Islamophobia has become an established term in the English language. Your automatic spell-checker will not mark it with a red line underneath in the text. For some of us, this is part of the test of the lexical naturalness of this concept and its meaning in society.
A greater degree of naturalisation will come when your automatic spell-checker ceases to underline in red derivatives of Islamophobia, such as Islamophobic, Islamophobe or Islamophobisation. The software on my computer is out-of-date, so maybe I am lagging behind.
The term has also entered Arabic and is used without definition or explanation in the language. This is another test of naturalness, but now across cultures.
Islamophobia refers to stereotypical and negative attitudes by non-Muslims towards Islam, Muslims and what is popularly known as Islamic culture.
As a phenomenon, Islamophobia is a rough and ready attitude with little tolerance for complexity and diversity. In its totalising form, it admits no rough edges. In fact, one does not have to be Muslim to be subject to Islamophobic attitudes.
After the London attacks in July 2005, Sikh men were subjected to Islamophobic slurs, even attacks, because they were thought to be Muslim
In the public imagination, certain items of attire, such as the turban, are assumed by some to be an expression of Muslim-ness. The beard is developing similar meanings, especially when one’s complexion is thought to be a sign of the same.
To counter Islamophobic attitudes, two of my University of Cambridge colleagues, a Christian and a Muslim, started an outreach programme of public engagement to explain as neutrally as possible what Islam stood for.
The main part of this programme consisted of school visits in and around London. In one primary school in South London they showed a set of pictures to ten-year-olds.
One picture showed a group of men from different ethnic backgrounds. In the middle stood the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, with his black cloak, white hair and beard and a medium-size cross hanging down from his neck.
The pupils were asked to identify who was Muslim in the picture. To the surprise of my colleagues, every pupil circled the Archbishop’s figure as Muslim.
When they were asked why they thought he was Muslim, they all pointed to his beard and long black cloak. When later directed to the cross the pupils were surprised by how signs of Muslim-ness had overridden signs of being Christian in their response
Stereotypical view of Muslims
While this misrecognition does not speak of Islamophobia, it does point to, possibly, a stereotypical view of the Muslim man as one who wears a beard and long, loose-hanging clothes.
It is possible that signs of difference like these led to Sikhs being misrecognised as Muslims and, as a result, subjected to Islamophobic slurs in London.
It is true that Islamophobia has been on the rise since 9/11, but its date of birth precedes this criminal event.
I remember how, in the 1990s, I accompanied the head of what was the Palestinian delegation (ambassador) in London on a visit to what was, by all accounts, a friendly church meeting.