Jocelyne Cesari, University of Birmingham @jocelyne_cesari
The first contemporary occurrence of the term Islamophobia appeared in the 1997 Runnymede report ‘Islamophobia: a challenge for us all’ to acknowledge discrimination against Islam and Muslim immigrants in the UK. Since 9/11, it has gained political traction over Europe and the USA to decry all types of ethnic and religious prejudice against Muslims who are not only immigrants but also citizens. In the last decade, the surge of Islamophobia has become worldwide, reaching India, China and even Muslim countries. This geographic expansion goes hand-in-hand with an expansion and intensification of the discrimination not only of Muslims but also of Islam, both of which are seen as an existential threat.
The Securitization of Islam and Muslims
‘Securitization’ refers to exceptional political measures, usually of a repressive type such as increased military presence and police controls, systematic surveillance of mosques, etc. which stems from the perception of Islam as a threat. The apparatus of state control grew significantly after 9/11 in all western democracies in the name of the war against terror. It has intensified to the point that visibility of Islamic religiosity is perceived as a threat to the civil public order. More generally, Muslims are portrayed as a social threat because Islam is associated with crime, terrorism, the oppression of women, honor killings, backwardness, and intolerance. Terms like ‘Islamic Terror,’ ‘Muslim extremist,’ and ‘cancer/ulcer of Islamism’ regularly appear in European newspapers. This amalgam is particularly potent because it combines fear of external political attacks with fear of domestic cultural transformations, especially when women are concerned. Case in point, the fear of ‘sexual jihad’ has been on the rise in Europe, wherein a fear of sexual violence from immigrants and refugees is combined with a fear of these immigrants ‘tainting’ white European women, both sexually and culturally.
Beyond the Fight of Terrorism to Existential Threat
Along the same line, restrictions and bans on face veils (i.e., niqabs and burqas) have been justified as both a security measure and a way of protecting European liberal values. Besides the 2004 ban of all religious signs in public schools (which spefically targeted the hijab), France was the first European country in 2011 to ban face covering and burqa. From the security perspective, burqas are presented as a threat because they are perceived as markers of radical Islam and cancel the identity of the person wearing it, hence allowing greater freedom for terrorist acts. From the cultural and religious point of view, they are seen as a device to subdue women and deprive them of their individual rights. At no moment in the French debate leading to the ban was the question of religious freedom raised. Belgium banned burqas in 2011 in order to provide the opportunity of ‘living together’ and the ‘protections of the rights and freedoms of others’. Bulgaria enacted the ban in 2016, presented by the nationalist Patriotic Front coalition as a security measure justified by an increase in Islamist terrorist attacks across Europe. Similarly, in 2017 Austria passed the burqa ban to protect Austrian values. The Netherlands imposed a restricted version of the ban in 2019, limiting it to public transport, schools, hospitals, and government buildings—not on streets. Finally, in March 2021 Switzerland approved a proposition to ban facial coverings in all public settings. It includes burqas and niqabs as well as face coverings worn by protestors or other full coverage items of clothing. Although the bill doesn’t explicitly mention Islam, it’s largely referred to as the ‘burqa ban’.
The most striking example of the securitization of the Islamic religion is the French ‘Islamic separatism’ bill, meant to protect the country from radical Islam. When the bill was passed through the National Assembly in February 2021, it included a wide range of measures: the finance and administration of religious associations and mosques, the obligation for children past the age of three to attend regular schools (to avoid the influence of ‘fundamentalist home schooling’), the obligation for Islamic associations to sign a ‘contract of Republican commitment’, and the prohibition for doctors to issue virginity certificates. The version of the bill discussed in the Senate in March 2021 was even stricter, with additional measures such as expanding prohibitions of religious symbols or clothing in public and banning religious practices in public universities or religious symbolism in political campaigns, not to mention the right for immigration authorities to refuse to renew the resident card of an individual who seems to not comply with republican principles.
Although it has received criticism for violating civil rights and religious liberty, as well as perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Muslims and Islam, French President Emmanuel Macron has defended the bill by stating that it is meant to protect the fundamental French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
These policies are met with the approval of most citizens of western democracies who have become increasingly concerned by the cultural threat posed by Islam to their core liberal values. As a result, Islamophobia is not only governmental and institutional discrimination but also societal, as attested by the startling rise of abuse in social interactions and impingement on Muslim civil liberties, from education to employment and housing.
Criminalization of Islamic Activities
After 9/11, and even more so after the wave of terrorist attacks in Europe, Islamic institutions are perceived as potential terrorist actors, especially when they are too assertive and visible in public space. Social engagement from Muslim actors is interpreted as the first step toward radical violence. For example, the Observatory for Political Islam opened in Vienna in July 2020 to ‘counter Islamic extremism by working against organizations and foreign influences that prevent Muslims from integrating into the West.’ Despite the attempts by the Austrian authorities to distinguish between Islam as a religion and Political Islam, the Observatory is perceived by Muslim leaders as the ‘institutionalization of a general demonization of Muslims’.
In this respect, the global outreach and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood fuels ongoing western debates on the need to ban the organization on the grounds of terrorism, with Austria being the first European country to ban officially ban it in July 2021. Such a concern is not limited to the West and actually finds echo in Muslim majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, which have de facto implemented the ban.
This growing institutional and societal discrimination has now spread and amplified beyond western democracies.
The Global Spread of Islamophobia
The pandemic has aggravated the conditions of Muslims in India who are victims of a distressing rise of killings, attacks and abuse combined with increased governmental discrimination.
According to a 2019 report by the India-based nongovernmental organization Common Cause, half of police surveyed showed anti-Muslim bias, making them less likely to intervene to stop crimes against Muslims. Analysts have also noted widespread impunity for those who attack Muslims. In recent years, courts and government bodies have sometimes overturned convictions or withdrawn cases that accused Hindus of involvement in violence against Muslims. States have increasingly passed laws restricting Muslims’ religious freedoms, including anti-conversion laws and bans on wearing headscarves in school.
In China, the state repression of the Islamic activities in the province of Xinjiang is justified by the government for security reasons. It has turned into what is now considered by the EU as a genocide. In its resolution of June 2022, the European Parliament has raised concerns over the detention of 12% of the adult Uyghur population of Konasheher County and the alleged accusations of the systematic rape, sexual abuse and torture of women in China’s re-education camps. The UN has condemned the treatment of Uyghur Muslims, stating that it ‘may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.’
In summation, what started as a discrimination against immigrants of Muslim background in Europe in the early 2000s has become in the last two decades a global phenomenon of discrimination if not repression of Islam and Muslims in different political contexts, even affecting citizens in Muslim countries. It has also diversified from abuse in daily interactions to legal and administrative procedures, all justified in the name of physical and existential security. The International Day against Islamophobia could be the starting point for a systematic and coordinated international action to revert or at least diminish this worrisome trend.