Two books on Islamophobia: a review

Thinking through Islamophobia: Global perspectives
S. Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil (eds.)
London: C. Hurst & Co., 2010

Chris Allen
Farnham: Ashgate, 2010

The publication in 1997 of the report Islamophobia: A Challenge for us All, by the Runnymede Trust’s Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, set in train a series of responses and reactions from within the British and European academic community and by various other observers within the media, political bodies and actors, and think tanks of various shades of ideological persuasion. In both books under review, recent among a series of other books dealing with the same term and concept, Allen in Islamophobia and the editors of Thinking Through Islamophobia, reckon with the agenda-setting 1997 report. Both books do much more. Adopting a critical perspective of the way in which the Runnymede Trust Commission set out its definition of Islamophobia – its shorthand version spoke of ‘the dread or hatred of Islam’ and the consequent ‘fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’, both deal with the limits of the definitional exercise, contend with the variety of perspectives about the origin of the term, problematize and contextualize the term as a concept in its various uses, deal with the antagonisms which it elicits, draw out the historical and geographical contexts in which the phenomenon has been manifest, and discuss its usefulness in a period replete with discourses on Muslim otherness.

Neither book claims to be the final word on the subject and, indeed, Allen sees the term being instrumentalized in a theoretical way to initiate a series of future studies building on his redefinition of the concept, while Vakil advocates its retention, inter alia, for informing current legal understandings. Allen’s book provides the clearest exposition of the trajectory of the term within the British context whence it appears to have emerged sometime in the 1990s. As Allen makes very clear, though, its precise provenance is unclear, with several leading Muslims claiming to be its originators. There seems some consensus that the term was in current use among Muslims before it was catapulted, since the Runnymede Trust report, into the wider British and European public frame. This, however, is its ‘contemporary’ origin because, as both Allen and Vakil explain, the term was used in Francophone anti-Orientalist discourse by Dinet and Ibrahim for a 20 year period from near the end of the First World War in the context of the service rendered to the French military efforts in that war. Its resurrection occurs in the quite different, post-colonial and diasporic context, with the instalment of millions of Muslims across Europe, and the dissolution of the older identity markers, in Britain, of ‘Black’ and even ‘Asian’, and a rising consciousness by Muslims themselves, as well as their interlocutors, of their otherness in Britain and the wider Europe.

The contemporary British framing of the Islamophobia debate, at least in its initial phases, raises questions about its career in situations elsewhere to explain relations between Muslims and their others. Meer and Modood, in Thinking Through, draw on earlier work by Robert Miles in order to explain it as an extension of and encapsulated by a process of ‘racialization’ and ‘cultural racism’ whereby the ‘groupness’ of Muslims comes to be a marker which is used to denigrate them. In so doing, they explain that it is not the actual beliefs of Muslims that are normally at issue when such denigration occurs, but their reduction to an ethno-religious group with negative associations, sometimes reaching the proportions of ethnic cleansing as in the former Yugoslavia. Stereotyping, and the consequent action that it is suggestive of, thus appears to play a key role. Moors’ chapter on the veiling debacle in the Netherlands appears to be one manifestation of this kind of racialization. The impotence of the Belgian left in responding to nationalist mobilisation against Muslims in Flanders, discussed by Fazil, appears to be another such context.

Yet, while this kind of analysis seems necessary for contemporary European contexts, it sits uneasily when projected back into the European past and when applied to non-European contexts as Thinking Through tries to do for Thailand, India, China, and Turkey. Having said that, some of the chapters in Thinking Through and Allen’s book which deal with the European past, going back to the Crusades and the associations of Islam as a paganism and, at the same time a tradition rivalling Christianity, make for some of the most interesting reading. In this sense, Tlostanova’s chapter on Russia is one of the most fascinating. She pinpoints Russian Islamophobia as sourced in multiple layers of Eurocentrism, which also provides the ground for a more generalized xenophobia: the uneasy relationship with Muslims in the expanding Muslim empire with Orthodox Christianity playing a pivotal, albeit a non-proselytising, role; the later adoption of a Western European Orientalism with Russia ever playing the role of a mimic European country with its own insecurities about whether it is Asian or European; the suppression of Central Asian nationalisms and the linked debasement and assimilation of Muslims in the Soviet Union; and the contemporary scenario of second class citizenship enjoyed by Muslims who are more or less classed as ‘Blacks’ in the new Russia which tries to come to terms with its lost empire and violently attempts to keep it together as far as it can.

While Tlostanova agrees that the term has some purchase for Russia, Yi’s chapter on China is less certain, but still goes on to explain that the key explanation for the distinct and ambivalent position of China’s diverse Muslim populations is their inability or unwillingness to adhere to the demands of Chinese culturalism moulded in the longue durée of the Chinese empire-state, but present through the post-Imperial decades. Anand simply goes on to assume the applicability of Islamophobia in the Indian context with a short explanation of its main features in Hindutva discourse. Aktay goes on to discuss Islamophobia by Muslims against other Muslims in the Turkish republic. This chapter is perhaps the least satisfactory since it is evidently written from a position apologetic of the Islamic political parties which, as he discusses, have either been closed down or threatened with closure. Aktay’s throwaway assertion of the currently ruling AK Party’s demonstrable record of pluralist initiatives vis-à-vis Kurds and Alevis fails to ring true. So does his assertion that there are no violations of secular lifestyles; observations of incidents in many localities in Turkey would indicate the opposite. If, as widely advocated, the ‘moderate’ Islamism of Turkey’s ruling party is seriously to be applied to the countries of North Africa and West Asia which are currently in some turmoil, we might see an increase in minority ‘Islamophobia’ pretty soon, if it is not already happening.

The inclusion of the account on Turkey and other Asian countries in Thinking Through demonstrates that some considerable thinking through of the term and concept of Islamophobia has yet to be undertaken. The problem goes back to the term’s origin in the British context. Islamophobia is also subject to the problem of the transplantation of concepts to a context different from the one in which they arose. Would the phenomenon it marks look like the racialization grounded in a history of British race relations that Meer and Modood talk about in, say, the Indian, Chinese or Thai contexts? Should the term therefore be elasticized to include phenomena of Muslim otherness outside the European experience?  Such a claim would appear to underlie both books, although it is more strongly manifest in Thinking Through. They beg the question, of which some authors are aware but do not address closely enough, which concerns how far one should stretch the concept to include all kinds of victimizations to which Muslims feel they are subject. This problem will remain unresolved, and the term Islamophobia proportionally misused, given that processes of Muslim identity formation, both in the past and in the contemporary world, take as a given the unquestionability of certain Islamic faith tenets and the expectation that others should accept and concede to  Muslim claims of doctrinal superiority.

Prakash Shah

A version of this review was previously published in (2012) Vol. 75, Issue 2 Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, pp. 397-399.

This entry was posted in Britain, China, India, Islam, Islamophobia, Muslims, racialization, Russia, Thailand, Turkey and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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