With dialogue, Islamophobia can be beaten

In a world where Islam and Muslims are constantly the subject of public discourse and discussion, Islamophobia can't be ignored, writes HA Hellyer

In a world where Islam and Muslims are constantly the subject of public discourse and discussion, the Islamophobia subject is hardly one that can be ignored. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg News
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A few weeks ago, there was an interesting debate in New York City between six individuals on the subject of Islamophobia. Three arguing that the phenomenon that the term represents is real and evident, and three arguing it is basically a red herring or excuse designed to shield Muslims and Islam from legitimate critique. In a world where Islam and Muslims are constantly the subject of public discourse and discussion, the subject is hardly one that can be ignored. On the contrary – it has to be engaged with.

The term Islamophobia has never been used without a certain amount of healthy disagreement in the academic arena. Some prefer not to use it as a term, as it sometimes is used beyond the narrow definition of fear of Islam. But the essential phenomenon, which is bigotry towards Muslims, exists — and is very serious.

That kind of sentiment can be seen on a regular basis. I’ve worked on discrimination towards Muslims within the West since 9/11, and have seen it take different forms over time. In Europe, the most virulent form recently was the claimed “EurArabia” project – the notion that Muslims were trying to destroy Western civilisation from within. That was the very narrative of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed dozens of Norwegians a few years ago in the belief that by so doing, he would halt that EurArabia project. Of course, it bears no basis in fact – Muslim Europeans are simply trying to build lives on that continent, rather than engage in some sort of civilisational Armageddon.

In the US, that kind of EurArabia frenzy didn’t exist as a real and genuine phenomenon – Muslim Americans, even after 9/11, were seldom viewed as fifth columnists, who were trying to destroy America from within. But that has changed. An increasing number of Americans have bought into the “civilisational destruction from within” argument. The repercussions are real.

The most recent example of that kind of bigotry leading to violent confrontation within western societies, from among westerners, was brought to light a few days ago.

A former candidate for the US Congress, Robert Doggart, planned to attack a group of Muslims and their homes in upstate New York, armed with an assault rifle, explosives and other weaponry. His case is now in the process of being settled through a plea bargain. Had the plot not been uncovered, the United States would have seen another type of terrorism on its own soil – this time, against Muslim Americans.

The court case should have attracted wide American and international attention. One can only imagine that if the reverse were true – if a Muslim planned to attack an Amish community, for example, with this kind of weaponry – the level of international media attention would be considerable. Mr Doggart’s story, however, has received paltry amounts of consideration. That lack of notice is concerning – not simply out of a sense of fairness in reporting, but to combat the problem before it actually leads to violence.

The same notion that drove Breivik and Mr Doggart – that Muslims are out to destroy western civilisation from within – is not an isolated one that is restricted to merely violent extremists. It goes far beyond that. As a commentator, I’ve critiqued various regimes, governments and non-state bodies on different continents over many years.

By far, the most aggrieved amount of hate mail that I’ve ever received was an article that satirically suggested that the Yoda character from Star Wars might owe something to Islam. That sort of “threat from within” narrative touches a particular nerve – and more people are feeling it as the years go on.

It is important to more fully understand how those narratives get spread – and more effort should be expended in that regard. That includes reports such as the Fear Inc work that has already been done at the Centre for American Progress in the US, including research by the likes of Wajahat Ali, a Muslim playwright and lawyer. It also includes potentially the work of the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University, which aims to properly highlight anti-Muslim sentiment as an increasingly problematic issue in American life. But these are not enough.

A common retort is that looking at anti-Muslim sentiment then clouds our judgement when trying to cover or understand radical Islamist ideology – because it then provides a way to excuse that extremist tendency. But that is a red herring argument. When done properly, researching and understanding bigotry towards Muslim populations interrupts the narrative of radical extremists altogether – because it shows how intrinsically the bigotry is factually flawed. Radical extremists and anti-Muslim bigots, ironically, share something in common – the notion that Muslim populations in the West just cannot exist and thrive. We owe it to our societies to prove them both wrong. We’re lucky in that the facts happen to be on our side.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer