The term Islamophobia was coined to describe anti-Muslim bigotry in the 1997 Runnymede report. The objective of introducing such a term might seem obvious enough. Nonetheless, its ambiguity has made many people wary of using it. It appears that Islamophobia, invented to protect all people of Muslim heritage, has been hijacked to serve the interests of a few fundamentalists.
Religious ideologues have weaponised this term to lash out at people who refuse to comply with their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic scripture. False accusations of Islamophobia are launched to suppress criticism of Islam, and to smear critics of religious laws and rituals.
The conflation that the word represents—between valid criticism of religious beliefs and bigotry against Muslims as people—provides Islamists with the cover they need to foster hatred and prejudice, and to justify their nefarious ends without facing any resistance from within the community.
These vile ideological tactics are also deployed to malign those involved in the longstanding struggle against religious misogyny, thereby giving comfort to those in Muslim societies who support prejudice against women. The religious zealots and their apologists disingenuously frame support for women’s defiance of fundamentalism as Islamophobia, with the obvious aim of sabotaging their struggle.
Whenever there is a discussion about banning religious symbols in France and other European countries, so as to safeguard secular values, it is reframed as a bid to restrict Muslim women’s right to wear headscarves in public, further normalising the narrative of Islamophobia within social discourse. This manoeuvre misrepresents the plain intent of such a law, which would affect all religious groups equally.
Moreover, it does nothing to protect vulnerable Muslim women when any discussion of women’s right to reject religious orthodoxy is deemed to be Islamophobia, which has now come to be a synonym for blasphemy.
The EU Court of Justice recently ruled that EU companies can, under certain conditions, ban employees from displaying religious, political and philosophical symbols in the workplace. The ruling was clearly not aimed at any particular religious group, but has nonetheless been portrayed as specifically targeting Muslim women, and interpreted as Islamophobia. Likewise, when a Canadian court recently upheld a controversial Quebec law banning civil servants from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, the decision was regarded as unfairly discriminatory towards Muslim women—though it applies to all religious groups.
The problem with this disingenuous narrative is that it excludes women who are either fighting against the toxic modesty culture of their own communities or suffering in silence.
Hijab is not an uncontroversially benign religious or cultural dress code for women of Muslim heritage. Many women feel coerced into conforming to this archaic tradition—a tradition that reproduces a visible symbol of a toxic modesty culture that perpetuates the abuse of women’s rights. Most Muslim women have little choice in the matter and are subjected to inhumane treatment if they refuse to conform. Such women often make headlines after enduring torture at the hands of their own family members. For example, a seventeen-year-old French Muslim girl was brutally beaten, had her head shaved and ribs broken by her male family members for not complying with this modesty code.
Constant repetition of the term Islamophobia to give special protection to religious beliefs distracts attention from the urgent need to protect these vulnerable Muslim women from abuse by religious zealots.
Many Muslim women and girls live in isolation from the rest of society. Some are not even allowed to show their faces in public. They are barred from swimming and sex-education classes, and are often obliged to give up their basic rights for the sake of being protected from the influence of the supposedly immoral, infidel western society.
It is therefore essential to examine how the term Islamophobia has been used to target vulnerable minorities within the west’s Muslim minority.
The relentless campaign against supposed Islamophobia appears to be an effort to privilege a particularly vocal and conservative cohort of Muslims, who seek impunity from criticism. It is therefore profoundly disappointing to see gullible western women, who enjoy freedoms denied to many of their Muslim sisters, falling for this propaganda and downplaying the plight of Muslim women to protect the religious sensibilities of fundamentalists. Canadian Conservative Party candidate Melissa Lantsman, for instance, has recently tweeted:
Years ago, I supported the @CPC_HQ position to ban the Niqab when taking the citizenship oath. I believed it was a symbol of oppression for women which promoted exclusion. My view has since evolved. Tweet deleted. Will continue to stand against islamophobia, antisemitism and hate pic.twitter.com/ScKEiJrKWf
— Melissa Lantsman (@MelissaLantsman) September 7, 2021
In a similar vein, British Labour MP Stella Creasy recently remarked that “Equality isn’t just being able to leave the house alone.” When Afghan women were viciously beaten for taking to the streets to demand their basic human rights, she gave cover to the religion’s reactionary religious patriarchy by insisting: “This is not Islam.” Likewise, British social activist Nimco Ali has tweeted:
— Nimco Ali (OBE) 🔻 (@NimkoAli) August 19, 2021
The last thing oppressed women need is to be lectured by free, powerful women about how their unabated oppression has nothing to do with a religion that explicitly sanctions the abuse of women’s rights.
In these dark times, when so-called modest dress is being imposed on women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries and the Taliban is rendering women completely invisible in the public sphere, it is heartbreaking that allies in the struggle for women’s rights should prove so craven in the face of religious absolutism.
Western commentators who focus on the supposed offence of Islamophobia stifle dissenting voices, further marginalising women in closed societies. As the Taliban achieves its suffocating hold over Afghanistan, the world once again seems more unsafe for Muslim women than ever.
The discussion of what constitutes anti-Muslim bigotry, and of how to challenge the abuse of women’s rights in the name of religion, is in urgent need of a more informed, nuanced response in the west.
Our response to all forms of extremism, bigotry and prejudice should be to reaffirm our support for a secular democratic society in which all are treated equally, regardless of caste, colour, creed, gender or sexuality. In the struggle against toxic ideologies that seek the subjugation of humanity, it is counterproductive to demonise resilience and dissent as Islamophobia.