A manufactured prejudice

Explainer, Keywords / Monday, February 19th, 2024

The 7 October 2023 Hamas attack on Israel — a trauma described as Israel’s 9/11 — has triggered another wave of Islamophobia. This prejudice predisposes people to blame the collective for the crimes of a few. CHERIAN GEORGE explains its features and its sources. (Also see: “antisemitism”)


Islamophobia is a term that describes an irrational fear and hostility toward Muslims that is cultivated by anti-Muslim groups. While it is not unusual for people to harbour some negative sentiments toward religions that differ from their own beliefs, contemporary Islamophobia goes beyond natural prejudices. It is hate propaganda manufactured by well-funded networks and amplified by politicians and media. This Islamophobia industry has been well documented in India, Europe, and the United States.

Historically, anti-Muslim hate was generated in medieval Europe as war propaganda in support of the military campaigns known as the Crusades. Like the propaganda produced to justify imperialism and settler colonialism in Asia, Africa and the Americas in later centuries, the goal was to portray the natives and their belief-systems as inferior — uncivilised, barbaric, even sub-human — thus justifying their subjugation by superior nations. These themes entered literature, art, and even academic disciplines.

The modern Islamophobia industry builds on these foundations. It extrapolates from the violent extremism of some Muslim groups to taint Muslims in general. Muslims make up around one-quarter of the world’s population and, like other faith groups, they are diverse in their interpretations of their holy texts and their ways of life. However, the Islamophobia industry quotes from the Quran selectively, literally, and anachronistically to support claims that Islam requires its followers to be intolerant and murderous; that because Muslims regard Islam as a holistic way of life, they are unable to accept the authority of modern democratic states; and that they dream of global domination under an Islamic caliphate applying shariah law. Some of this disinformation has been normalised, resulting in government leaders, security agencies and ordinary citizens believing that growing religiosity among Muslims (unlike among other faith groups) can only be threatening to peace and harmony in a multireligious society. An extreme example of this is China’s collective punishment of Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps for “re-education”. By promoting caricatured views of Muslim communities, Islamophobia gets in the way of addressing complex social, economic and political problems.

In many multicultural societies where Muslims live as a minority, Islamophobia merchants face pushback from the law and society. They have responded with creative new talking points. In the United States, where strong First Amendment protections for religious freedom limit the harm they can do, Islamophobes have tried to argue that Islam is not a religion at all but a violent political ideology, and therefore not protected by the constitution. Even when unsuccessful, such legal arguments contribute to rising Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim groups in Europe and India, meanwhile, have portrayed Muslims as a threat to the personal safety of women and girls. Far-right European groups pump out disinformation about Muslims (and other brown and black migrants and refugees) as sexual predators and rapists. In India, the rampant “love jihad” conspiracy theory claims that young Muslim men are seducing and converting Hindu girls as a part of plot to turn India into a Muslim country one heart at a time.

In the United States, the core of the Islamophobia industry comprises a small number of self-styled misinformation experts funded by right-wing foundations. These experts generate key talking points, often backed by pseudo-intellectual but easily debunked reports citing theology, dubious opinion polls, and distorted news reports. Their theories are picked up and amplified by right-wing media such as Fox News and Christian talk radio, as well as by politicians. Because of the way online information is presented and consumed, Islamophobic content benefits from a kind of information laundering — it mixes freely with more trustworthy content on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and TikTok as well as messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, such that some of the disinformation gets mainstreamed.

American Islamophobia industry players’ motivations vary. Some have deep antipathy toward Islam because of their direct personal experience of persecution by intolerant Muslim groups or states. Some follow apocalyptic branches of Christian theology telling them that Islam is a force for evil whereas Israel must be supported in the run-up to the end times. Islamophobia is also helpful to Zionists since it helps to undermine the Palestinian cause. However, many American purveyors of Islamophobia may be more opportunistic than ideological, since constructing us-them enmities (whether the enemies are Muslims, Mexicans, Asians, or trans people) is a proven formula for populist mobilisation.

Islamophobia’s most productive and potent manufacturing hub is currently India. Hindu nationalists have found it politically expedient to construct Islam as the “Other” against whom Hindus of different castes can unify behind the (traditionally upper-caste) Bharatiya Janata Party. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s tightening grip on democratic institutions means that, despite the existence of strict hate speech laws, mainstream television news talking heads and speakers at political rallies spout anti-Muslim hate with impunity (sometimes behind the thin veil of anti-Pakistan jingoism). Multiple human rights monitors in India and beyond have warned that Islamophobic rhetoric has been crossing the line into genocidal speech, with open calls for the removal of Muslims. However, India’s perceived value as a geopolitical and economic partner has meant that most countries, including in the Middle East, have tended to look the other way.

Decades of lobbying by Muslim nations to control Islamophobia by prohibiting “defamation of religions” under international law (a proposal that Singapore supported) failed because of concerns that it would legitimate the use of blasphemy laws to persecute religious minorities. In any case, determined Islamophia merchants (like other hatemongers) may be largely censor-proof — they are adept at turning the tables on their accusers. Indeed, they frequently bait Muslims and their socially progressive supporters through deliberate insults. Any extreme reaction by Muslims is then seized on as evidence that the religion is inherently violent. When ruled offside by the courts, politicians or the media, Islamophobia merchants harness the accusations to allege that the establishment has been influenced by Muslim lobbies, or blinded by political correctness. Thus, when the Barack Obama administration refused to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” — to avoid associating Islam with terrorism — a common retort in far-right circles was that the administration was penetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Europe, far-right groups greet attempts to censor anti-Muslim hate speech as a public relations windfall, allowing them to claim that mainstream parties care more about multiculturalism than rape victims. Such claims contribute to the larger populist message that people need to turn to plain-speaking strongmen, since they cannot trust the establishment to protect them.

While it is impossible to eradicate Islamophobia, Muslim community activists and other human rights defenders have had some success in confining its worst manifestations to the fringes. These efforts include getting search engines to relegate Islamophobic websites while promote more reliable sources; sensitising mainstream journalists to the manipulative techniques of hate merchants; and improving interfaith understanding, such as by holding cross-cultural events in mosques.

— By Cherian George, Professor, School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University