Islam was thrust into the Western public imagination nearly fifty years ago starting with the OPEC oil embargo, and Islamophobia has grown since in three distinct phases.
When searching for the origin of modern-day Islamophobia, one comes across countless articles portraying the 9/11 attacks as the root cause of present hatred against Muslims. They hold that it was this event that led to a negative projection of Islam as a radical, anti-modern and anti-Western ideology.
While the 9/11 attacks did escalate retaliatory persecution of Muslims, the claim of it being at the root of Islamophobia is quite myopic – both metaphorically and literally. This event merely initiated a new phase of Islamophobic hatred, built upon a previous phase of propaganda and malevolence.
Other claims regarding the origin of Islamophobia refer to the early 20th century, when the term – or its French variant Islamophobie – was coined. In this case, it is difficult to distinguish Islamophobia from other xenophobic and supremacist tendencies of colonialism in general – the prejudice against Muslims could have emerged as part of widespread prejudice against all colonised peoples.
However, with the rise of autonomous Muslim-majority states in the post-colonial period, Muslims – and through them, Islam – gained an identity distinct from other nations. It was during this period that the first seeds of present-day Islamophobia were sown. Starting in the early post-colonial era, Islamophobia has grown through three distinct phases, each with its own defining events, drivers, and impacts.
Oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution
According to the renowned scholar Edward Said, “It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that before the sudden OPEC price rises in early 1974, Islam as such scarcely figured either in the culture or in the media [of the United States]. One saw and heard of Arabs and Iranians, of Pakistanis and Turks, rarely of Muslims.”
Given that a sense of Muslim solidarity motivated the embargo, Islam was put in the American media spotlight. News headlines started featuring it and Orientalists regularly commented on it, familiarising audiences with Islam as an ideology linked to the oil crisis.
While the events of 1973 - 1974 made Islam a topic of discussion in the Western world, it was the Iranian Revolution that prompted opinion formation regarding it. The perceived ‘loss’ of a modernised Iran under Shah Reza Pahlavi to an Islamic regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini had dealt a strong blow to Western interests in the region.
The subsequent hostage crisis provided Western powers – particularly the US – with an opportunity to make the revolution and its Islamic credentials relevant to Western audiences.
Pictures of ‘Islamic’ mobs with anti-American placards were frequently displayed on American media alongside words like 'radicalisation' and 'fundamentalism', presenting Islam as a threat to Western ideals.
In April 1979, the cover of Times magazine depicted a cleric performing the call for prayer next to the words, ‘Islam: The Militant Revival’. Two years later, the blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark depicted an Arab swordsman getting shot by a gun-wielding Indiana Jones, creating a perception of an anti-modern Middle Eastern culture.
Similarly, the 1986 film Delta Force based its plot on a plane hijacking conducted by Muslim villains, with the voiceover in its trailer declaring, “The enemy doesn’t care who they hurt, not how young, how innocent, how helpless.”
In the period following the Iranian revolution, experts like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington wrote extensively about the ‘clashing’ ideals of Islam and the West. While many today believe Huntington prophesised the rise of militant groups like Al Qaeda in his Clash of Civilizations thesis, a renewed focus on the 1970s shows that he merely extrapolated from the past.
The anti-Islam hysteria created during the first phase was driven by global politics and directed by some states against other states – first, against Arab nations embargoing the US, and later, Iran. In hindsight, it was this global politics-based nature that inspired ideas like Huntington's “Clash of Civilizations” in the first place.
While the first phase of Islamophobia established Islam as an Other that existed thousands of miles away, the 9/11 attacks confirmed fears associated with it, initiating the second phase of Islamophobia in response. Built on the nuance of the first phase, the second phase was drastic in its effects.
The securitisation of Islam
The eruption of hatred among the masses was primarily driven by security concerns. It was used by states – to justify their actions – against non-state actors and individuals. Iran was replaced by groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and later, Daesh, who were presented as the new face of ‘Islamic’ radicalisation and fundamentalism.
Muslim minorities were profiled and harassed by state authorities. Mosques came under scrutiny. This atmosphere of fear cultivated support for invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under the so-called global “War on Terror”.
The situation in the invaded countries was far worse. Prisons like Abu Ghraib became centers of dehumanisation and torture of local Muslim populations. Others were shipped to Guantanamo Bay where they were systematically deprived of their basic human rights.
The role played by Western media worsened the plight of Muslims. Terror attacks involving Muslim perpetrators were given significantly higher coverage than those conducted by non-Muslims. Numerous Islamophobic articles were published by leading media outlets during this period, encouraging the formation of negative opinions against Islam.
By the end of it, the second phase had stigmatised Muslims as a security threat. Islamic practices like beard and hijab started being associated with religious extremism, which in turn became synonymous with violence and terrorism.
Migration policy crisis
The third phase of Islamophobia began with the European political crisis triggered by a wave of migration in 2014 and still continues today.
Unlike the second phase, which was rooted in security, anti-Islam sentiments in this phase are driven by social concerns and domestic politics. The perpetrators and victims of Islamophobia occurring today are non-state groups and individuals.
On a social level, fears of demographic invasion have resulted in a localised backlash against Muslim immigrants and refugees, who are, by default, perceived as a threat. In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the number of attacks against Muslim minorities in developed countries. Many perpetrators today are “lone-wolf” actors like Brenton Tarrant who were radicalised during the previous two phases and motivated by an online network of Islamophobic groups.
On the political front, prejudice against Muslims has been propagated by political leaders to serve their own agendas. In France, President Macron’s negative comments about Islam demonstrate an attempt to attract far-right voting groups in the upcoming elections. Populist leaders like the US’ Donald Trump and India’s Narendra Modi have also castigated Muslims to please their respective voter bases.
With the rise of such leaders, political exploitation of anti-Islam sentiment is gradually becoming systemic. European capitals are enacting laws that encroach on the freedoms of Muslim minorities. The Anti-Separatism Bill in France seeks to restrict Muslim congregations and oppose the display of Islamic symbols in public. Systematic persecution of Muslims has also become prevalent in countries like India and Myanmar.
The Islamophobic narrative that emerged in the 1970s has evolved into a more widespread, systemic and violent phenomenon. Ironically, the propaganda churned out by Western media, blaming Islam for radicalising Muslims, has resulted in the radicalisation of its audience against Islam.
Today, Islamophobia has become a menace that torments Muslims around the world. The first step towards countering it is to understand where its roots lie: not in the turbulent 2000s but in the neglected 1970s.
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