Normalization of Islamophobia – What do we mean by that?

We’ve been hearing the term quite a lot since the terrorist attacks on Muslims in New Zealand: this is, among other things, a consequence of the normalization of Islamophobia. But what exactly do we mean when we use this concept of normalization? This is just a minor attempt to tease out an idea out and explore it: thinking out loud while blogging. It’s important to better understand what is going on, which is a lot more than anti-Muslim racism simply becoming part and parcel of everyday life.

Normalization or business as usual?
Because, first of all, if anti-Muslim racism is not part and parcel of everyday life then the whole idea of structural Islamophobia (or any other form structural racism) does not really hold. To have an institutionalized form of racism means that normalcy has to be part and parcel of the whole system.

Secondly, we (meaning academics) often tend to argue that the world changed after 9/11 and Muslims came under more scrutiny and became problematized because of it. However, as several research projects have shown, the idea that Muslims and Islam posed a potential security problem and that Muslims were prone to committing, condoning and supporting violent attacks was already in place well before 9/11.

In the Netherlands, there already was a high level of scrutiny directed at the migrants from Muslim majority countries that had emerged during the 1990s and it was at this time that the belief that Islam was a danger to social cohesion became more and more central in policies and debates. As far back as the 1970s Muslims were categorized as outsiders who needed to be integrated, currently this has been extended to include even second and third generation Dutch Muslims. The idea that there is a link between Islam and danger is definitely older than 9/11. Look, for example, at a label like ‘fanatic’ which, as Renton (2017) recently showed, has been linked to Islam and Muslims for centuries in Europe.

But let’s stay with the contemporary times. Although the link between Islam and danger in Dutch integration policies and debates was often conditional and never exclusive, as it also related to increasing cultural diversity in general, during the 1980s and 1990s a new, more concrete, threat gradually emerged after the Cold War: political Islam. In 1998, the BVD (the domestic security service) published a report in which it warned against the rise of a form of political Islam that would gain both increasing influence through mosques, and funding from Islamic foundations abroad.

And thirdly, it is clear that Islamophobia passed the ‘dinner table test‘ long time ago. It is not unusual to hear stories from people who were asked about the Islamic State or the headscarf (or both) during job interviews, in the class room or in the coffee corner at work. It is part and parcel, to such an extent, that people don’t even recognize it as problematic when Muslims are scrutinized because of their perceived Muslim-ness.

The normal and abnormal
So then, if that is not what we mean by normalization, or not all of it, what do we actually mean when we say the normalization of Islamophobia? I think it has to do with Islamophobia becoming unrecognizable as a type of racism, because the questioning of Muslims’ identity and subjectivity through the lens of security and integration has gained credibility, plausibility and even respectability among a broad audience and because its Islamophobic character is hidden behind a stance that claims to defend cultural values and social cohesion against what some people see as an aggressive ideology.

Of course, this does not mean that the events of 9/11, the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the IS attacks are irrelevant. In fact, it’s precisely here where an important connection with the idea of normalization can be found. These events have been instrumental in politicians creating a public and a common enemy. Or, from the viewpoint of mainstream politicians – two enemies. The first enemy is the figure of the radical Muslim. In political rhetoric and policies a distinction is made between moderate or liberal Muslims and radical Muslims. The moderate Muslim needs to be taught about liberal civility, he/she is not completely in and not completely out. The radical Muslim is the figure violating the place designated to religion and is to be contained by subjecting particular categories of Muslims (in particular Salafi Muslims) to counter-radicalization policies. In these affairs Muslims are not so much active people taking part in the debates as they are objects that function as the pivotal symbols in the debates and the ones over whom power is exercised and battles are fought.

The other enemy, from the point of view of the political elites, consists of radical right wing political leaders and activists. Their verbal and sometimes physical attacks on Muslims and their institutions are seen by their liberal opponents as acts of transgression with regard to the normal state of affairs in politics and with regard to Muslims’ religious feelings. Both the radical Muslim and the racist extremist are figures who are deemed to be dangerous because of the possible violence perpetrated by Muslims; both threaten the position of mainstream liberal politicians too. The category of the racist leader and activist, however, is not excluded from the moral community of the nation-state and, while their violence may disrupt social cohesion, it does not threaten ‘our of way life’; it is, therefore, less disruptive until and unless it triggers a counter-reaction from enemy no. 1.

Constructing the exceptional outsider
Based on the above, and expanding on it, I think we can identify five major points about the normalization of Islamophobia. A first layer pertains to political rhetoric and media representations giving the idea of Muslims, Islam and Muslim-ness as a ‘red flag’ a certain degree of plausibility, respectability and the status of self-evident truth. Because Muslims do commit attacks. So scrutinizing Muslims and exposing the role of Islam (as an ideology separate from Muslims) is presented as something that makes sense even though we know ethnic profiling does not work and there is no single profile of a terrorist. And, for example, although people from Arab speaking communities say ‘Allahu Akbar’ a million times, the only time it makes it on the news is when a terrorist yells it. which then turns it into a standard to determine whether something is a terrorist act or not.

A second layer can be identified in a difference in the evaluation of violence. White violence, although reprehensible and a disruption of normalcy, is viewed as being less threatening than violence from black people and/or Muslims. Because of this, political rhetoric and the policy discourse of countering radicalization (among Muslims) has placed the focus in media, politics and integration policies almost entirely on Muslims and Islam, and the alleged threat they present to democracy and social cohesion. ‘Salafism’, in particular, has been at the centre of these often very harsh and offensive debates that revolved around the question of how dangerous Salafism is but without ever distinguishing Salafism from other dimensions of Islamic thought, ritual, jurisprudence and so on.

While white racist attacks are condemned by most people, it is often done conditionally (but Islam…) and the white terrorist is never excluded from the Dutch moral community, as opposed to how even the very smallest of children of foreign fighters are treated. While violence by Muslims is often seen as ontologically innate in Islam and an existential threat, white racist aggression is transformed into an ‘incident’ or ‘event’ in media and politics, such as the recent terrorist attack on the Noor mosque in Christchurch. Such violent events are easily dismissed by most politicians as an expression or mode of hatred against Muslims (and often missing the point that much of the violence is against women). Other events such as the Pegida action, where a bloody doll was left at a mosque in the Netherlands, are also widely denounced but members of the Pegida can still be invited for a debate on Dutch TV with a spokesperson of a Muslim organization. This focus on ‘events’ and ‘debates’ transforms anti-Muslim racism into something that is just another topic to be debated or, in the worst cases, to be denounced and prosecuted. But this hides the systemic elements and the complicity of the liberal Islamophobes – on the left and the right – in shaping the Islamophobic discourses.

A third layer is about security. Who in the world is against more security? No one right? So, the reference to security often serves as a ‘speech act’ creating a crisis situation which has to be resolved or people may die. By referring to security and mentioning the threat to our way of life, justifications are made for taking exceptional measures, these, then, become part of the normal bureaucratic regime even though they may threaten (or are radically opposed to) basic civil rights. In this process of the racialized construction of Muslims as the dangerous Other particular claims about Islam function then as a respectable, plausible way of expressing unease with Muslims while at the same time opposing racist acts against Muslims. Furthermore, it allows populists to claim hero status for speaking out while the ‘elite’ treads very carefully, claiming to be super cautious about not stigmatizing all Muslims. The radical populist views are contagious however, as we see more and more mainstream politicians responding by also scapegoating Muslims with the media taking over their talking points.

Less than a week after the #Christchurch attacks Dutch politicians are debating the Freedom Party's Geert Wilders' claim: 'Islam does not belong to Netherlands' during a debate for the regional elections today. #stemmen #PS2019 #PS19 #verkiezingen2019

Less than a week after the #Christchurch attacks Dutch politicians are debating the Freedom Party’s Geert Wilders’ claim: ‘Islam does not belong to Netherlands’ during a debate for the regional elections.

And then we see a fourth layer of normalization: the turn to equivalence and reversal. First of all, for the above viewpoints to make sense to people, the claim of equivalence has to be made: presenting white people as equivalent to all others. So then, if it makes sense for minorities to preserve their identities, it also makes sense for white people, doesn’t it? And, if white people then claim minorities deny them the right to self-preservation it is not the white people who are the racists, but the spokespersons of the minorities. Even more so, when they play the race card. Because we are all equal here and we judge people on their individual merits not their ethnic or racial affiliation. And if we do so then it is only for security reasons to protect the heritage of the ‘original’ people. The very fact that there are differences power, privilege and in hierarchy is concealed.

A fifth layer of this normalization is related to the distinction that is being made by mainstream politicians between the liberal mainstream and the far right Islamophobia. In analysing such a distinction in the US and France, Mondon and Winter refer to liberal and illiberal Islamophobia, each of which can occur at different points on the political left – right spectrum. The central aspect of illiberal Islamophobia is that it indeed calls for discriminatory practices, though without resorting to the more popular understandings of racism that regard biological markers as primary indicators. As Mondon and Winter explain, drawing a line between mainstream Islamophobia and extreme Islamophobia enables more subtle articulations of Islamophobia to enter the mainstream. It permits the references to Islam to be made, while refraining from making references to biological assumptions on race, which would be unacceptable for most people. This combination allows the far-right discourse to become more easily incorporated into mainstream thought and for it to be regarded as part of the freedom speech (albeit at the fringes), making it more plausible and acceptable for a wider audience.

The more mainstream or liberal Islamophobia, on the other hand, is characterized by its self-proclaimed allegiance to liberal values and democracy, and (I would add, as it is with illiberal Islamophobia) its open rejection of (biologically marked) racism, hate, and violence. And if violence is used, it had to be used as self defence against a reductionist and essentializing definition of Islam as an ideology which threatens ‘our way of life’.

When Islamophobia becomes unrecognizable
How the different layers of normalization work can be seen when someone calls out something as Islamophobic. Often arguments such as Islam is not a race, Islamophobia is just a critique on religion, women’s rights and freedom of speech need to be defended against terrorism and Muslim identity politics and political correctness, come about. Following Young (2006: 96) we can see normalization as ‘processes that construct experiences and capacities of some social segments into standards against which all are measured and some found wanting or deviant.’ The different dimensions of normalization (respectability and plausibility, violence by Muslims as more threatening, security as an existential question, equivalence, hiding behind a defence of freedom etc.,) at the different levels (everyday, institutional and political) make it difficult for anti-Islamophobia initiatives to counter it. Because, if Islamophobia is almost unrecognizable as a mode of racism, how can people be made more aware of the problem and the possible ways of fighting it? Moreover, if Islamophobia is not recognized as being problematic and becomes conventional as something that actually makes sense or goes unnoticed, don’t other ways of thinking and/or opposing anti-Muslim racism then become deviant and abnormal? And if these other ‘abnormalizing’ ways of thinking about anti-Muslim racism are done by people who are already racialized Others, what kind of counter-reactions do get compared to for example white male academics? There is definitely a challenge here for academics/activists in the struggle against Islamophobia. That I think is something for a next blog.

Mondon, A. and Winter, A. (2017) ‘Articulations of Islamophobia: From the Extreme to the Mainstream?‘, Ethnic and Racial Studies 40(13) 2151-2179.
Renton, J. (2017) ‘The Figure of the Fanatic: A Rebel Against Christian Sovereignty‘, Ethnic and Racial Studies 41 (12), 2161-2178.
Young, I. M. (2006). ‘Responsibility and Global Justice: a social connection model’, Social Philosophy and Policy 23 (1), 102-130.

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