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What is Islamophobia?

In this step, Dr Michael Munnik defines Islamophobia.
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Islamophobia is a key concept in understanding British Muslim communities, and it has an impact on how Muslims may experience mental health problems, as we shall see. First, however, we should start with what we mean by Islamophobia, a term much discussed in politics, the media and society. Not everyone agrees on what it means, whether it’s the right word or whether it exists at all. Discussions around its definition can get in the way of action that aims to identify and reduce the harm caused by Islamophobic attitudes, statements and behaviour. You can read more about that debate in the links provided.
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The word took off in the late 1990s after a report was published by the Runnymede Trust called Islamophobia A Challenge for Us All. The report didn’t invent the phrase it was already used by journalists and activists. Previously, discrimination was often characterized by race, class or gender. Yet increasingly, religion was the relevant factor I mentioned race, and I will come back to that idea. But first, what did the Runnymede Trust say about Islamophobia? The report defined it as a useful, shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam, and therefore to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims. This definition draws in both Islam, the religion, and Muslims, the people associated with that religion.
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The words dread or hatred and fear or dislike focus on attitudes and feelings which are difficult to regulate. Even if we agreed, that was a good thing to do. Attitudes also formed the core of the report. The report distinguishes between what it calls open and closed views of Islam. For example, closed views see Islam as monolithic, whereas open views see it as diverse. Closed views see Islam as inferior to the West, whereas open views see it as different but not deficient. Critics at the time said the focus on Islam rather than Muslims was a problem. An abstract religion can’t be harmed, but people can. For this reason, some prefer the term anti-Muslim prejudice.
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Some worry that it put critique of the religion out of bounds and limited their freedom of speech, or that it would prevent police and security from doing their job. One of the biggest critiques of the term was that phobia, or an irrational fear, was not the right term. It medicalised the concept of making it a psychological disorder, and that didn’t capture what was really of concern. The Runnymede Trust’s 1997 report addresses all these critiques. The report itself says the word is not ideal, but its flaws are not fatal. Homophobia, after all, is a term frequently used, though its everyday meaning doesn’t suggest a medical diagnosis. What’s important is how the word is defined, described and discussed.
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Most importantly, the word remains useful because, well, it is used especially by the people the term is trying to help. Robin Richardson, editor of the 1997 report, would later say the word Islamophobia has acquired legitimacy and emotional power among the people who are at the receiving end of anti-Muslim hostility and prejudice. A lot of effort has been put in improving the definition. Many newer attempts connect the term with racism. Scholars and activists note that the social behaviour against Muslims looks a lot like racism and the harms people suffer are like those suffered by victims of racism. You might reply that Islam is not a race. That’s correct. But these scholars suggest that Islam has been racialized alongside obvious Islamic markers.
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Women wearing headscarves or face veils, taking time off work to celebrate Muslim holidays such as Eil-al-Adha, declining food or drink during the days of Ramadan. There are more general markers, such as having brown skin or a Muslim sounding name. These are enough to inspire some people to spit at you in the street. Overlook you for a job you are applying for, or wrap rashers of bacon around your door handle. These are the kinds of actions associated with Islamophobia, and they revolve around what we’re coming to call Muslimness. You don’t even need to be Muslim, believe in God, or claim the religion as your own because of how others perceive you, you suffer these harms.
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This is why definitions connect Islamophobia with racism. In 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims proposed this definition. Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. Now, this definition needs a lot of understanding of racism and Muslimness, but it has been adopted by several political parties in Britain and the devolved regions as well as local councils, institutions such as universities and social groups. In the next step we can think about ways that Islamophobia can have an impact on mental health, not only for those who suffer it, but also the health care providers who offer support

In this step, Dr Michael Munnik defines Islamophobia.

Dr Munnik is a Senior Lecturer at The Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University.

You have already been introduced to Islamophobia as religious discrimination against Muslims in earlier activities. Islamophobia can be a risk factor for mental health problems when it is experienced in society. It can also be a barrier to seeking mental health support, if Muslims feel they might experience, or have previously experienced, Islamophobia in the spaces where mental health support is provided.

Islamophobia, like all forms of racial and cultural discrimination, is a sensitive topic and it can be difficult to talk about – both for those who have experienced Islamophobia, and for those who choose to reflect upon and question whether they hold negative stereotypes and assumptions about Muslims.

So, we begin this activity with Dr Munnik’s careful and balanced definition of Islamophobia and an outline of the debates around how the term is defined.

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