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Erik Bleich: Knowing Islamophobia When We See It

The following article by Erik Bleich on the need for solid measures of Islamophobia is a good one.

He is a little too quick in explaining the development of Islamophobia as a concept that emerged by the attempt of political activists to draw attention to rhetoric and actions directed at Islam and Muslims, (I believe it was more complex).

One of the ideal measures Bleich puts forward is one that particularly resonates with us,

It is also possible to measure Islamophobia by examining unsolicited statements by politicians, civil servants, public figures, religious leaders, journalists, bloggers and others whose words are recorded for posterity.

We could undertake systematic analyses of news content about Islam and Muslims, or examine the changing nature of far-right political rhetoric vis-a-vis Muslims, or discuss the interpretation of Islam by a prominent writer such as Oriana Fallaci.

To the extent that these efforts are systematic – reviewing all major news stories, far-right rhetoric, or best-selling authors – they can convey important information about the prevalence and nature of Islamophobia at specific times and places.

Knowing Islamophobia when we see it

by Erik Bleich

Islamophobia was originally developed as a concept in the late 1990s and early 2000s by political activists to draw attention to rhetoric and actions directed at Islam and Muslims in Western liberal democracies. It still dominates public debates in response to inflammatory media portrayals or politicians’ statements about the perceived dangers of Islam in Europe or North America.

But in recent years, Islamophobia has begun an evolution from a politicised concept toward one used by scholars to study a form of racism similar to xenophobia or anti-Semitism.

Islamophobia has taken root in public, political and academic discourse because it attempts to label a social reality – that Islam and Muslims have emerged as objects of aversion, fear and hostility in contemporary liberal democracies. Under these circumstances, it is vital to make Islamophobia a meaningful concept for social scientists as well as for political actors.

That way, we can begin to measure its ebbs and flows to demonstrate not only that it is a real phenomenon, but also to understand why it rises and falls in a given time and place. Knowing what it means is a first step toward being able to fight it.

Indiscriminate negative attitudes

Islamophobia can best be understood as indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims. Because not all criticism constitutes Islamophobia, terms like indiscriminate cover instances where negative assessments are applied to all or most Muslims or aspects of Islam.

As with parallel concepts like homophobia or xenophobia, Islamophobia connotes a broader set of negative attitudes or emotions directed at individuals or groups because of their perceived membership in a category.

Viewed in this way, Islamophobia is also analogous to terms like racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism. Aversion, jealousy, suspicion, disdain, anxiety, rejection, contempt, fear, disgust, anger and hostility give a sense of the range of negative attitudes and emotions that may constitute Islamophobia.

Finally, directed at Islam or Muslims suggest that the target may be the religious doctrine or the people who follow it (or whose ancestors have followed it, or who are believed to follow it). This recognises the multidimensional nature of Islamophobia and the fact that Islam and Muslims are often inextricably intertwined in individual and public perceptions.

Beyond simply identifying its key definitional components, we also need to be able to measure Islamophobia. Most observers, scholars, activists and politicians have provided evidence of Islamophobia that suffers from a critical weakness.

Some authors rely on extremely indirect indicators of contemporary Islamophobia, such as noting its deep historical roots or identifying current socio-economic disadvantages concentrated in Muslim communities.

Others provide examples of Islamophobia that are anecdotal or symbolic, such as examples of violence directed at Muslims or the use of “Bin Laden” as a schoolyard taunt. A third type of research conflates Islamophobia with attitudes toward overlapping ethnic, national origin, or immigrant-status groups.

In these cases, contemporary histories of anti-Arab, anti-South Asian, or anti-immigrant sentiments and policies or examples of discrimination or attacks against groups that are predominantly Muslim, or composite measures that mix together responses about Islam and Muslims with those about national origin or ethnic groups stand for Islamophobia.

These approaches and observations are each useful to a degree. Yet, because they use indirect, anecdotal, or conflating measures, they are not reliable ways to analyse Islamophobia.

The ideal measures

The best indicators of Islamophobia would be through direct surveys, focus-groups, or interviews. The ideal measures involve carefully tailored questions through which respondents accurately reveal the extent of their indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims.

Of course, this ideal is hard to achieve in the real world. As most studies in parallel fields such as racism or homophobia have emphasised, the key to uncovering reliable indicators of Islamophobia lies in consistency. The more consistently negative the attitudes and emotions of respondents are to a series of questions, the more confident we can be that they are expressing Islamophobia.

Questionnaires can also aim to identify different levels of intensity of responses (aversion versus fear versus hostility) and of intensity of adherence to Islamophobic positions (an opinion versus a predisposition such as a bias).

It is important to remember that the fewer direct questions asked in surveys, focus groups, or interviews, the more difficult it is to measure Islamophobic sentiments. In particular, any arguments about Islamophobia that rely on a single survey question should be viewed with skepticism.

It is also possible to measure Islamophobia by examining unsolicited statements by politicians, civil servants, public figures, religious leaders, journalists, bloggers and others whose words are recorded for posterity.

We could undertake systematic analyses of news content about Islam and Muslims, or examine the changing nature of far-right political rhetoric vis-a-vis Muslims, or discuss the interpretation of Islam by a prominent writer such as Oriana Fallaci.

To the extent that these efforts are systematic – reviewing all major news stories, far-right rhetoric, or best-selling authors – they can convey important information about the prevalence and nature of Islamophobia at specific times and places.

At this stage of discussing Islamophobia, it is worth moving beyond politicised uses of the term and to look for a more rigorous way to understand and to measure it.

Once we have a common conceptual language and better tools for tracking Islamophobia, we can more accurately assess its trends over time, its variation over space or social groups, and its intensity relative to negative attitudes and emotions aimed at other minority groups.

Developing Islamophobia as a concrete and usable social scientific concept is not only the basis for meaningful analysis in academia, it is also the foundation for more informed public debates and for more effective policy decisions.

Erik Bleich is Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College in Vermont and the author of The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism (Oxford University Press). This essay draws on his article “What Is Islamophobia, and How Much Is There? Theorizing and Measuring an Emerging Comparative Concept” (American Behavioral Scientist, 55, December 2011: 1581-1600).

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  • Dan

    Thank you for the compliment, Ilisha, however undeserved it may be.

    Yes, Jeff Sparrow is a good example of an atheist who can use a Marxist critique of religion with a clear revulsion for the pervasive bigotry of the latest atheist brigades who don’t let any nuance get in the way of their prejudice.

    Which reminds me of one comment Tariq Ramadan made in his debate with Christopher Hitchens, which was that Hitchens could see every nuance in philosophy but none in religion. As Hitchens mostly dealt in debating points, he had no quick quip or any other comeback to that remark. But it stayed with me as summing up much of Hitchens’ style. (He was much better discussing literature than displaying his ignorance of religion and philosophy.)

    As a fellow Australian (as is Sparrow), we have watched the demonisation of Muslims used as a form of public policy in regard to asylum seekers since 9/11. The great irony being that so many Muslim asylum seekers try to obtain refuge in Australia to escape Islamist death squads in Iran (The Basij), Iraq (al Qaida and other Sunni death squads) and Afghanistan (the Taliban seeking to ethnically cleans the Hazaras). And, oh, we know that if they were white Christians seeking refuge they would all be welcomed with open arms.

    All of this is too complex to explain to our local version of the red necks. But we do need to harvest as much good will and respect for human rights (and religious rights) from as many quarters as possible. Because ignorance and bigotry spreads so much quicker than truth and accuracy.

  • Dan

    Tarek Fatah is beneath contempt in my view. Half his Facebook page was devoted to endlessly moronic body language attempts to explain how one bow Obama made showed he was ‘a traitor’. The rest was more or less made up defending nuts like Michelle Bachmann and her Huma Abedin/Muslim Brotherhood mole theories.

    For disagreeing with him, he both blocked me and reported me to Facebook as a spammer (which creates a whole new set of loops to jump through before posting a message to friend’s Facebook post), so he has next to no credibility with me. The Huffington Post shouldn’t waste space on a character like this.

    Mona Eltahawy, as far as I have seen, has only been critical of a certain misogyny in Arabic culture, and you will find countless devoted Catholic women (and men) making similar comments about the culture of the Roman Catholic Church. (Has Mona said things that pass the Islamophobia test?)

    Irshad Manji has a view on the Quran (and Hadith) you won’t find taught in the Islamic centres of learning in Cairo, Qatar or Qom, but surely that doesn’t class her as an Islamophobe. (But she is good friends with Tarek Fatah, and hasn’t as far as I have seen, disowned him yet.)

    Wajahat Ali and Mehdi Hassan (in the UK) seem quite sober in their commentary. And Reza Aslan even agreed, in a way, with Peter King, that an inquiry into radicalisation among the Muslim community would be a good thing, as long as it wasn’t a “witch hunt”, which is no doubt what Rep. King intended, for his own grubby political gain.

    So far, we are only talking about professing Muslims. I would think Scott Atran is an atheist who neatly demolishes the bigotry of a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris, and is someone who has spent more time with highly radicalised Muslims than have very many Muslims.

    I am sure there are countless others. And it would be good to have a series of examples of critiques done in the right spirit from across the ideological spectrum, because those at the top of most Google searches are usually scoundrels of the worst sort.

  • @JSB, I concur with Ilisha. Thank you for those points and the underlying message.


    I will comment on your last comment a little later.

  • Dan

    As an aside, I never fail to be dismayed that so many Muslims who set themselves up as “liberals and reformers” pretty much pimp their view to the axis of Islamophobia. They almost totally inhabit the right wing echo chamber of WND, Fox News, Middle East Forum, Pajamas Media, FrontPage Magazine, etc., etc.

    I honestly can’t see how they could hope to influence most Muslims by joining with the loonies who make out Pres. Obama is a secret Muslim or that Huma Mahmood Abedin is a secret Muslim Brotherhood stooge (Tareq Fatah).

    If anyone can explain this, as well, I’d love to know what is going on.

  • Dan

    I think this is an overall helpful contribution to the topic. The “know it when we see it” headline is an unfortunate, though perhaps inadvertent, reference to that infamous definition of pornography.

    It is beyond frustrating when bigotry is almost solely defined by whether people take offence or not. One otherwise erudite commentator in the Australian media used the phrase “anti-Semitism hiding under the guise of legitimate criticism of the Israeli state”, with the obvious caveat that only an he, or an Israeli, could distantangle the criticism from the anti-Semitism (despite Ha’aretz often being more critical of the Israeli state than most western media sources).

    Definitions of Islamophobia have usually taken care to be more exact, and one common element is the indiscriminate aspect, whether it in effect covers all or most Muslims or all or most of traditions in Islam.

    I assume former and current Muslims, atheists, Christians, Jews and, well, anyone can offer a fair critique of Islam and Muslim practice in general. . . . whether they follow their school of Islam faithfully or not. (That 86% of Jordanians want Muslim apostates to be subject to the death penalty reflects badly on something: their knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence, the tradition they follow, resentment of the British foisting the Hashemites on them, something else?)

    I’d be interested if anyone thinks there are some people who do this well, because it is quite easy to show that Geller, Spencer, Pipes, et al are all clearly nuts with next to no professional standing, but it is harder to know which scholars to point people to.

    Is Olivier Roy in or out? Tarek Heggy? Irshad Manji?

    Keen to know what you all think.

  • Just Stopping By

    @Link182: “What distinguishes legitimate criticism of Islam from outright bigotry against Islam?”

    Actually, Ilisha wrote an article that discussed this. (“Islam should be subjected to its fair share of constructive criticism and we have said as much in a significant number of articles. … Legitimate criticism is truthful, proportionate, and in accordance with fair standards.”)

    I think Ilisha’s article is great and well worth reading, but let me also add my own thoughts that I think fit in very well with hers.

    1. Legitimate criticism of Islam is distinguished from outright bigotry against Islam primarily by the fact that legitimate criticism does not try to subject Islam to standards that one does not apply to other religions or philosophies such as atheism, agnosticism, or humanism. If you want to argue against Islam by looking at the “most problematic” texts, Muslims, or interpretations, then it would only be fair to do the same for other religions and philosophies. That much, I think, should be obvious.

    2. Legitimate criticism of a religion means presenting a fair overview. If you (and that is a generic “you,” not you, Link182) think that there are say ten things that a religion should accomplish and a religion does well on nine and poorly on one, it is misleading to trumpet just your view that the religion does badly in one area without arguing that it does well in the others (especially if other religions and philosophies have similar issues). If there is something in Islam that you find problematic, that does not mean that in presenting Islam you should ignore how it helps guide over a billion people to more moral actions in general (assuming that you believe or recognize that). Similarly, it is wrong to focus on one time and place where a mostly Muslim society seemed to stagnate while ignoring all the times and places where Muslim societies led the world in art, architecture, astronomy, or medicine. Nor can you focus on instances in which Muslims and non-Muslims have fought and toss out the term “jihad” (even if properly understood) without (in addition to looking at similar issues on both sides) also recognizing that Islam teaches that one is supposed to get to know people from other nations or tribes in a spirit of peace and mutual understanding.

    3. Legitimate criticism of a religion is based on facts, not innuendo or vagueness. If you have a criticism, it should not be based on what you think you may remember from somewhere. We have an internet. Use it. It may turn out that when you research the facts, your claim was wrong or unsubstantiated or supported only by bigots — check that before making a claim. And, related, facts about the interpretation of a religion or a philosophy are dependent on how adherents of that religion view it, not how its enemies portray it. If Muslims say, for example, that a certain verse only allows violence in self-defense, then for practical purposes, it really doesn’t matter if those opposed to Islam “discover” an interpretation in which that is not true, because that interpretation is not what guides Muslims. I can interpret “Love your neighbor as yourself” from the Bible to mean “Love your neighbor, but that obviously means don’t love anyone who is not your neighbor because, otherwise, why would the word neighbor have been included?” But because those who follow the Bible don’t believe this, you can’t use that interpretation against them, just as you can’t use interpretations of Islamic texts that Muslims don’t believe in against them.

    4. Legitimate criticism of Islam does not lead to an outsider condescendingly telling Muslims that they must “reform their religion.” Even if you have what you view as a legitimate criticism, it is up to Muslims to decide whether your criticism is valid, and, if so, whether to “reform” something, whether to consider their own new interpretations and old interpretations that may exist on the issue, or whether to recognize an issue that exists but is best dealt with by emphasizing competing views or ideas within Islam. Islam contains means for engaging in legitimate debate, interpretation, and decision-making, and an outsider should not think to circumvent those by declaring a solution, particularly one as offensive to Muslims as to start altering the Qur’an by cutting out pieces here and there. A true Muslim should be open to discussion, even arguments on Islam, and should be able to do so in a polite and reasoned manner, provided that the other discussant is also polite and reasoned. Perhaps the obvious final point I make is that legitimate criticism involves rationally and politely arguing about things, and not accusing Muslims of being crazy or evil just because they don’t share your point of view.

  • Reynardine

    No, Link. Opposition to “an idea” has nothing to do with this. If anything, we are looking at “an idea” held by the person we term an Islamophobe. It is the Islamophobe’s “idea” that makes him gun down a temple full of Sikhs or cut the throat of an unknown cabbie.

  • Link182

    I can understand saying that Islamophobia is bigotry against Muslims. But including fear of Islam in the definition makes things tricky. What distinguishes legitimate criticism of Islam from outright bigotry against Islam? In fact, can we even speak meaningfully of bigotry against an idea (which is what Islam is)?

  • mindy1

    wonderfully put

  • @Garibaldi

    I think Erik Bleich did an excellent job with this.

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