| Misconstruing Islamophobia

Houda Asal talks about Islam in France and Canada

As Quebec looks across the sea for inspiration from France, as per Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ recent comments on using France as a model for the Parti Québécois Charter of Values, the issue of Islamophobia is one of grave importance. However, this is where Canada does not merge with France.

According to Houda Asal, a postdoctoral fellow at the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies, “The time is right for us to talk about [Islamophobia] both sociologically and politically, whilst examining its origins in literature.” Asal presented a talk at the Institute on October 19 entitled “Islamophobia: the making of a new concept,” where she examined the current state of research on the social phenomenon in English and French academic literature. As she points out, “It is not easy to give a definition to Islamophobia.” Asal, whose current research focuses on the construction of the notion of Islamophobia and the anti-racist movement in France and Canada, says that the debates on Islamophobia are more pertinent now than they ever were before with discussions surrounding Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values.

In Asal’s words, “We are witnessing a process of racialization in how Islam and Muslims are constructed as homogeneous, static, unchanging, and that is a problem [and] danger.”

First, it is incorrect to link “Islam” and “phobia,” as this implies a sense of moral panic that creates a dimension of fear that has been consequentially used by both the media and politicians to negatively affect those who identify themselves as Muslim in France and Quebec. The fact that there is no widely accepted definition of the term poses challenges to its systematic comparative and causal analysis.

The origin of the word has remained ambiguous for much of the current century. However, mainstream media has been able to use this religious phenomenon to create the misconception that this idea was invented in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. This renders the fight against Islamophobia an uphill battle as it diminishes the magnitude of the discrimination and attacks associated with the phenomenon.

Second, little do people know that the concept was originally developed in the early 20th century by academics, political activists, non-governmental organizations, and public commenters in France. These individuals drew attention toward the harmful rhetoric and actions directed at Muslims and Islam during the French colonial period. This was meant as a wake-up call to French authorities. These authorities need to prevent all sorts of discrimination against Muslims whose history in France has been correlated with working class immigrants.

About a decade later, in the post 9/11 era, Islamophobia has taken a form of its own and has extensively infiltrated the social and political spheres of Western liberal democracies. Has the need to study the issue decreased as French anti-Islamophobic laws increased over the years? This is the question Asal seeks to answer.

Third, criticizing religion as a means of freedom of speech in a secular country such as France is a sensitive issue. As Asal alludes, “The context of this issue in each country is different as their relationship with Islam is different. In Canada, the colonial and post-colonial relationship with the Muslim population is not the same as that of France, which is a big difference in the construction of the national imagery.” This is due to Canada’s policy of multiculturalism that supposedly recognizes differences and inheritance.

Fourth, the international dimension of Islamophobia, which has implications ranging from anti-terrorism laws to immigration and citizenship, has a trickle-down effect that reaches the local dimension. In France, a lack of statistics on Islamophobic attacks and discrimination leaves this issue hanging on a cliff where victims have to struggle to prove the discrimination.

In Asal’s words, “We are witnessing a process of racialization in how Islam and Muslims are constructed as homogeneous, static, unchanging, and that is a problem [and] danger.”

There is no doubt that “Islamophobia and associated social phenomena include an important field of research and will remain a political struggle in the years to come,” as Asal put it. Thus, in this case, one size of Islamophobia does not fit all, no matter how ‘French’ Quebec claims to be.