ISLAMOPHOBIA DEFINED by Phil Dorroll

In response to the author’s “Islamophobia and Orthodox Tradition” of January 5, a Canadian member of Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Facebook group asked for a definition of terms. The question’s relevance in a Canadian context stems from a controversial anti-Islamophobia motion which passed in the House of Commons in March 2017. (See CBC’s report.) Critics of the motion argued that it left the term poorly defined. 

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Based on very helpful reader feedback, this short post is meant to provide a concise discussion of the term Islamophobia, which was the focus of my first piece. Given the harmful role that prejudiced conceptions of Islam and Islamic history have often played in modern Orthodox Christian ethno-nationalisms and fundamentalist movements, I believe a clear discussion of this topic could be helpful for the development of contemporary Orthodox theology. I will briefly discuss two definitions of this term, one commonly used by scholars in Islamic Studies, and one that I use in my own teaching and research.

  • Todd Green (associate professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah IA) defines Islamophobia as “dread or hatred of Islam” and “fear or dislike of all or most Muslims,” following language used in the Runnymede Trust’s 1997 report on relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain (The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West [Fortress Press, 2015: 32]). Green’s book is widely considered the most comprehensive and up-to-date treatment of this topic.
  • In my teaching and research I describe Islamophobia as a double standard of critique applied to Islam or Muslims that leads to prejudice or discrimination.

Criticism of Islam Is Not the Same as Islamophobia

Criticizing Islamophobia does not mean arguing for special treatment of Islam as a topic of free debate and discussion. Instead, Green provides three very insightful ways to distinguish between criticism of Islam and bigotry against it:

  • Criticism of Islam must be “based on aspects of the religion that many Muslims recognize as a part of their faith, and should avoid guilt by association” (21).
  • Criticism of Islam “should not lapse into hate speech or otherwise endanger the safety of Muslim citizens” (22).
  • Criticism of Islam “should not be translated into actions undermining the freedom of religion or the equal opportunity for Muslim minorities to practice their religion as other religious communities do” (22).

These criteria are equally applied to relations with other faiths. For instance, to argue that the Qur’an is not the final revelation of God, or that Jesus of Nazareth was not of one essence with the Father, is not bigoted. These differences in religious belief are natural and the right of all believers. But to argue that any given Muslim is more likely to support violence based on the existence of jihadist terrorist groups in the Middle East, or likewise that any given Christian is more likely to support racist terrorism or ethnic cleansing because 20th-century Christian groups in the American South or the Balkans did so, is a form of bigotry.

This is precisely because jihadism, ethno-nationalism, or racism are not views that are widely held to be central to Muslim or Christian faith by the large majority of these communities. Furthermore, hate speech or prejudicial views that could incite violence against or repression of minority communities (such as blasphemy accusations against Christians in Pakistan, or accusing Muslims in the USA of plotting to overthrow the Constitution) are clearly distinct from cultural or theological critiques of Islam or of Muslim religious practices.

Why Is Islamophobia a Problem?

I would argue that seeing a religion as simply incorrect is not prejudiced; but seeing it and its adherents as a threat is. If it is believed (falsely) that Muslims are uniquely threatening, then it becomes very easy to argue for restrictions on their human rights—or far worse. Some falsehoods can lead to atrocity. This has already happened in Bosnia and in Myanmar to Muslims. It has already happened to Jews in Western Europe. It has already happened to Armenian Christians and Orthodox Christians in Turkey and the Middle East. And these are, of course, only a few examples.

Islamophobia is one more example of how falsehood can lead to dehumanization, which in a theological sense is the denial of the image of God in every member of every faith. Critics of Islamophobia are simply concerned to prevent the kinds of evil that inevitably result from this denial, because if anything is clear from modern history, it is that engaging in this kind of dehumanization is a path that all communities can tread very, very easily.

Phil Dorroll holds a PhD in Religion from Emory University. He specializes in the history of Islamic theology in classical Arabic and modern Turkish. An Orthodox Christian, he is assistant professor of religion at Wofford College in Spartansburg SC. His work focuses partly on historical interactions between Orthodoxy and Islam.

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