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A Clash Of Xenophobic Narratives : The Symbiotic Relationship Between Islamophobia And Extremism

In the late 1990s, during the build-up to the war over Kuwait in the Gulf, a Muslim lady wearing a headscarf was waiting to board a bus in


Abdelwahab El-Affendi

In the late 1990s, during the build-up to the war over Kuwait in the Gulf, a Muslim lady wearing a headscarf was waiting to board a bus in West London when she was verbally abused by a group of men who shouted at her: “Go home to the Gulf! We don’t want you here!” 


There was a slight problem to this demand. For, apart from being a British citizen, the lady in question originated in Africa, not the Gulf. Her assailants also appeared oblivious to the official stance in Britain, which was to welcome people from the Gulf even before the 1990 crisis, as they were Britain’s allies. Gulf Arabs do not come to settle in Britain, but usually go there to spend their vast oil wealth, for which they would receive a hearty welcome from the officials and the business community.


In this case, the xenophobic assault on this “Gulf” lady by her clueless assailants indicates a general climate in which Muslims in general are seen as a threat, or just an object of hate. But it could not be credibly claimed that the lady did provoke her attackers by her “extremist behaviour”, unless the wearing of the headscarf is to be considered extremist, an argument which some in France were already making at that time (Silverstein, 2004). No less significant is the fact that this was no isolated incident. In fact, the Gulf War of 1991 was the start of a period which has witnessed the “irresistible rise of Islamophobia” in Britain and many other Western countries, beginning with a steep rise in attacks on Muslims (Poynting and Mason, 2007: 69-70). And that was just the taste of things to come.


Fast forward, a decade and a half later, and British and European streets were the site of a new kind of turmoil as Muslims marched to protest against the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the series of pejorative cartoons of the Prophet in September 2005. Following protests on the streets of Copenhagen in October and representations by Muslim ambassadors to the Danish government, the protests spread around the world from January 2006. After the protests in London in February, four young British Muslims were put on trial for inciting terrorism. One of them had provoked media outrage by wearing a mock suicide vest, while others called for the cartoonists and others to be beheaded (BBC, 2006; EUMC, 2006). The four were convicted in July 2007 for a number of offences which included solicitation to murder, and stirring up racial hatred, and given sentences of up to six years imprisonment. Commenting on the sentences, Sir Ken Macdonald QC, Director of the Crown Prosecutions Service, argued that “calling for people to be beheaded and for European cities to be bombed” on London streets, as the accused have done, and glorifying the terror attacks of July 2005 on the city, meant that one had “crossed a line”. This kind of behaviour “undermines everyone else's freedom by stirring up bigotry, racial hatred and violence” (CPS, 2007).


These remarks by Sir Ken point to the central question regarding the symbiotic relationship between extremism and Islamophobia: which one is the cause and which is the effect? The CPS director seems to make the valid point that extremist rhetoric, even when not directly linked to violent action, could contribute to the sentiments at the heart of Islamophobia: bigotry and hatred. But as we can see even from this specific incident, the issue is much more complex, as the extremist rhetoric here has also arisen as a direct response to the perceived assault on Muslim beliefs and identity (through the attack on the character of the Prophet). This assault has in turn been motivated by self-acknowledged Islamophobic sentiments. The whole question therefore deserves more in-depth analysis to ascertain the complex dynamics of the symbiotic relationship between the two phenomena.


Islamophobia: What’s in a name?

The term Islamophobia was given wide currency since its adoption by the Runnymede Trust in its 1997 report: Islamophobia: A Challenge to Us All. But the term did not originate there, and has been first coined in English at around 1991, even though the French equivalent is much older, dating back to 1922 (Cesari et al., 2006: 5).One of its earliest reported recent uses was in the US-based conservative magazine Insight in connection with Russian involvement in Afghanistan in 1991 (Poole, 2004: 215). Runnymede, however, put the term into mainstream circulation in order to capture what it regarded as a new phenomenon: the rise of trends characterised by “an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims” demanding or underpinning “practices of exclusion and discrimination” against Muslim citizens or residents in Britain.


This phenomenon has come to the attention of the Runnymede Trust around 1993 when a commission established by the charity to tackle rising anti-Semitism was forced to note that “anti-Muslim prejudice was increasing rapidly and dangerously in force and seriousness” (CBMI, 2005: vii), and therefore needed to be highlighted and tackled. This realisation in turn led to the establishment of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia (CBMI) which produced the above-mentioned 1997 report. 


The challenge for the proponents of this concept was to distinguish between unfounded prejudice and hostility against a whole community (albeit one defined by its religious identity), and the legitimate right to criticise any religious tradition. Many critics were quick to point out this problem. Writing in Prospect magazine in February 2005, Kenan Malik described warnings about rising anti-Muslim prejudice as “scaremongering”, adding that it could promote “a Muslim victim culture and [allow] some community leaders to inflame a sense of injury while suppressing internal debate” (Malik, 2005). The same point was taken up by the American polemicist Daniel Pipes who reiterated the view that complaining about Islamophobia was intended "to silence critics of Islam, or even Muslims fighting for reform of their communities,” and urged Muslims to “dispense with this discredited term and instead engage in some earnest introspection” (Pipes, 2005).


For these critics, anti-Muslim prejudice where it exists, is at worst a manifestation of habitual racism (Malik, 2005). For other critics, what is needed is caution, as “the term can be misleading, as it presupposes the preeminence of religious discrimination when other forms of discrimination (such as racial or class) may be more relevant” (Cesari et. al., 2006: 8). 


However, many analysts argue that religious prejudice, or “cultural racism” in general, is a new type of racism which deserves to be tackled separately, since the “conceptualizations of race and racism, and hence also of antiracism and racial equality, have been too narrowly defined” (Modood, 2005: 6). This new type of hostile prejudice can be called “cultural racism”, and it is different from familiar types of racism in that, as in the case of British Asians, for example, racists here seem to hold that the “defects” ascribed to this target group “lie deep in their culture rather than in a biology that produces their culture” (Modood, 2005: 7). Thus, while cultural racism builds on colour racism, it is different from it, and it is conceivable that it could become a stand-alone type of racism. In such an eventuality, colour racism could “decline and fade away” while cultural racism could “remain and even grow” (Modood, 2005: 8). 


In response to the criticism that deploying the concept makes it difficult to criticise Islam and even argue with Muslims, the CBMI argued that it was possible to “tell the difference between legitimate disagreement… and phobic dread and hatred” by making an “essential distinction” between “closed views on Islam on the one hand and open views on the other.” The first treats Islam as monolithic, aggressive and “totally other”, and sees all Muslims through negative and inflexible stereotypes; the latter, by contrast, recognises Muslim communities as diverse, with many internal debates and differences, and acknowledges the shared human values and concerns with Muslim communities and individuals (CMBI, 2004: 22-23).


Evidence of the fact that Islamophobia is a manifestation of sentiments akin to racial hatred rather than hostility to certain beliefs or cultural practices, can be found in “current practices of racial profiling in the War on Terror [which] perpetuate a logic that demands the ability to define what a Muslim looks like from appearance and visual cues” (Rana, 2007: 149). One can also cite here the surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the immediate post-9/11 period, when men with “Arab” appearance, such as Sikhs, were randomly attacked, sometimes fatally (BBC, 2003). 


In this regard, Islamophobia “is a phobia inasmuch as it denotes an incapacity to deal with difference as well as similarity,” and reflects a fear of a retrogression to the past which “is primarily endorsed by fearful elites in Western countries.” The “strident anti-fundamentalism” of the elite “lends credence to the more lumpen forms of colour racism, whose proponents may then add the usual insults used against all racialised minorities, that they are violent, licentious, dirty and so on” (Birt, 2006).


Against Multiculturalism

For some of the Muslims experiencing it, Islamophobia is racism with attitude or, according to one rendition, “racism with a spin.” Instead of being abused as “Pakis”, Muslims could now be called “Bin Ladens” (CBMI, 2004: 5). What is more significant is that it is also a form of racism with an intellectual, even moral, pretence. A rising number of prominent intellectuals, journalists and politicians have declared themselves as selfappointed champions of “Islamophobia”, as did the left-wing columnist Polly Toynbee who responded to the Runnymede report on Islamophobia with an article entitled: “In Defence of Islamophobia,” arguing that being an Islamophobe does not entail being racist (Toynbee, 1997). Other prominent figures (or some who became prominent as a result) who joined the campaign included the media presenters-turned-politicians such as the Dutch Pim Fortuyn, his compatriot Geert Wilders and the British Robert Kilroy- Silk. The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, did not form a xenophobic political party, but joined the others in calling on the West (in a small best-selling book) to “wake up” to the fact that “what’s under way here is a reverse crusade” by Muslims who want to force their way of life on the West through violence (Marranci, 2004: 107-09).


Mainstream politicians were not far behind. The right-wing Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was even more blunt with his remarks celebrating the superiority of Western civilisation over Islam, adding that the Muslim countries were 1,400 years behind and needed to be conquered and occidentalised (Erlanger, 2001; Marranci, 2004: 107). The actions of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and his repeated comments regarding the dress of Muslim women was also seen as reflecting suspicion of Islam and Muslims. Even Pope Benedict XVI endeared himself to right-wing parties by his remarks describing Islam as inherently violent and anti-rationalist, causing groups such as the Italian Northern League and the British National Party (BNP) to hail him as defender of Western civilisation against the Islamic “invasion” of Europe (Zúquete, 2008: 325-26).


However, what is remarkable about the rise of the new Islamophobic tendencies is that they seem to transcend the usual left-right polarisation (El- Amine, 2009). Anti-immigrant sentiments have habitually been expressed by the right in general and the far right in particular. In Britain, the most serious attempt to whip up anti-immigrant feelings was that of the late conservative politician Enoch Powell, whose 1968 warning of “rivers of blood” as a consequence of rising immigration won popular support, but was rejected by the political establishment. Right-wing xenophobic movements have indeed been growing steadily in Europe since the 1980s. The National Front rose to prominence in France from 1984 and espoused a strident anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric. Similar movements emerged in Italy in the 1990s and in the Netherlands in the 2000s (Cesari, 2004: 30-34). Britain and most other European countries witnessed the steady rise in support of similar movements.


However, what is novel about the new Islamophobic sentiments is that they have also been, even more enthusiastically, espoused by the left and liberals. And second, the new phenomenon no longer targets immigrants in general, but Muslims in particular. They are the ones who “refuse to integrate” and support extremism and threaten the security of the nation. 


It is also of great significance that traditional right-wing parties, such as the National Front in France and the BNP in Britain, began to shed their traditional anti-Semitism sentiment in favour of exclusive hostility to Muslims and third-world immigrants. Some of them have tended towards what one commentator described as “philo-Semitism”, celebrating the contribution of Jews to Western civilisation and expressing admiration for Israel (Zúquete, 2008: 327-28; Cesari et al., 2006: 31, 80-82). The Lega Nord in Italy has also modified its opposition to the church and the Pope [who it used to call a “Polish enemy” (Zúquete, 2008: 325)] and “switched its rhetoric to take advantage of anti-Muslim sentiment, deploying slightly modified versions of traditional anti-Semitic devices as weapons against Islam” (Cesari et al., 2006: 31).


This was followed by the rise of movements which have built their popular (and populist) support exclusively on Islamophobic rhetoric, coupled with xenophobic, anti-establishment and anti-EU platforms. This included the List Pim Fortuyn, named after the populist Dutch politician (assassinated by a radical animal rights activist in 2002) and the liberal-right party VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), led by the populist Geert Wilders (Cesari et al., 2006: 104-106).


There is a sense, as one commentator pointed out, in which Islamophobia could be described as “a ‘phobia’ of multiculturalism” (Marranci, 2004: 115-6):

To create a multicultural society… [it] is not enough to allocate a space for the other, but also to accept the transformations that the cultural contacts and cultural interchanges with the ‘other’ may cause… Islamophobia, today, is increasingly connected to the fear of a real multicultural society, in which Islam may become a recognised and meaningful part of a new Europe (Marranci, 2004: 116).

It is no surprise therefore that the rise in Islamophobia coincides with rising hostility to multiculturalism, even at the heart of the liberal establishment. In Britain, the front man in that attack happened to be Trevor Phillips, Director of the (now defunct) Commission for Racial Equality, who warned in a speech in September 2005 that Britain was “sleepwalking into segregation” due to misguided multiculturalist policies (Schönwälder, 2007:14).


Multiculturalism, which can be succinctly defined as “the political accommodation of minorities formed by immigration” (Modood, 2007: 5) is a novel development both as a reality and as a theoretical/political perspective. For, while multicultural and multiethnic societies did exist throughout history, “[m]ulticultural societies in their current form are new to our age and throw up theoretical and political problems that have no parallel in history” (Parekh, 1999). This is mainly due to the fact that multiculturalism has evolved within “the context of liberal or social democratic egalitarianism and citizenship,” in contrast to de facto multicultural co-existence with empires or undemocratic states where citizenship rights were not guaranteed (Modood, 2007: 6).


Multiculturalism has evolved out of a number of converging and competing processes impacting modern societies. At one level, there were large and unprecedented movements of people across continents. Whole new societies, such as those of the Americas and Australasia have been formed predominantly through mass immigration. The post-war period also witnessed significant movements of immigrants to Europe from former colonies. As a result, most countries now accommodate significant ethnic/religious minorities. And while the immediate post-War period witnessed an espousal (at least in theory) of liberal egalitarian principles emphasising the “essential sameness” of all human beings, mainly as a reaction to Nazi discrimination, the period from the 1960s witnessed new demands to recognise differences (Modood, 2007: 1).


Many movements emerged from the 1960s, representing ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, feminists and alternative life-style advocates, and agitating for the recognition (and not mere toleration) of differences, in particular cultural difference as part of the conferral of democratic rights, challenging the hegemonic “monocultural” paradigm of assimilation (Goldberg, 2009: 6). For these groups, their demands “represented part of the struggle for freedom, self-determination and dignity and against contingent ideologically biased and oppressive views and practices, claiming false objectivity and universal validity” (Parekh, 2000: 2). This recognition was seen as essential since culture was seen as constitutive of individual identity, while “culturally derived differences” command a normative validity by “virtue of being embedded in a shared and historically inherited system of meaning and significance” (Parekh, 2000: 3).


Partly due to the partial success of these protest movements, and partly due to evolution in political attitudes and practices, multiculturalism has become an accepted norm in most modern liberal democratic societies. North American nations were the first to regard themselves in this light, and were soon followed by Western European countries such as Britain and the Netherlands which accepted the “multiculturalism” label (Modood, 2007: 3- 4). This process was helped by a parallel evolution in democratic theory, in which leading theorists began to question the original “culture-blind” theses of conventional liberal democratic theory (Kymlicka, 1995; Kelly, 2002; Goldberg, 1994). These interventions also regarded the traditional left-wing emphasis on class and economic equality as inadequate (Parekh, 2000), but were in turn challenged by critics who either charged the multiculturalists with espousing relativism, or accused them of permitting the entrenchment of outdated hierarchical relationships (Parekh, 2000: 2; Barry, 2001; Kelly 2002: 6). 


What is significant about the new attacks on multiculturalism is their specific Islamophobic undertones. The start was in France, with the eruption of the headscarf controversy in 1989. This started as a minor affair when the headmaster of a grammar school outside Paris expelled three girls for wearing headscarves, sparking a nation-wide debate that led to an official ban of headscarves in all French schools (Silverstein, 2004). This episode coincided with the Rushdie Affair in the U.K., but the two were not directly related. Muslim protests against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1988 (which involved book burning in Bradford) angered and alienated influential figures in the liberal establishment. When Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (ruling) on Valentine Day 1989 permitting the murder of the author and his publishers, the confusion which reined within the British Muslim community in Britain angered many more liberals. The ambivalence of many Muslim groups and important leaders with regards to the fatwa, and negative message which this gave, fuelled increased hostility to Muslims, in the media and within important intellectual circles.


Both the headscarf and the Rushdie Affair became catalysts for a seismic shift in European attitudes to Muslim citizens and immigrants in Europe. The Rushdie controversy was described by Professor Bhikhu Parekh, even as it was unfolding, as “an episode of exceptional significance” and also as “a magnifying mirror reflecting some of the deepest trends and tendencies developing in society” (Weller, 2009: 1-2). The same could be said about the headscarf controversy in France (and later in Germany). Both instances put societies face-to-face with the profound changes taking place within these societies and provoked reactions seeking to cope and come to terms with these (or resist them).


Both episodes provoked Muslim citizens in those countries into highly visible collective action as Muslims. Other identities (citizens, immigrants, ethnic or national minorities) were all subsumed under this overarching identity (Modood, 2005), and the attendant visibility was seen by some observers as, in fact, the trigger for rising Islamophobia in a development reminiscent of the emergence of anti-Semitism almost a century earlier (this link is of utmost significance, as will be seen later):

Islamophobia emerges decisively as a concept, around 1991, at the point when Muslim minorities have become politically active in Western Europe, in the midst of religio-political revival in the Muslim world, and at the ending of the Cold War. (It is interesting to note in passing the coining of anti-Semitism in Europe in 1879, after the legal emancipation of European Jewry and during their social assent at the height of European nationalism) (Birt, 2006).

This self-affirmation was seen by some critics in Britain as evidence that multiculturalism was “undermining British identity”. 


[T]he politics of multiculturalism has encouraged a greater consciousness of difference amongst Muslims so that they increasingly think of themselves at odds with wider society. They are much more conscious of their identity, which differentiates them from others. Younger Muslims are far more likely to identify with the Ummah than their parents, who are more attached to their ethnic or cultural identities (Mirza, 2007:38).

Multiculturalism was thus blamed by people like Trevor Phillips for the rising ethnic tensions in Britain, even terrorism. According to Melanie Phillips, multicultural education is virtually directly responsible for the 7/7 terror attack in London, and for creating “a terror state within” (Phillips, 2008: 106-24). According to Phillips, it is multiculturalism, and the effort to be sensitive, which are the cause of extremism, and not the other way round. Describing any criticism of Islam as “Islamophobic”, Phillips argues, quoting Kenan Malik, stifles criticism within Muslim communities, giving extremists a free run and thus, handicaps those who want to defend basic rights within the community.


In other words, it is not “Islamophobes” who are helping create Muslim extremism and violence. It is, on the contrary, those who conjure up the spectre of Islamophobia (Phillips, 2008: 129). 

Neither Phillips nor Malik, however, bothers to explain why a Muslim criticising his own community could be described as an “Islamophobe”. The very sense of Islamophobia excludes legitimate criticism of both the Muslim community and all criticisms of the Islamic faith as such. 


“A New Name for an Old Fear?”

Determining the precise trigger for mass Islamophobic reactions is crucial for this debate. A number of discussions of the rising hostility to Islam in the West attempt to link it to certain developments either in the West itself or in the Muslim world. In particular, the “monumental shock of [the 9/11] catastrophic event” is regarded as a decisive moment which enhances the “deeply felt American vulnerability to an Islamic threat.”

Nothing before had so crystallised fear of Muslims and Islam: not the 444-day confinement of American embassy staff by Iranian students (1979), the deaths of hundreds of U.S. marines in Lebanon due to Hezbollah suicide car bombers (1983), the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa (legal ruling) consigning author Salman Rushdie to death for his novel The Satanic Verses (1989), nor the first bombing of the World Trade Centre (1993) (Gottschalk, and Greenberg, 2008: 42).

The surge of Islamophobic sentiments and activities all over the Western world in the period immediately following 9/11 was certainly observable. In the U.K. for example, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) received a barrage of hate mail in the days following the attacks on New York, with some telling Muslims “what a vile evil race you are”, or “you do not belong here”, and should go home “and leave us alone”. However, some of the same emails remark “hope you like the bombs”, and gleefully predict that the “U.S. will soon kill many Muslim women and children. You are all subhuman freaks” (CBMI, 2004). These messages are classical Islamophobic texts, holding all Muslims responsible for the atrocities, and expressing deeply felt hate and revulsion.


However, it is precisely due to the nature of such sentiments that it becomes clear that anti-Muslim prejudice in the West did not start with 9/11. You cannot develop this depth of hate and anger overnight. The authors of the book from which the above quotes came produce ample evidence that the depiction of Arabs and Muslims (in particular in political cartoons or in the cinemas) shows that they have been objects of both fear and ridicule for decades. Editorial cartoons commenting on events touching on relations between Muslims and the West reveal a consistency as well as subtle shifts in the way Muslims were depicted. In the aftermath of the Suez crisis of 1956, American cartoons depicted both Egypt and Nasser in feminine form, as a seductive “oriental” woman being taken advantage of by the Soviets or wooed by the Cold War rivals. Neither Islam nor the Arab identity was highlighted, and the threat was seen more in terms of a vacuum that could be exploited by the real enemy, in this case the Soviets (Gottschalk, and Greenberg, 2008: 112-115).


With the oil crisis of 1973-74, we witness a shift towards a more explicit depiction of the “Arab” as a devious and threatening manipulator who was holding the West hostage. The lascivious and barbarian Arab is at times even depicted to be adding Western countries to his “harem”. Islam creeps in subtly as the Arab is at times depicted performing religious rituals simultaneously with manifesting his greed and deviousness (Gottschalk, and Greenberg, 2008: 117-123). With the Iranian revolution, the Arab fades into the background as the Muslim ‘fanatic’ tak`es centre-stage. Here, the threat is depicted as even more sinister and intrinsic to the barbaric, backward, cruel and even “spooky” religious fanatic (Gottschalk, and Greenberg, 2008: 124- 29).


September 11 brought all these tropes together. Here the “Arab” is depicted consistently as a menacing (almost exclusively male) religious fanatic bent on destruction. The enemy here is literally demonised: depicted as a duplicitous and devious demonic creature, and also as occult and mysterious, a terrifying “spooky” creature (Gottschalk, and Greenberg, 2008: 42).


These depictions draw from deeply-held beliefs and myths that have been, according to some analysts, constitutive of Western identity. As Tomaž Mastnak put it, “Islam was essential for the formation of [European] identity, and remains so for its maintenance.” European identity was formed “not by Islam but, predominantly, in the relationship… to Islam.” In this regard, the crusades, which could be regarded as "the first Western union", were a “crucial formative condition of what was to become Europe” (Mastnak, 1994: 2-3). Paradoxically, this aggression against Islam was seen as essential to unite Europe and maintain its internal peace. The movement for “holy peace” in Western Christendom very quickly (and logically) transformed itself into a campaign of holy war against infidels, in particular those of the Muslim variety (Mastnak, 2002).


European peace and unity were intimately linked to war - war against those who were perceived as threatening that unity, against enemies within and without: “infidels”, “heretics”, “schismatics” (who were later joined by the savages). It was Muslims who were made the enemy among all possible enemies (Mastnak, 1994: 3).

The construction of European identity by contrast to the “Islamic other” had an enduring impact on how Muslims were viewed. As Edward Said masterfully demonstrated, this in-built hostility to Islam expressed itself powerfully in scholarship on Islam (the discipline of “Orientalism”) and later in media coverage of Islamic issues. The misrepresentation of the East in dominant European scholarship did not only internalise earlier prejudices, but also helped justify and inspire the Western imperialist endeavour and to later facilitate it (Said, 1978; 1981). The portrayal of the other in Orientalism has in turn helped shape and influence perceptions of Western self-identity and scholarship, rather than merely reflecting them.


[A]s a species of Enlightenment discourse, orientalism has been a carrier of basic Western notions of the European self and the non-Western other that generated unfalsifiable propositions about the superiority of Europeans to non-Europeans. In this way, Orientalists participated in the elaboration of modern European cultural identity (Burke III, 1998).

The close link between this scholarship and policy circles survived both the Enlightenment and colonialism, and continued to influence key policy decisions, as well as the portrayal of recent events in the Muslim world, such as the Iranian revolution (Said, 2003; Said, 1981). At times, this influence has been very direct, as when the “doyen of Orientalists”, Bernard Lewis, reportedly played a crucial role in influencing the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 (Hirsh, 2004). But the influence is mutual. The “superheated ideological climate of the Reagan/Bush years,” ushered in neo-Orientalism, with its “new object of study: Islam.”

Intersecting with an increased ideologisation of relations between the Middle East and the West, this “back to the future” enterprise rehabilitated old orientalist tropes about Islam, Muslims, and non-Westerners generally. Media hype about a “crescent of crisis” arching through the Middle East, as well as Gulf War I (between Iran and Iraq) and conflicts in Lebanon and Libya, helped shape a new intellectual climate. Further, the European and American publics were weaned of their sympathy for progressive nationalism by a fear campaign that created the new category of “the Islamic terrorist”, a useful supplement to that old standby, the Arab terrorist… Overnight, Islamic culture became highly toxic as a subject of intellectual investigation (Burke III, 1998).

The convergence of ancient fears and modern European politics manifested itself in even more brutally lethal form in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The violent Islamophobia amongst the Serbs is not unrelated to the Serb narratives of self-identity in which Islam is defined as the historical enemy and abiding threat. In the 1980s, Serbian nationalists used a classic text The Mountain Wreath, an epic poem by the 19th century poet Bishop Petar Njegos which celebrates the extermination of Slavic Muslims of Montenegro by their Orthodox Serb compatriots in the late 18th century. In the poem, the Serbs give the Muslims an ultimatum: convert or die. The Muslims plead for tolerance, but their tormentors are not for “co-existence” or “tolerance”.


The Mountain Wreath culminates with a graphic depiction of the Christmas-day slaughter of the Slavic Muslims of Montenegro - men, women and children - and the annihilation of their homes, mosques, and other monuments (Sells, 2003: 355 ).

In this incident, we encounter Islamophobia at its purest, without any admixture of racial or ethnic undertones. However, in most European narratives, the two are often intertwined. The Muslim is often used as a synonym of either Turk or Moor. The former is portrayed as “cruel, tyrannical, deviant and deceiving,” while the latter (with a habitual emphasis on his dark colour and African features) is shown as “sexually overdriven and emotionally uncontrollable, vengeful and religiously superstitious” (Rana, 2007: 154).


Immediate Triggers

This deeply ingrained hostility to Islam and fear of Muslims had made it easy for Islamophobia to rise and extend its influence in response to a series of interrelated recent events. And as mentioned at the start of this article, one such early event was paradoxically one that many Muslims saw as a new imperial endeavour (the Gulf War of 1991) aimed at the heart of the Muslim world. In the age of mass media, every event of this type tends to become a spectacle shared by disparate communities around the world, as it ushered in the “CNN era”, and was beamed live into living rooms across the globe. It both thus united and divided audiences as various groups watching the same footage reacted angrily.


The series of events in question (the Rushdie Affair, the Headscarf Affair, the Gulf War, the Intifada) had this in common: they all became media events, enacted in full view of the proverbial “global village”. Not only did they provoke concerted action all over Europe, but also all over the Muslim world. Together with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 (an event that was also beamed live to the whole world) these events and their media representations began to shape perceptions (and actions) in the new era. They were soon to be eclipsed (and reinforced) by the carnage in Yugoslavia.


The linkages between these dramatic events and developments were not just in the media, but the media played a crucial role. The burning of Rushdie’s book in Bradford in January 1989 caught world media attention, and the coverage provoked protests in India and Pakistan where a number of protesters were killed. News of the protests and the deaths reached Iran and were instrumental in convincing Ayatollah Khomeini to issue his fatwa against Rushdie on February 14, the day after (Weller, 2009: 34-35). The fatwa in turn provoked frenzied media coverage, and stirred activism both by Muslim protestors and pro-Rushdie liberal activists. 


At the same time, the headscarf controversy in France provoked angry protests in France and some Muslim countries. It was soon to be overshadowed by developments across the Mediterranean in Algeria, where Islamists were on the verge of taking power in elections in 1991, prompting a coup that was enthusiastically backed by France. As a result of the rising tension, the official French stance on the headscarf issue hardened, and the perceived hostile French stance led to the Algerian violence spilling over into France.


The Gulf War played an instrumental role in shifting the stance of Islamic militants who had been content in the past to wage local “jihad” in Afghanistan (where they were happy to ally themselves with the U.S. and its regional allies) and usually worked independently from each other, to rethink some of their strategies. Some of these groups began to think of coordinating their action, and their criticism of U.S. presence in the Gulf began to grow louder. This in turn dictated closer cooperation between the U.S. and the enemies of these movements, causing more hostility to the U.S. among them. 


The coalition and combination of all these events led eventually to the collapse of barriers between various conflicts which did not have any links in the past. Veterans of the jihad in Afghanistan (or groups which opportunistically used the “jihad” context to gain training) began to play a role in such disparate conflicts as the civil war in Algeria, a minor insurgency in Libya, the Chechen war, the Kashmir conflict and, later, in the war in Bosnia. It was not going to be long before such violent would spill over into Europe and the U.S.


Thus, just as anti-Muslim sentiments in the West did not start with 9/11, violent confrontation and anti-Western Muslim sentiments did not start there either. However, previous violent conflicts between Muslims and Western powers appeared to have been the result of cultural convergence rather than divergence. The anti-colonial struggles in Muslim lands derived legitimacy from modern ideologies such as nationalism, socialism and liberalism, while the dominant themes in the earlier struggles were notions like self-determination, human rights and democracy. The most intense or prolonged conflicts in this regard, such as the Algerian war of liberation or the Palestinian struggle, were conducted specifically under radical secular ideologies or radical nationalism, to which key Western thinkers (such as J-P Sartre, Jean Genet and Franz Fanon) made significant contributions.


The most recent confrontations, in particular those associated with the rise of anti-Western feelings among Muslims, also appear to have familiar roots. Hostility to the West in Iran, for example, dates back to the 1950s when a liberal nationalist government was overthrown with American help, and was fed by continued Western support for the brutal regime of the Shah. More recently, massive U.S.-led intervention in the Gulf became the spark for both Islamophobic incidents and anti-Western sentiments among Muslim masses.


There is a sense in which the rise of a specifically anti-Western Islamic violent radicalism can be dated to that period, and has been inextricably linked to the episode of U.S.-led military intervention in the Gulf and its aftermath. For up to that point, Islamic radicals were allies of Saudi Arabia and indirectly of the U.S. This alliance of convenience emerged first against both the Soviet Union and radical Arab nationalist regimes which oppressed the Islamists and sought to destabilise traditional monarchies of the Gulf. The U.S. and its allies enlisted Sunni-backed jihadism in Afghanistan and enlisted salafi radicalism, with its anti-Shi’ite fanaticism, in their conflict with Iran (Kepel, 2004: 153-57) 


However, the massive U.S. intervention in the Gulf in 1990-91 brought it in direct confrontation with these tendencies, as it encroached on their home turf. At first, the Gulf Islamists were persuaded that the U.S. presence was temporary and would end as soon as the Iraqis were driven out of Kuwait. But once the war ended, the troops refused to budge; the fractured Saudi-Islamist alliance fell apart. Saudi Arabia witnessed the rise of open political opposition for the first time. The more peaceful wing of the opposition relocated to Europe. The more militant used Sudan as a base before joint U.S.-Saudi pressure forced it out to Afghanistan.


At that time Europe was generally the favourite locus of exile for the opponents of the despotic regimes of the region. Even Osama bin Laden set up a London office for his anti-Saudi opposition group in 1994 (Atwan, 2006: 15), which indicates that he had not decided up to that point to enter into open confrontation with the West. But the Gulf conflict became the point when many exiled opposition groups abandoned their habitual preoccupation with exclusively attacking the regimes at home. It also impacted Western Muslim communities, who were now required to prove their loyalty (Poynting and Mason, 2007: 69). The horrendous human cost of the draconian siege on Iraq, and the daily televised casualty toll in the Palestinian intifada, caused anguish and outrage among large sections of Muslim public opinion around the world.


The perceived Western reluctance to stop the carnage in former Yugoslavia, where Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo became the targets of vicious Serb attacks, contrasted with haste through which the military option was adopted in the Gulf with the procrastination in the face of the slaughter that was taking place in the heart of Europe itself, and regarded this as both a betrayal of the Bosnian Muslims and a threat to their own precarious existence in Europe (Qureshi and Sells, 2003: 231-2, 352-4; Weller, 2009: 90; Kepel, 2004: 31-46).


With the collapse of Algeria’s short-lived democratic experiment as the army mounted a coup in January 1992 (with visible French support) to block an anticipated Islamist electoral victory, the civil war that ensued resulted in a spill-over of the violent conflict into Europe. This in turn, led the French in particular to institute intrusive policing measures which further alienated the immigrant youth, and highlighted the links between these conflicts in their minds:

In other words, when Franco-Maghrebis qua Muslims witness the events of 9/11, the American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the ongoing violence in Israel-Palestine, they increasingly witness a reflection of the struggle that they are undergoing in their daily lives. In spite of obvious diplomatic and policy distinctions between France and the United States and Israel, young French Muslims make the implicit analogy between the American army, the Israeli IDF and the French riot police. They reinterpret, in other words, their battles with French forces of law and order as an intifada of their own, as a resistance to the forces of imperialism (Silverstein, 2008: 19).

Both Western action (in the Gulf and Iraq) and inaction (in the Balkans and Chechnya) led to a steady influx of Muslim refugees coming to the West, thus contributing further to anxiety about immigration and more hostility towards Muslims. More action was in turn being taken against Muslims in anti-immigration and anti-terror measures. The post-Cold War era witnessed more intense international involvement in domestic conflicts abroad, in particular the grappling with failed states and unstable regions, and led to further entanglements of domestic and international politics. 


Converging Narratives of Fear 

What is most remarkable about the xenophobic narratives of Islamophobia and their counterparts among Muslim radicals and extremists is the way they appear to echo and mirror each other, and often converge in expressing contempt and mistrust of the establishment in both the West and the Muslim world. The convergence is at times so striking that the comedy show presenter Jon Stewart of the Daily Show created the impression at one of his shows in February 2009 that he was going to play a “terrorist” tape which had just arrived, and then played radio comments by former Vice President Dick Cheney warning about an impending terror attack on the U.S. in which nuclear weapons would be used.


Leaders of Al Qaeda justify their actions by claiming that the whole world is now ganging up against Muslims, with the West even reconciling with its former enemy, Russia, for this purpose. Led by the U.S., “which is under the influence of the Jews”, the West uses, and only understands, the language of violence. “Therefore if we wish to have a dialogue with them and make them aware of our rights, we must talk to them in the language they understand” (Atwan, 2006: 83-84). In this conflict, not only are the ruling Muslim regimes on the side of the enemy, but so are also those Islamic movements which have chosen the path of peaceful engagement in national politics, and thus betrayed the cause of Islam and the people (Atwan, 2006: 84; Kepel, 2004: 86).


The purveyors of anti-Muslim rhetoric are also dismayed that the establishment, and sometimes the whole population, appear oblivious to the fact that their countries were “even now sleepwalking into Islamisation”:

Britain still doesn’t grasp that it is facing a pincer attack from both terrorism and cultural infiltration and usurpation… And so, particularly within the elite, people think that things are broadly under control. They fail to realise that the attempt to take over our culture is even more deadly to this society than terrorism (Phillips, 2008: vii).

According to this view, the West is “a civilisation under siege”, but “the political, judicial, security and intellectual elites are busy denying the nature of the danger” (Phillips, 2008: xvi).

Another writer of similar persuasion praises extreme right-wing parties (which he alternatively calls “populist” or “pro-liberty” parties) in Europe as being “the only ones to address with candour the issues of fundamentalist Islam, immigration, and integration”. It is thus lamentable that they have been “powerfully stigmatised for doing so.”


The political establishment has routinely acted to keep proliberty parties out of power, even if some of them enjoy the support of a large portion of the electorate. Meanwhile, establishments do their part by misrepresenting “populist” ideas, maligning their leaders, and mocking their supporters (Bawer, 2006:44-45).

Worried Islamophobes like the late Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands were certain that the Islamic takeover of Europe was imminent. “It is five minutes to twelve,” he told his followers in February 2002. “Not just in the Netherlands, but in the whole of Europe” (Bawer, 2006: 166). But according to other colleagues in this trend, they need not bother, since the takeover of Europe by Islam is already complete. According to the staunchly pro-Israel Swiss-based British author Bat Ye’or, Europe, or more accurately Eurabia, is now already a Muslim colony, with its citizens reduced to subject status to their Arab overlords. Bat Ye’or (Hebrew for “daughter of the Nile”), is a pseudonym for the Egyptian-born Gisèle Littman, who wrote extensively on the history of non-Muslim subjects of Islamic empires, not with great accuracy, it has been argued (Qureshi and Sells, 2003: 360-3). In her 2005 book, Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, she offers a spirited defence of Israel against what she sees as a combination of resurgent European anti-Semitism exacerbated by sucking up to the Arabs for economic reasons. In an earlier article with the same title in the National Review, Ye’or sums her argument thus:

The cracks between Europe and America reveal the divergences between the choice of liberty and the road back to Munich on which the European Union continues to caper to new Arab- Islamic tunes, now called “occupation”, “peace and justice”, and “immigrants’ rights” — themes which were composed for Israel's burial. And for Europe's demise (Ye’or, 2002). 

It is probably no coincidence that the bulk of those figures and groups usually described as Islamophobes are fanatical supporters of Israel. However, it is no less remarkable that Islamophobia has also been compared to anti-Semitism and seen as feeding from the same source of xenophobic intolerance and gratuitous demonisation of the other. It is rather instructive that the body which first stumbled onto Islamophobia (and publicised the term) (the Runnymede Trust), has in fact been engaged with the task of examining the resurgence of anti-Semitism. And as mentioned above, the subtle shifts in extreme right-wing xenophobia have witnessed a marked displacement towards Islamophobia, with right-wing parties which started with an emphasis on anti-Semitism (as in Britain and France), revising their theses towards the now “safer” and more acceptable anti-Muslim racism.


There are some parallels in the supporting narratives of both types of racism, in particular the contradictory claims that the target groups have all sorts of despicable characteristics such as backwardness and unreliability. At the same time, they are perceived as having control of the world. However, the dynamics of the two phenomena are somewhat different. The hostile narratives of the Islamophobes tend to feed from reinforcing events, including the narratives of Muslim extremists residing in Europe. Acts of terror, such as the murder of the television presenter Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a Moroccan-born immigrant, not to mention major terrorist incidents such as 9/11 and March 11 (Madrid, 2004) and 7/7 (London 2005), do reinforce the climate of fear.


In a similar vein, the extremist rhetoric among Muslims finds support from Islamophobic attacks and official policies, such the Gulf War of 1991, the repressive Israeli policy after the second Intifada of 2000s, as well as the wars on Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). The revelations about the Abu Ghraib torture in Iraq in 2004 gave a huge boost to extremist rhetoric, while the apparent victimisation of Western Muslims in counter-terror measures creates more anger amongst Muslim youth, making many among them more receptive to extremist rhetoric. At the same time, the rising number of high profile arrests under anti-terror laws, and the intense coverage in the media increases popular suspicions of Muslims and reinforces Islamophobic narratives.


Often, the inter-linkages and symbiotic relationship between policies and events become much more direct. President Sarkozy’s remarks in June 2009 to the effect that the burqa (a dress which covers a woman’s whole body, including the face) was not “welcome” in France as it was “a sign of servitude” which violates women’s dignity, elicited a threat of retaliation from the extremist Algerian-based group calling itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.2 In early July, anger spilt over on the streets of Alexandria in Egypt as over a thousand mourners gathered at the funeral of 31-year-old Marwa el-Shirbini, who was stabbed to death by a German man she was suing for abuse in Dresden, Germany. The Egyptian-born el-Shirbini, a pharmacist who was three months pregnant, was stabbed 18 times inside the court by a man described as “a fanatical racist” in front of her three-year-old and was also shot by the police who arrived on the scene. The incident provoked angry protests on the streets in both Germany and Egypt, with calls for action against German interests (Collins, 2009; Connolly and Shenker, 2009). Within days, angry protests were spreading to other parts of the Muslim world. Tehran Times reported on July 12 that Iranian students held demonstrations and picketed the German Embassy in Tehran. An Islamophobic attack in Europe thus appears to be on the verge of provoking another momentous clash across cultural boundaries.



The rise of Islamophobia in the West does not simply reflect the revival of ancient fears which are deeply ingrained in the European formative narratives of identity, even though the influence of these narratives plays a powerful role. It represents, in part, a displacement of habitual xenophobic and racist tendencies onto new targets, helped by aspects of official policy which feeds on suspicions against Muslims and also foments resentment amongst them. The rhetoric and actions of some extremist Muslim groups and individuals further enhance the climate of mutual mistrust, and in turn feeds on Islamophobia. This process has an alarming capacity for selfreinforcement into a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling narratives of mistrust and victimisation.


In order to break this cycle, the narratives of mistrust, demonisation and insecurity need to be confronted and deflated. In some of their more extreme implausible forms, these narratives are easy to puncture. Few rational individuals can buy the argument that Europe is about to be overrun by Muslim hordes, let alone the more implausible claim that this take-over is already complete. This is especially so since the same people making these claims also accused Muslims of living in ghettoes and not wanting to integrate or even learn the language. How can a small minority living in poverty and seclusion take over the continent? And why would impoverished rural immigrants from Bangladesh and Africa threaten Berlusconi’s “superior” civilisation which is busy conquering the world? 


And on mentioning this “conquering” part, it is noteworthy to point out that Islamophobic reactions to 9/11 and similar incidents not only demanded that Muslims be thrown out of the West, but also called for the bombing and invasion of Muslim countries. Notorious Islamophobes see the mere presence of a Muslim woman with a headscarf on the streets of Paris or Amsterdam a colossal threat to the very essence of Western civilisation. At the same time, these same individuals support Israel’s expansionist policies and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by consequence the resultant instability which pushes many more refugees to seek asylum in the West. Thus, while immigration might ostensibly be the flashpoint and source of anxiety exploited by Islamophobes, the problems and tensions will persist even if immigration were to stop completely. This is so, because the Islamophobes, as we have seen, are supportive of all sorts of expeditions into the Muslim world.


It is to be noted here that some of the fears and anxieties invoked by the Islamophobes are real, even if misguided. Even some liberal and leftwing intellectuals are now acceding to the rhetoric of the Islamophobes, but more from the anti-clerical and militantly secularist perspective now being re-directed against Islam, thus creating a lethal incendiary combination the like of which has not been seen since the rise of Nazism in Europe. For, while the extreme right is using Islamophobia as an extension (or substitute) for habitual xenophobia, the liberal left is claiming to be fighting the Enlightenment’s battle anew, this time against Islam.


Islamophobia is thus a type of racism which is proud of itself, combining the pride of the Enlightenment in its rationalism and ethical selfgrounding with the pride in European identity and achievement. The fear of Islam and Muslims is seen as not merely the contempt for poor, coloured immigrants who blot the perfect European landscape, but as the justified standing up for liberal Western values against backward and bigoted alien mores which are threatening what is best in Europe and the West. Rather than being an heir to Nazism, it pretends to fight Islam as the heir to the Inquisition.


This tendency becomes self-reinforcing, since the fear (which is sometimes genuine) does provoke reactions which tend to exacerbate the situation. Even paranoids can have enemies, the saying goes. Often these enemies are the results of the very paranoid reactions to presumed threats. Official policies seeking to accommodate and alleviate these fears (counterterrorism and immigration measures, racial profiling, external wars, etc.) also tend to increase mutual hostility and resentment, and generate new grievances and grounds for suspicion. This said, it is undeniable that Islamophobic narratives also do feed on, and are reinforced by, extremist rhetoric and actions of some Muslim groups or individuals. Murders or acts of terror that claim to be motivated by Islam or in support of Muslim causes, or provocative remarks supportive of such acts, are certain to worsen tensions between Muslims and their neighbours. It is of course impossible for Muslim communities to police every member, but purveyors of extremist rhetoric must be emphatically isolated and chastised so as to eliminate any suspicion that they may be speaking for, or acting on behalf of, the community. Curbing and isolating the extremists should be done in the context of a mutual de-escalation of hostilities, with Muslims and their compatriots working jointly to allay each other’s fears and manifest mutual solidarity with the victims of aggression from any side.


This mutual de-escalation must not be seen as a substitute for confronting Islamophobia or an excuse for it. By definition, Islamophobia is a pathological and unjustified attitude which cannot be excused by acts of violence or any other criminal behaviour by members of a minority, since there are laws to deal with these criminal actions, and none can justify criminal attacks on innocents, burning mosques, etc. However, it is realistic to believe that removing possible excuses for Islamophobes cannot but help diffuse the situation.


Fortunately, effective action is being taken at many levels, official and non-official, to confront both Islamophobia and extremism. Officials and community leaders in major European countries, as well as officials and bodies at the E.U. level, have made it clear that Islamophobia will not be tolerated. Many civil society groups are active in confronting this scourge. Muslim community leaders are also active in confronting extremists within the community.


But much more needs to be done. Muslim groups and leaders could do more to isolate and morally disarm the extremists, while officials need to avoid falling into the trap of appeasing Islamophobes by appropriating some of their rhetoric and recommendations in order to win votes, especially in the light of recent developments where extreme right-wing parties appear to have made unexpected gains in the June 2009 European Parliament elections. Islamophobia is not only a threat to Muslim minorities in the West, but also to Western democracies and global peace and security. A Europe where minorities live in terror cannot be a credible contributor to world peace. 



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