When I recently asked Sam Harris what he thought of the word ‘Islamophobia,’ he directed me to a tweet that noted the following: “Islamophobia. A word created by fascists, & used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”
“I don’t think [the tweet] overstates the case by much,” said Harris, the atheist author whose sweeping critique of Islam (and the “meme of Islamophobia”) onReal Time With Bill Maher has sparked a broader debate about Islamophobia–both the phenomenon and the term itself–in the age of ISIS and Islamist politics.
“Islam is not a race, ethnicity, or nationality: It’s a set of ideas,” Harris told me. “Criticism of these ideas should never be confused with an animus toward people. And yet it is. I’m convinced that this is often done consciously, strategically, and quite cynically as a means of shutting down conversation [on] important topics.”
Some chart the popularization of the term ‘Islamophobia” back to a series ofstudies in the 1990s by the Runnymede Trust, a left-leaning British think tank. A 1997 reported entitled “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All” documented “closed” views of Islam in the U.K., including perceptions of the religion as a single bloc that is barbaric, sexist, and engaged in terrorist activities.
But Robin Richardson, who edited the Runnymede report and currently works for the educational consultancy Insted, maintains that the think tank simply borrowed the term from previous usage. In a recent paper, he traces the phrase to Alain Quellien’s use of the French word islamophobie in 1910 to criticize French colonial administrators for their treatment of Muslim subjects.