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Islamophobia: Meaning and Origins

Islamophobia can be defined as the excessive and empirically unjustifiable fear, hatred of, or bias against Islam, Muslims and Islamic civilization, which are translated into policies, attitudes, language, literature, and into condoned individual as well as collective behavioural patterns.

Islamophobia is a new term for a centuries-old idea and phenomenon. Its evolution was steep and dynamic. Differences from one era and its context to another were in nuances and methods, rather than magnitudes and goals. While at first and for a long time Islamophobia was in the spirit of “us versus them”, in recent times it came to be, principally, in terms of “them among us”.

Islamophobia Seeds

The seeds of Islamophobia were planted as soon as Muslims started to assert themselves as equal protagonists on the global cultural and civilizational stage, threatening global order. As the followers of the final Prophet and the emissaries of the final heavenly message to mankind – plus as a moderate nation (ummah wasat), in the sense of being thrust into the epicenter of the dynamic religious, historical and civilization-making processes of the world – Muslims were destined to be looked down upon in the “elite club” and to be dealt with suspiciously.

However, due to the profoundly unique nature of worldly and otherworldly relationships between Muslims and Christians – both actual and aspiring – it is no wonder that the whole Christendom was quickly transformed into the home and incubator of the latest sentiments. At first, the reaction to the Islam and Muslim spectacles was one of awe and amazement, subsequently morphing – and understandably so – into panic and dread.

Edward Said wrote: “Yet where Islam was concerned, European fear, if not always respect, was in order.” After Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, the military and later the cultural and religious hegemony of Islam grew exponentially, bringing Persia, Middle East, Turkey, North Africa and substantial parts of Europe (Sicily, Spain and parts of France) to its fold.

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“By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Islam ruled as far east as India, Indonesia, and China. And to this extraordinary assault Europe could respond with very little except fear and a kind of awe. Christian authors witnessing the Islamic conquests had scant interest in the learning, high culture, and frequent magnificence of the Muslims… Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma” (Edward Said).

The Crusades

It is on this account that Islamophobia is identifiable even with certain thought patterns from the 11th through to the 13th centuries, for it was during the Crusades (1095-1291) that trepidation, hate and prejudices against Islam and Muslims (embryonic forms of Islamophobia) peaked and never dwindled afterwards. Today’s Islamophobia is but an upshot, as well as extension, of the legacies of medieval interreligious relations and their extremist together with aggressive polemical thought. It is an effect that issues from age-old causes.

The scope of the evolution of Islamophobia incorporated Christian radical and virtually fanatical polemics and apologetics, linking Islam and its rise with the Apocalypse, and providing erroneous descriptive accounts of Islam, the Muslim world and its societies along with cultures.

Islamophobia and Polemics

Some people are happy to confine medieval and early modern Muslim-Christian intellectual, interreligious and missionary relations – and tensions – to the realm of polemics. Yet some, in order to allude to the character of the relations, especially insofar as Muslims are concerned, preface the word “polemics” with “anti-Islamic”.

However, that is not enough and does not paint a true picture of the situation. Polemics revolves around the subjects of contentious rhetoric, aggressive criticism, heated debates, disputes and disagreements, all intended to nullify and mercilessly destroy what an opponent holds to be true – in turn proving staunchly the authenticity and correctness of one’s own position (this segment is called apologetics).

At any rate, the process of polemics is still expected to be infused with rationality, fairness and balance, and to be supported by sufficient evidence, in that finding and enforcing the truth – or at least what is closest to it – while at the same time tearing down the edifice of its antitheses, is the goal of the whole exercise. If the goal of polemics is not the vast orb of the truth, that then defeats the purpose of both polemics and the truth. No sooner does that happen, than polemics as a constructive energy turns into a juggernaut. The less genuinely polemical polemics is, the more repellent to the truth it becomes. Indeed, two wrongs do not make a right.

Christians are supposed to be acquainted and very comfortable with the idea, perhaps more than anybody else. It is stated in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 as follows: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

Obviously, the strongholds, arguments and pretensions of falsehood and ignorance are to be countered and disposed of with the weapons of sheer faith, piety, wisdom, guidance and knowledge of God. Doing otherwise is un-Christian. It is ungodly and wrong.

It follows that there is no place in polemics for bigotry, lies, excessive hate, insults, fabrications, deceits, cheatings, unsubstantiated hyperboles, preconceptions, ignorance and distortions. If the truth is defended by truthful means, it is bound to prevail, sooner rather than later, causing the falsehood realm to be exposed and to perish. Just as the truth fears nothing, so do its people: followers, leaders and preachers alike. The truth and falsehood are irreconcilable.

The Role of Freedom

As a matter of fact, the truth needs neither defence nor enforcement. It only needs freedom as regards its portrayal, presence and function. As such, not only is it able to defend itself, but it also easily conquers minds and hearts of its own accord.

In passing, that is exactly what Islam wanted from the very beginning. But since the members of the “elite club” persisted in placing insurmountable obstacles in the path of Islam’s freedom, the obstacles had to be removed forcibly. Conquests for conquests’ sake were never the goal in Islamic civilization – with some unfortunate exceptions of course. Neither imperialism nor colonization furthermore was an Islamic way. Muslims merely aspired to generate environments where people could freely see Islam in its proper light and could freely accept or reject it as the final revelation to mankind.

The Qur’an is unequivocal that there is no compulsion in religion (al-Baqarah, 256). It also proclaims:

“And say: ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve…” (al-Kahf, 29).

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About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].