vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, but most of the terrorists who threaten us claim to be Muslims. Most countries with a Muslim majority show a resistance to what Europeans and Americans generally view as desirable modernity, including the essentials of liberal democracy. Why? What’s the nub of the problem? Here are six different views often heard in the west, but also, it’s important to add, in Muslim countries… As you go down the list, you might like to put a mental tick against the view you most strongly agree with. It’s logically possible to put smaller ticks against a couple of others, but not against them all.

Briefly summarised, and with additional brief comments, Garton-Ash’s six narratives are set out below, together with a seventh. Each is an explanation responding to the prior question ‘What is the problem?’

1. Religion.  The problem is religion in general, which is superstition, self-delusion and the abandonment of reason. The deplorable influence of religion is seen throughout the world, and in all cultural traditions – in Christianity and Judaism, for example, as well as in Islam.

2. Islam.  The problem is a particular religion, Islam. Unlike western Christianity, it does not allow the separation of religion and politics. With its systematic discrimination against women, its barbaric punishments for homosexuality and its intolerance of other world-views, Islam is stuck in the middle ages. It needs a reformation, based on integrating religion with science and rationality and re-interpreting traditional texts in the light of modernity.

3. Islamism.  The problem is Islamism, namely an interpretation of Islam that has its intellectual roots in organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt after the first world war and subsequently developed by Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Maulana Maududi in Pakistan. Alternative phrases or words instead of Islamism include political, militant or radical Islam; Islamic activism; Qutbism; jihadism;  extremism; and fundamentalism.

4. West Asia/Middle East.  The problem lies in the specific history of West Asia, particularly the history of Arab nations. Key events and factors of the last 100 years include the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire; the Balfour Declaration and in due course the creation of the state of Israel; processes of decolonisation and globalisation; tensions and conflicts within and between Arab
countries and between Arab countries and Iran, the Sunni/Shi’a rift; and the emergence of oil-rich economies.

5. The West.  The problem is ‘the West’. From the Crusades to colonisation, and from moral and military support for Israel to the recent invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, western powers have oppressed Muslim countries and cultures, and have developed forms of anti-Muslim hostility, Islamophobia and orientalism in order to justify their own behaviour. This has provoked, understandably, much bitterness and anti-western hostility in return.

6. Discrimination and alienation within European societies.  The problem lies in the alienation of young people of Muslim heritage born and
educated in European countries. They are marginalised and excluded by processes of religious and racist discrimination and some turn to an ideology of nihilism and terrorism, intermixed with Islamism (see above), as a rhetoric of self-justification.

7. Conflicts of material interest.  The problem is not in the first instance to do with differences of culture, religion, ideology or civilisation. Rather, it is to do with conflicts of material interest. [22]  Globally, the key conflicts are around power, influence, territory and resources, particularly oil. Within urban areas in Europe they are around employment, housing, health and education. Such conflicts become ‘religionised’  or ‘culturalised’ – each side celebrates and idealises its own traditions and cultural heritage, including religion, and denigrates and demonises the traditions of the other.

8.  So what?  The discussion of semantics in this paper may seem rather arid and pointless. However, it has implications for practical policy in a wide range of spheres including education, employment, health, criminal justice, journalism and preventing violent extremism. And not least, it has major implications for holistic approaches to the separate strands of equality and diversity legislation. The OSCE, for example, shows in a forthcoming publication that principles can be derived from such a discussion for planning practical educational projects throughout the 56 countries which are members. The principles are included here as an appendix.


1 Vakil, Abdoolkarim (2008), ‘Is the Islam in Islamophobia the same as the Islam in anti-islam;
or, when is it Islamophobia time?’ in Sayyid, Bobby S. and Abdoolkarim Vakil, eds, Thinking thru
Islamophobia, University of Leeds,
2 Edward Said (1985), ‘Orientalism Reconsidered’, London: Race and Class, autumn, 27(2) pp l-l5.
3 Mark Batunsky, in the Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte. no 39, 1987, pp 253-266,
writes of ‘seemingly unrestricted islamophobia’, cited in the German version of Wikipedia in the
entry headed Islamfeindlichkeit.
4 Religious Offences in England and Wales, Oral Evidence Question 425, House of Lords, 23
October 2002.
5 This argument is developed by, amongst others, Melanie Phillips in Londonistan: how Britain is
creating a mirror state within (2006) and in Kenan Malik’s article The Islamophobia Myth (2005) at
6 Jocelyne Casari (2006), ‘Muslims in Europe after 9/11: why the term Islamophobia is more a
predicament than an explanation’, in J. Cesari See also the further
discussion in Cesari ,Jocelyne (2009) Muslims in the West After 9/11: religion, law and
politics, New York and London: Routledge
7 Andrew Samuels (2006,) The fascination of fundamentalism, summary of a lecture at
9 This point has been emphasised over many years by the Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer.
10 For example, by the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (2000) and more
recently by Arun Kundnani in The End of Tolerance: racism in the 21st century (2007) and the
Islamophobia Watch website. In France, a key text on this topic is La Nouvelle Islamophobie by
Vincent Geisser (2003). See also Christopher Allen (2005), ‘From Race to Religion: the new face of
discrimination’ in Tahir Abbas ed. Muslim Britain: communities under pressure, London and New
York: Zed Press
11 Quoted in International Action against Racism, Xenophobia, Antisemitism and Intolerance in the
OSCE Region: a comparative study, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2004.
12 See, for example, Young, British and Muslim by Philip Lewis, I B Tauris, 2007.
13 Multicultural Politics: racism, ethnicity and Muslims in Britain by Tariq Modood, Edinburgh
University Press, 2005
14 Cited by Tariq Modood in Multicultural Politics (see above).
15 ‘Anti-Muslimism and Contemporary Politics’, chapter 6 of Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, I
B Tauris, 1995.
16 Unpublished discussion paper, April 2009
17 For accounts of the historical background see amongst others Ehsan Masood (2008), Our Shared
Europe: swapping treasures, sharing losses, celebrating futures, London: British Council, Gerdien
Jonker and Shiraz Thobani eds (2009) Narrating Islam: interpretations of the Muslim world in
European texts, London: I B Tauris
18 ‘European liberalism and “the Muslim question”,’ chapter 6 of A New Politics of Identity: political
principles for an interdependent world, 2008.
20 Fekete, Liz (2009). A Suitable Enemy: racism, migration and Islamophobia in Europe, London:
Pluto Press. See also Myra Macdonald’s discussion of Islamophobia as a form of moral panic in
Exploring Media Discourse, Edward Arnold (2003) and Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg
(2006), Islamophobia: making Muslims the enemy, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield
21 ‘What we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves’, The Guardian, 15 September 2005.
See also the discussion at
22 Discussed briefly at Globescan (2007) ‘Global poll finds that religion and culture are not to
blame for tensions between Islam and the West’, London: BBC World Service
23 Challenging Intolerance against Muslims: guidelines for educators (working title),

See the original PDF for the appendix and other information  Robin Richardson University of Birmingham, Wednesday 9 December 2009