Islamophobia has complex roots in history and culture

A general fear of 'the other' can prompt apparently Islamophobic attacks regardless of the faith of those involved, writes Peter Hellyer

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Recommendations from the fourth Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in Abu Dhabi earlier this month included a proposal to establish an international centre to study the “fear of Islam”, or Islamophobia, to “serve as a platform to study its causes and manifestations and propose preventive methods to address it”.

However it is defined, Islamophobia is an issue of major concern. It is often, however, viewed far too simplistically. It is not just hostility to Islam as a faith.

I was fortunate enough to attend a forum workshop examining this "fear of Islam" from a western perspective. Comments from both panellists and the floor noted, accurately, some of the complexities that surround the general issue and also some of the actions and misunderstandings out of which fear can arise.

Thus one imam, a Muslim of Danish ethnic origin, noted that in his mosque, the Danish language was used, making it accessible to the surrounding community. In contrast, many others functioned primarily in Arabic, Urdu or Somali. It’s understandable that migrant communities wish to preserve their culture, language and – yes – their faith, but it’s scarcely surprising that doing so in a way that separates them from other Danes engenders problems.

My esteemed fellow columnist on these pages, Dr HA Hellyer, rightly noted that although Islam is not a race, much of the fear of Islam present in Britain has distinctly racist overtones. Victims of Islamophobic attacks can include not only Muslims but also Sikhs, Hindus and, for that matter, Christians of South Asian origins, just on the basis of their colour. A general fear of "the other" can prompt apparently Islamophobic attacks regardless of the faith of those involved.


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It’s important, too, to recognise the different histories of the European countries where Islamophobia is rising. The United Kingdom and France formerly ruled over large parts of the majority-Muslim world, unlike, for example, Poland or the Czech Republic. In Hungary, historical memories of the 145 years when Budapest was part of the Ottoman empire are still vivid, while the 1683 Ottoman siege of Vienna is a key moment in Austrian history. The Ottomans remained in the Balkans into the 20th century. Islamophobia in central and southeast Europe, not surprisingly, has different roots from what is allegedly the same general phenomenon in western Europe.

There are differences, too, in the demographic origins, as well as the size, of locally resident Muslim communities. In Britain, they are primarily of South Asian origin while in France, those of North African origin predominate, with most inward migration having come from their now-vanished empires. In Germany, at least until the last few years, most Muslims were of Turkish origin.

The final statement of the forum noted, in part, that “the phenomenon of Islamophobia is also senseless and unethical because it fuels hatred and discrimination in the West, which ultimately gives way to extremism”.

That, though, overlooks what another speaker from the United States identified as two different types of Islamophobia. He called these the “manufactured fear”, manipulated for political and racialist purposes, and the “genuine fear”, which he described as arising from a sense of difference, albeit unjustified.

It’s easy to simplify – but rarely helpful to do so. Unless the complexities of culture and history are recognised, as well as the differences in faith out of which the current phenomenon of Islamophobia has arisen, efforts to devise a successful response are unlikely to meet with much success.

Just as the Muslim world and, within it, the Arab world, is hugely diverse, so too is the concept of “the West” – and that is without taking into account the fear, genuine or manufactured, that arises out of terrorist attacks prompted by perversions of Islam. The characterisation of Islamophobia as a senseless and unethical hostility arising out of a “clash of civilisations” is an over-simplification that offers no solutions and no real understanding. It merely makes the issue yet more intractable.