In my last article about the hysteria around Canada’s Motion 103 on Islamophobia this past winter, I alluded to the idea that Islamophobia as a term might not accurately convey anti-Muslim bigotry or racialized hatred endured by Muslims. I also noted how in the discussions around the use of that term in the federal motion, Islamophobes who were arguing that the whole thing should be trashed were not actually interested in whether or not the term accurately described what Muslims face. They had their own hateful agenda centered on shutting down the motion and stirring up anger towards Muslims and the Liberals which became abundantly clear in the death threats and hate mail received in the tens of thousands by MP Iqra Khalid who put forth the motion.

But there are people who are actually concerned about whether or not the term Islamophobia is good enough. As an academic, I am preoccupied with not only definitions of terms but how people use and think of terms, irrespective of their official definitions. And I would say, yes, Islamophobia is insufficient for some of the phenomena we describe with that term. That doesn’t mean we should throw it out completely and I would even say that we could continue using it until we find something adequate to slowly replace it with and that replacement is successfully filtered into popular memory… but before I suggest what to do with it, I will talk about the reasons it just doesn’t work anymore.

  1. It centers the person who fears/hates. The first thing to note is that Islamophobia is not about what Muslims endure. Unlike racism, anti-Semitism or sexism, Islamophobia does not name the violence that Muslim people are faced with. It isn’t about the micro-aggressions, verbal assaults, fearing for one’s personal safety, systemic marginalization or obstacles Muslims face to self-actualization. It isn’t about having to watch your brethren globally massacred. It isn’t about how you feel when people demand that you apologize for the actions of extremist militants. None of that is really encapsulated in the term Islamophobia because a phobia is used to describe the irrational fears of the person who fears, not the person who has to deal with the symptoms of those fears. In this way, the term Islamophobia actually centers the person who either fears or hates Muslims, marginalizing Muslim voices in the very term which is meant to describe their marginalization in the first place.
  2. Not all hatred is rooted in fear. Using Islamophobia to refer to hatred and violence lobbed at Muslims assumes a subscription to what has become a pervasive (but false) axiom in our society: that the root of hatred is fear and ignorance. I actually do not believe this. The root of hatred is not always fear and it certainly is not always ignorance. In fact, historically, the root of hatred is more often power: the desire to consolidate, maintain, and build it. If this were not the case, we might have been able to sing kumbayah with hateful people like Hitler and his Nazi henchman to show them the err of their ways. But Hitler didn’t fear Jews and he certainly was not ignorant of some knowledge about them. He scapegoated Jews and other minorities to consolidate power according to his own warped worldview and the one he exploited in his society. Similarly, using a term which ends in -phobia connotes fear and ignorance, and subliminally excuses the person who hates.
  3. It conflates Islam and Muslims. Unsurprisingly, when people actually legitimately fear something, it usually isn’t “Islam(s)”, but some horrendous cultural practices found within the purview of some Muslims. By calling it Islamophobia, we conflate Islam with Muslims and basically declare them to be the same thing when they are not. Islam is a cultural and comprehensive philosophical, ethical, and legal system. People who use Christianoform secular definitions of “religion” think that separating Islam from bad cultural practices is a matter of separation “religion from culture.” This is a poor way of thinking of Islam. The term deen which Muslims use to refer to Islam better translates to “way of life” meaning a cultural system. Where people get caught up is in forgetting that people can actually subscribe to multiple cultural systems at any given time and some of those cultural expressions come to the fore dependent on the socio-political context they find themselves in. That’s a very simplified version of describing how we can get practices that are “unIslamic” in “Muslim” cultures. These practices might even be justified as Islamic but that doesn’t actually make them Islamic. So this conflation doesn’t work.
  4. It ignores the economy of hatred that produces Muslimophobia(?). Fear of Muslims by regular folks is very real. People are inundated daily by lies about Islam and Muslims, and they come to believe those things. Who wouldn’t fear a terrorist? Who wouldn’t fear the obscene garbage Saudi Arabia passes off as Islamic law these days? Crucifying teenagers? Lashing raped women? Come on, none of this bullshit has anything to do with Islam. What people see in places like KSA should be called what it is: Wahhabism – a 19th century political-cultural cult centered on the power of the Al-Saud family which obfuscates its false origins by masquerading as Islam. It is an insult to the Prophet sallahu alayhi wa salam and an abomination to the guidance sent to him by Allah that a government funding terror globally, obliterating women’s rights, and single-handedly causing the most recent man-made famine in Yemen could call itself “Islamic” or be the keepers of the Hijaz. Period. People are taught to believe that those things are Islam itself though and they rightly fear those things. But they are merely pawns in a much larger, transnational game of manufacturing consent for modern Crusades which generate untold wealth and power for elites in Western countries – and Islamophobia does not adequately describe that practice.

So what do I tentatively propose instead?

To describe the manufactured fears of cultural and political practices commonly found in Muslim cultures, especially when those fears are found in non-elite folks who do not hold positions of power, we might use the term Muslimophobia. These people tend only to keep their fears to themselves or they might talk about these fears in some groups. They are susceptible to becoming radicalized easily, particularly when preyed upon online. This group is also the easiest to change the minds and hearts of. They are the most likely to alter their worldviews through interaction with real Muslims and by learning more about Islam. These are the people whose attention community organizers should focus on in order to build numbers of allies.

To describe those who manufacture those fears for personal and political gain, we can say that they exhibit anti-Muslim hatred or bigotry. These people might be in government, policy-making, or media. They are harder to convince in terms of the unethical nature of their hatred. They often gain financially from their hatred and construct their identities around their hatred. If one manages to change these peoples’ minds, they become very strong allies and often center their lives on fighting anti-Muslim hatred to fill the void left by their hatred when they change their ways. Community organizers, advocates and lobbyists should focus on these people to build numbers of allies.

For those with a Crusading ethos who hold key power positions and have openly declared war on Islam with the hopes of obliterating the religion from the face of the earth, we might describe them as engaging in anti-Islamic hatred, repression and genocide. Their goal is to eliminate the cultural system of Islam from their borders and maybe even globally which would entail having to kill off Muslims. These people are like Nazis or are Nazis and should be treated as such.

These terms might not take hold right away but I am certainly going to try to start using them more frequently and encouraging others to do so as well.

What terms would you use?


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board and graduate researcher in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

It’s a term that gets used confidently, like we all know what it means, but the first thing that happens in any theory of religion class is to reveal that, in fact, “religion” has no satisfactory definition. No matter how we may try – and try many do – we cannot figure out what makes a religion a religion.

To break this down:

Many definitions of religion centre on the belief in some superhuman power, like angels and deities, but this is problematic for multiple reasons. Firstly, not all major recognized religions include belief in any kind of superhuman power: Theravadan Buddhism is rather adamant about its lack of inclusion of anything transcendental in its worldview.

Secondly, for many, simple belief in a deity or deities is not enough for a person to be considered “religious.” There are behavioural obligations, dress codes, eating restrictions, and so on and so forth, that are understood to be part and parcel to ‘actually’ believing in G/god(s).

Thirdly, even those that do not believe can still be considered, and consider themselves, religious. If one is an atheist but nevertheless attends religious services, reads sacred texts, eats according to religious laws, and observes sacred holidays, would they be viewed as a non-religious person? Maybe by some, but not by all.

Fourthly, without a concrete definition of “superhuman power,” it is impossible to determine the exact qualities of the being(s) in which a person is expected to believe, and it becomes difficult to explain how belief in folk heroes, monsters, and fairies is different from belief in saints, demons, and angels. This problem becomes even further complicated by the fact that though the belief in certain figures (such as angels and ghosts) may be intrinsic to one religion, the belief in those same beings may be abhorred in another. What kind of definition, then, would be capable of differentiating between the religious and non-religious superhuman powers in light of these difficulties?

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The idea that religion can be defined solely based on belief in superhuman powers, then, is a pipe dream. In light of the shortcomings of one-dimensional definitions, some scholars have suggested outlining a number of different criteria of which religions must fulfill at least a few in order to retain their status as religions. These criteria often include things like:

  • Dietary restrictions
  • Sacred texts
  • Sacred buildings
  • Belief in superhuman powers
  • The existence of religious professionals
  • A particular way of dressing
  • Etc.

There are, again, many problems with this style of definition.

Firstly, the criteria that are normally put in place in these lists are drawn from distinctly Western ideas of what constitutes religion. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it is a distinctly Western pursuit to try to discover what religion is, or even to attempt to separate religion from other kinds of human behaviour. Some languages do not even have a word for religion, and many do not consider religion to be a particular set of behaviours within a culture, but rather as fully integrated and inseparable from the culture itself. What happens, then, is that these attempts at definition ultimately fall short in their attempts to define religion on a worldwide scale. They do not take into the account oral cultures, or the fact that eating restrictions may have multiple justifications beyond “religious concerns,” or that sacred spaces are often ill-defined and can appear spontaneously, or that some cultures do not have or see the need for dedicated religious professionals.

Secondly, it is possible for some patterns of behaviour, institutions, or practices that are not normally considered religious to fulfill the criteria outlined in the above definitions. Sports fandom, for example, is often cited as a modern form of religion: there are designated buildings and particular clothing, people arrive en masse to participate in certain events at the same time every year, there are heroes and legends, it includes devoted professionals, and fans (or adherents) treat their team, the events, and the players with reverence. The same problem can be found in a large number of cases: political ideologies, recreational groups, community centres, even online communities may fulfill the criteria necessary to be considered religious.

Thirdly, it is possible for groups who want to enjoy the privileges offered to religious groups to simply ensure that they tick off the boxes necessary to be considered one. It is not so difficult to write a text, call a building “sacred,” wear particular clothes, elect a leader and then *poof* enjoy tax breaks and extended rights and freedoms. Most recently, scientology has been removed of its religion status in Germany and declared a business – pointing out the power differential when it comes to naming what a religion is and who gets that privilege.

And with this, it starts to become apparent why it is important to define religion. I would like to be able to say that it would be fine to simply allow people to call themselves what they want, and leave labels out of it, but I can’t, because the issues surrounding definitions of religion are larger than self-identification. It is not only that recognized religions enjoy considerable privileges in our society, but also that the term religion is used to make blanket-statement condemnations, promote discrimination, and encourage us-vs-them mentalities. When people say “religion is violent,” or “this religion is violent,” they are glossing over the fact that we have no way of determining what religion even is. The end result of this behaviour is often that millions of people are lumped in with the few, and the only solution proposed is if religion, or that religion, is left behind in favour of a ‘superior’ way of life. Root causes of issues are ignored in favour of blaming a porous, ever-changing, inconsistent, undefinable thing.

So define we must, because the more we recognize the issues inherent in our own categorizations, the less we are able to condone worldviews of us-vs-them.

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