The APPG on British Muslims has recently defined Islamophobia as “rooted in racism and a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. The term “Islamophobia” is perhaps controversial for certain groups and is sometimes derided for its imperfect etymology, with its meaning discussed by academics and commentators alike. Considering it has now entered the social and political lexicon, arguments questioning its appropriateness seem outdated and irrelevant. Although disliked by some, the term Islamophobia is here to stay and in common usage, therefore it is important to define it precisely.
The APPG definition highlights a number of common themes often seen in discussions about Islam and Muslims. Despite some attempts to downplay or misrepresent the definition, it has been endorsed by many diverse groups throughout the UK.
Some critics have taken issue with the definition’s terming of Islamophobia as a type of racism. Those who have experienced Islamophobia will recognise that racism and Islamophobia often intersect.
As the definition infers, when Muslims are perceived to be responsible for all negative actions carried out by co-religionists or when broad generalisations are used to demonise or vilify all Muslims without differentiation then it is likely that at least some Islamophobic views are involved.
Aligning Islamophobia with racism is not because Muslims constitute a race, given Muslims are far from homogeneous and are diverse religiously, ethnically and politically. However, Islamophobia is usually based upon negative and false stereotypes which are then translated into targeting Muslims because of their Muslimness.
The definition emphasises how Islamophobia targets markers of ‘Muslimness’ and Muslim identity (or perceived identity) in the same way that racism often targets people for the colour of their skin.
Racism takes many forms, as does Islamophobia, which sometimes can be nothing more than xenophobia or racism wrapped in religious terms. Muslims face Islamophobia because of being Muslim, and often in addition to (or intersecting with) other forms of discrimination including anti-black or anti-Asian racism, sexism or misogyny.
Critics have attempted to dispute the definition by using the example of white Muslims. The APPG definition actually does not mention skin colour and ethnicity but “Muslimness”, which is inclusive of all backgrounds. Islamophobia connotes a broader set of negative attitudes or emotions directed at individuals of groups because of perceived membership in a defined category. White Muslims can be targeted solely because they are Muslim, but can also attest to another racialised aspect of Islamophobia. For example, white Muslims are often at the receiving end of racial slurs more commonly associated with abuse directed towards individuals with Pakistani or Arab heritage but the abuse is due to their Muslim identity. Indeed, prominent Anglican theologian John Millbank was quick to label a recent prominent convert to Islam a “civilisational traitress” (sic) on Twitter with no consideration of her personal faith journey. White women who have married non-white Muslim men are often specifically singled out for Islamophobic abuse with the sentiment they are diluting a supposedly superior race or culture (just as white people who married out of their race in South Africa or the American South were indirectly targeted by racists despite not being Black themselves).
Islamophobia may also target the perceived Muslimness of individuals, such as those who have Muslim names, or background even if they are not Muslim or have no religion. In the UK, Europe and USA non-Muslims have been targeted as they were perceived to be Muslims (some Sikhs, Arab Christians and Hindus have even been killed in recent years).
Furthermore, in the same way that anti-black racism has structural manifestations, Muslims are disadvantaged across employment, housing education, social and public life and in the media. This structural element aligns Islamophobia once again a type of racism.
The APPG definition will not be accepted by everyone and whether the government will adopt it remains to be seen. However, it draws attention to the lived experience of and the impact Islamophobia has on the lives of Muslims in the UK and reflects opinions of the diverse Muslim population in the UK.
Establishing a definition of Islamophobia may help strengthen efforts to tackle this specific form of bigotry, therefore deserves careful consideration.