A Brief History of Islamophobia

A Brief History of Islamophobia

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!

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  1. March 14, 2017 / 14:19

    This is amazing. I want to badly to read your dissertation(!) May I ask what you studied?

    A few ago I read a book called ‘ Barbarians and Civilization in International Relations’, which traced the concept of ‘the Other’ from Ancient Times to the present, as you’ve done here. One of the author’s main points was that the genocides of the twentieth century were the logical outcome of the the exterminating policies of European colonialism, but taken to the extreme. I read a book last month called ‘Governing from the Skies: A Global History of Aerial Bombing’, which made a similar argument but with regards to bombing: the first ‘bomb’ was dropped by Italy in the Third World (Libya, I think; I can’t quite remember); it was only when this technology was deployed in Europe dung the world wars that it was seen as abhorrent; it had been used in colonial policing during the interwar years with no qualms by Western moralists.

    This seems like a massive tangent, but what I’m getting at is it really is something where the origins of particular ideas come from. I completely agree that we should learn about the origins to better understand them.

    Meanwhile, I’m going to have to grab a copy of ‘Pointing the Finger’. One of the Glasgow Media Group’s studies, ‘Bad News for Refugees’ (Pluto, 2013) pointed out that coverage completely conflated and confused different terms, so readers of the Mail would end up being told about ‘illegal refugees’ which don’t exist; one can never illegally be a refugee. It would also decontextualise stories so that there would be know mention of the role of either European colonialism in causing the poverty of the global South from which people were fleeing, nor speak to Western foreign policy in both installing and arming dictators, and talking courses of action that lead to civil wars – or direct aggression, invasion and – as in the case of Iraq – destructive, economically crippling, fatal sanctions.

    I noticed you didn’t mention Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’, which I was slightly surprised by. Do you have any thoughts on it?

    This is a really long comment, I apolgise; but you’ve got my brain whirring!

    • Liv Woodward
      March 14, 2017 / 14:27

      Haha thank you! One of these days I might put my dissertation online for all to read. It’s quite good if I do say so myself.

      It’s so interesting to see the origin of things that seem so of their time and NOW. It’s easy to frame Islamophobia as a modern issue, but whilst it has evolved and ebbed and flowed, it is very historical. I think if we can understand where the initial hatred comes from, we stand more of a chance of doing something about it now. It also helps quash the notion that it’s only bigots who hate Muslims – it’s actually a deeply entrenched idea that most Western people have ingrained into them, even if they don’t realise it.

      Definitely get a copy of Pointing the Finger if you can. I didn’t actually get to use most of it for my dissertation since I was focussing on the Victorian period, and the collection of essays in that book are contemporary, but what I read of it was so interesting!

      Haha I didn’t mention Said cos I figured most non-historians wouldn’t care! I didn’t deal with it much in my disso (although I obviously read it), except in my literature review. Basically, my thoughts are/were that it’s great as a starting point, and at the time it was a super important text, but we need to move beyond that now. Since my dissertation was on the intersection of oppression (basically I was asking whether Victorians hated Muslims cos they were black, cos they were poor, or cos they were Muslim), Said doesn’t really deal with that, since he conflates ‘Oriental’ with ‘Muslim’ throughout the text. Since I was trying to unpick identity and separate Muslim identity from black identity from Middle Eastern idtentity, I felt that Orientalism didn’t go far enough for the research I was trying to do (which I mean is fair enough, it was written in like the 70s or whatever!)

      • March 14, 2017 / 15:01

        Haha well if you do, I’ll definitely be reading it. Ahh good for you 🙂

        Yes, I completely agree. Without sounding – I don’t know, crass, detached – I find such histories intellectually interesting but I’d also like to make the effort to learn them precisely so they can be better combated. And you’re right, these aren’t recent phenomena and it’s important to stress that. I could be mis-remembering but I think it’s Michael Parenti in his ‘Land of Idols: Political Mythology In America’, or perhaps Howard Zinn in his ‘People’s History of the US’, where it’s pointed out that racism was used to divide working class movements – and of course that happens to this day. The prejudices are, as I understand it, deliberately fostered, and ingrained for very deliberate reasons.

        Ha that’s understandable but yes, I definitely will. If you haven’t read it, you should check out ‘The Muslims are Coming! : Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror’ by by Arun Kundnani.

        To be honest, I’ve set myself up for a fall here. I haven’t read it for years, and was in over my head when I was reading. It’s one of the earlier political books I read so was a bit out of my depth. But I remember his thesis well, and do recall him conflating ‘Oriental’ with ‘Muslim’ so can appreciate the limited applicability it had in your dissertation. And you’re right… 1978, I think! Said gave the Reith lectures in 1993 on ‘Representations of the Intellectual’. They’re worth a listen! I find his voice very warm and reassuring (haha), whilst his work is clear, thoughtful and compassionate. Also, hearing him in interviews discuss the connection he felt to his mother’s homeland of Palestine, despite having never been able to visit (I think I’m recalling accurately there, but I could be wrong) is incredibly sombre.

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