Islamophobia: from crusaders, to colonialists, to cartoonists

Karima Ahdad

Anti-Muslim discourse has plagued the European horizon, but never has it taken on so many dimensions. Islamophobia remains a hot topic across the West and minority communities are feeling the pinch of the prejudice in their daily lives more than ever before.

To these minorities, their marginalisation is the result of misconceptions about Muslims and Islam. Is Islamophobia the cause or the result of terrorism? There is no clear answer to that question. But if one thing is for sure, it is that xenophobia has become widespread and has increasingly more complex ramifications on the lives of Muslims living in the West. This has implications for Western human rights standards, as well. Islamophobia can be defined as the unjustified fear of all things Muslim based on preconceived notions that define it as a religion of violence.

While many think this form of racism bears an inextricable correlation with modern-day terrorism, many Western thinkers say anti-Islam sentiment goes back more than a century, way before the media started creating and perpetuating stereotypes, especially after the September 11 attacks.

The advent of the colonial mindset: The term “Islamophobia” was first coined during the French colonisation of several Muslim countries at the beginning of the 20th century. It was the year 1910 when French thinker Alain Quellien published a book entitled “Muslim politics in French west Africa”.  In it, the writer says Islamophobia is based on preconceived prejudice that is specific to the Christian world. “To some Europeans and Christians, Muslims are naturally and intrinsically the enemies,” he wrote.

“Being Muslim fundamentally entails refuting civilisation, while following the religion of Muhammad necessitates violence, bad intentions and aggression.” That same year, Muslim specialist Maurice Delafosse went on to use the same terminology in a study he conducted in defence of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. He said that the spirit of Islam in no way contradicts the essence of Western thought despite what Islamophobes say about Islam.

“France has nothing to fear when it comes to African Muslims and there is no reason for Islamophobia to be so blatant in this part of the globe,” he wrote. In this context, Moroccan writer and thinker Hassan Oreed says the rampant fear of Islam began with the advent of colonialism within several Muslim countries. “This sentiment was based on the idea that Muslim civilisation is built on myth and nonsensical practice,” he told TRT Arabic. Some sociologists and thinkers have attributed the return of rampant Islamophobia to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when conservative Shia clerics who took power at the time declared anyone who opposes laws stipulating that women must wear headscarves in public in Muslim countries as “Islamophobic”.

Contempt and fear characterise the Muslim world: The strife that led to tension between the Muslim world and the West has existed since the Muslims occupied southern Europe, the Christians Crusades and European colonialism in Muslim countries.  Renowned Palestinian intellectual Edward Said wrote in his famous work Orientalism that the Muslim orient was the only real threat to Christian Europe.

The concept of the orient to the Western mind is characterised by contempt and fear.  In 2016, French writer Alain Ruscio wrote that Islamophobia is institutionalised in Western thought through the Christian crusader narrative. The notion flourished during the era of European colonialism and made a comeback in full force with the advent of the infamous “war on terror” post-2001.

French philosopher Ernest Renan described the spirit of contempt in his 1871 work The Ethics of Intellectual Reform.  He writes: “Islam is the anti-thesis of Europe and knowledge and the antidote to civilisation. It belittles the human mind and contradicts all forms of sound sentiment and reasoning.”

9/11 and the renaissance of Islamophobia: Islamophobia entered a new phase in the 21st century in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. The “threat” of Islam became a more widespread notion and even officially made its way into French dictionaries, being described as “a specific type of anti-Muslim contempt that manifests as acts of hatred against Muslim minority communities of North African origin”.

In short, while Muslims were seen as savages in previous centuries, Islam is intrinsically considered the enemy in Europe and in the US today, according to Oreed, and anti-Muslim sentiment took on a specific dimension in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. The attacks on the headquarters of a liberal magazine publication in Paris in 2015 for having depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a satirical capacity marked a new front for anti-Muslim sentiment.

“The attack on Charlie Hebdo means that the rapport with ‘the other’ is not just by virtue of their immigrant background, but by virtue of the fact that they are Muslim,” Oreed told TRT Arabic. This is a fundamentally politicised narrative, especially among right-wing parties. After all, there are those who differentiate between Islam and militant groups and those who don’t, especially among those who see the Islamic narrative as fundamentally militarised and warlike.

The most recent and notable manifestation of anti-Muslim hatred was the attacks on a mosque in New Zealand, in which dozens of Muslim worshippers were killed as they attended Friday prayers. The tragic incident brought Islamophobia back to the fore, but more importantly, it broke the stereotype of Islam being the main source of terror, as it was a Christian Australian who massacred Muslims.

The construction of the Islamophobia narrative: Though anti-Islam narratives have long existed in Christian Europe, researchers know full well that the most recent form Islamophobia has taken on momentum of its own, with its proponents all to happily fanning its flames. HusamShakir, an academic specialising in Islam-related affairs, says right-wing groups are fear-mongering to score big in elections and for other political gains. He said French ex-president Francois Holland benefited from the phenomenon, consolidating new fronts in the political and economic spheres.

Similarly, the gains made by right-wing groups across European nations are diametrically opposed to the very democratic foundations on which they were built. In short, Islamphobia has brought back classicism to Europe, says Shakir, where Muslims come from troubled backgrounds and less fortunate social milieus.

Still, Oreed insists that Islamophobia in the modern day takes on several dimensions, the most significant being social alienation between Muslim and non-Muslim communities across Europe. Muslims have largely become the marginalised proletariats and live in slums on unemployment benefits.  Still, although many consider that Muslims have played a big role in exacerbating stereotypes, one thing remains clear: fanning the flames of Islamophobia will do the West, the scene of mass migration in recent years, no favours down the line.