The origins of the term “Islamophobia”


by Sheila Musaji
One of the Islamophobic memes that appears regularly in the writing of Islamophobes is that the term Islamophobia itself was “deliberately invented” in the early 1990’s as part of a devious Muslim Brotherhood plot designed to shut down criticism of Islam.

An article by Robert Spencer is a case in point.  In How the term “Islamophobia” got shoved down your throat, he introduces an article by Clair Berlinski saying:

“I’ve maintained for years that the term “Islamophobia” was a politically manipulative coinage designed to silence critics of Islamic supremacism. Now Claire Berlinski explains how Islamic supremacists devised it for precisely that purpose.”

Berlinski claimed that according to a former employee of IIIT the word was made up at a meeting “years ago” in Virginia.  Berlinski said

In an effort to silence critics of political Islam, advocates needed to come up with terminology that would enable them to portray themselves as victims. Muhammad said he was present when his then-allies, meeting at the offices of the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Northern Virginia years ago, coined the term “Islamophobia.”  …  “Now here’s a point you might deeply consider: The neologism “Islamophobia” did not simply emerge ex nihilo. It was invented, deliberately, by a Muslim Brotherhood front organization, the International Institute for Islamic Thought, which is based in Northern Virginia.”

In another article co-written with David Horowitz, Spencer says:

“On examination, the term “Islamophobia” is designed to create a modern-day thought crime, while the campaign to suppress it is an effort to abolish the First Amendment where Islam is concerned. The purpose of the suffix – phobia — is to identify any concern about troubling Islamic institutions and actions as irrational, or worse as a dangerous bigotry that should itself be feared.”


This information seems to have originated with Muhammad’s article on Emerson’s site and then been widely spread by the Islamophobia Echo Chamber.  Not only Spencer but also Eliana Benador **, and Pamela Geller **, Andrew McCarthy **, and many others promoted and spread this claim.  Spencer and Horowitz, not content with simply writing articles pushing this meme, published a booklet titled Islamophobia: Thought Crime of the Totalitarian Future.

An article on Discover the Networks repeats all of this and adds information narrowing down the date when this “coining” supposedly took place.  They say: “the term was coined in the early 1990s” but they give no source for that bit of “information”.

This Abdur-Rahman Muhammad himself wrote an article on Steven Emerson’s site saying that

“That’s the reason why the question of whether America is “Islamophobic” – now bandied about so casually, as though opposition to the mosque has revealed a nasty strain in the American psyche, akin to the terrible racism or anti-Semitism that once ran wild – is so deeply offensive. This loathsome term is nothing more than a thought-terminating cliche conceived in the bowels of Muslim think tanks for the purpose of beating down critics.”

Caner Dagli wrote an article Did the Muslim Brotherhood invent the term “Islamophobia”? in which he said

Today in NRO Andrew McCarthy writes:

“Islamophobia” was coined by the Muslim Brotherhood and seamlessly adopted by its Western confederates.

One of the common means by which the anti-Muslim agitators like to undercut attempts to expose them is to pretend that the term “Islamophobia” was invented by nefarious Muslims. In so doing they hope to create the impression that the actual phenomenon is simply imaginary.

The term was used by the Runnymede Trust in the U.K. back in 1992, in a report entitled A Very Light Sleeper, which then led to a report, also by Runnymede, entitled, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, in 1997. Christopher Allen points out that it was used in the U.S. in Insight in 1991, but somewhat differently from the way the term is employed today.

The single piece of evidence that Islamophobes cite that “the Muslim Brotherhood” coined this term comes from the personal recollection of one Abdur Rahman Muhammad:

…  That quote comes from CT huckster Stephen Emerson‘s website. Let us assume that this account is completely true. Even on this man’s account, IIIT decided to make use of the term “Islamophobia”, like many have in the last decade. Note the absence of a date, or any kind of corroboration. Also note that IIIT is not the Muslim Brotherhood. And note that the term pre-dates 9/11 by almost ten years.

…  Of course, it is only one small detail in the overall paranoia-inducing fantasy that all (that is, every last one) of the mainstream American Muslim organizations are “fronts” for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Robin Richardson at the University of Birmingham in the UK wrote a scholarly article on the term Islamophobia that shows that this word has been used for much longer than Caner Dagli was aware of, in fact, since at least 1916.  Here is what he wrote in the section on the history of the word

The word Islamophobia was presumably coined on an analogy with xenophobia, but exactly when and where and by whom, and with what particular purposes and concerns and subject-matter in mind, is not certain. The first known use of the French word Islamophobie appeared in a book by Alphonse Etienne Dinet, a painter who was a convert to Islam, written in 1916 and published some two years later. [1]  In an English version of his book, the word was translated as ‘feelings inimical to Islam’, not as Islamophobia. Dinet’s biographer, Denise Brahimi, used it in 1984 as if it was now established and accepted. The first use in English in print appears to have been in an article by Edward Said in 1985. [2]

The next recorded use of the word in English was in an American journal in February 1991, referring to anti-Muslim hostility in the former Soviet Union. [3] In the UK the word occurred in a book review by Tariq Modood in The Independent on 16 December 1991.

Modood used the term twice, but on neither occasion with the implication it needed explanation or definition, or that it was his own coining. It did not appear in the book he was reviewing, Sacrilege and Civility: Muslim perspectives on The Satanic Verses affair, published by the Islamic Foundation, Leicester.

In October 2003 the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences in the UK was informed in oral evidence that the word had first been coined by Dr Zaki Badawi, at that time principal of the Muslim College in London, or else by Fuad Nahdi, founding director of the magazine Q News. [4] The date of the coining by either of these would have been the late 1980s. The context would have included the campaigns led by MuslimWise, the predecessor of Q News, and by the An-Nisa Society, a community organisation based in Brent in north-west London, to counter anti-Muslim hostility not only in society at large but also, and more especially, amongst people working in the field of race relations. The latter included the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) nationally and race equality councils locally; also it included race equality officers and units in local authorities. All these were perceived to be insensitive and indifferent to the distinctive forms of ignorance, intolerance, discrimination and violence experienced by Muslims.

Years later, the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia suggested that the failure of the CRE to take serious account of Islamophobia was itself an example of institutional Islamophobia. More recently, the legal term ‘discrimination on grounds of religion or belief’ seems to reflect and reinforce a failure to understand and recognise the specificities of Islamophobia.

The word has increasingly been used since about 2000 in the deliberations and publications of international organisations, including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA, previously the European Monitoring Centre, EUMC)) and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The word is now widely used in the UK media, though occasionally it still appears in inverted commas, to imply the meaning is not clear, or – in the author’s view – not as clear as others claim. A further implication of the inverted commas is that there is in reality no such thing as Islamophobia: it is merely the figment of a paranoid or politically motivated imagination; or constructed out of a desire to perpetuate a siege mentality and sense of victimhood amongst Muslims, or to put an end to legitimate criticism, or to engage in lazy abuse. [5]

Incidentally, the word is much commoner in Europe than in the United States. In 2007 it was used hundreds of times in The Guardian but on only twenty-six occasions in the New York Times. [6]

All of this casts serious doubt on the allegation that the term Islamophobia was coined in the early 90’s by the Muslim Brotherhood in a IIIT meeting in Virginia.

Laila Lalami in the article Islamophobia and its discontents made two important points regarding the term and the claims that it is meant to shut down debate, or that its recent coinage somehow undermines the reality of what it describes:

… None of this is to suggest that ideas should not be debated, still less ideas about Islam. But if you are opposed to specific religious edicts—retrograde blasphemy laws, say, or unfair divorce laws—then why not say you oppose them? Folding distinct issues under the banner term “Islam”—a term that covers an entire religion, a geographical region and countless individual cultures—is imprecise and maybe even useless. By all means, denounce fatwas on free speech, speak out against misogyny, criticize hateful practices. But don’t deny that Muslims, too, defend free speech; that they, too, fight for equality; and that they, too, can be victims of hate. Muslims are just like you. Incredible? No, just true.

…  The fact that Islamophobia is a recently coined term—or an “invention,” to use Harris’s language—should not be taken as evidence that it refers to a nonexistent pathology. The word “homophobia” was coined in the 1950s, but I doubt anyone would seriously claim that antipathy toward—and discrimination against—gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people did not exist before then. It seems to me that as Muslims have become more visible in American society, the fear and contempt for them, which used to be expressed in private, are now being promoted on the front pages of newspapers and on cable news talk-shows. Perhaps that was why a neologism was needed.

Islamophobia is a useful term that has become mainstream.  Time magazine featured a cover story with the bold headline Is America Islamophobic?, The Nation ran an entire series on Islamophobia with the cover headline Islamophobia: Anatomy of an American Panic.  So the word is now common usage.

In another section of Robin Richardson’s previously mentioned article on the term Islamophobia titled “Objections to the term Islamophobia”, he says after discussing these various objections:

Despite its disadvantages, the term Islamophobia looks as if it is here to stay – it cannot now be discarded from the lexicon. So the task is to define as clearly as possible what one means by it, and does not mean, and to complement or replace it with other terms when appropriate. It is helpful to recall in this respect that it is recognisably similar to terms such as homophobia, xenophobia and europhobia, none of which imply mental illness, and that it not infrequently happens, in the history of language, that words are coined that are less than ideal. The word antisemitism, for example, is grammatically nonsensical since there is no such thing as semitism; and in any case not all Jewish people are so-called Semites, nor are all so-called Semitic people Jewish. [9] The word has been around long enough now (about 150 years), however, for it to be generally accepted as unproblematic. The same kind of acceptance is apparently being accorded to Islamophobia, despite the problems and disadvantages outlined above.

Of course, Islamophobes claim that Islamophobia doesn’t exist or that fear of Muslims is “reasonable”, or come up with other demonstrably false “defenses” for their hatred.   They will even attempt to turn reason on it’s head and claim that their pathological hatred is an expression of “love for Muslims”.   In fact, SIOE, the parent group of Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), Spencer & Geller’s hate group has as its motto “Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense.”   Rational and legitimate concerns are not the same as bigoted stereotypes and this is clear to anyone who is not blinded by hatred.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah in the article Islamophobia: Orwellian ‘Doublespeak’ ? notes that

… Islamophobia, as a term, is required to refer to precisely these cases where ‎the focus of abuse is a projected understanding of what someone stands ‎for based on their being identified as Muslim. New forms of discrimination ‎avoid the crude biological markers of racial stereotyping and have been ‎replaced with a focus on cultural differences, real or imagined, to ‎rationalize the unequal status and treatment of different racial groups.

…  Islamophobia is only unclear to those who seek to obfuscate its meaning. It ‎is the tendency to reify Islam – that is to assume the behaviour of given ‎individuals (typically extremists) reflects an accurate concretisation of the ‎principles of the faith itself, and it is the tendency to view its practitioners, ‎Muslims, as a monolithic block, whose every behaviour is a consequence of ‎that essentialised identity.‎
Rather than investigating and investing in countering rape culture, we ‎claim the ‘muslimhood’ of particular rapists is to blame, absolving popular ‎culture when the men themselves refer to the victims using the popular ‎playground put down “slags”. We regularly see ‘Islam’ used as a catch-all ‎phrase to explain complex phenomena, distracting us from the real issues.

…  Just as minarets or or face veils have become imbued with a significance ‎beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination ‎against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the ‎fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, in ‎a way people don’t choose their ethnicity. We don’t choose the significance ‎people attribute to our symbols – especially when we have so little access ‎to defining them ourselves. We have no choice in the stereotypes and ‎assumptions people make on the basis of our skin colour, nor do we have a ‎choice in those stereotypes concerning the symbols which people interpret ‎according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural ‎incompatibility. ‎

John Mullen of France’s radical left-wing Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has ‎argued that “opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive ‎values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism.” It is time the ‎Left take a stronger and clearer stance against islamophobia and stop ‎giving the Right free rein to dictate the terms of European interaction with ‎Muslims based on misplaced and ill-informed assumptions about Islam ‎and Muslims.‎

The struggle against islamophobia is the struggle for a nuanced and ‎contextualised appraisal of events involving Muslims, a refusal to accept ‎that everything can be explained away through a facile reference to ‘Islam’ ‎and a defence of a European minority group. There is nothing Orwellian ‎about that.

The Islamophobes must engage in mental gymnastics by denying that Islamophobia exists, or arguing about the terminology used to describe it, in order to avoid looking in the mirror and seeing that what they are actually promoting is prejudice and bigotry, no matter what term is used to describe that prejudice.  And, for individuals like Spencer, some of whose public statements have been compared to those of Julius Streicher, the Nazi propagandist, attempting to deny even the existence of such prejudice is even more understandable.

There is a reason that many, even outside of the Muslim community see such demonization of Muslims as Islamophobic.  There is a reason that the ADL has stated that Brigitte Gabriel’s Act for America, Pamela Geller & Robert Spencer’s Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), David Yerushalmi’s Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE)  are “groups that promote an extreme anti-Muslim agenda”.  There is a reason that The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated SIOA as a hate group, and that they are featured in the SPLC reports Jihad Against Islam and The Anti-Muslim Inner Circle.  There is a reason that Geller and Spencer are featured prominently in the Center for American Progress “Fear Inc.” report on the Islamophobia network in America.  There is a reason that Geller is featured in the People for the American Way Right Wing Playbook on Anti-Muslim Extremism.  There is a reason that Geller is featured in the NYCLU report Religious Freedom Under Attack:  The Rise of Anti-Mosque Activities in New York State.  There is a reason that Geller is featured in the Political Research Associates report Manufacturing the Muslim menace: Private firms, public servants, and the threat to rights and security.  There is a reason that the SIOA’s trademark patent was denied by the U.S. government due to its anti-Muslim nature.  There is a reason that they are featured in our TAM Who’s Who of the Anti-Muslim/Anti-Arab/Islamophobia Industry.  There is a reason that these individuals are featured in just about every legitimate report on Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred.

These people consistently promote the what everyone “knows” lies about Islam and Muslims.  They generalize specific incidents to reflect on all Muslims or all of Islam.   When they are caught in the act of making up or distorting claims they engage in devious methods to attempt to conceal the evidence.

The claim that “truth tellers” are being accused of Islamophobia for no reason other than their legitimate concerns about real issues and that in fact there is not even such a thing as Islamophobia is nonsense.  The further claim that the fact that there are fewer hate crimes against Muslims than against Jews also proves that Islamophobia doesn’t exist is more nonsense.

The reason that this is so obvious to so many is that rational people can tell the difference between legitimate concerns and bigoted stereotypes.   The Islamophobia of these folks is very real, and it is also strikingly similar to a previous generations’ anti-Semitism. SEE ALSO: Islamophobia & Anti-Semitism:  Everything Old Is New Again, Sheila Musaji Islamophobia Can Be A Useful Term, Sheila Musaji

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