Islamophobia, or irrational hostility to Islam and Muslims, bears some similarities with anti-Semitism. Because Islam and Islamic states constituted the main ideological and military rival to European Christian civilization as it developed between the seventh century CE and the modern era, European culture developed an acute hostility to Islam at an early date. At first, this took the form of religious polemics, many of which engaged in grotesque misrepresentations of Islam’s beliefs and of Muslims’ behavior, and attempted to discredit Islam by refuting the teachings of the Qur’an (Koran) or by ridiculing the figure of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad (d. 632 CE). Beginning in the late eleventh century, European Christian rulers and popes organized a series of “crusades,” or wars of aggression, against Muslim states of the Near East; their avowed goal was to reclaim the “Holy Land” from Muslim rulers, but powerful economic motives were also at play in many cases. In the early modern period, the long series of wars between the Ottoman empire and its European Christian neighbors, particularly against the Hapsburgs and others in the Balkans and against the Russians in the Crimea and the Caucasus, exacerbated European fear of, and animosity toward, Islam and Muslims.
Common polemical accusations against Islam and Muslims included the claim that Muhammad was an epileptic (the “spells” in which he is said by Islamic tradition to have received God’s revelations in this way being explained away), and that he and the faith he founded preached wanton licentiousness; both of these are efforts to discredit the religion of Islam by denigrating Islam’s founder. Other charges engage in distortions of Islamic beliefs; for instance, the accusation that Muslims worship an idol or “false god” named “Allah” misrepresents the fact that the word “Allah” is merely the Arabic word for “God,” refers to the same God revered in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as the creator of life and the world, and is used by Arabic-speaking Christians as well as Muslims). More complex is the charge that Islam is a “religion of violence” (often in implicit or explicit comparison with Christianity, taken by its advocates to stand for “peace”). This charge is rooted in the fact that various Muslim states, from the early caliphate in the seventh and eighth centuries to the Ottomans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, waged wars of expansion and, when successful, established a public order in which Islam was the “official” and dominant religion. But the “violence” at question seems more fundamentally a part of the process of state-expansion, not of the religion of Islam that was espoused by the rulers of these states. It is not clear, for example, that these cases of expansion by Muslim states are materially different from expansions by European states (for example, the colonial conquests of Britain, France, Russia, Spain, in many parts of the world). The expansion of Muslim states, like the Ottoman empire, were only very rarely accompanied by cases of forced conversion; the spread of Catholicism in Latin America at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores and their accompanying priests and friars probably involved considerably more forced conversion, but Catholicism is not therefore called a “religion of violence.” The old polemical mantra that Muslim warriors offered the vanquished only the stark choice of “conversion or the sword” is simply false, as Christians, Jews, and many others were also allowed to submit to the rule of the conquerors, as with any army.
Charges such as these, however, though often disproved, continue to resonate in the minds of many who remain ignorant of Islam’s basic teachings (monotheism, upright life in accordance with divine law, anticipation of the Last Judgment), which in many respects are not that different from those of Judaism and Christianity.
Islamophobia. Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
“Islamophobia.” CAIR- Council on American-Islamic Relations. Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
Fred M. Donner
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago
1. The author identifies the various stereotypes of Islamophobia and, in particular, those set against the context of a Christian society. He also alludes to the motivations behind such fear-mongering. What were/are some of these motives, and how can they be used politically by a state?
2. Apart from religious polemics organized by the state (crusades), the stereotypes Donner identifies in the second paragraph are interesting and demand greater examination. Using the stereotyping constructs that Donner cites as a guide, complete the chart below filling in the appropriate spaces.