In this post published to coincide with the United Nations International Day to Combat Islamophobia, Sümeyye Sakarya* argues for more academic research into Islamophobia in Muslim-majority societies to, among other reasons, make extant scholarship in this field robust.
Parallel to the globally rising threat of Islamophobia, there has been a hyperbolic increase in Islamophobia scholarship. Nevertheless, this literature has predominantly focused on Muslim minorities, and largely neglected Islamophobia in Muslim societies (Aktay, 2010; Bayraklı and Hafez, 2019). Consequently, the experiences of the majority of the global Muslim population have been neglected. To mark this year’s International Day to Combat Islamophobia, declared by the UN General Assembly in 2022 to commemorate the 15 March 2019 Christchurch Massacre, this post discusses the nexus of minority and majority and proposes the reasons for the underrepresentation of the global Muslim population in extant scholarship.
From a starter’s point of view, this proclivity towards Muslim minorities is self-explanatory. Firstly, the minority setting brings asymmetrical power relations that expedite antagonistic actions against the minority, resulting in many “cases.” Secondly, it is far easier to label those incidences as Islamophobic when they are. This is because the perceived identities of the doer and receiver are relatively transparent. This transparency naturalises the relationship between the perceived identities and Islam, such as the Muslim receiver and non-Muslim doer. These naturalised relationships fix the meaning of instance and leave the spectators with less room for interpretation. For example, when a “Danish” person burns a hijab in Denmark, observers are quick to label the action Islamophobic. On the other hand, when Iranian women burn a hijab in Iran, people question its meaning. Thirdly, minority context constitutes a more transparent occasion where the standard tools of scholarship do the job easily and adequately. Researchers do not have to work hard to invent new theoretical tools.
While these introductory remarks shed light on the reason why academics are readily inclined towards minority Muslims, they also explain the lack of interest in Muslim society experiences. Initially, they reveal the presumption of a necessary link between perceived identities and meanings. However, this essentialism conceals more than it exposes in settings where meanings are less or differently sedimented. For, tools designed for specific instances cannot spot anomalies or different occurrences. Hence, incidences that do not fit the mode will go unnoticed or discounted if they are somehow detected. Whereas elusive Islamophobic microaggressions can epitomise such cases for minority contexts, the absence of research on Muslim “majorities” is another indication of this concealment.
This concealment leads us to the second hint. The absence of sufficient tools that can detect Islamophobia shows that Islamophobia is under-theorised. The current theories cannot adequately identify and explicate it. Theoretical discussions mostly arise when encountering the unprecedented. That is illustrated by an emerging Islamophobia scholarship focusing on less obvious cases such as more subtle and institutional forms adapting to the post-racial times. However, this new literature also mainly relies on minorities or global Islamophobia induced by the Western hegemonic positioning of Muslims as a global minority (Vakil and Sayyid, 2010; Beydoun, 2023). Therefore, the identities of the receiver and the doer are again relatively fixed as Muslim and non-Muslim (hegemon). This approach also leaves Muslim societies with Muslim doers outside the picture. Consequently, the theories informed by them become symptomatic, and the logic of Islamophobia as a global phenomenon remains incomprehensible. That leaves asymptomatic situations unnoticed, and Muslim “majorities” epitomise these situations.
Given that Muslim doer makes the majority setting asymptomatic, the third point revolves around the question of whether Muslims can be Islamophobic. This question is predicated on the belief that “no” can be the response and that is startling. It is startling because it is not a question that we ask of non-Muslims. Instead, we simply presume they can be Islamophobic. These contrasting presumptions about Muslims and non-Muslims reveal the persistence of essentialism about identities: Muslims cannot be antagonistic against Muslimness. Nevertheless, a plethora of practices in Muslim countries, ranging from hijab ban to party closures, demonstrate the antagonistic capacity of Muslims against Muslimness.
These observations, though brief and exploratory, provide an insight into the current state of Islamophobia studies. They reveal the under-theorisation of Islamophobia and the essentialisation of identities as two major limitations. These limitations have resulted in the unexplained logic of Islamophobia, the lack of means to discern different contexts, the proclivity for explicit instances and the indifference to the Muslim antagonists. These two issues, however, are not mutually exclusive. If identities were not essentialised, Islamophobia could be theorised better by conceptualising identity and Islamophobia in their political and contingent nature.
Furthermore, if Islamophobia were theorised sufficiently, scholars could have the tools to identify and analyse it on dissimilar occasions. They are interrelated because they are the symptoms of the same conceptual deficiency: ignoring the primacy of the political. This negligence limits the scholarship to case studies, overwhelmingly minority ones with overt enemy-friend dichotomies, making the political nature evident. As a result, theories responding to them cannot detect and analyse the instances where the antagonism appears differently. For, the failure to recognise the political hinders understanding of political identities, particularly in Muslim societies, by restricting Muslimness to a depoliticised piety. This depoliticised notion of Muslim subjectivity engenders the belief that Muslims cannot be Islamophobic while ironically instigating Islamophobia by denying political agency to Muslims qua Muslims. Therefore, a thorough analysis of Islamophobia necessitates recognising this primacy and cultivating a scholarship on this recognition.
*Sümeyye Sakarya is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Ankara University, and a visiting research fellow at the School of Sociology and Social Policy (Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies), University of Leeds, where she obtained her PhD. She studies political theory and its intersections with Islam, gothic and critical Muslim studies, specifically focusing on political identity.
Aktay, Y. 2010. Islamophobia in Turkey In: S. Sayyid and A. Vakil, eds. Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives. Hurst and Company, pp.195–206.
Bayraklı, E. and Hafez, F. (eds.). 2019. Islamophobia in Muslim Majority Societies. Routledge.
Beydoun, K.A. 2023. The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims. University of California Press.
Vakil, A. and Sayyid, S. (eds.). 2010. Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives. Columbia University Press.