What is Islamophobia?

AuthorBahdi, Reem
PositionForum: Rights in Times of Challenge

"the whole engine of collective social meaning was effectively geared to keeping these obscured experiences out of sight." (2)

  1. Introduction

    Popularized in 1985 by Edward Said, the term Islamophobia has become part of Canada's political, legal, and popular lexicons. (3) The "I" word, though controversial, appears frequently in public spaces and debates. (4) National newspapers have condemned Islamophobia. (5) Legislatures have committed to fighting Islamophobia. (6) Scholars write about the prevalence of Islamophobia in our post 9/11 world. (7) Petitions and Charters signed by scores of people have urged more action against Islamophobia. (8) Non-governmental organizations have developed campaigns to document and reverse Islamophobia. (9) Increased references to Islamophobia in popular and official sources create the impression that Canadian anti-terrorism laws, policies, and practices both recognize and respect human rights.

    But, Khaled Beydoun's analysis of Islamophobia suggests a different reality. Beydoun critiques the tendency to define Islamophobia as an "irrational fear" of Muslims because it privatizes this form of racism and moves attention away from the systemic targeting of and discrimination against Muslims by the state. (10) Though focused on developments in the United States, Beydoun's observations apply equally well to Canada. Canadian approaches to Islamophobia also emphasize private forms of anti-Muslim conduct while marginalizing the state's role in perpetrating Islamophobia. Inspired by his groundbreaking work, we build on Beydoun's analysis to propose a definition of Islamophobia for the Canadian context. We begin with a brief overview of the prevailing approaches to defining this form of racialization. We then propose seven criteria to guide the development of a definition in Canada. Islamophobia: is perpetuated by private actors; is motivated; is historically rooted in Orientalism; draws on and perpetuates stereotypes about a Muslim propensity for violence; draws on and perpetuates gendered stereotypes about roles and the nature of Muslim women; is state-driven; and, persists through a dialectical process of private and state action.

    Canada's variant of state-driven Islamophobia, unlike its American counterpart, particularly during the Trump era, operates subtly and can be difficult to identify. Nonetheless, its impacts prove profound. We thus end our analysis by proposing a framework for analyzing subtle forms of state-driven Islamophobia. The framework includes five facets: i) coding or the targeting of Muslims without explicitly naming them; ii) permission or the tacit license to engage in harmful race-based practices; iii) denial or the failure to name Islamophobic tropes that underlie an impugned act or decision; iv) individualization or the presentation of Islamophobia as a manifestation of extreme and aberrant private conduct, rather than broader social practices; and, v) minimization or the diminishment of Islamophobia, partially by creating confusion or controversy about its meaning or ignoring its impacts. Ultimately, we argue that government institutions have helped obscure our understanding of Islamophobia through various silencing techniques which combine to sustain the powerful narrative of Canada as a country that balances human rights and national security. A comprehensive definition of Islamophobia that takes this context into account can assist advocates, policy-makers, and educators to develop fulsome and more effective, strategic responses to Islamophobia in all its manifestations.

  2. Current Canadian Approaches

    1. No Accepted Legal Definition

      No commonly accepted meaning of Islamophobia exists in Canadian law or policy. Some policy-makers and commentators even resist use of the word. For example, in February 2017, Conservative Member of Parliament David Anderson introduced a motion against intolerance that deliberately excluded the word Islamophobia. Anderson moved that the House of Commons "recognize that Canadian society is not immune to the climate of hate and fear exemplified by the recent and senseless violent acts at a Quebec City mosque" and that it "condemn all forms of systemic racism, religious intolerance, and discrimination of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious communities" (11) Critics argue that the term Islamophobia lacks precise definition, (12) unduly restrict freedom of speech, and risks deterring legitimate criticism of Islam or Muslims. (13)

      Nonetheless, Ontario's new Anti-Racism Act, 2017 (the "Act") does use the word. (14) The Act requires the government to maintain an anti-racism strategy and "consult with members and representatives of communities that are most adversely impacted by racism, including Indigenous, Black and Jewish communities and communities that are adversely impacted by Islamophobia." (15) The Act also recognizes that "systemic racism is experienced in different ways by different racialized groups. For example, anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Black racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia reflect histories of systemic exclusion, displacement and marginalizai ion." (16) But, the term Islamophobia is not defined. Similarly, the case law does not contain a precise definition of Islamophobia. Surprisingly, only 14 reported cases from across Canada mention the word Islamophobia. (17) The adjudicators who decided these cases either adopt different definitions of Islamophobia or avoid defining the word altogether, preferring instead to discuss Islamophobia's main features or consequences. Human rights policy documents, legislative debates, and websites of civil society organizations mandated with combating Islamophobia do, however, define the term. (18) Yet, even there a commonly accepted definition does not exist.

    2. Emotion-Based Definitions

      Where definitions are offered in Canadian law and policy or civil society reports, the prevailing approach emphasizes the emotional state of perpetrators. For example, some focus on fear as Islamophobia's essential feature. The Report of the Canadian Parliament's Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, Taking Action Against Systemic Racism and Religious Discrimination Including Islamophobia, highlighted several proposed definitions of Islamophobia which included "an irrational fear or hatred of Muslims or Islam that leads to discrimination" or simply, "the irrational fear or hatred of Muslims". (19) Similarly, when controversy over the meaning of Islamophobia arose during a debate in the Canadian Parliament, Anthony Housefather, Federal Liberal Member of Parliament, proposed that the words "an irrational hatred or fear of Muslims, known as Islamophobia" be added to an opposition motion to ensure clarity of definition. (20) The Ontario Human Rights Commission's Policy and Guidelines on Racism and Racial Discrimination identifies Islamophobia as an "emerging form of racism" against Muslims based on stereotypes and fear. (21) In the same vein, some community based or civil society organizations also take up the fear motif. The Canadian Race Relations Foundation, for example, offers the following definition: "expressions of fear and negative stereotypes, bias or acts of hostility towards the religion of Islam and individual Muslims." (22) A 2012 paper published in Diversity Magazine and made available on the website of the Ontario Human Rights Commission cites the 1997 influential British Runnymede report, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, which defines Islamophobia as "the dread, hatred, [and] hostility towards Islam and Muslims perpetrated by a series of closed views that imply and attribute negative and derogatory stereotypes and beliefs to Muslims." (23) "Dread" appears to be synonymous with "fear" in this definition.

      Sometimes fear is presented as the cause of Islamophobia and sometimes it is presented as the product of a process intended to generate Islamophobia. For example, in Elmasry, a British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal highlighted the evidence of expert witnesses who emphasized that Islamophobia was deliberately and strategically deployed to generate fear. (24) This case involved a complaint against Maclean's Magazine after it published an article claiming that Islam had imperialistic ambitions to take over and make over the West, including Canada, through immigration. (25) The tribunal considered the claim that the article's author was trying to generate animus against Muslim communities.

      At different points in their evidence, each of the witnesses referred to the term "Islamophobia". The term was not formally defined before us but, in general, is understood to refer to the targeting of Muslims and Islam, drawing on common stereotypes about their association with terrorism and violence, in order to generate fear. (26) In other words, fear is not simply a by-product of specific events like 9/11; it is deliberately manufactured by motivated individuals and institutions.

      None of these definitions purports to describe Islamophobia as the product of fear alone. Each definition gives depth to the meaning of fear or expands upon its contents and significance in a slightly different way. Anthony Housefather equates "fear" with "hatred"; the Ontario Human Rights Commission links fear to "stereotypes"; the Canadian Race Relations Foundation links fear to "negative stereotypes, bias or acts of hostility"; and, Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All associates "dread" with "hatred" and "hostility". Despite the nuances, "fear" remains the core and common feature of each definition.

    3. Impact Based Definitions

      Another approach to defining Islamophobia evident in case law, policy documents, and civil society reports focuses on the impact of discrimination on individuals and communities; this approach avoids describing the problem in terms of the emotional state of the perpetrator. It is an impact-based approach which stresses that Islamophobia develops out of...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT