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What is Islamophobia?

By the Charter for Compassion


The following essay is reprinted from the introduction to a new Islamophobia Guidebook in the making. You can download the whole Guidebook here today, but it is still being assembled, so a download next month might be even better. Here is what the book sets out to do:

In this document you'll find a variety of resources – some are opportunities to reflect, others are more prescriptive. We recommend you browse the full document so you get a sense of what's available – contextual framing from Karen Armstrong, guidance for Muslims by Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, an overview of Islamophobia from Barbara Kaufmann, and links to resources by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and others – many geared toward educators. Finally, you'll find a reflective article by Cambridge Muslim College dean Abdal Hakim Murad and a list of resources for your further study.

The Guidebook (currently 90 pages long) is resource rich, includes video clips, and comes with a bibliography and set of links will give you a good sense of the many ways to oppose Islamophobia.

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Very frequently we use terms without thinking through their etymology. In a conference call in which we discussed Islamophobia (a report of the call can be found here), a few participants asked all gathered to consider the words we use when talking about Islamophobia – essentally to avoid using combative language (i.e., attack, battle, battleground, fight, etc.). Later one participant, Linn Moffet wrote that “we need to carefully and consistently be conscious of our words to counteract all of the other influences being broadcast across the wires, media, and more importantly, throughout the ethers of human consciousness, realized or not, since it does show up.”

In another communication, Nancy Seifer suggested that the Charter for Compassion’s response to working with Islamophobia had touched off a groundswell of energies that have been present latently and hopefully can be mobilized for the good. This is evidenced in a report that appears later in this work, “Islamophobia-in-2015-the-good-the-bad-and-the-hopeful.” She also suggested that we might start using the word “harmlessness” — ”a positive word to express the consciousness behind this initiative — connoting a recognition of the oneness or interrelatedness of all of life and thus an unwillingness to harm even perceived enemies.” She pointed out that Gandhi’s Jain philosophy of ahimsa is often defined as practicing harmlessness.

Indeed, we must be positive and filled with hope as we continue to educate ourselves about Islam, and certainly other religions. Of course, the passage in the Charter for Compassion itself helps point the way:

We...call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies.

The Term “Islamophobia”

The University of California-Berkeley Center for Race and Gender offers the following definition of Islamophobia.

The term “Islamophobia” was first introduced as a concept in a 1991 Runnymede Trust Report and defined as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.”

The term was coined in the context of Muslims in the UK in particular and Europe in general, and formulated based on the more common “xenophobia” framework.

The report pointed to prevailing attitudes that incorporate the following beliefs:

  • Islam is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities.
  • Islam does not share common values with other major faiths.
  • Islam as a religion is inferior to the West. It is archaic, barbaric, and irrational.
  • Islam is a religion of violence and supports terrorism.
  • Islam is a violent political ideology.

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.