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Prime Minister Imran Khan has consistently raised the issue of Islamophobia in the world in general, and the West in particular. He even used the forum of the United Nations General Assembly to highlight the perils associated with singling out Islam and Muslims and holding them responsible for the spread of terrorism and extremism. In his numerous interviews with the international media outlets, PM Khan would also urge the world to take conscious steps to put an end to hate and marginaliation of Muslims based on their faith.
Islamophobia has existed in the Western world for as long as one can remember. However, it has taken the centre-stage in the last couple of decades, particularly post-9/11. The manner in which media, politicians and opinion-makers and think-tanks feed off each other has led to the normalisation of conversation around stereotyping and racial and religious profiling of a whole community. It is no more a fringe issue, since those peddling such narratives stand to benefit politically from their extreme positions.
In this article, we try to understand the phenomenon of Islamophobia from historical perspective and try to decipher how this explosive dynamic has shaped relations between Islam and the Western world.
One of the known aspects of popular nationalism that is raging across Australia, North America and much of Europe is the rejection of ‘other’. Anyone who has a different colour, practices a different religion and comes from another country is considered an alien who is not compatible with the Western way of life.
Report titled “Islamophobia: A challenge for us all,” published by the Runnymede Trust’s defined Islamophobia as an “unfounded hostility towards Islam’ and ‘the practical consequences of such hostility [result] in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities and to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs.”
In a unipolar world order after Western liberal democracy emerged as the victor and broader conversations centred on the clash of civilizations, the West has framed Islam and Muslims as significant ‘other’ that pose threats to Western democracy, institutions and the way of life. It has led to a pattern of commentary which is employed in political conversations and media portrayals via-á-vis Muslims.
It is not possible to explain the recent representations of Muslims in the Western media without studying the histories and patterns of Muslim immigration and settlement within the broader political, cultural and media discourses. The framing of Muslims as ‘uncivilized, uncultured and inefficient’ people is rooted in the medieval thoughts and the earlier notions of the Orientalism. Morey and Yaqin explain that the Christians regarded Islam as their main enemy by the 11th century. With the capture of Constantinople in 1453 by Muslims, this perception further intensified.
The majority of the Western mainstream opinion about Muslims is shaped by their representations in the Western media. When it comes to Muslims’ comparison with the West, the former is always regarded as ‘primitive’, ‘inferior’ and ‘uncouth’. The Western media’s representations of Islam and Muslims owe themselves to the colonial writings of the early European writers.
A number of scholars can be mentioned such as Norman Daniel, Richard Southern and more recently John Tolan whose respective works namely Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (1960), Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (1962) and Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (2002) study the Islamic history in the Western thought.
Tolan explains that the hostile treatment of Muslims by the Western media can be traced back to the earlier Christian writings, which are based on a mix of misinformation, ignorance and prejudice, a view that is gleaned from ‘feeling of rivalry, contempt and superiority’.
There was this reluctance to understand the core teachings of Islam that the Christian writers refused to accept Islam as belonging to Abrahamic faiths and described it as the law of Muhammad (PBUH). It is for this reason that they would refer to Muslims’ ethnic identity and describe them as Turks, Arabs or Moors. Earlier Christian writings, produced between the 7th and the 13th centuries, formed the reference point for the writers who followed until the 20th century.
In the worlds of Tolan, even those teachings that Islam shares with Christianity are distorted and blackened so as to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims, an act aimed at preventing the former from admiring anything about the latter. These approaches continue to be applied to the recent representation of Muslims by the Western media.
Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the first Gulf War, Muslims have been in the eye of the storm well before the catastrophic events of 9/11 happened. They were also linked to terrorism even before 9/11. It will not be wrong to say that the Western media tends to employ ‘limited and limiting conceptual framework’ around Islam in public discourse and the hostile view of Islam is ‘constantly promoted, and reinforced’.
The Western media’s obsession with extremism has led it to frame the fringe elements, i.e. fundamentalists, as the representatives of Islamic belief. No effort has been made to understand the mainstream Muslim opinion. Thus, those who get information from the mass media cannot be expected to develop a broad picture of Islam and Muslims. The statements and actions of the extremist minority group are used to define the millions of Muslims that live in 57 Muslim-majority countries.
The negative representation of Muslims is not just confined to the news media and analyses but fictional work, such as the movies, is also equally important to understand how Muslims are represented. Jack Shaheen (2003) reviewed 900 movies through her study Real Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and concluded that Muslims were shown as heartless, barbarians, fundamentalists and terrorists.
The peculiar manner in which the Western and the American media have projected Muslims, particularly after 9/11, preclude any possibility of developing a cultural understanding of Muslims. The message of fear propagated by media, day in and day out, has become part of the Western psyche. A survey by the Pew Research Centre in 2010 reported that 55% of the Americans stated that they knew nothing of Islam and only 9% said that they had a fair idea of the Islamic faith.
Various studies found that those who have more knowledge of Islam are less likely to form a negative opinion about it and vice versa. They are also in a better position to identify commonalities between Islam and other divine religions, mainly Christianity. This fact shows that audiences also actively consumed the media content and acceptance of the media influence depended on such factors as age, religion and ethnicity.
While the role of the media, including the social media in fostering Islamophobia is well recognised, there are far-right groups that spend massive resources on promoting Islamophobia. A report by the Centre for American Progress identified five individuals and their organisations who co-opted media and other partners to spread Islamophobia. The report claimed that seven organizations spent an amount of $40 million between 2001 and 2009 for this purpose.
Islamophobia has demonstrated itself in different forms such as hate speech, physical violence, racial profiling at the airports, and exclusion. The countries such as Australia have imported the anti-Muslim and Islamophobic discourses from the mainstream Western media.
In light of the above discussion, it can be concluded that the Western media has generated a peculiar perception of Muslims and the medieval writings inform this perception. Hence, ideologically driven images of Islam and Muslims are at the root of public opinion formation.
These images are central to understanding as to why Islamophobia remains deep-rooted in the Western world and why the media portrays Muslims as threats.
As the above discussion shows, Islamophobia is a real and present danger that is capable of further straining relations between the Muslim and the Western worlds. The instances of its spread in recent times are extremely worrying. This scourge does not just deepen Muslims’ isolation living in the West but also corrodes the values of pluralism, human rights and democracy that the West takes immense pride in.
The West and Islam cannot afford to let this issue become more gangrenous. There is an urgent need of opening up dialogue and engagement with a view to building bridges between both communities. The notion of Dialogue of Civilization needs to be replaced by Dialogue among Civilizations. It might appear to be a tall order given the vast gulf existing between the West and Muslim worlds.
How this feat can be pulled out will be taken up in this space some other time.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex and is a regular contributor to The News
Email:, Twitter: @Amanat222

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