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How Islamophobia has entered a new phase - using these 10 strategies

As Islamophobia continues to spread globally, just one of these 10 methods would be harmful for Muslims. But all of them combined would be devastating
The French Muslim Perspectives Association protests against Islamophobia in Paris on 3 September 2022 (AFP)
The French Muslim Perspectives Association protests against Islamophobia in Paris on 3 September 2022 (AFP)

It is well documented that Islamophobia has become a major ideological position that increasingly shapes domestic and international policies of western and other states, as well as popular perceptions of Muslims and Islam.

We are now in what may be called the era of scientific Islamophobia, characterised by a dramatic increase in methods to spread anti-Muslim bigotry

Evidence can be found in various media, official and independent data, NGOs, personal testimonies and abundant academic research over the past three decades.

Western Islamophobia, in particular, has extremely deep historical roots that go back to at least the Crusades and the colonial conquest and administration of Muslim-majority populations

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The extensive legacy of both periods, which lasted centuries, persists in today’s cultures and societies. But in the past few decades, the fear and distrust of Muslims has evolved into a fundamental resentment and hatred of Islam. This hostility was dramatically boosted by the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent securitisation of Muslims both in the West and in other parts of the world. 

The impact of the global "War on Terror" is far-reaching, with domestic, "counter-radicalisation" and "counter-extremism" policies that have proliferated all over the world, including in Muslim-majority societies.

More than two decades later, the "clash of civilisations", "great replacement" and "Eurabia" theories have become mainstream.

New phase of Islamophobia

Moving well beyond discrimination, some countries are now reaching the point of outright persecution of Muslims, including their own "natural-born" citizens. This surge in Islamophobia leaves no western country untouched, not even the most open, tolerant, multiculturalist, democratic and liberal ones.  

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More recently, Islamophobia has entered a new phase, characterised by a triple process: convergence and crystallisation (the different Islamo-paranoid governments, parties, movements and forces that were isolated are now coming together); horizontal/geographic expansion; and intensification/vertical penetration affecting more and more areas of life, including the most intimate (the family, parental educational choices, freedom of faith and consciousness, etc).

We are now in what may be called the era of scientific Islamophobia, characterised by a dramatic increase in creative and effective methods, techniques (both old and new), tools (including legal tools) and anti-Muslim and anti-Islam strategies. 

Like Foucault’s discursive power strategies, those multiple lines of encirclement and penetration have already created for nearly all Muslims an almost inescapable web. 

One example would be the joint policies of France, Egypt and the Gulf countries on "Islamism" and the criminalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. This narrative is reproduced in various countries and used to erode the process of democratisation and other pillars of those societies.

It is important to identify and name those strategies to understand this phenomenon. While there are too many to be exhaustive, here are the top 10 familiar strategies to promote Islamophobia: 

Muslims as 'a challenge', Islam as 'a problem. A key Islamophobic strategy has been the construction of an imaginary and essentialised “bogeyman Islam”, by which the media, politicians, prominent public intellectuals and even major artists (including many from the Muslim-majority Arab world) represent Islam and Muslims as a problem, an existential threat, or at best a "challenge” (to “the Republic,” "democracy", "western civilisation" and so on).

This problematisation of the presence of Islam and Muslims in western and other countries creates a permanent atmosphere of fear and distrust of that religion and its faith communities. It is perpetuated through the relentless creation and hype of false, artificial, or dramatically exaggerated "dangers", such as "Islamism", and the manufacturing of episodes of moral panic and outbursts of hysteria, often around feminine Islamic outfits.

The conspiracist pathologisation of Islamic normality. Here, perfectly normal phenomena, including natural transformations of western societies due to demographics and immigration - the transformation of urban space and of certain neighbourhoods, Islamic outfits in the streets, a mosque built next to a Catholic church, etc - are presented, in typical "Islamisation of Europe" conspiracist paranoia, as "provocations" and even signs of stealth Jihadism: hard evidence of a global ideological project of conquest to replace Europe by a vast Islamic caliphate. 

Normal and harmless cultural changes such as the opening of a mosque, an Islamic bookstore, and a halal butcher shop in the same neighbourhood are taken as evidence of a planned invasion through the construction of "Islamist ecosystems". Every routine and banal Islamic practice is further proof of a hostile takeover planned and coordinated from abroad by the usual suspects, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Qatar.  

Disciplining Muslims 

The securitisation of Islam and Muslims. While a "plotting" Muslim population is a false construct, this imaginary Islam narrative has serious political consequences. What Jocelyne Cesari named the securitisation of Muslims - exceptional political measures of a usually repressive type such as increased military presence and police controls, systematic surveillance of mosques, etc - stems from this perception of Islam as a threat, which pushes governments left, right and centre to treat the religion and those who practise it as primarily an "at-risk" population in need of surveillance and disciplining. 

A state of exception. The état d’exception, which strips Muslims of their fundamental rights using national security as a pretext, has crept into every area of life and affects other communities as well, while dramatically influencing and shaping public policy, culture and academic and intellectual life.

The weaponisation of democratic principles. To cover up this Islamophobic enterprise, fallacies and blatant lies are often spread about the nature of western political regimes and societies that routinely discriminate against Muslims.

France is a glaring example of a country and society that is often presented as "secular" - usually when Islam is being debated. Yet this is a misleading, if not false, claim. France is absolutely not secular, though it has a secular state, which is radically different. This means that the religious neutrality and the discretion rule applies only to the state and its official representatives, government workers and civil servants: public school teachers and administrators, judges, elected officials, etc.

But until the 15 March 2004 law banning religious signs, symbols and outfits from public schools, French laïcité in its religious neutrality aspect was never meant to target members of society, as that would have violated their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.

Enforcing this ban on schoolchildren, and now their parents, represents a grave falsification, a violation actually, of French secularism, including its foundational law of 1905 on the separation of the churches and the state.

Thus, what was originally a profoundly liberal, egalitarian, and emancipatory law meant to preserve major liberties, including freedom of religion for all, becomes corrupted and falsified beyond recognition into a profoundly illiberal, counterfeit, pseudo laïcité. Turned into what it is not - an Islamophobic weapon - by those who nonetheless claim to uphold it, it can then be used against Muslims.

Divide and punish

The 'good Muslim/bad Muslim' binary. Similar to the famous 1963 Malcolm X speech, this classic yet effective divide-and-conquer strategy, easily observable in media and politics, selects certain Muslims for their political obedience, docility, or servility to governments, characterises them as "moderate" and legitimate, then pits them against the critical ones. 

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The former are promoted, celebrated and paraded everywhere by politicians and media as role models of “integration” for other Muslims to emulate; their political quietism, passivity, or active support to governments is generously rewarded (appointments on government and official commissions, etc) while the latter become publicly vilified and labelled "radical", "extremist", "fundamentalists", "Islamists", their organisations banned on bogus pretexts, and their leaders and role models persecuted. The case of Tariq Ramadan is here emblematic. 

It is noteworthy that this divide-discipline-punish practice can be observed both outside the West, including in Muslim-majority countries, such as Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Pakistan as well as within western Muslim minorities.

Western double-standards. Examples of states subjecting Islam to a separate standard are numerous. In one instance, French President Emmanuel Macron and his Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin launched in 2021 their Charter of the Principles of French Islam, whose goal is to regulate and define not just the structure of the representation of Muslims in France and the internal functioning of mosques, but even Islamic creed and theology itself.

When they tried to force Muslim leaders, Islamic organisations and mosques to sign the document, they openly threatened with state repression anyone who would refuse. 

Only Islam was subjected to such a treatment because, unlike Catholicism or Judaism, it is perceived as a threat to be controlled and securitised, including by "reforming" Muslims. No other religious communities were asked to re-educate and reinterpret their faith or ordered to sign such "charters". Only Muslims.

The legalisation of Islamophobia. Islamophobic prejudices and stereotypes increasingly get codified and entrenched into repressive laws. France’s 2004 law against religious (read: Islamic) outfits in public schools or the recent "anti-Islamist separatism" bill, or Law Strengthening the Principles of the Republic serve here again as prototypes and models for other countries such as Canada, Switzerland or Belgium to emulate.

The specific articles targeting associations, private schools and homeschooling with the clear intention of making those options either extremely difficult or impossible are all based on false stereotypes of “radical” Muslim families brainwashing their children with sharia extremism or sports clubs having become a hotbed of Islamist radicalisation. 

Catch-22. An even more insidious strategy to corner Muslims in a lose-if-you-do, lose-if-you-don’t exclusionary situation consists of presenting them with a double paradoxical and insolvable obligation. On the one hand, they are prevented and even banned from engaging in political or even civic activism, which automatically labels them "Islamists" and hangs "political Islam" around their necks. On the other, they are regularly summoned to "make their voices heard" publicly, speak "more loudly", or demonstrate, as Muslims, for example, against Jihadists, whenever a terrorist attack is committed, or publicly oppose other Muslims (the "bad" ones above).

Hard power

If none of the above works, then governments have proven willing to use harsher forms of control, discipline and punishment. 

Guilt by association and collective punishment. Whenever an individual "Jihadist" attack is committed somewhere - anywhere - it is attributed to "Islam" and all Muslims are held responsible and called on to denounce it publicly. 

What we have here is a veritable neocolonial management of Islam and Muslims that is increasingly going global

There is no such collective blame for other faith communities, religions, or even for other types of terrorism.

Given this logic, it is hardly surprising that, for example, an entire mosque of 1,500 Muslims would be closed through mere executive decree on the sole basis that an attacker, himself unrelated to the mosque, had seen a Facebook video posted by one member of that mosque, which supposedly "incited" him to commit the attack.

What we have here is a veritable neocolonial management of Islam and Muslims that is increasingly going global. 

Each one of those strategies would be harmful to Muslims. But the ten of them combined can only be devastating.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Dr Alain Gabon is Associate Professor of French Studies and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, USA. He has written and lectured widely in the US, Europe and beyond on contemporary French culture, politics, literature and the arts and more recently on Islam and Muslims. His works have been published in several countries in academic journals, think tanks, and mainstream and specialized media such as Saphirnews, Milestones. Commentaries on the Islamic World, and Les Cahiers de l'Islam. His recent essay entitled “The Twin Myths of the Western ‘Jihadist Threat’ and ‘Islamic Radicalisation ‘” is available in French and English on the site of the UK Cordoba Foundation.
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