Between Trump’s Muslim register, and the influx of hate crimes post-Brexit, it’s pretty clear that Islamophobia is alive and well in the Western world. In fact, it’s so alive and so well that in my final year of university, I decided to write my 10,000 word dissertation on the history of Islamophobia in order to try and understand how the fuck we got to a place where people are genuinely clamouring from a Nazi-esque Muslim register.
As I’ve mentioned before, I firmly believe that the only way to solve a problem is to fully understand where it came from – and since we desperately need to do something about Western Islamophobia before Trump literally commits genocide, I thought I’d share some of what I learned from my dissertation with you today.
Islamophobia isn’t just about Islam – it’s about a Western fear of the ‘East’
Due to the fact that most Muslims are non-white and non-Western, Islamophobia can never – and has never – been purely about Islam. Islamophobia, as I explored in my dissertation, has always been deeply entangled with both racism and classism, and so to properly understand why Islamophobia is so rampant in the West, you also need to understand Western attitudes towards people of colour, and people from the Middle East in particular.
Modern Islamophobia can, to an extent, trace its roots back to the classical period. The classical world, much like the modern world, was loosely divided into East and West – and Westerners (notably the Greeks) regularly defined themselves against those from the East (notably the Persians), whom they believed to be barbarous, uncivilised, and tyrannical.
Due to Western obsession (particularly in Victorian England) with the classical period, such views have permeated modern history, with ‘Orientals’ (i.e. those from the Middle and Far East) being described in Victorian writing as being ‘singularly deficient in the logical faculty.’ Since many ‘Orientals’ were also Muslims, they thus got tarred with the same brush, as it were.
What’s more, in Victorian Britain at least, there were many people who believed being black was worse than being Muslim. Indeed, in 1887, Isaac Taylor, Canon of York, made a speech imploring the Church to convert black people in Africa to Islam, rather than Christianity.
This was because Christianity was apparently too lofty and intellectual for the ‘heathens’ in Africa. Islam, on the other hand, could be viewed as a ‘lesser’ form of Christianity (it is, after all an Abrahamic religion, just like Christianity), and thus more suitable for the ‘barbarians’ in Africa. That people like Taylor believed black people could be elevated by Islam suggests that being black was sometimes viewed as worse than people Muslim.
It is clear, therefore, that modern Islamophobia will always be inextricably linked with racism and xenophobia.
Specifically anti-Muslim sentiment can be traced back to the medieval period
If general anti-Eastern feeling can be traced back to the classical period, then specifically anti-Islamic sentiments in England can be traced back to medieval times – in particular the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
It was during this time that a series of myths and misconceptions surrounding Islam emerged in Western scholarship – and these ideas prevailed well into the modern era.
For example, medieval scholars portrayed the Prophet Mohammed as a false prophet who lied to his followers and produced fake miracles; and he was believed to promote violence and promiscuity.
The historian Norman Daniel sums it up nicely in his book, Islam and the West, when he says:
“We are entitled to say that this canon [of Christian understanding of Islam] was formed during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries… and it was to continue into the future so powerfully as to affect many generations.”
So whilst Islamophobia is rampant in the 21st century, it is not a uniquely 21st century problem. Which is even more depressing, when you think about it.
Islamophobia skyrocketed after 9/11
This may seem obvious, but negative attitudes towards Muslims and opinions of Islam skyrocketed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – largely due to the media’s appalling treatment of Muslims and Islam.
Indeed, analysis by historians Justin lewis, Paul Mason, and Kerry Moore has shown, using evidence from the Home Office, that violence and discrimination towards Muslims in the UK significantly increased after the 9/11 attacks; and Clive Field’s analysis of British opinion polls between 1988 and 2006 has shown that by 2004, 64% of people in Britain viewed Muslims having a strong Islamic identity as a ‘bad thing’.
So there you have it a (very) brief (and incomplete) history of Islamophobia in the West. Now if only the world would look back and actually learn from history, so people can get on with their lives without fear of being persecuted. 2017 – I’m lookin’ at you!