Ever since the UK-based think tank the Runnymede Trust published the report Islamophobia: A Challenge for us All in 1997, the phenomenon and concept of Islamophobia has been widely discussed and debated by scholars and journalists alike. There are supporters of the term as well as stern critics. One of the most active scholars in these discussions has been Chris Allen, at the University of Birmingham, UK. Soon after the atrocities of 9/11, Allen co-authored the Summary Report on Islamophobia in the EU after 11 September 2001 with Jorgen S. Nielsen (University of Copenhagen), and since then he has published a number of articles and book contributions on the subject. In 2006 he defended his PhD thesis entitled Islamophobia: Contested Concept in the Public Space. His most recent book, simply entitled Islamophobia, without any subtitle, must be comprehended as a summing up of more than ten years of research on the subject.
Sitting in Sweden, I was asked to review Allen's book just months after Anders Behring Breivik blew up parts of central Oslo, including government buildings, killing eight persons before going on to shoot sixty-nine young Social Democrats by hand at the nearby island of Utøya. Just hours before the killings Breivik published a more than 1,500 pages long 'manifesto' which in itself can be said to summarize the central claims and ideas of the islamophobic discourse. It is inevitable that this influences my reading of Allen's book, even though it was written and published before these acts of terror.
Chris Allen's Islamophobia can roughly be split in two parts; first comes an empirical section stretching between chapters 1 and 7, discussing the term per se, Christian-European images of, and relations to, Islam and Muslims in past and present, and a number of events which makes up the case that is analyzed and defined in the second section of the book. The last four chapters of the book are more theoretical in character and here is where Allen presents his own [End Page 216] definition of the concept, based on the findings and considerations presented in the preceding chapters.
The material presented and analyzed is taken from a European context, with a strong focus on the UK and Western Europe. After scrutinising historical images and ideas of Islam and Muslims in the West, Allen concludes that islamophobia is to be considered a contemporary phenomenon, even though a number of its building blocks borrow from historical narratives. Following a brief discussion of the origin of the term, he uses the Runnymede report as a starting point for the general discussion on islamophobia, as well as for his own investigation. He disposes two whole chapters (four and five) to deconstruct and criticise the Runnymede report, and much of his later discussions, as well as his own attempt at a definition, relate to it as well.
Allen's critique of the report is, if not new or original, thorough and convincing. A main merit of his book is that Allen is methodical and meticulous in each step of his argumentation, showing how and why he believes some argumentation or definition is flawed or weak, rather than just pointing out he believes it is so. He scrutinizes the Runnymede report's failure to differ between ethnic-cultural background and religion, as well as between racism and what will later be defined as islamophobia. Following Fred Halliday he also turns against the report's classification of 'open' and 'closed' attitudes towards Islam and Muslims, which, he claims, forces people into being either 'islamophobes' or 'islamophiles'.
As 'closed' and 'open' are largely interchangeable with 'negative' and 'positive' [. ..] the assumption must be that the report suggests that Islam be both understood and engaged with 'openly' or indeed 'positively', irrespectively of whether any 'closed' or 'negative' realities exist to the contrary.(74)
In this critique, two of the most important constituents of Allen's own definition can be detected, the need for a definition which avoids 'essentialising' Islam or Muslims, as well as a...