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Muslims In Western Europe After 9/11: Why the term Islamophobia is more a predicament than an explanation

Wednesday 22 November 2006, by Cesari Jocelyne




Although the first occurrence of the term Islamophobia appeared in an essay by the Orientalist Etienne Dinet in L’Orient vu de l’Occident (1922), it is only in the 1990s that the term became common parlance in defining the discrimination faced by Muslims in Western Europe. Negative perceptions of Islam can be traced back through multiple confrontations between the Muslim world and Europe from the Crusades to colonialism [1]. However, Islamophobia is a modern and secular anti-Islamic discourse and practice appearing in the public sphere with the integration of Muslim immigrant communities and intensifying after 9/11. The term has been used increasingly amongst political circles and the media, and even Muslim organizations, especially since the 1997 Runnymede Report (Islamophobia: A Challenge for All). However, academics are still debating the legitimacy of the term (Werbner 2005, Modood 2002, Vertovec 2002, Halliday 1999) [2] and questioning how it differs from other terms such as racism, anti- Islamism, anti-Muslimness, and anti-Semitism.

The term Islamophobia is contested because it is often imprecisely applied to very diverse phenomena, ranging from xenophobia to anti-terrorism. As Marcel Maussen points out in his chapter below, ‘the term «Islamophobia» groups together all kinds of different forms of discourse, speech and acts, by suggesting that they all emanate from an identical ideological core, which is an «irrational fear» (a phobia) of Islam.’ However, the term is used with increasing frequency in the media and political arenas, and sometimes in academic circles. The European Monitoring Centre on Xenophobia and Racism (EUMC) report documenting the backlash against Muslims in Europe after September 11th was titled ‘Summary report on Islamophobia in the EU after 11 September 2001.’ In France it has been used in several important academic studies although it is still rejected by the Consultative Commission on Human Rights (France Report). In Le Monde, a premier news journal, the term has appeared in over thirty articles in the past year and more than 150 in the past ten. However, a search of Der Spiegel , a premier news journal in Germany shows only six uses in the past year. Another term in more regular usage seems to be ‘Islamfeindlichkeit,’ which expresses the anti-Muslim sentiment but does not imply the same fear. The term and even the idea have only recently become used in academic work, where previously the study had been about Muslim communities rather than German attitudes towards them (Germany Report). The use of the word is very common in the United Kingdom (UK Report), where the aforementioned Runnymede Report of 1997 helped launch its popularity. An examination of the archives of The Guardian reveals that the term has been used hundreds of times within the last year, often by prominent politicians and commentators. Notable also is the existence of the group FAIR, Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism, created by Muslim activists. By contrast, in America, the term appears only twenty-six times in The New York Times, and except for editorials by Muslim activists, always refers to the situation in Europe. However, it has been used regularly by the group CAIR, Council on American Islamic Relations. Searching through other media, the usage of the term appears to be rising, perhaps partly due to its use by activist groups.

There have been several recent studies on European Muslims which relate to Islamophobia. The EUMC reports on discrimination against Muslim populations in Europe have been the first to generalize the term and thus give it some credibility at the European level (EUMC Reports ‘Islamophobia in the EU after 11 September 2001’ and ‘The Impact of July 7 2005, London Bomb attacks on Muslim communities in the EU,’ November 2005). The EUMC reports examine the European response towards Muslim minorities in their own countries, identifying attacks against Muslims, anti-Islamic rhetoric and the efficacy of the government in the European countries in minimizing community tensions. Both EUMC reports state a marked rise in anti-Islamic attitudes and attacks in European countries for a short period of time engendered by the events of 9/11 and 7/7. However, both reports state the level of physical acts of aggression against Muslims were disparate and isolated incidents and that hostile attitudes expounded in certain sections of the media and political spectrum were counterbalanced by concerted efforts by European government to make sharp distinctions between those who committed the acts of terrorism and that of the general populace. The report on the impact of the July 7 2005 bombings lauds the UK political and community leaders for their immediate reassurances to the Muslim community; government initiatives of engaging with the Muslim community through setting up Muslim consultation groups and the police for implementing reporting and communication mechanisms in order to de-escalate potential community tension.

However, the EUMC uses data gathered by national agencies that have different methods for quantifying discrimination, and whose home countries often have different policies toward recognizing ethnic minorities. In addition to these methodological flaws, the EUMC reports approach the term Islamophobia uncritically.

In the United States, the Congressional Research Service (CRS)’s report on Muslims in Europe describes the impact of different integration policies on Muslim populations after 9/11, and assesses their influence on extremism among Muslims. The report looks at the challenges faced by European countries in integrating their Muslim population due to their lack of a common legal or political framework on immigration, security or integration. The authors state that British, French, German and Spanish integration strategies have failed to create a sense of loyalty to the national identity amongst their Muslim subjects and this coupled with the high levels of socio-economic disadvantages faced by the Muslim communities relative to indigenous population in most European countries have been exploited by terrorist elements. The report notes that European countries are reassessing their relationship with the Muslim communities in light of the threat posed by ‘homegrown’ terrorists through intensification of dialogue with moderate elements in Muslim communities, new anti-discrimination legislation, introduction of citizenship markers and tighter immigration and security policies.

These reports exemplify two separate trends in the field: the CRS analyses different state policies concerning the integration of Muslim populations, while the EUMC records levels of discrimination encountered by European Muslims. None of the above reports combine these approaches (analysis of state policies and analysis of discrimination) to develop a comprehensive framework for understanding post-9/11 Muslim populations.

In a unique effort to understand the status of Muslims in Europe, our report will amalgamate both methods of analysis. We will examine policies undertaken since 9/11 in fields such as immigration, security, and religion, and we will simultaneously assess the influence of these policies on Muslims. We will also address the structural causes of discrimination, such as the socio-economic status of Muslim populations or the legal status of racial and ethnic minorities. In doing so, we differentiate our approach from the dominant view, which defines Islamophobia solely in terms of acts or speeches explicitly targeting Muslims.

The principal aim of this report is to highlight the multi-layered levels of discrimination encountered by Muslims. This phenomenon cannot simply be subsumed into the term Islamophobia. Indeed, the term can be misleading, as it presupposes the pre-eminence of religious discrimination when other forms of discrimination (such as racial or class) may be more relevant. We therefore intend to use the term Islamophobia as a starting point for analyzing the different dimensions that define the political situation of Muslim minorities in Europe. We will not to take the term for granted by assigning it only one meaning, such as anti-Islamic discourse.

In Part One, we will present the principal characteristics of the European Muslim population, in order to understand their particular status as religious or ethnic minorities. In Part Two, we will review the key components of discrimination that may affect Muslims in Europe.

Download the full report at PDF format

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[1] These confrontations were often phrased in terms of religion—Islam v. Christianity—as demonstrated by Maxime Rodinson, Daniel Norman, and Edward Said. See: Daniel Norman, Islam and the West, the Making of an Image (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1980); Maxime Rodinson, La fascination de l’Islam (Paris: La Decouverte, 1978) ; Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Book, 1978).

[2] See Pnina Werbner, «Islamophobia, Incitement to Religious Hatred-Legislating for a New Fear?» Anthropology Today, vol. 21, no. 1 (2005), 5-9; Tariq Modood, «The Place of Muslims in British Secular Multiculturalism» in Muslim Europe or Euro-Islam: Politics, Culture and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization, ed. Nezar Alsayyad and Manuel Castells, 113-30 (Lanham: Lexington books, 2002); Steven Vertovec, «Islamophobia and Muslim Recognition in Britain» in Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens, ed. Yvonne Yazbek Haddad, 19-35 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Fred Halliday, «Islamophobia Reconsidered,» Ethnic and Racial Studies 22, no. 5 (September 1999), 892-902.

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