Islamophobia and Its Discontents

Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.

People who believe that Islamophobia is a fiction are fond of pointing out that Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity. Islam is a set of beliefs and customs. And in a free society, one ought to be able to criticize all kinds of ideas without fear of being labeled hateful toward Muslims. The late Christopher Hitchens declared that “Islamophobia” was a “stupid neologism” because it “aims to promote criticism of Islam to the gallery of special offenses associated with racism.” Sam Harris, the bestselling author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, wrote that “apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as ‘Islamophobia.’” He continued, “There is no such thing as Islamophobia…. It is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”