Although the concept of Islamophobia might at first sight seem straightforward it is anything but. If it simply referred to hatred directed against Muslims there would be no problem with the label. In fact it unhelpfully lumps together anti-Muslim racism with criticism of Islam as a religion and condemnation of Islamism as a political movement. As a result it confuses political debate rather than clarifying it. It also, paradoxically, ends up patronising Muslims themselves.

Today is the United Nations (UN) International Day to Combat Islamophobia as designated by the UN General Assembly last year. So it is a good time to unpack the concept.

The UN Human Rights Council’s working definition of Islamophobia runs as follows: “A fear, prejudice and hatred of Muslims or non-Muslim individuals that leads to provocation, hostility and intolerance by means of threatening, harassment, abuse, incitement and intimidation of Muslims and non-Muslims, both in the online and offline world. Motivated by institutional, ideological, political and religious hostility that transcends into structural and cultural racism which targets the symbols and markers of [a] being a Muslim.”

Despite the cumbersome wording it should be clear on close inspection that at least three disparate elements are apparent. The first is the reference to the hatred of Muslims (the odd reference to non-Muslims apparently applies to those mistaken as Muslim). Then there is the mention of religious hostility. Finally, there is the reference to the ideology and politics of Islamophobes. Targeting the symbols and markers of Islam is also thrown in.

Most would probably agree that hatred directed against Muslims is despicable. Of course in a free society it should be possible to express bigoted views but those who do so should be roundly rebuked. And acts of violence directed against any religious group should be met with the full force of the law.

Criticising any religious belief system is another matter. From the 17th century onwards the importance of religious freedom began to be recognised. To be sure those who supported religious tolerance were sometimes inconsistent. For example, John Locke, one of the first great proponents of tolerance, is often accused of making Catholicism an exception.

The flip side of religious freedom is the ability to criticise other religions. This includes the freedom to talk about other religions in a way that its adherents might find unpleasant or even offensive. Even so religious freedom is an essential element in a free society.

Finally, the least well understood element of this discussion relates to Islamism as a religionised form of politics. That is as opposed to Islam as a religion. This key distinction is obscured in the definition’s convoluted wording; an all too common problem in this discussion. As Olivier Roy, a leading French expert on Islamism, has argued, Islamism represents the Islamisation of radicalism rather than the radicalism of Islam. In other words, it is an extreme form of radical politics expressed in Islamic language rather than a form of religious extremism.

As a movement it first emerged in Egypt in 1928 with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the Islamic rhetoric, Islamism is strongly influenced by some of the most backward forms of European thought. For example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious Russian anti-Semitic forgery first published in 1903, has been long favoured by Islamists. Indeed anti-Semitism has been central to Islamism since its inception.

Islamism includes, but is not restricted to, Jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. There are also ‘participationist’ or ‘Institutional’ Islamists who do not normally engage in violence themselves but often support it. At the very least they generally advocate the ultimate goal of a supranational Islamic order. To be sure there are different variants of Islamism but they all tend to be profoundly anti-democratic in character.

Often Islamist political movements use Islamic symbols in their flags and their literature. But it does not follow that anyone hostile to the use of Islamic symbols in that context hates individual Muslims or indeed that they despise the religion.

By blurring the distinctions between these three elements – hatred of Muslims, criticism of Islam as a religion and the recognition of Islamism as an extreme form of radical politics – the concept of Islamophobia only confuses matters. For one thing it allows those who support Islamist politics to dismiss criticism of their worldview as bigotry. Islamists often accuse their opponents of Islamophobia to avoid dealing with the substance of any attacks on their political views.

The adoption of the concept is also associated with a profound defensiveness in the West towards Islamist politics and even terrorist outrages. It is striking that in the aftermath of terrorist attacks the dominant response among politicians and the media is to play down their significance. The public’s understandable anger is frequently seen as an embarrassment to the authorities.

Finally, the notion of Islamophobia is an insult to most Muslims. The majority would no doubt dissociate themselves from Islamist politics let along terrorist atrocities. Yet it lumps all Muslims together as if they supported this anti-democratic and often violent political project.

It is high time that the concept of Islamophobia was ditched. It undermines the fight for freedom and democracy. It also patronises Muslims at the same time.

Photo: "Rally against Islamophobia and hate speech" by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0.