Knowing Islamophobia when we see it
by Erik Bleich
Islamophobia was originally developed as a concept in the late 1990s and early 2000s by political activists to draw attention to rhetoric and actions directed at Islam and Muslims in Western liberal democracies. It still dominates public debates in response to inflammatory media portrayals or politicians’ statements about the perceived dangers of Islam in Europe or North America.
But in recent years, Islamophobia has begun an evolution from a politicised concept toward one used by scholars to study a form of racism similar to xenophobia or anti-Semitism.
Islamophobia has taken root in public, political and academic discourse because it attempts to label a social reality – that Islam and Muslims have emerged as objects of aversion, fear and hostility in contemporary liberal democracies. Under these circumstances, it is vital to make Islamophobia a meaningful concept for social scientists as well as for political actors.
That way, we can begin to measure its ebbs and flows to demonstrate not only that it is a real phenomenon, but also to understand why it rises and falls in a given time and place. Knowing what it means is a first step toward being able to fight it.
Indiscriminate negative attitudes
Islamophobia can best be understood as indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims. Because not all criticism constitutes Islamophobia, terms like indiscriminate cover instances where negative assessments are applied to all or most Muslims or aspects of Islam.
As with parallel concepts like homophobia or xenophobia, Islamophobia connotes a broader set of negative attitudes or emotions directed at individuals or groups because of their perceived membership in a category.
Viewed in this way, Islamophobia is also analogous to terms like racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism. Aversion, jealousy, suspicion, disdain, anxiety, rejection, contempt, fear, disgust, anger and hostility give a sense of the range of negative attitudes and emotions that may constitute Islamophobia.
Finally, directed at Islam or Muslims suggest that the target may be the religious doctrine or the people who follow it (or whose ancestors have followed it, or who are believed to follow it). This recognises the multidimensional nature of Islamophobia and the fact that Islam and Muslims are often inextricably intertwined in individual and public perceptions.
Beyond simply identifying its key definitional components, we also need to be able to measure Islamophobia. Most observers, scholars, activists and politicians have provided evidence of Islamophobia that suffers from a critical weakness.
Some authors rely on extremely indirect indicators of contemporary Islamophobia, such as noting its deep historical roots or identifying current socio-economic disadvantages concentrated in Muslim communities.
Others provide examples of Islamophobia that are anecdotal or symbolic, such as examples of violence directed at Muslims or the use of “Bin Laden” as a schoolyard taunt. A third type of research conflates Islamophobia with attitudes toward overlapping ethnic, national origin, or immigrant-status groups.
In these cases, contemporary histories of anti-Arab, anti-South Asian, or anti-immigrant sentiments and policies or examples of discrimination or attacks against groups that are predominantly Muslim, or composite measures that mix together responses about Islam and Muslims with those about national origin or ethnic groups stand for Islamophobia.
These approaches and observations are each useful to a degree. Yet, because they use indirect, anecdotal, or conflating measures, they are not reliable ways to analyse Islamophobia.
The ideal measures
The best indicators of Islamophobia would be through direct surveys, focus-groups, or interviews. The ideal measures involve carefully tailored questions through which respondents accurately reveal the extent of their indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims.
Of course, this ideal is hard to achieve in the real world. As most studies in parallel fields such as racism or homophobia have emphasised, the key to uncovering reliable indicators of Islamophobia lies in consistency. The more consistently negative the attitudes and emotions of respondents are to a series of questions, the more confident we can be that they are expressing Islamophobia.
Questionnaires can also aim to identify different levels of intensity of responses (aversion versus fear versus hostility) and of intensity of adherence to Islamophobic positions (an opinion versus a predisposition such as a bias).
It is important to remember that the fewer direct questions asked in surveys, focus groups, or interviews, the more difficult it is to measure Islamophobic sentiments. In particular, any arguments about Islamophobia that rely on a single survey question should be viewed with skepticism.
It is also possible to measure Islamophobia by examining unsolicited statements by politicians, civil servants, public figures, religious leaders, journalists, bloggers and others whose words are recorded for posterity.
We could undertake systematic analyses of news content about Islam and Muslims, or examine the changing nature of far-right political rhetoric vis-a-vis Muslims, or discuss the interpretation of Islam by a prominent writer such as Oriana Fallaci.
To the extent that these efforts are systematic – reviewing all major news stories, far-right rhetoric, or best-selling authors – they can convey important information about the prevalence and nature of Islamophobia at specific times and places.
At this stage of discussing Islamophobia, it is worth moving beyond politicised uses of the term and to look for a more rigorous way to understand and to measure it.
Once we have a common conceptual language and better tools for tracking Islamophobia, we can more accurately assess its trends over time, its variation over space or social groups, and its intensity relative to negative attitudes and emotions aimed at other minority groups.
Developing Islamophobia as a concrete and usable social scientific concept is not only the basis for meaningful analysis in academia, it is also the foundation for more informed public debates and for more effective policy decisions.
Erik Bleich is Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College in Vermont and the author of The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism (Oxford University Press). This essay draws on his article “What Is Islamophobia, and How Much Is There? Theorizing and Measuring an Emerging Comparative Concept” (American Behavioral Scientist, 55, December 2011: 1581-1600).
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