Sulaiman Sayyid: Islamophobia & Politics

Dr S Sayyid, Reader in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, writes in the Islamophobia Studies Journal (Spring 2014):

[…]  Islamophobia is a concept that emerges precisely to do the work that categories like racism were not doing. It names something that needs to be named. Its continual circulation in public debate testifies to ways in which it hints at something that needs to be addressed. What it names, of course, remains a matter of dispute. This dispute has two sources: philosophical and political. By philosophical I mean that there is lack of clarity about the concept of Islamophobia. Any review of the growing literature on Islamophobia will show that it is dominated by empirical studies, by analysis of media representations and sociopsychological approaches. These ontic studies of Islamophobia do not (and cannot address) the ontology of the category. They cannot provide us with a theoretical clarification. By political I mean that the dispute about Islamophobia is not due to simply its conceptual lack of clarity, but also with the way it appears in a contested field where questions about national security, social cohesion and cultural belonging are played out. It is this field in which the relationship between national majorities and the post-colonial, ethnically marked minorities is being forged.


[…]  Discussions about the legitimacy of Islamophobia take place in the context of various mobilizations and confrontations centered on the figure of the Muslim. These range from the series of “moral panics” that seem to regularly sweep over mainly Western plutocracies, but also other places in the world in which some cherished universal (or Western) values are threatened by the actions of Muslims (or their extremist fringes). These are values—such as the freedom of expression, gender equality or tolerance—most often brought into play as being threatened by actions of “some” Muslims.


[…] The opposition to Islamophobia has three overlapping strands. Firstly, it is argued that Islamophobia is not a valid category, since the phenomena it seeks to describe does not exist. That is, there is no significant specific discrimination against Muslims because they are Muslims.8 Whatever discrimination or prejudice that may be said to exist against Muslims can be explained as racism—pure and simple—and as such does not require a special concept. Secondly, there are the set of arguments that maintain the deployment of Islamophobia is a means of stifling debate and free expression. In other words, Islamophobia is (to use popular expression) seen as another sign of “political correctness gone mad”. Thirdly, it is argued that Islamophobia is a legitimate response to the threat, or perceptions of threat, produced by the radicalization of a significant number of Muslims.


[…] What a term comes to mean is related to how it is used, how it is embedded in cultural practices and, in other words, the language game played around the term in question. For a concept as contested as Islamophobia, this means that the politics around its use are far more visible than the politics around the use of many other terms and an ostensive definition would not work. Nor would an approach that seeks to analyze Islamophobia into its constituent elements, which is a common way of trying to define a category. To have a measure of Islamophobia, we need to be able to sketch out the main frontlines in the politics evoked by Islamophobia. The politics of Islamophobia are constituted by a struggle between the opponents of the concept and its advocates. The opposition to the category straddles the conventional differences between left and right. Similarly, the advocates of Islamophobia cannot be neatly grouped along pre-existing political allegiances and solidarities: in its ranks are included both conservatives and leftists. This rearranging of the normal axis of conflict in Western plutocracies, demonstrates the disruptive effect of the disclosure of a Muslim political subject position.


[…] Islamophobia is a form of racialized governmentality. It is more than prejudice or ignorance; it is a series of interventions and classifications that affect the well-being of populations designated as Muslim. This does not mean that there are no emotional, cultural or religious investments and expressions in the articulation of Islamophobia, but rather that Islamophobia is a language game directed toward the undermining of a distinct Muslim identity. In other words, if we understand Islamophobia as the regulation and disciplining of Muslims by reference to a Westernizing horizon it means accepting that this hostility to Muslims is neither necessarily emotional (“hatred”) nor religious (“Muslims as infidels”) or cultural (“Muslims as outsiders”) but rather political.

Click here for article.