Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.
People who believe that Islamophobia is a fiction are fond of pointing out that Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity. Islam is a set of beliefs and customs. And in a free society, one ought to be able to criticize all kinds of ideas without fear of being labeled hateful toward Muslims. The late Christopher Hitchens declared that “Islamophobia” was a “stupid neologism” because it “aims to promote criticism of Islam to the gallery of special offenses associated with racism.” Sam Harris, the bestselling author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, wrote that “apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as ‘Islamophobia.’” He continued, “There is no such thing as Islamophobia…. It is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”
The fact that Islamophobia is a recently coined term—or an “invention,” to use Harris’s language—should not be taken as evidence that it refers to a nonexistent pathology. The word “homophobia” was coined in the 1950s, but I doubt anyone would seriously claim that antipathy toward—and discrimination against—gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people did not exist before then. It seems to me that as Muslims have become more visible in American society, the fear and contempt for them, which used to be expressed in private, are now being promoted on the front pages of newspapers and on cable news talk-shows. Perhaps that was why a neologism was needed.
But I suspect that Harris and others would still insist that what is often called “Islamophobia” is nothing more than a vigorous intellectual debate about the merits of Islamic beliefs or practices and denotes neither hatred of Muslims nor any kind of discrimination against them. And I might be inclined to believe in this neatly theoretical distinction if I had not had experiences that contradicted it.
Some years ago, when I was in graduate school, I decided to trade my old car for a reasonably priced new one. I settled on a model by Saturn, in part because the company promised a hassle-free experience. (“Saturn: A different kind of car company.” Remember that?) I went on a test drive at the dealership in Torrance, California, then followed the salesman into his office. He asked me for the registration on the car I wanted to trade in. But the papers were in the glove box of my old Mazda, out in the parking lot, so he offered to bring them. As I handed him my keys, he asked, “You sure you don’t have explosives in there?”
You know that screeching sound you hear when a car comes to a sudden stop? That was the sound I heard in my head at that moment. Perhaps he thought he was just making a joke, but for me the experience was just one among many random encounters in which I was not seen for the person I am or judged by the values I have but rather as a representative of a great mass of abstract and entirely negative notions, all of them having to do with Islam.