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date: 23 July 2019

Summary and Keywords

“Islamophobia” is a modern word for a prejudice that dates back to the Middle Ages and that permeates Western societies in the 21st century. It refers to the fear of and hostility toward Muslims and Islam, as well as the discriminatory, exclusionary, and violent practices arising from these attitudes that target Muslims and those perceived as Muslims. Islamophobia is best understood as a form of cultural racism that instigates animosity based on religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and ethnicity.

The historical roots of Islamophobia are found in the political rivalries between Islamic empires and European Christian kingdoms and empires dating back to the Middle Ages. During this period, both Christians and Muslims depicted one another in unflattering terms, conceiving of the other religion as inferior and a distortion of God’s true revelation.

By the 19th century, European empires gained the upper hand in this rivalry and imposed some form of colonial rule across vast swaths of the Muslim-majority world. To justify imperial expansion, Europeans developed Orientalist narratives that frequently cast Islam as a backward, uncivilized, and barbaric religion, at odds with European civilization. This narrative found new life as a “clash of civilizations” framework was deployed after the Cold War and particularly after the 9/11 attacks to explain both the rise in Islamist terrorism and to justify ongoing Western military intervention in Muslim-majority regions under the guise of the War on Terror.

Islamophobia is exacerbated by the fact that Muslims often lack the power to control the narrative of Islam in the modern West. What most non-Muslims “know” about Islam often comes from one of two sources: the mass media, which frames Muslims primarily through the lens of terrorism and violence; and a professional Islamophobia network, a cadre of right-wing bloggers, activists, authors, and politicians who make a living demonizing and dehumanizing Muslims.

Decades if not centuries of Islamophobia have had a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of Muslims living in the West. Since 9/11, Muslims have been subject to intrusive government surveillance and profiling programs, detentions and deportations, registration systems, hate crimes, and infringements on freedom of religion in the form of antisharia laws, hijab and full-face veil bans, and localized and political resistance to the building of mosques and minarets.

Keywords: Islamophobia, racism, Islam, Orientalism, colonialism, clash of civilizations, War on Terror

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