Real Talk: Islamophobia

Lurking within the manifold layers of society is a kindling animosity that once ignited, may give rise to a destructive hate. This animosity goes by the name Islamophobia and has become a widely used term in political and social climates. In many countries, followers of Islam are often perceived as a collective “other”; a group of people who don’t quite belong or fit into society. Because of these ‘othering’ tendencies, Muslims are often subjected to intersectional microaggressions and hate crimes which may bring about many psychological impacts. 

The violence perpetrated against Muslims has reached a staggering high, with documentations of more than 3,500 hate crimes against Muslim Americans from the years 2001 to 2017. These atrocities are often attempts at alienating Muslims or pressuring them to adhere to the perceived social norms as many Islamophobes believe that Islamic lifestyles cannot be integrated into modern society. Hence, this article will be analyzing what Islamophobia really is and why this resentment has become so socially and politically prominent.

What is Islamophobia?

Islamophobia is the unreasonable aversion or prejudice towards Muslims or Islam which is often manifested through negative sentiments, hostility, or even hate crimes. These feelings are expressed through distinct exclusion and restriction of Muslims in an attempt to diminish the acknowledgement of their personal rights in regards to fundamental freedoms. 

Islamophobic ideals perceive Islam and its followers as a threat to non-Muslims by pertaining negative and destructive stereotypes to individuals who identify themselves as Muslims. This bigotry stems from the rationalization of various untrue notions perpetrated against the religion which leads to rising suspicions regarding its followers’ true intentions and lifestyles. 

Islamophobic sentiments occur at different levels; from a personal basis to a more structural and institutionalised level. It is also interesting to note that the term phobia is deeply rooted in psychological connotations, which implies that Islamophobia may have a connection to a person’s psyche as it is related to a morbid fear that is impossible to control. 

La Danse de L’almée by orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gérôme

How did Islamophobia emerge within society?

Although Islamophobia often seems like a recent issue that is rampant in today’s society, it is not actually an unprecedented occurrence. The term Islamophobia itself was created in 1918 by two French researchers who had converted to Islam. Their main purpose for coining this term was to emphasize what they believed to be political attempts at subverting Islam. The term was only popularized in the late 1990’s following the publication of a report by Runnymede Trust entitled Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All

Islamophobic sentiments are intertwined with various factors, among which are political, social and historical. Many individuals perceive Islamophobia as a modern extension of Orientalism.  Orientalism refers to the Western scholarly discipline of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia during the 18th and 19th century. 

The representations that were put forth by Western European scholars expressed their observations of the regions they travelled to, but they were mainly centred around their biased narrative. By portraying the “Orient” in a manner that was inferior to the West, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia were lumped together and labelled as ‘exotic’ and ‘backward’. These representations focused solely on stereotyping the inhabitants of these regions as primitive and violent, creating a harmful perception which has persisted until today. Because Muslims were amongst the ones who were portrayed in such a manner, many individuals still perceive Islam as a religion that aligns with the violent portrayals propagated by Orientalists.

Islam has also been subjected to racialization, with many people attributing certain characteristics to Muslims. Followers of Islam are expected to look a certain way; brown-skin, beards, and turbans are the most common physical traits that seemingly depict a Muslim. However, Muslims are a diverse group of people who have over 50 distinct cultures, languages and ethnicities. Attempting to categorize them into merely one group of people is damaging as it overlooks their personal experiences based on their cultural identities and zeroes in on their religious beliefs, which solidifies the Islamophobic perception that their religion is their sole identity. This perception focuses on the differences between Musims and non-Muslims, and refuses to acknowledge that they may possess shared experiences due to their cultural similarities. 

Racialization facilitates targeted attacks as it enables people to make judgements based on people’s physical appearances. However, this conduct is not only harmful to Muslims but also non-Muslims, as aggressions can be directed at individuals who fit this depiction of a typical ‘Muslim’ and completely disregards the diversity of individuals.

Justifications of Islamophobia 

Much of the Islamophobic dissent we know today stems from the way Muslims are portrayed in the media. For years, Muslims have been associated with terrorist attacks initiated by Islamic extremist and militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). As a result of the  9/11 suicide attacks in 2001, anti-Muslim tropes were fueled in society, notably in the United States. In its wake, Islamophobia grew more justified as ISIS attacks reached Asia and Europe during 2015 to 2019. This paved the way to a lot of violence and offensive acts that have endangered Muslim citizens of their countries.

Other than violent associations, the premise of legal restrictions have also contributed to Islamophobia. In 2017, Donald Trump (former president of the United States) led the campaign to ban all Muslims entering the country. Though the list of Muslim-majority countries were not specified to an extent, it sparked mass outrage worldwide. In France, there has been a recent history of discriminatory laws against Muslim religious practices in the country; a series of bans expanded to the display of religious symbols in public, places of worship, and religious clothing. When legal restrictions are imposed, it may give off the implication that Muslims are a national threat and do not deserve to access the rights they deserve in the country.

In recent years, there has been a reported increase of Muslim populations in Europe. Some of the contributing factors may include opportunities for better quality of life, and the need to seek asylum from political conflicts in their home countries. As of 2016, Muslims make up 4.9% of the European Union population, but European governments have been taking initiatives to reduce immigration and refugee rates. With the rise of Muslim communities in the region, many have publicly expressed their fears and discomfort, following the terrorist attacks and opinions of their politicians. Muslims have been regarded as an unbelonging community, and the scapegoats of society. Governmental policies have failed to provide sufficient resources and rights, and as a result, many futures and lives are unprotected. 

Media misrepresentations of Islam and Muslims

Even in the media, the blight of Muslim representations are perpetuated with misleading stereotypes. In the news, they are mostly referred to as terrorists; violent people who have committed heinous crimes against the local community. They have always been put in the spotlight as the threat to many Western communities. Likewise, Muslims have always been perceived and labelled as the enemy of many action films. An example is Quantico (a TV series), where Alex Parrish (played by Priyanka Chopra) is accused of being a sleeper terrorist. Another example would be Bodyguard, where the opening scene of the show pilot involves a sergeant diffusing a crisis with a suicide bomber on the train. Are these scenes intended for entertainment purposes? Or are they ideas fuelled by Islamophobia?

The second representation is the image that Muslim women are “oppressed by their male counterparts”. Typically in film, Muslim women are dutiful wives and daughters. Characters like Nadia Shaana (Elite, a Spanish series on Netflix) and Sana Bakkoush (SKAM, a Norwegian web series) are portrayed as the children of strict religious upbringings. They live in their brothers’ shadows in terms of freedom and if not, they bear the weight of their family’s expectations. Altogether, they have a reputation; a duty to uphold. In shows like these, they are seen to exercise attempts to remain loyal to their faith, family and studies. A similarity they share is the conflict of falling for someone who is outside of their religion. Their hijab is seen as a symbol of oppression, not as a choice. It is what distinguishes her from the rest of the characters, and shows never fail to play the scene of her taking it off as a sign of freedom. A moment of “empowerment”. 

On the other hand, their parents are a little traditional in their ways, and may be unaccepting of modern ideas. They are seen as immigrants; outsiders who don’t belong in the neighbourhood. Husbands and Muslim men may be seen as loud and occassionally violent. He’s strict on his kids for a reason, as he remains the head of the household. His wife, a Muslim woman, is submissive. She obeys her husband no matter what, even if he has compromised her set of ideas and choices. She may be seen as afraid of others; cautious of what her neighbours might think. Her status is not equal to her husband’s, as Islam has been constantly portrayed as a patriarchal religion that aims to oppress and disrespect female counterparts. 

Negative representations such as these have serious implications. As the media fails to recognise that there is a problem in how they portray Muslims, it drives the cause of targeting the community as a means of abuse and violence

Fact-checking common perceptions about Islam

The hijab is only for women.

The hijab is something that is expected from both men and women.

The Arabic word Hijab actually translates directly to barrier or partition. In Islam, Hijab is considered the principles that govern modesty, including behaviour and appearance. Hence, these principles are not reserved for only women. In fact, the Quran states:

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty… And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty…” (Surah an-Nur, 24:30-31)

These phrases express that both men and women are expected to uphold the same level of modesty by using the same terms for both genders. 

Muslims are encouraged to perform Jihad (war) against non-Muslims.

Jihad does not mean war.

Although it is true that Muslims are encouraged to perform Jihad, this Arabic word does not actually mean war. Jihad directly translates to struggle or striving. In an Islamic context, Jihad means the struggle of preserving one’s soul from sinful desires. Jihad can be classified into Jihad by heart, tongue, hand and sword. The combative part of Jihad can only be performed under strict conditions, among which are for self-defence, to respond to aggression, and when a sovereign country undergoes a military invasion. Another general rule is also that civilians must not be targeted under any circumstances. 

Muslims do not believe in Jesus.

Jesus is actually a revered prophet in Islam.

Muslims do believe that Jesus was a prophet of God as it is mentioned several times in the Quran (though Jesus is referred to in Arabic as Isa), and recite “peace be upon him” upon mentioning Jesus’ name. Islam asserts that Jesus will have a Second Coming to defeat the anti-Christ. However, in contrast with Christians’ beliefs, Muslims do not believe that Jesus is the divine son of God.

Ultimately, Islamophobia is deeply rooted in history and politics. Just like any other form of discrimination or racism, anti-Muslim sentiments should not be normalised in any form, especially when it is used as a tool of reinforcing a standard of “normality” regarding what a modern member of society should be. A hatred fueled by fear, these sentiments fail to rise above misperceptions and comprehend the religion in its true essence. 

How long will we justify our hate? 

By: Julia Rosalyn and Natasha Effendy

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