Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred

By: Zahed Amanullah

In this article, ISD provides an overview of the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate, namely activity which seeks to dehumanise, express contempt for demonize, harass, threaten, or incite violence against an individual or community based on their Muslim identity (or perceived identity).

Background

Islamophobia is a word to describe anti-Muslim hatred or ideologically driven prejudice, commonly used in Western countries since the late 1990s. The term Islamophobia itself has been the subject of semantic debate, with some claiming it could be understood as encompassing – alongside targeted hate against Muslims – criticism of the religion of Islam. However, proponents have noted that anti-Muslim hatred has become racialised given its use against those perceived to be Muslim (such as Sikhs, migrants to Europe, etc.) and therefore requires broader terminology. As a result, both the terms Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred have often been used interchangeably.

The last decade has seen incidents of Islamophobia more than double in the UK. Islamophobia has many non-violent and policy-driven manifestations, including negative media portrayals, labour discrimination, and targeted legislation. In some cases, Islamophobic attitudes are at the core of terrorist and violent extremist attacks enabled by the proliferation of hate speech and recruitment to anti-Muslim extremist groups, particularly on the far right.

Some modern high-profile violent incidents associated with Islamophobia include:

  • Christchurch, New Zealand (2019): Brenton Tarrant, a self-proclaimed “ethno-nationalist,” committed two consecutive terrorist attacks at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand killing 51 people and injuring 50 more. Tarrant self-published a manifesto titled The Great Replacement with anti-Islamic and anti-immigration sentiments, and cited Anders Behring Breivik, who committed the 2011 Norway attacks, as an inspiration.
  • Bærum, Norway (2019): Philip Manshaus broke through a locked door and opened fire inside the Al-Noor Islamic Centre in Bærum, Norway on 10 August 2019, before being subdued by three men inside and turned over to police. Before the incident he killed his adopted stepsister at their home and posted on social media praising the Christchurch shooter along with perpetrators of an antisemitic shooting at a Poway, California synagogue and anti-Latino shootings in El Paso, Texas.
  • Quebec City, Canada (2017): Alexandre Bissonnette entered the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City after evening prayers on January 29, 2017, and killed six worshippers with a 9mm Glock pistol, seriously injuring five others. Bissonnette was known to have far-right, white nationalist, and anti-Muslim views.
  • Finsbury Park, United Kingdom (2017): Darren Osbourne drove into a crowd of Muslims leaving a mosque after prayer, killing one. This attack followed a series of Islamist terrorist attacks in the UK, including at Westminster on 22 March, in Manchester on 22 May, and at London Bridge on 3 June. Osbourne was influenced by far-right anti-Muslim material he accessed, according to his partner, and sought revenge for the previous attacks.
  • Oslo and Utøya Island, Norway (2011): Anders Behring Breivik committed two attacks in Norway – a car bomb explosion in Oslo killing eight people and injured at least 209, followed by an attack on a Labour Party summer camp on the island of Utøya where he killed 69 and injured at least 110. Breivik left a manifesto claiming the Islamisation of Europe as his motive for carrying out the attacks, making this a more indirect – but nevertheless deadly – form of Islamophobia similar to the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh (2018) where Jews were targeted for their purported role in facilitating Muslim migration to the US.

Definitional challenges

Reaching a consensus of the definition of Islamophobia has been elusive. Challenges to an agreed definition stem from perceptions of the criticism of religion versus racialisation, hate speech, and demonisation of that religion’s followers. This is compounded by the need to protect free expression and the complexities of enforcing or legislating content moderation on social media platforms.

An influential definition of Islamophobia was proposed by Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, a report by Britain’s Runnymede Trust published in November 1997 that justified the term on the basis that “anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new item in the vocabulary is needed”. The report stated that:

Islamophobia refers to unfounded hostility towards Islam. It refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities, and to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs. The term is not, admittedly, ideal. Critics of it consider that its use panders to what they call political correctness, that is stifles legitimate criticism of Islam, and that it demonises and stigmatises anyone who wishes to engage in such criticism.”

In 2017, a 20-year review of the report stated that “anti-Muslim prejudice has grown further and wider” due to several factors including numerous terrorist attacks since 2001, the increasing size, organisation, and visibility of Muslims in Western countries, and better data about Muslim populations, socioeconomic factors, attitudes, and outcomes. A formal definition was again proposed.

In 2018, Britain’s All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims established an inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia, concluding with the recommendation that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” ISD provided written and oral evidence to inform this inquiry.

Data supporting this view of “perceived Muslimness” shows that a substantial proportion of hate crimes described as Islamophobic are directed at non-Muslims mistaken for Muslims. According to the Metropolitan Police Service, 7% of victims of Islamophobic hate crimes in 2016 were non-Muslims while 19% were of unknown faith or had not been contacted to determine their faith. Despite such definitional efforts, the UK government, as with most Western governments, have refrained from endorsing a specific definition of the word Islamophobia.

Based on ISD’s understanding of hate as activity which seeks to dehumanise, demonize, harass, threaten, or incite violence against an individual or community based on religion, ethnicity, race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, national origin or migrant status, ISD refers to Islamophobia as targeted hatred directed at Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims, understanding that the term “anti-Muslim hatred” can also be used.

We do not include criticism of Islam in either term unless it is used to deliberately provoke anti-Muslim hatred where Muslims are a vulnerable minority. This is in line with existing UK legislation that may be applicable to online abuse, such as the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003 and possibly legislation in the UK Online Safety Bill, which seeks to protect freedom of expression while simultaneously protecting online users from abuse and harassment.

Key Narratives

There are several key Islamophobia narratives that have permeated in online and offline discourse that are used to target Muslims. These narratives have often migrated from far-right organisations and individuals into mainstream political and media spaces. In some cases, these narratives have influenced the enacting of discriminatory legislation.

Violence, terrorism, and extremist recruitment

Although jihadist attacks remain the primary domestic terror threat in the UK, this is not a universal trend, with, for example, white supremacy being the primary domestic threat in the US. Despite the shifting landscape, there is an overarching narrative which paints Muslims in general as innately violent and/or prone to committing terrorist attacks in the name of their faith or on behalf of proscribed terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.

This narrative includes the following allegations:

  • Islam is inherently and uniquely supportive of violence against or subjugation of non-Muslims: Some seek to demonstrate that Islam provides an ideological justification for terrorism or the treatment of non-Muslims as second-class citizens, despite evidence that views on violence are on par with non-Muslims. Proponents of these views range from far-right influencers and academics to some elected officials, particularly when Islamist extremist groups, such as ISIS or Hamas, engage in violent terrorist attacks far from unaffiliated Muslim minority communities. These views, while legitimate to have and express, also can serve as the basis for potential human rights or civil rights abuses against Muslims.
  • Muslims are predisposed to terrorism or sympathetic to it: Building on the above (though not always), a security-focused approach to Muslim communities and related policy has been used to discriminate against Muslim minorities, such as the use of targeted surveillance and searches.  In Xinjiang, China, Uyghur Muslims have been subject to imprisonment and other human rights abuses. ISIS and Al Qaeda recruitment from Western Muslim populations, though statistically small, has amplified this argument. This narrative is also pervasive in the Israel-Palestine conflict and has been cited as a rationale for a delayed political resolution for Palestinian national aspirations.
Cultural incompatibility, immigration, and “Islamisation”

This narrative often aligns with the “Great Replacement” theory, a common far-right narrative originally promoted by French philosopher Renaud Camus that alleges the “take over” and “invasion” of the West by un-integratable non-white communities who are exceptionalised. These accusations often overlap with mainstream criticisms of immigration and migration, with supporters of this narrative fearful that Western culture and demographics are threatened. It has also been appropriated by far-right networks and media outlets to further political and cultural aims.

This narrative includes the following allegations:

  • Muslims are a demographic threat to non-Muslim countries: This view has manifested itself through anti-immigration rhetoric and alarm over growing numbers of Muslim minorities in Western countries, and concerns around shifts in the culture and stability of non-Muslim countries.  It has manifested itself through “Stop Islamisation” movements in America and across Europe, each affiliated with the far-right, and at least 50 anti-mosque incidents in the US between 2018-2023. Where Muslims are essentialised as refugees, and refugees as Muslims, there is a strong intersection between anti-Muslim and anti-migrant hatred. It is also the primary narrative employed against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and Indian Muslims (spreading to the UK) via Hindutva groups. In Xinjiang, China, well-documented campaigns of forced sterilisation, internment, and forced assimilation/indoctrination among the Uyghur people have been rooted in narratives of demographic threats.
  • Muslims desire to live segregated lives when living alongside non-Muslims: This includes the common trope of “no-go zones” in urban areas of Western countries, alleged vigilante enforcement of sharia law in these neighbourhoods, and minimal engagement with non-Muslims in schooling or public life, despite some polls showing large majorities feeling integrated or wanting to integrate more and record numbers of Muslims being elected to public office in recent years. A trope related to shared civic responsibility was also used during the Covid-19 pandemic, when Muslims, particularly in India, were accused of recklessly spreading Covid-19 by attending prayers at mosques. Legislatively, this has resulted in bans against the building of minarets in Switzerland, anti-sharia law bans in the US, bans against halal meat and restrictions on religious activity, including attire, across Europe.
Misogyny and women’s rights

A common Islamophobic narrative is misogyny and gender inequality, namely the status and treatment of Muslim women due to the allegedly oppressive nature of Islam towards them.These arguments often focus on female Muslim dress, cultural attitudes, or the laws and customs found in Muslim-majority countries. Muslim women living in the West are also disproportionately targeted by harassment over men due in part to their identifiable clothing.

  • Muslim women are stripped of agency and excluded from public life: Despite a wide spectrum of religious and cultural attitudes towards women in the Muslim world, perceptions of the denial of rights of Muslim women stem from egregious examples of treatment by groups such as the Taliban or in countries like Saudi Arabia. These arguments overlook the examples of successful Muslim women from Western and Islamic countries and the over half billion Muslims worldwide who have lived under the democratically elected rule of a Muslim woman.
  • Muslim men form grooming gangs targeting young non-Muslim women: Cases of “grooming gangs” in the UK attributed to the perpetrators’ Pakistani heritage have also depicted Muslim men as sexually exploitative by nature. This has served as mobilisation for various demonstrations, as well as the foundation for violent attacks against Muslims, despite statistics from the UK’s Home Office showing that Muslim men do not disproportionately form grooming gangs targeting young women in the UK and no similar phenomena in other Western countries with similar proportions of Muslim populations, such as Canada, America, or Australia.

 

Conclusion

Islamophobia continues to be a pervasive and complex challenge, with tropes weaving themselves into a variety of racist narratives, including anti-migrant, anti-Arab, and anti-south Asian ones. The recent Israel-Gaza conflict has demonstrated both the use of Islamophobia to advance narratives within the context of a political conflict and the rise of Islamophobia when followed by a terrorist attack by a regional Islamist group. Forthcoming elections in the US and UK in 2024 will undoubtedly provide opportunities to leverage Islamophobia for political gain, as has been demonstrated in ISD research in several other European countries, such as France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, and the EU.

This briefing represents a brief foray into a much larger area of work that needs to be explored further by communities involved in challenging extremism on the ground and researchers studying the mainstreaming of extremism into public life.

Further Reading

Use of words, phrases and hashtags associated with anti-Muslim mobilisation surges amid Israel-Gaza conflict

Islamophobia versus places of worship: How one community fought back against disinformation 

Hate in Plain Sight: Abuse Targeting Women Ahead of the 2022 Midterm Elections on TikTok and Instagram

What the UK Migrant Centre Attack Tells Us About Contemporary Extremism Trends

Violence in Leicester: Understanding Online Escalation and Offline Fallout

The Networks and Narratives of Anti-Refugee Disinformation in Europe

Online Extremism in North Macedonia: Politics, Ethnicities and Religion

Coronavirus, fear and how Islamophobia spreads on social media

A Snapshot Analysis of anti-Muslim Mobilisation in France After Terror Attacks

New research analyses impact of far-right campaigns in Germany following introduction of hate speech law

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This Explainer was uploaded on 20 November 2023. 

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