Australia: Conversations about Islamophobia

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In Australia, conversations about Islamophobia are expanding as the Muslim minority community grows. As in the UK, the term “Islamophobia” is often used as a device to silence critics of Islam. In the following interview, I was asked a series of questions about Islamophobia by a university student newspaper that is researching the topic for the interest of its readers.

  1. What is Islamophobia?

Islamophobia is usually understood to refer to a fear of Islam and Muslims that is irrational.

  1. Where and when did it originate?

The term “Islamophobia” has its origins in a report entitled “Islamophobia: A Challenge for us all”, that was produced by the Runnymede Trust and published in the UK in late 1997. The report was commissioned by the British government and was officially launched in the British Parliament.

As for the origins of Islamophobia itself, rather than simply the origins of the term, such fear of Islam dates back many centuries, probably originally to the years following the death of Muhammad in 632 after which there was rapid expansion of Islam throughout the Middle East and into Europe through military conquest.

It’s worth noting that Islamophobia is one window into a complex set of historical relationships. The Muslim world and Europe were at war for much of the last 1400 years. Phobias of the other exist on both sides, so any discussion of Islamophobia – fear of Muslims by non-Muslims – needs to also consider irrational fears among Muslims of others as well – Westophobia, Christophobia.

Books and articles have been written on all the above phobias, but Islamophobia seems to have caught public attention in the West much more than the others.

  1. How did 9/11 contribute to the notion of Islamophobia?

The 9/11 attacks were broadcast graphically on camera as the events unfolded. It took little time to learn that those responsible were radicalised Muslims who were part of the Al-Qaeda network. Al-Qaeda leadership eventually claimed responsibility for the attacks. Although such radical attitudes are not shared by the majority of Muslims, the details of Muslim diversity are not understood by non-Muslim populations as a general rule. So what should perhaps have shown itself as a fear of Al-Qaeda manifested itself instead as a fear of Muslims per se, in the minds of many people.

  1. Is being labelled an Islamophobe a fair or derogatory term?

Nobody likes to be called an Islamophobe. Such labels are useful in one way in that they provide a means to succinctly encapsulate a set of attitudes. The problem is that such negative labels are also often used to close down discussion which may need to take place. Some commentators argue that the term “Islamophobe” has been used to censor critical but necessary comments about aspects of the history or religion of Islam.

All belief systems should be able to be subjected to critical scrutiny, including the religion of Islam. To engage in such critical scrutiny, if it is done fairly and rationally, should not attract accusations of “Islamophobia”. Unfortunately, this does happen on occasions.

  1. Should we be labelling people as Islamophobes or does doing that contribute to a more divided society?

Name-calling is rarely helpful. If we disagree with the viewpoint of a person or group, it is far better to engage with those views and argue against them than to pin a negative label on the group. Everybody wants their ideas to be taken seriously but, if compelling alternative arguments are offered, most people will change their minds. But few people will change their minds simply because somebody pins a negative label on them.

  1. In your research and learnings, is there a misconception of Islam? If so, what is it?

We live in an age of addiction to print and digital media. We are raised on a diet of soundbites and one-liners. Such a context inevitably produces misconceptions about a whole range of issues, of which Islam is just one. I have certainly encountered many misconceptions about Islam. The two macro-misconceptions are, firstly, that Islam is a religion of violence and jihad, and, secondly, that Islam is a religion of peace. Neither is correct in an absolute sense. Islam is incredibly complex and diverse, and it manifests itself in very different ways.

  1. In your academic opinion, how do you view the word Islamophobia? Is it a rational fear or a cover up for discrimination?

I view the word “Islamophobia” in different ways. It is a useful short-hand way to refer to unreasonable negative attitudes to Muslim people. But it is also sometimes used as an instrument for censoring important discussion about sensitive matters to do with the religion of Islam.

  1. Do you believe it will get better for Muslims in the years to come when dealing with Islamophobia?

It should be noted that some Muslims claim that the Islamophobia discussion is over-stated and that the problem articulated by the concept of Islamophobia is nowhere near as widespread as some people make out. Fear of Islam and Muslims, such as it exists, is more pronounced where radical expressions of Islam are prominent.

On the other hand, more modern, tolerant expressions of Islam do not attract the same kind of hostile response from non-Muslims. It is my view that Islamic communities across the world will become more open and tolerant, rather than closed and radicalised, in years to come. That will translate to less Islamophobic attitudes among non-Muslims.

This article first appeared in Evangelicals Now, November 2017, p21.

Professor Peter G Riddell serves as Professorial Research Associate in the Department of History at SOAS, University of London and as Vice Principal (Academic) at the Melbourne School of Theology (an affiliated college of the Australian College of Theology). He previously taught at the Australian National University, the Institut Pertanian Bogor (Indonesia), and the London School of Theology. He has published widely on the study of Southeast Asia, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

Photo by Lorie Shaull