Defining Islamophobia

It’s not the signifier. It’s the signified.

Muslims hold a banner reading " No to terrorism and to Islamophobia " in Madrid on 11 January 2015 (AFP/Gerard Julien)

As with many problems in life, tackling Islamophobia in a politically and socially effective, as well as intellectually and philosophically valid, manner is a delicate quest for balance. It’s the familiar “Goldilocks” standard: not too hot and not too cold, but just right. Some argue that the very term “Islamophobia” should be abandoned altogether because it suggests, or could be used to enforce, a zone of impunity surrounding Muslim religious sensibilities that could curtail or even prohibit speech that transgresses these sensitivities.

These critics are right to worry about this potential problem.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), particularly egged on by and in turn using, the government of Pakistan, has been trying (in vain, of course) to deploy the term Islamophobia in multilateral institutions like the United Nations in order to secure a global consensus on restricting speech so as to protect religious opinion from any form of criticism or satire. Some Muslim organizations in various countries have been attempting to promote a similar agenda within the laws and regulations of individual states as well. So the concern is genuine and valid.

The term “Islamophobia” is here to stay

However, this objection misses the mark in two crucial ways.

First, we are stuck with the word. For better or worse, “Islamophobia” has come to be the accepted term for discrimination and bias against Muslims. In a conversation a few years ago with novelist Salman Rushdie, who was and is concerned about the abuse of the word Islamophobia, asked me: “What’s wrong with just calling it simply racism?” The problem, of course, is that racism or bigotry are broad, catch-all terms that refer to the phenomenon of discrimination in general. But bigotry, bias and discrimination against Muslims in the West is based on a very specific set of ideas, images, stereotypes and arguments that are both ancient and modern, and that are particular to a range of discourses that inform that bias. They overlap in many interesting ways with other defamatory discourses, such as anti-black racism, anti-Semitism and other ideologies of hate, but there is a specific set of concepts that inform anti-Muslim bias, especially in the West. Therefore, we need a word that will refer to that set of ideas precisely, as a discrete subset of the broader problem of bigotry and racism.

That term is, and will remain, Islamophobia, because after several decades of constant use it has become the settled and consensus word for it. It is not an ideal term, by any means. But it is far too late to find a different one. Anti-Semitism is an awkward term as well. The term refers to hatred of Jews, but uses a word that also applies to many other groups. Indeed, some Arabs (including those who do engage in blatant anti-Jewish hate speech) seriously, and in some cases sincerely, argue that they cannot be anti-Semitic because they are themselves Semites. There are many other problems with the term anti-Semitism, but after a couple of centuries of use, as a practical matter it is the one we are stuck with. After a couple of decades of use, it isn’t going to be all that much easier, or purposive, to dismiss or replace the term “Islamophobia” either.

It’s not the signifier, it’s the signified, stupid.

Second, what’s crucial to any term is the generally accepted definition of it, not the word itself. Any word or phrase is liable to be abused or defined in such a way that it promotes social harm. What is decisive in language is not the signifier, but the consensus view of the signified.

In the American social and political context, the power of the derogatory term “nigger” is so enormous that under current circumstances almost any word connected to the Latin term for black from which this word was derived conjurers the entire cultural apparatus of slavery, segregation, discrimination, violence and abuse. “Negro,” once widely viewed as a respectful term for black people in the United States, is now typically seen as also, although to a lesser extent, unacceptable.

Some have even argued that the unrelated word “niggardly” — which is roughly synonymous with “parsimonious,” Germanic in origin, and has no connection to the set of Latin and Latin-derived terms referring to black and darkness — is also unacceptable merely because it sounds to many listeners to be reminiscent of those now stigmatized Latinate words that evoke a painful and horrible history. Government officials in my own city, Washington DC, have had to resign because they used the word “niggardly” correctly, but their African-American colleagues nonetheless took offense on the grounds that one should know that anything that seems to come close to “Negro” in sound, let alone “nigger,” is axiomatically disrespectful.

However, Spanish-language words derived from the same Latin origin have traditionally not been perceived as derogatory in many of their own cultural contexts because they have not been widely viewed as conveying anything similar to the awful, traumatic history as their English counterparts. There are, however, signs that the taboos on English words derived from the Latin word “niger” (black) are spreading among some Spanish-speaking populations, particularly in the United States. (The French word “nègre” has also long been seen as a pejorative.)

In American popular culture, it is extremely difficult to construct a hypothetical scenario in which the casual use of the term “nigger” by a non-African-American wouldn’t at least raise the eyebrows, if not the ire, of the public. But it’s easy to construct such a scenario involving African-Americans, some of whom frequently use the term, particularly in the context of rap and hip-hop culture and music (although it is sometimes controversial), without either intending or, in most cases, causing offense.

In some cases the distinction is made by separating the word “nigger” from the colloquial term “nigga,” which is sometimes held to be not only acceptable but affectionate, particularly when it comes to intra-group usage among (especially young) African-Americans. However, it’s unlikely that, except in some unusual contexts, the use of the word “nigga” by non-African-Americans, particularly those who are perceived as white, would not be viewed as insulting and provocative. The history of language is also replete with examples — from “Quakers” to “queers” — of signifiers whose generally-accepted signification shifted over time from pejorative to affectionate, or at least inoffensive, often because of their calculated adoption by the group being signified.

The point is that a word itself is merely a signifier. What it signifies depends entirely on a common understanding based on culture, history and context. Even a word that, at first glance, appears perfectly suited to conveying its generally designated meaning, without the obvious built-in drawbacks, shortcomings and inaccuracies of, for instance, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, is still liable to be defined in a way that promotes the repression of legitimate speech and ideas, or some other negative social impact.

Words are empty vessels

In our conversation, Rushdie argued that societies should abandon the more specific term Islamophobia in favor of the more broad-ranging term racism. Beyond the evident need for a term that refers to the specific network of ideas, tropes and stereotypes that inform Islamophobia, the trouble with this idea is the implicit notion that the word “racism” is somehow less susceptible to abuse by demagogues than “Islamophobia” may be. Charges of racism, however, are frequently deployed in a reckless and socially harmful manner. Accusations of anti-Semitism are often leveled by pro-Israel propagandists to defame critics of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians or other completely legitimate viewpoints that have nothing to do with hatred of Jews and do not spread fear or dislike of them. I, personally, have been baselessly and ridiculously accused of “homophobia” by anonymous online trolls who were merely using it as a pejorative in order to try to smear my character because they passionately disagree with my ardent advocacy of a two-state solution based on ending an Israeli occupation that began in 1967. And on it goes.

The words themselves are not decisive. Indeed, they are empty vessels into which can be poured, by consensus understandings of their meanings and appropriate usages, socially useful or harmful content. And even then, as noted above, they are still subject to the abuse of false accusation. There is no need to dust off a copy of 1984 to understand how any of this works. The process is constantly in motion, swirling around us all the time as our social and political realities are constructed by the meanings that we attempt to ascribe to our words.

Euphemisms and puns work the same way: there is a generalized understanding of what is “really meant.” So do most figures of speech, including almost every form of metonymy (context makes it clear when “the White House” refers to the executive branch of the United States government, for example). There’s no need to delve into Derridian deconstruction to uncover how slippery and unstable the relationship between language and meaning, signifier and signified, must always be. But, in order to achieve specific social and political goals, there is a need to put that understanding aside on a contingent basis in order to facilitate advocacy, build constituencies and coalitions, and achieve positive, demonstrable results.

The history of the battle against anti-black racism, or anti-Semitism for that matter, in the 20th century in the United States demonstrates that, in spite of the inherent difficulties posed in trying to use language for constructive social purposes (as opposed to demagoguery), real progress is, indeed, genuinely possible. And it all depends on developing, slowly and painfully, by fits and starts, new and improved social consensuses about the equality of all people in our societies and the basic respect they should be accorded in our national and collective conversations.

The real struggle is over definitions

There is no point, therefore, in searching for a different or “better” term for anti-Muslim bias than “Islamophobia.” It’s almost certainly too late, and any other word would be just as liable to abuse depending on the common understanding of what it refers to. Therefore, the goal must be to arrive at a broad-based, widespread and commonly accepted definition that achieves two things simultaneously. First, it must provide an effective and clear-cut understanding of what constitutes anti-Muslim bias. And second, it must not invite or facilitate the stifling or stigmatizing of speech and ideas that are legitimate and respectable, even if they make many Muslims uncomfortable.

The urgent task at hand is to develop a working model that can help society to distinguish Islamophobic speech — which should be shunned and for which there should be a significant social and political, although certainly not criminal, cost — from legitimate free expression that calls for no response other than normal engagement, agreement, disagreement and so forth.

All of these benchmarks need to help us distinguish between hate speech — which targets real people and spreads fear and hatred of them, thereby compromising or threatening their ability to function as equals to all others in society — versus speech that may be provocative and make people uncomfortable, but which critiques, challenges or lampoons legitimate targets, which include ideas, icons, religious dogmas and practices, political views, or other social phenomena that are the subject of proper debate and discussion.

Good faith

The first, and perhaps the most suggestive — although also one of the most subjective — of these signposts is good faith. Does the speech in question involve legitimate, sincere conversation and criticism? Or, instead, does it reflect an obvious effort to defame the targeted group and their belief system? Is the speaker lying about what the people in question, in this case Muslims, believe or do? Is there an effort to stereotype the identity group? Are generalizations being made that are obviously unfair or inaccurate? And is it clear that the speaker knew or should know that what they’re saying is fundamentally untrue, or is only true for a subset of the general group when they are presenting it as characteristic of the whole?

One of the key examples of how this “good faith” test works to identify genuinely Islamophobic speech is the “work” of the extremist Catholic anti-Muslim hate monger Robert Spencer. Like many other Islamophobes, Spencer combs through Muslim religious texts, history, practices and current events to identify and publicize anything and everything that makes Muslims, or Islam, look bad. In one of the great ironies about Islamophobia, Spencer and many other anti-Muslim demagogues are the only people other than the most strident Muslim extremists who insist that the most extreme, literalistic and violent interpretations of the faith are the only “real” or “correct” ones. Everything else is chalked up to religious dissimulation.

Spencer’s essential methodology (he has no formal academic background or training in Islamic studies or history whatsoever) is to try to find anything that might cast Islam and Muslims in a bad light, no matter how questionable or marginal the source, and present it as the unchallengeable truth. He also specializes in identifying the most extreme interpretations of Islamic doctrine and practice throughout the ages and presenting them as the “true” or “authentic” versions of the faith. Spencer’s basic view of Islam was summed up in the following passage: “Islam itself is an incomplete, misleading, and often downright false revelation which, in many ways, directly contradicts what God has revealed through the prophets of the Old Testament and through his Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh […] For several reasons […] Islam constitutes a threat to the world at large.”

I have explained in detail in my short essay “Religion and violence: another look at Islamophobia and anti-Semitism” precisely how Spencer and others cherry-pick from religious texts and practices in order to spread fear and hatred of Muslims in general by focusing on the beliefs and conduct of the most extreme Muslims, presenting it as if it were genuinely representative of Muslim communities in general. The technique is precisely the same as used by many of the worst anti-Semites, and described very accurately in a 2003 report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), “The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics.”

Dutch-Somali politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali provides an even simpler and cruder version of this process in bad faith. In a November 2007 interview with Reason magazine, she said that the faith could be socially and politically useful, “only if Islam is defeated.” Reason asked her: “Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?”  She replied, “No. Islam, period,” explaining: “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say: ‘This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.’ There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.” She concludes: “There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.” And, she proclaims, echoing so many other Islamophobes: “Islam is a political movement.”

Both Spencer and Hirsi Ali clearly and quite intentionally spread fear and hatred of ordinary Muslims by framing the religion as a political movement that is at war with the West and is driven by vicious and malevolent goals and methods. There is no way for their audiences, assuming they believe them, not to conclude that ordinary Muslims, particularly immigrants in the West, are a serious and potentially mortal peril, and at very least are guilty until proven innocent. There is no way that these sentiments can fail to provoke precisely the sentiments of fear and hatred that most potently inform and legitimate bigotry, discrimination and even violence. Their obvious and evident bad faith is clear from this willingness to generalize about vast groups of people in the most negative, indefensible manner, which no serious person could fail to recognize as both false and the product of visceral ill will.

Impact on people’s lives

This leads immediately to the second benchmark I have proposed for identifying Islamophobic speech: its impact on the lives of real people. One of the questions that needs to be asked early on in trying to identify anti-Muslim hate speech is this: “Is the intended or inevitable consequence of this speech going to make life more difficult for Muslims to live as equals in this society? For example, does it paint Islam and Muslims as inherently or generally antithetical to Western or American society?” In particular, the question needs to focus on the likely reaction of the target audience: non-Muslims in Western societies. How will they react to the speech in question? What impact will it have on their assumptions and basic belief systems regarding Muslims, and in some cases possibly even Islam itself?

If the speech or representation in question will logically provoke a response of suspicion and anxiety regarding Muslims at large, then one is almost certainly dealing with a form of hate speech (“Muslim immigrants have no loyalty to the infidel nations in which they have settled,” for example, or “there is no distinction in the American Muslim community between peaceful Muslims and jihadists”). The impact on the audience is all-important, because it is not abstractions such as religion that need defending, but rather real people who are vulnerable, and their rights which can be abridged. Ideas are fair game. The reputations of broad identity groups are not. It’s reasonable to list all the reasons why one doesn’t agree with all or part of any given interpretation of Islam, and even to criticize it harshly, as long as the critique is based on a good-faith evaluation of what that version of Islam as a social text actually promotes. Indeed, it’s vitally important that intolerant, obscurantist and extremist versions of any religion or belief system, including Islam, particularly when they promote violence, be confronted and denounced vociferously and categorically until they are marginalized to the point of irrelevancy. But it’s not reasonable to list a bunch of fabricated reasons why Muslims, or any other broad identity group for that matter, at large are to be regarded as dangerous or threatening.


This, in turn, leads directly into the third benchmark I’m proposing for identifying Islamophobic speech: stigmatization. Does the speech in question single out Islam as somehow uniquely problematic when all major religions have been, and indeed frequently still are, used for both good and ill? Is Islam being presented as special in some kind of negative way? If so, then the speech in question is almost certainly phobic or hate-mongering, in part because the track record of all religions is very poor indeed, but much more importantly because of the unimaginably vast range of ideas, beliefs, values and human experiences that are incorporated in the broader Muslim experience over enormous swaths of space and time.

Both Islamophobes and Muslim fundamentalists and demagogues share in common a desire to reduce Islam into a single, or at least a small set, of beliefs, practices, experiences and orientations. Both are wrong. There are a few — very few — things that most, perhaps almost all, Muslims historically have agreed upon (monotheism, revelation, the Prophet’s basic role, the divine nature of the Quran, and a few others), and practices that they have shared. But what is common to them is much less striking than the vast diversity to be found in the dizzying kaleidoscope of Muslim beliefs and practices across many centuries and most of the globe.

There are at least 1.5 billion people in the world today who can be accurately described as Muslim in some sense or another. They exist in virtually every country (I know some very learned and devout Japanese Muslims, for example). Among them, virtually every human phenomenon and experience can be discovered, at least somewhere. Indeed, given any group of people that rises to the huge proportion of 1.5 billion, there is very little distinction between whatever phrase accurately describes them as a subset of humanity (in this case, Muslims) and the broader category of “people.” There is very little by way of experience, practice, belief and values that can be found in the broader category of “people” that cannot be found in the gigantic subset “Muslims” — except, perhaps, atheism and agnosticism, if “Muslim” is to be construed strictly and exclusively as indicating a set of religious beliefs and is not in any sense indicative of any other kind of identity, community or cultural heritage.

Therefore, anything that tends to single out Muslims, to mark them as unique or particular, especially in a negative way, there’s all the hallmarks of hate speech and irrational bigotry. The late and much lamented Nigerian novelist and scholar Chinua Achebe is known for his powerful and evocative phrase: “Africa is people.” By this simple observation, Achebe was pointing out that the Western concept of “Africa” is so burdened with stereotypes, statistics and other abstractions that what is often lost is that behind this imaginary façade of “Africa” is simply a large group of societies that, in turn, are made up of families composed of individual people. Underneath this gigantic scaffolding of mystification lurks ordinary human beings, obscured by ideology and assumptions. Achebe appealed to his readers and audiences to recover the crucial understanding that when they are discussing “Africa” what they are really talking about in every meaningful sense is simply people, with their basic and essential needs, wants, rights, hopes, fears and common humanity.

Much the same must be said, time and again, about “Islam”: Islam is people. Behind all of the similar, and perhaps even worse and more insidious, cultural, ideological and intellectual baggage burdening the word “Islam” are, once again, simply a large group of people. To stigmatize them in general, whether implicitly or explicitly, is to attack their common humanity, and single them out for opprobrium, anxiety or suspicion based on stereotypes. Stigmatization is the essence of discrimination. So the singling out of Muslims in a negative way from other people is one of the clearest hallmarks of hate speech and defamation.


Finally, this brings us to the question of generalization, which overlaps somewhat with the earlier categories, but deserves some attention of its own. Does the speech in question engage in absurd and facile generalizations about the incredibly diverse world of Islam and the extremely heterogeneous history and present-day reality of Islam(s) as a social text? Any time one encounters blanket, categorical statements holding that Muslims think or act in a particular alleged manner, or that Islam holds some sort of belief or another, particularly when these claims represent extreme or objectionable qualities (for example, “Muslims insist that women should cover their hair in public” or “Islam preaches the killing of apostates”), one is likely to be encountering reduction as a form of defamation.

It may be objected that these standards are vague, subjective and too general. In practice, however, I do not think there will prove be a huge problem in applying them in real cases. This same process is performed daily with regard to many other vulnerable communities, including various racial and religious identities, the GLBT community, and others. Identifying hate speech is a lot easier in practice than in the abstract. We will, for the most part, know it when we see it — especially if we have benchmarks like these to help guide us.

By holding people to account for Islamophobia, we cannot mean that we expect others to always be nice to Islam and Muslims. We cannot mean that Muslims should never be disturbed or offended. We cannot come across as calling for censorship of speech some of us don’t like. In the United States, at least, the censorious position is, thankfully, almost always the losing position. In a free society, there will be forms of speech that many, including Muslims, don’t like but which will have to be tolerated and cannot be seriously classified as “Islamophobic” if the term is to have any effective social and political, or defensible intellectual, meaning. There will be blasphemy, satire, apostasy, challenges to the tenets of the faith from scholars, other religions, secularists, atheists, agnostics and others. And that’s fine. Indeed, it’s healthy and necessary.

What’s not fine, and what must never be acceptable, is hate speech. And to combat hate speech without violating the rights and the values of free speech or free conscience requires a common understanding of the term Islamophobia that strives towards that balance, that “Goldilocks” standard, which is essential. Our task is to simultaneously combat bigotry and defamation while upholding freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. It can, and indeed must, be done. And, to achieve this, our principal tool must be a widely-accepted definition and standard for judging what constitutes Islamophobia that protects people from calumny while embracing the widest possible range of expression as legitimate contributions to our collective conversation.