This post is the second in a series about the Turkish definition of the word “Islamophobia” presented at the OSCE meeting in Vienna on July 12, 2013. Previously: Part 1.
As reported here last month, the Turkish representative at the OSCE “Supplementary Human Dimension” meeting in Vienna provided the conference with a long-awaited definition of “Islamophobia”:
Islamophobia is a contemporary form of racism and xenophobia motivated by unfounded fear, mistrust, and hatred of Muslims and Islam. Islamophobia is also manifested through intolerance, discrimination, unequal treatment, prejudice, stereotyping, hostility, and adverse public discourse. Differentiating from classical racism and xenophobia [sic], Islamophobia is mainly based on stigmatization of a religion and its followers, and as such, Islamophobia is an affront to the human rights and dignity of Muslims.
In later installments to this series we’ll take a detailed look at the components of the above definition. In the meantime, an examination of the historical record is instructive.
The term “Islamophobia” was coined a just over a century ago. The first recorded use of the word was in 1912, in French. (“l’islamophobie”; Maurice Delafosse, in Haut-Sénégal-Niger, wrote: “Quoi qu’en disent ceux pour qui l’islamophobie est un principe d’administration indigène, la France n’a rien de plus à craindre des musulmans au Soudan que des non musulmans.”) The word reappeared occasionally in the 1920s and later in the century. Its original sense referred to a fear among modernized Muslims of the traditional forms of Islam, rather than an attitude towards Islam held by non-Muslims.
“Islamophobia” was not recorded in English until much later, and may well have been an independent coinage rather than a translation from the French. By the time it gained currency in English, the meaning had shifted to be more or less the one we know today. When the Runnymede Trust issued its landmark report [pdf] in 1997, “Islamophobia” meant a “shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam — and, by extension, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims”.
As the British sociologist Chris Allen later wrote:
However both the [Runnymede] report and its model have failed to stand the test of time and a detailed analysis highlights a number of serious flaws. The most obvious disadvantage of the term is that it is understood to be a ‘phobia’. As phobias are irrational, such an accusation makes people defensive and defiant, in turn making reflective dialogue all but impossible.
… the instruments we have to define, identify and explain it neither measure up to the theory nor are they entirely bias-free.
Dr. Allen here highlights the most intractable problem with the term: a phobia, by definition, is irrational. Not only does the use of the word stigmatize those so designated — which was as far as the author cared to take his objection — it requires that those who apply it demonstrate the irrationality of the purported fear. In order to make the case, one would have to prove that the designated “phobic” had in fact nothing to fear from Islam. In most cases this would be difficult to do, and any attempt to examine the data needed for such a proof would subject the mass behavior of Muslims to scrutiny, which would cause controversy — and would in itself be considered evidence of “Islamophobia”.
Thus the definition of the word “Islamophobia” is problematic, and any proof of the existence of the condition it describes is difficult or impossible to obtain. Nevertheless, the word has gained widespread currency, appearing more and more frequently over the past ten years or so. In December 2004, then-Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, speaking at a seminar entitled “Confronting Islamophobia” in New York, referred to Islamophobia as an “increasingly widespread bigotry”. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, OIC) established an “Islamophobia Observatory” in 2007, and it has been issuing reports annually ever since. In April 2012 the OIC inaugurated a TV channel to counter Islamophobia.
In May 2013, Dr. Hatem Bazian, the director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at UC Berkeley Center for Race and Gender, wrote:
Thus, the crime of the terrorist is immediate, while that of the Islamophobes is long-lasting, for it creates and impresses on our collective public mind the logic of hate and racism that is then packaged to further justify the logic of “clash of ignorance” that is foundational to their [Sudden Ignorance] Syndrome.
This statement implies a moral equivalence between “Islamophobes” and terrorists who kill innocent bystanders with powerful bombs. To make such a comparison using such a hazily-defined word is to skate onto the thinnest of ethical ice.
The increasing use of an ill-defined word in heated polemics becomes significant when the term is meant to punish, intimidate, and silence those who criticize Islam and Shariah. If the word cannot be avoided, it is absolutely essential that it be precisely defined, and that the definition be acceptable to Muslims, critics of Islam, and disinterested parties alike.
The concept of “Islamophobia” as a phobia fails to stand up under rigorous examination.
Let us imagine a man who one day discovers a rabid dog in his front yard, staggering around, frothing at the mouth, and snapping wildly at anything or anyone that comes close to it.
The man is alarmed, and grabs a nearby stick to fend off any advances by the dangerous animal. He retreats to his house, bars the door, phones the animal control squad, and waits inside until the mad dog has been safely removed from his lawn.
Is his behavior an example of cynophobia? Or is he perhaps a hydrophobophobe?
Of course not! The very absurdity of these formulations highlights the dishonesty and misdirection of the term “Islamophobia”.
Some fears are well-justified. It is not actually phobic to be afraid of something that really does want to kill you.
Later posts in this series will analyze the components of the definition used by the OSCE and the OIC, and draw conclusions about the attempt to impose the use of the word on the OSCE and other international bodies..
For links to previous articles about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, see the OSCE Archives.