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  • Islamophobia
  • Miriam F. Elman (bio)

Over the 2018 Labor Day weekend, the Islamic Society of North America (INSA) held its 55th national conference where, as with its gatherings in prior years, "Islamophobia" was a major topic of discussion. According to media reports of the convention, some speakers "linked Islamophobia's origins to white supremacy" while others expressed the view that condemning honor crimes in Muslim-majority societies—violence directed against women by their families in order to spare the family's "honor"—should be considered as a form of "liberal Islamophobia".1

Also, significantly broadening the concept of Islamophobia at this year's INSA conference was adjunct professor of law Amer Zahr, who equated criticism of Palestinian governmental authorities and the prevailing public opinions in Gaza and the West Bank—including official incitement and the glorification of violence and support for violence and terrorism within Palestinian society,2 as manifestations of anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice. Specifically, Zahr reportedly claimed that "For 70 years the proIsrael lobby has been saying things like 'the Palestinians teach their children to hate.' That's a form of Islamophobia. That they send themselves out to kill people. That is a form of Islamophobia."3

I argue that Zahr, and others at the INSA conference, who used the term Islamophobia as a blanket label to condemn any criticism of Palestinian leaders or society are engaging in a form of conceptual stretching that social scientist Giovanni Sartori long warned against. In this instance, the conceptual stretching of the term—applying Islamophobia to cases for which it is not appropriate—has generated a discourse in which increasingly any criticism of Palestinian governing agencies or societal actors is interpreted as an expression of genuine anti-Muslim or anti-Islam prejudice. In addition, due to this conceptual stretching, the writings of those supportive of the Palestinian cause, including work that may adopt a virulent anti-Israel narrative or even traffic in antisemitic canards and tropes, becomes immunized from criticism because it is those who are raising the charge of antisemitism who are cast as hopelessly bigoted. [End Page 144]

I highlight the ways in which the concept of Islamophobia has been "stretched" in recent years and provide several examples of how it now serves as a vehicle for discrediting and discounting the work of scholars and activists who seek to expose vehemently anti-Israel discourses. I argue that the unhelpful way in which Islamophobia is today wielded as a blunt cudgel to stifle critical analyses of Palestinian politics hinders the potential for peace by undermining the capacity for scholars and practitioners to effectively focus attention on the urgent need for Palestinian societal and governmental reforms. In addition, this conceptual stretching makes it more difficult to identify and address genuine instances of Islamophobia.


The term "Islamophobia" is today a widely used concept in both public and scholarly domains, but it's important to note that it has had a long pedigree. French colonial administrators, for example, were criticized with the use of the word islamophobie for their treatment of Muslim subjects.4 Sanjeev Kumar discusses how the West long viewed the Muslim world as a menace and a "problem for Christian Europe" and "looked at Muslims with a mixture of fear and bewilderment".5 Reflecting on bigotry and discrimination directed towards Muslims in the United States, including the codifying of the image of a fanatical and dangerous Middle East, Erik Love remarks that "Islamophobia" is the latest term for a centuries-long history of American state policy, cultural discourses, and discriminatory practices that enforce racial boundaries around Middle Easterners in America.6

Many note that today's anti-Muslim discourse is a "phenomenon of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries", fueled largely by the unprecedented movement of millions of Muslims to Europe and to other parts of the Western world.7 It is in this contemporary time period that a biased projection of Islam as a violent religion has worked to brand Muslims as "terrorists, traitors, non-democrats and threats to social cohesion and global peace".8

The contemporary popularization of...


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pp. 144-156
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