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Defining Islamophobia

Defining Islamophobia

“Defining Islamophobia”


A definition is not a magic spell. Defining Islamophobia will not by itself end Islamophobia. What is needed is not a detailed legal definition but one capable of circulating in broader society, and changing the way in which Islamophobia is understood and resisted. This means a definition that is brief, which builds on already existing norms of public etiquette and which triggers debate that helps to change the national conversation.

Islamophobia Defined

Islamophobia is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.


In this definition of Islamophobia, the link to racism is made for both pragmatic and theoretical reasons. Pragmatically, many large organisations already have in place mechanisms and protocols for dealing with racism; therefore, by articulating Islamophobia as a form of racism, there is no need to invent new procedures to deal with complaints and concerns that arise. Theoretically, racism is understood to be a form of regulation based on racialization by which collective identities are formed and placed in hierarchies.


Islamophobia is experienced by Muslims regardless of their religiosity, ethnicity or culture, and by non-Muslims who are perceived as Muslims. It can be direct and explicitly discriminatory, or indirect and seemingly positive, but always narrowing the range of acceptable forms of Muslimness, thus rendering Muslim citizenship conditional and precarious. It is these many shades of targeted expression that the term Muslimness captures.

Muslimness is similar to commonly found expressions such as Englishness. It describes a family of overlapping and flexible features by which in a given situation something is seen as having the quality of being Muslim (very much like the way in which tea, real ale, a stiff upper lip and fish and chips are often associated with being English). Such features can range from the names people use to the clothes they wear, from the languages they speak to the foods they eat – or don’t eat. They include associations based on habitats (‘being from Tower Hamlets’) or habits (‘not socialising at the pub’), or verbal and gestural clues (of greetings, for example). These features are not fixed but rather are historical and contextual – some are long enduring (‘fatalism’, ‘fanaticism’), others recent (‘terrorism’), and many are not infrequently contradictory (‘sodomy’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘homophobia’ in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries). As with all stereotypes, it is not their truth that is at stake but their currency as a way of reading the world (thus Sikhs are attacked for wearing turbans, misrecognised as Muslims).

Debating Islamophobia

The opposition to the concept of Islamophobia should not be surprising, after all when racism was introduced into public conversation commentators railed at how the word was a neologism, claiming that it would mean the end of freedom of speech, shut down comedy, and we wouldn’t even be able to ask for black coffee anymore.

Defining Islamophobia is not enough; we also need to deal with the most likely objections. In what follows, we address nine of the most common objections to the very idea of Islamophobia and the proposed definition.

1) Islamophobia is just a new made up word.

All words are made up, including antisemitism, racism and sexism. Occurrences of the term Islamophobia in French and English date back to the early twentieth century (Mussulmanophobia and Turcophobia date even further back, to the second half of the nineteenth century). In fact, the term racism only emerges in the 1930s, thus postdates the term Islamophobia.

The point is what work a word does. Islamophobia allows us to identify cruelties and injustices directed at expressions of Muslimness, actual or perceived, which otherwise would go unrecognised and thus unchallenged.

2) Islamophobia is an incorrect term because phobia describes a psychological condition.

The meanings of words do not come from their etymology but their usage. For example, xenophobia and homophobia are commonly used terms without being considered to be descriptions of psychological conditions.

3) Isn’t the term ‘anti-Muslim hatred’ less polemical and more accurate?

The term ‘anti-Muslim hatred’ does not incorporate the broader array of structural racial inequalities that Muslims face. Consider, for example, a Muslim facing discrimination at the workplace based on having the name ‘Muhammad’. This is not an example of hatred, necessarily, yet is clearly a type of racism and Islamophobic.

4) How can I be a racist when neither Islam nor Muslims are a race?

Muslims are not a ‘race,’ but they are being racialised. A woman who decides to wear the hijab becomes subject to the effects associated with racism: from dirty looks to verbal abuse to actual bodily violence, regardless of what she looks like. This is because ‘races’ were never exclusively biological; they were always mixed with cultural and social elements. Culture, history and territory were mapped onto bodies to group socially fabricated distinctions in a violent hierarchy. Muslims are not a ‘race’ because there are no ‘races’ scientifically speaking, but they are treated as if they were a ‘race’. Despite Muslims being from diverse ethnic backgrounds, they are racialised and discriminated against based on their name, their cultural identity or perceived behaviour.

5) I am critical of all religions, including Islam; does that make me an Islamophobe?

Being critical of Islam or religions does not automatically make you an Islamophobe. You are only an Islamophobe if you use the language of Islamophobia to express your views. There is a well-established, but mobile, repertoire of memes, references, turns of phrase and practices by which in any given context Muslimness is given Islamophobic expression.

6) Are there some things that are Islamophobic in all circumstances?

No. Context is crucial. A good rule of thumb is to replace the word ‘Muslim’ in a statement with another minority – how does it look and sound? Context, however, is not a matter of private intentions, it is public and social: it depends on not only what is being done or said, and who is doing or saying it, but also on the consequences of such doings and sayings. The risk of Islamophobia is greater when the perpetrator is in a position of authority or influence and has a track record of making inflammatory statements (including politicians, someone writing in a national media outlet, or those with a significant following on social media). Similarly, as long-established discussions of comparable forms of racism have shown, the risk of Islamophobia will also be different depending on whether the perpetrators identify as Muslim, and how they comport themselves towards the expression of Muslimness.

7) Some Muslims believe the niqab is an Islamic practice, others say it is an ‘expression of Muslimness’. Are those who challenge this particular expression being Islamophobic?

Having differences of opinion is not the same as being Islamophobic. One can challenge the idea that the niqab is Islamic without falling into Islamophobia. However, many contestations of the niqab at present are Islamophobic, and it is important that they can be challenged as such.

8) FGM is practised in some Muslim countries, and some argue it is an expression of Muslimness. Would laws prosecuting FGM be regarded as Islamophobia?

No. FGM is not an exclusively Muslim practice but a regional one. A law that only systematically prosecuted Muslims for practising FGM but allowed other groups to do so would be Islamophobic; laws that prosecute all instances of FGM without fear or favour would not be Islamophobic.

9) Many mosques in the U.K. do not allow space for women to perform ritual prayers or access other services. Would action to promote gender equality for Muslim women be regarded as Islamophobia when some might argue denying women a space in mosques is ‘an expression of Muslimness’?

For something to be Islamophobic, it has to be a form of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness per se not merely different expressions of Muslimness. To be Islamophobic, it would have to be demonstrated that mosques are being singled out for greater gender equality relative to other comparable religious institutions, e.g. synagogues, temples, churches.


This is a definition of Islamophobia, not an encyclopaedia. A definition of Islamophobia cannot be a delineation of all the kinds of injustices that may afflict society. Not all conflict or discrimination is Islamophobic. Just because not everything is Islamophobic, however, does not mean that nothing is. What is needed is a definition of Islamophobia that circulates broadly and that allows ordinary people to become aware of how it operates in contemporary society. The hope behind this definition is that it acts as a catalyst for changing a society’s common-sense, so that Islamophobia is recognised as a form of racism and attempts to name and combat it are not dismissed as special pleading, but instead seen as necessary contributions to deepening civil rights.

S. Sayyid and AbdoolKarim Vakil
Salman Sayyid
S. Sayyid is currently based in the University of Leeds. From 2010 to 2013 he was the inaugural Director of the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding in Australia. His main intellectual interests are in the areas of critical Muslim studies and political and cultural theory. Dr Sayyid’s numerous publications been translated into a number of languages including Persian, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic.
His first book: A Fundamental Fear was upon publication nominated for British Sociological Association’s prize for the best first monograph, however, subsequently it was banned by the Malaysian government. His most recent publications include a co-edited volume: Thinking Through Islamophobia and a co-authored book Racism, Governance, and Public Policy. Dr Sayyid’s new book Recalling the Caliphate is due out later this year. He is a joint editor of the monograph series: Decolonial Studies/Postcolonial Horizons published by Pluto Press, and a frequent contributor to international and national media.
AbdoolKarim Vakil
AbdoolKarim Vakil is Lecturer in Contemporary History in the departments of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies and History at King's College London. He is co-editor with S. Sayyid of Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives (2010) and co-author of Moçambique: Memória Falada do Islão e da Guerra (2011), an archival and oral history exploration of Portuguese colonial and counterinsurgency policies towards Muslims during the decolonisation war in Mozambique. His research interests have ranged over Portuguese intellectual and cultural history, nationalism and national identity, Islamophobia and the comparative history of contemporary Muslim communities in Europe, and is currently involved with ReOrient: the Journal of Critical Muslim Studies. AbdoolKarim has been academic advisor to Muslim organisations in Portugal and the UK.