Islamophobia isn’t anything new and the idea that it started after 9/11 is wrong. It actually has a long history.
According to author and academic Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia goes back to the 11th century when the Papacy vilified Islam to mobilise for the crusades. The vatican, according to Kumar, was “horrified” that Islam allowed men to have four wives, allowed for divorce and allowed divorced women to remarry; they saw this as a type of promiscuity and put forward the idea that Muhammad was a sexual deviant, false prophet and Islam a false religion. These ideas, according to Kumar, “have been resuscitated by the far right.”
19th Century Europeans circulated the idea that Muslim women are oppressed and Muslim men are misogynistic (which, unfortunately, is often true) – although Islam promotes equal rights between the sexes.
Lord Cromer, who oversaw the British occupation of Egypt in the 1880’s, said Islam stultified the lives of women – and saw it as his job to emancipate them, or so he said.
Slightly more recently, John Buchan’s Greenmantle, published in 1916 and probably read by every English schoolboy over the following twenty years, dealt with a terrible threat to civilizasion: the threat of “resurgent Islam.”
Islamophobia has obviously been used through0ut history – and still is today – for power and politics. But there could be another reason why Islamophobia – a term which became mainstream after 9/11 – has become so widespread.
A theological response
According to Roger Hardy, the BBC’s 25-year Islamic affairs and Middle East expert, there is a “real poverty of basic knowledge [of Islam] that is not hard to find”. He also says there are three things which cause Islamophobia: “Ignorance, prejudice and fear.”
But what is it about Islam that people fear?
The fear and ignorance of Islam are inextricably intertwined: the fear results in ignorance, and ignorance results in fear.
But, theologically, there could be one more component for the pedalling of Islamophobia by the right wing media, politicians, atheists, fundamentalist Christians, Jews and others.
Mohammed Ansar, a Muslim political and social commentator, who regards Holland as his friend, recently said: “Tom [Holland] has a difficulty, which a lot of western, modern historians have. Which is: how can you explain that the Quran – which is revealed in the middle of a desert to a nomad people where Christianity and Judaism is not a big influential part of culture and society, where society is driven by idolatry – has such significance and creates the world’s greatest empire at the time, how can you explain that? So Tom [Holland] is searching for answers to help him believe that he shouldn’t be muslim.”
The Quranic word “kaffir” which is often, unashamedly, thrown around by Muslims, is generally translated as “disbeliever” or, fallaciously by the media as “infidel”. (Infidel, ironically, is actually a Christian term). Linguistically, the root word for kaffir refers to someone who “covers something” and this is why, in Sachiko Murata and William Chittick’s classic book The Vision of Islam, they translate the word as “ungrateful, truth-concealing.”
Is this perhaps one of the main reasons for Islamopobia? Are people too scared to admit to themselves that there is a good possibility that Islam is not a bunch of fairy tales and might be a divinely inspired religion? It would certainly explain a lot of the internet troll’s behaviour who vociferously criticise Islam as if their life depended on it. Indeed, the Quranic idea is that when people are confronted with the truth, they often cover it up with disbelief. Some, for example, will spend all their energy ridiculing Islam maybe because they don’t want to concede that Islam is what it says it is: a divinely inspired religion.
Journalist Matthew Parris poignantly said in an article in The Spectator that: “If I seriously suspected a faith might be true, I would devote my life to finding out.”