What is Islamophobia

Definition from Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project:

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.

Some explanations:

The current world system evolved out of European colonialism. The power structure is about money (capital!) but it pretends that it’s about the more civilized and successful people lighting the way for everyone else. People call this convenient Eurocentric mythology “liberalism.” Technically classical liberalism was all about equality and liberty, just like secularism is technically about separating church and state. But powerful European countries and their settler-colonial children pretty much just used these nice-sounding ideas to build the conditions of their freedoms on the backs of everyone else who was enslaved and exploited. “Neoliberalism” is the free-market deregulation privatization austerity shit that has been going on since 1980 (think Reaganomics, big oil, Gulf wars, NAFTA in 1994, 1999 WTO protests popularizing anti-globalization movement, charter schools, NGO boom).


The definition says “global racial structure” because this system is still rooted in Western eugenics. The same year that Spain expelled Muslims and Jews for being the wrong religion, Columbus kicked off the colonization of the Americas. Africans and Indigenous Peoples became subhuman, incapable of religion and therefore deserving of slavery and extermination. Later these arguments relating to who had a soul were replaced with eugenics, or Eurocentric race science. Eugenics got repackaged as other systems of racism. When Muslims get profiled now, we think of it as a kind of racialization, because they are being associated with negative traits and motives that eugenics ascribed to non-white races. Meanwhile, “whiteness” is a social construct that associates all these good civilized things with white people. Non-white people have to buy in by performing whiteness socially and/or through proximity to whiteness and its institutions. That’s where the secularism part comes in, especially in Europe: women who wear hijab or dress modest are accused of not respecting secularism, but it’s really about trying to make them assimilate and perform fidelity to whiteness.


“Civilizational rehab” is talking about how Islam is spun as a backwards civilization that needs reform. There’s an implied idea of linear cultural evolution where Muslims need to evolve to become like the West. It also serves as an excuse to “save brown women from brown men,” as Lila Abu-Lughod famously said in her book “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” Before the US invaded Afghanistan, the oppression of Muslim women was all over the media and NGOs promoted that narrative too. Civilizational rehab relates to who gets to use violence, too. There’s the justified violence of the US, or the police within the US, and then the unjustified violence of everyone else who gets lumped together as “thugs,” “terrorists,” etc. Western, white supremacy is compounded by American exceptionalism: the myth that the US is unique among nations and has a special mission to transform the world into its likeness.


Which leads us to… neocolonialism and American interventionism. The term “Islamophobia” implies an irrational fear but it’s actually a highly rational political tactic used to manufacture consent for war and economic domination. As a contemporary American political phenomenon, Islamophobia really ramped up around 1979 during the Iranian hostage crisis. The Soviet Union declined, the Cold War started to thaw, and “radical Islam” replaced communism as the existential enemy of America. Deepa Kumar’s articles and her book “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire” are the best resources on this subject.


Basically, business as usual in a deeply exploitative global system uses Islamophobia as a kind of smokescreen: sensationalized worries over terrorism and security mean that the public doesn’t get the chance to question wealth inequality, underdevelopment, American support for authoritarian regimes, etc. Even the governments of Muslim-majority countries have found Islamophobic rhetoric useful to their cause: both Assad in Syria and Al-Sisi in Egypt have repeatedly scapegoated “foreign terrorists” as the sole source of their countries’ problems instead of confronting the very real political dissent amongst their people. Basically, Islamophobia is useful for asserting or maintaining power, or at the very least sowing chaos and confusion.


In going after Islamophobia, we need to develop three skills:

  1. How to spot the various rhetorics of Islamophobia used by government, police, military, media, and average people who may not realize they are parroting language that devalues Muslim humanity.
  2. How to debunk those Islamophobic narratives by explaining the system of power that promotes and profits from them.
  3. Constantly power-mapping how the rhetoric and targets change and expand. Example: US policy in Africa is rapidly shifting from development rhetoric to “War on Terror,” and how that affects reporting on the region, attitudes towards African Muslims, arms sales, construction of American military bases, etc.