Opinion: How Islamophobia originated in the west?

Ahmad Ali Naqvi, lecturer in Political Science at PU, offers an interesting critique of a recently published article, by Saleha Anwar, in Global Village Space (GVS). He argues that Islamophobia is the result of several factors ranging from abrupt end to the Cold War and the rise of identity politics in the west. Will be an interesting and provocative read for students of Political Science, International Relations and CSS aspirants.


Ahmad Ali Naqvi |

There has been extensive media and scholarly debates on the origins and implications of Islamophobia from sociological and political perspectives in the western world. This debate emerged with the growing populism but gained momentum after the Christchurch incident in 2019.

Brenton Tarrant, an Australian white supremacist, killed several innocent Muslims. For many serious observers, this incident was only a demonstrative of what was going on in some of the western countries. Islamophobia, in my opinion, is no longer only a problem of the western world.

Marginalisation of Muslims: New Norm across the world?

It is worth recalling that for past few years, socio-political marginalisation of Muslim has become a new normal in several other states including India where the incumbent government intends to prosecute them. Mob lynching is another expression of collective hatred against the same community in PM Narendra Modi-dominated India.

Recently, Indian MP from ruling BJP, Subramanian Swamy, in an interview with VICE Media stated “we know where the Muslim population is large there is always trouble — because the Islamic ideology says so.” The host reminded him of the Muslims presence in his homeland but Swamy did not care. “I am still being soft,” he replied. Swamy’s stance reaffirms a common perception that the Muslims are the most vulnerable religious minority in contemporary India.

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However, this article is not aimed at highlighting the ferocity of the problem (Islamophobia); instead the purpose here is to understand its genesis, globally in general and in the Western societies in particular. The fundamental question is; how did Islamophobia originate in the west?

There are different scholars and analysts who provided different accounts to the question as to what caused Islamophobia in the west. In a recently published article in Global Village Space (16 April, 2020) Ms. Saleha Anwar presented her analysis on the issue.

Apart from discussing two recently published pieces, her main argument was constructed on the premise that the western scholars and media have created a significant anti-Islam propaganda since the end of Cold War for vested political interests that led to the present-day Islamophobia in the west. I do not agree with her conclusion on the basis of reasons mentioned below.

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Similarly, there are other scholars who blame the populist leaders like Donald Trump whose survival depends on hate-ideology and Muslims were a target of convenience in the age of War on Terrorism.  Some scholars from within the Muslim states and societies, I personally call them apologists of Islamophobia, put the entire blame on Muslims and their reluctance to follow the western social and political values that are modern norms of civilization.

This article is critical of the above narrative on grounds that none of this approach take a holistic view to a problem not unknown in history of religions. In the following lines I will construct a critique of each of these narratives.

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The first argument presented by Ms. Saleha and supported by many in the Muslim world over-simplifies a complex socio-political problem. It’s more like a mirror image of the very principle on which Islamophobia is constructed i-e convenient externalization of a broader problem.

From a theoretical standpoint, scholars like Bernard Lewis and Samuel P Huntington have attempted to analyze the post-Cold War world order to predict the future of world politics. In the field of International Relations (IR) while dealing with the question of World Order the scholar has to locate new power structures and the power-struggle among those structures.


In doing so, scholars have to dig into competing ideologies of each actor involved.  We may disagree with the conclusion of those scholars, however, we never question the debate itself which was exactly what the world needed at that time and even now.  In sum, their works created debate in states and societies not hatred towards Muslims.

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The argument that Islamophobia is a politically constructed phenomenon by contemporary populist leaders for vested political interests is a rational construct, however, it contradicts the empirical evidence. There is no doubt that populist leaders thrive on hate ideologies like Islamophobia, however, I opine here that they didn’t create it.

Popular leaders are the product and not cause of the problem of Islamophobia in the western societies. So for example, Islamophobia existed in the western world much before Donald Trump came into power, though he acts as catalyst to the problem.

Islamophobia: reaction of Muslim radicalism after 9/11?

Lastly, the scholars, mainly Muslims and a few from the west, branded the entire wave of Islamophobia as a reaction to the rising radicalism within Muslims states and their reluctance to modernize themselves. These scholars expect introspection from Muslims as the only available solution to their problems—one being the increased wave of Islamophobia.

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However, such writers and scholars ignore the fact that modernization among Muslims is not a problem of the 20th century. They faced the problems of modernization long time ago, then why the western societies chose to develop this phenomenon in the first decade of the 21st century? However, the claim that modernization can neutralize the islamophobic tendencies in the west is a hypothesis beyond the scope of this discussion.

In my view, Islamophobia is constructed on two distinct but inter-related assumptions: that Islam is a violent religion and/or it is incompatible and intolerant to ‘others’; and secondly, Muslims are brutal, uncivilized and must be contained in their own territories as they adversely affect the western way of life.

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The first argument that Islam is inherently a distinct religion and incompatible with the western values is not just an argument of western scholars but also of many Muslims, historically. However, Islam has always been the same. Islamic values were as different to the west today as they were during Cold War and even long before. So what went wrong now?

The writer’s argument is that declaring Islam as violent and medieval ideology is derived more from what Muslims did than what rules Islam provided in the Holy Quran. This argument fails to understand the flexibility of Islam as social, economic and political model.

Secondly, the argument that Islamophobia is the product of how Muslims behaved in recent times within and outside their societies again misses the point that Muslim history is far more violent than it is today. The writer’s argument is that multiple developments like abrupt end to Cold War (the elimination of a much bigger and powerful actor incompatible with the western ideology), factors of globalization that created identity crisis among different people and failures of Muslim leaders to understand the changing world where regional order was gradually replaced by the global order laid the foundation of Islamophobia in western societies.

Ahmed Ali Naqvi is Lecturer in Political Science at University of the Punjab, Lahore-Pakistan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s Editorial Policy. 

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