The Making of Contemporary Identity-Based Islamophobia

Far from being an irrational fear of Islam and Muslims, Islamophobia is a contemporary form of racism. Racist social relations have gone through historical mutations, allowing them to adapt to changes in contexts and power relations. Racism appeared as an ideological accompaniment to the conquest of the New World, then to slavery and colonization. Racism as a social relationship first took a biologist form before being forced to mutate into a culturalist form, and today into culturalism with a religious tone. After quickly going over the history of racist social relationships, the second part of this essay will discuss the material factors that explain the emergence and development of this new historical form of racism. The third part will be devoted to the consequences of the development of Islamophobia in our world.


Racism is a Historical Reality


One of the most satisfactory definitions of racism is the one offered by Albert Memmi: “Racism is the generalized and final assigning of values to real or imaginary differences, to the accuser’s benefit and at its victim’s expense, in order to justify the former’s own privileges or aggression.” (1)

Starting from this definition, we can highlight the essential traits that allow Islamophobia to be characterized as a new historic form of racism and not simply a fear of Islam.

  • Racism is first of all a social relationship, in other words, a relationship between two actors or groups of actors. Contemporary Islamophobic discourse corresponds to this first characteristic since it works by homogenizing two groups: Muslims and others. The diversity and contradictions within these two groups are masked, as are the similarities between them.
  • This social relationship is unequal; in other words, it ranks the two groups, justifying differentiated treatment, i.e., treatment that applies to one but not the other. By looking with suspicion at Muslims, who are seen as homogeneous, contemporary Islamophobic discourse legitimizes exceptional surveillance and monitoring practices for a part of the national community. 
  • The social function of the social relationship is to justify unequal treatment, namely a distribution of privileges to one and discrimination to the other. One of the effects of contemporary Islamophobic discourse is increasingly unequal access to the market for scarce resources (employment, education, housing, etc.) due to being stigmatized as a “dangerous Muslim.”


If Islamophobia corresponds to Memmi’s definition of racism as a social relationship, it was preceded by other forms as a function of contexts and power relations. Although relations between human groups prior to our contemporary era have included unequal relationships, these relationships did not become systemically widespread until the process of exiting feudalism and the industrialization of old Europe took place. The economist Eric Williams has abundantly documented the links between slavery and “amassing the capital that financed the industrial revolution.” (2) Although elements of racist ideology could be found in the preindustrial era, it was only with industrialization that racism transformed into a system that structured the relations between the different continents and their populations. The first globalization brought with it racism as an ideology that justified the dispossession, violence and exploitation of slavery and then of colonization.

The first historical form of racism was biologism, which is the dual assertion of the existence of distinct and classified “human races.” Biological inequality was put forward as a justification for unequal socio-racial relations. Over more than four centuries of slavery and almost one century of colonization, the ideal of the natural superiority of the white man deeply permeated slave-holding and colonial societies. Such a heritage does not disappear on its own even when the conditions that gave rise to it disappear. The imagination and collective unconscious of former slave-holding and colonial societies are still marked by this heritage. As Marx pointed out, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” (3) So long as no real work has been done to deconstruct the legacies of the past, racist social representations inherited from the past remain available and can be revived and updated for contemporary purposes.

Frantz Fanon aptly explains the obsolescence of biologism and its replacement by a new form of racism: culturalism. According to Fanon, the discredit of biologism after the Nazi episode, then after the discovery of colonial crimes, required racism to change form. As the racist point of view could no longer be supported by the idea of absolute biological difference, it was thereafter based on the assertion of the existence of absolute differences of a cultural nature:

“The vulgar, primitive, over-simple racism purported to find in biology, the Scriptures having proved insufficient, the material basis of the doctrine. It would be tedious to recall the efforts then undertaken: the comparative form of the skulls, the quantity and the configuration of the folds of the brain, the characteristics of the cell layers of the cortex, the dimensions of the vertebrae, the microscopic appearance of the epiderm, etc. […] These old-fashioned positions tend in any case to disappear. This racism that aspires to be rational […] becomes transformed into cultural racism. “Occidental values’ oddly blend with the already famous appeal to the fight of the “cross against the crescent’.” (4)

These remarks by Fanon highlight not only the transition from biologism to culturalism but also, ominously, the possibility for this culturalism to be built up from religious institutions. We believe
that, in this way, Islamophobia is a variation on cultural racism centered on religious institutions. It is no longer cultures in general that are ranked, but religions. This is the reason why traces of Islamophobia can be found in colonial historical narratives. However, this Islamophobia of the past is interwoven with a broader culturalist discourse. Islamophobia emerges as a system strengthened
by previous forms of racism (biologism and culturalism) only in a contemporary way.


Contemporary Islamophobia’s Process of Emerging


Although mentions of the existence of an “Islamophobia” can be found in the texts of some colonial officials since the start of the 20th century, they are rare and sporadic. (5) It was at the
end of the 1980s that the process of the emergence and subsequent entrenchment of this new form of racism began. The context of this historical sequence is the end of the international balances
resulting from the Second World War due to the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The consequences of this disappearance of the bipolar world can be summarized as follows:

  • The start of the process of globalization, i.e., the destruction of customs borders and state protections and regulations;
  • The consequence is increased competition between the different major powers for access to strategic raw materials and control of the markets; this competition for oil, gas, and strategic minerals, which up to then had been held back by the existence of a “common enemy,” rapidly spread to the Middle East and Africa;
  • The multiple effects of this unregulated competition can be seen on many actors: an unprecedented impoverishment of countries in the South, creating a fertile ground for collective anger and revolt; significant insecurity among workers in the North, creating a fertile ground for the development of racism by seeking a scapegoat;
  • Lastly, there is the need to justify new wars for what President Eisenhower once called the “military-industrial complex,” which felt threatened by the disappearance of the historical enemy. In 1961, Eisenhower warned of “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” (6)


This political and economic underpinning is the source of new ideological theories that developed to offer a new historical enemy to justify continued arms spending. This new analytical framework speaks to a part of the white population that is destabilized and isolated, to whom a new enemy is offered that fulfills the function of a scapegoat. To the best of our knowledge, it was Orientalism scholar Bernard Lewis who provided the first constructed version of the new Islamophobia in his 1990 article “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” (7) He also put forward the concept of the “Clash of Civilizations,” which  Samuel Huntington would develop.

Huntington, however, generated the main ideological matrix of contemporary Islamophobia, of which the central logic is the production of a new civilizational enemy. His work, published in 1996, rapidly attained the status of a paradigm for the actions and discourse of U.S. administrations. Translated into French in 1997, the analytical framework he offered is rapidly expanding in a growing part of the European political classes. His reasoning is rooted in a few main ideas articulated as a system of causes and effects. Those causes and effects are discussed here to show the reasoning leading to the progressive development of contemporary Islamophobia:

  • The definition of civilizations: For Huntington, the concept of civilization is not defined by material factors (technical development, economic organization, type of urbanization, etc.) or political factors (political regime, power structure, dominant political ideology) or ideological factors (value system, worldview, etc.). He contends it is religion that distinguishes different civilizations and religion alone that is decisive in differentiating cultures. Reducing people and societies to religion only leads to making religion the site of all confrontations. According to the author, current and future confrontations cannot be explained by analyzing economic stakes, social situations and conflicts of social interests. Their sole source appears to be incompatibility between religions that are perceived as ahistorical and homogeneous.
  • The abandonment of universality: The culturalist approach centered on religion leads Huntington to virulently criticize “the illusion of universality”: “The time has come for the West to abandon the illusion of universality and to promote the strength, coherence, and vitality of its civilization in a world of civilizations.” In order not to be confusing, the author points out that he thinks of Islam as a “civilization” against which it is necessary to defend oneself. It is therefore understandable why this analytical framework immediately resonated in the galaxy of white supremacist organizations on the one
    hand and among right-wing extremists of industrialized countries on the other. It would seem that we could rejoice at the end of the claim to universality that gave birth to colonialism, but to do so is to forget that it does not lead to the idea of peace among civilizations. The only outcome of abandoning of this claim is to present the confrontation between civilizations as inevitable and permanent.
  • Binary reduction: Such a concept leads to a negation of the complexity of human societies; in other words, to a series of binary oppositions. According to this analytical framework, societies, social groups and individuals are either Western or they are not. Thus Western diversity is negated along with the diversity of the rest of the planet. The differences within the “West” are seen as secondary and anecdotal aspects that mask its true Christian identity. Likewise, the differences between so-called “Muslim” states and nations seem to be only an appearance masking their true homogeneity.
  • The creation of the internal enemy: The logical consequence of Huntington’s binary homogenizations is the impossibility of being both Muslim and Western. Consequently, Muslims who are real citizens of Western countries tend to be perceived as fifth columnists who need to be monitored and, if necessary, repressed. Within each Western nation, Muslim citizens tend to be under permanent suspicion.


To conclude, it should be emphasized that Huntington’s theorization is not limited only to Muslims, but also constitutes a genuine attempt to bring about the theoretical and ideological realization of white supremacy. In his book Who are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (8), he presents American identity as being threatened by Latinos. According to him, Latin-American citizens cannot be assimilated into the “core Anglo-Protestant culture.” He also calls for the preservation of a national identity threatened by the culture and demography of this immigration.

The Creators of Islamophobia


The rapid development of contemporary Islamophobia cannot, however, be limited to new culturalist theorizations. We should ask ourselves about the causes that have made these explanations attractive to a significant proportion of the population in industrialized countries. Though not an exhaustive list, the following dimensions should be considered:

  • Growing insecurity affecting social categories that had hitherto been more or less protected, leading to the development of destabilized poor whites and members of the lower middle classes who fear being downgraded. Identity-based discourse is aimed at this part of the population by offering a scapegoat.
  • A white supremacist movement in the United States and a far-right movement in Europe are seeking to update their political discourse in order to reach wider sections of the population. Distancing themselves from traditional racist discourse (biologist or culturalist) is necessary to broaden their base. Contemporary Islamophobia, by presenting itself as a defense of strong values (democracy, women’s rights, freedom of expression, respect for minorities, etc.) makes it possible to give racism a form of respectability. That is why we suggested that it be called “respectable racism” (9) during the 2004 French debates on prohibiting the wearing of veils in schools. It was in the name of the “defense of secularism” that girls were excluded from the right to an education.
  • Political and media discourse in the United States and Europe aim to justify external wars that take place in countries with almost entirely Muslim populations. From Afghanistan to Somalia to Iraq, these wars have been accompanied by analyses and positions based on culturalism.


These dimensions and actors, already in action since the end of the 1980s, took on a new scope after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The war on terrorism has been presented since its inception as a “civilization war” in countries where the clash of civilizations theory and its translations into media and politics have presented Muslims and Islam as a danger for more than a decade. It would be a mistake to underestimate the extent to which this contemporary Islamophobia has taken root. Three important reasons lead us to postulate that a significant part of the populations of industrialized countries is more or less steeped in contemporary Islamophobia. First, the duration of the ideological offensive, which now spans several decades, must be taken into account. Secondly, as mentioned above, different actors converge (each for its own reasons) on the propagation of Islamophobic theses (white supremacists, media and a part of the political class, the military-industrial complex, etc.). Finally, part of the population is economically insecure and, for this reason, is becoming more receptive to discourses that offer an explanation in terms of a scapegoat.

Self-fulfilling Prophecies


Islamophobic discourse and practices are not, of course, without effect on Muslim citizens of industrialized countries. The discrimination and/or humiliation suffered ends up arousing in the most fragile people an attraction to what the media now calls “jihadism,” but what we prefer to call an attraction to suicidal nihilism. This minuscule minority in fact reveals the fault lines in our societies, but is in turn put forward as proof of the veracity of Islamophobic theses. Programs to combat “radicalization” that have emerged in most industrialized countries have mostly been built on a similar logic, which has led to a set of confusions:

  • A focus solely on the supply side of radicalization and a concealment of demand: We believe the real question is why there is an attraction to murderous ideologies. If the offer of radicalization is effective, it is because a demand already exists. Dismissing demand, as most deradicalization programs do, makes it impossible to take into account the deep-seated causes: discrimination, humiliation, the effects of Islamophobic discourse, reactions to wars, and so forth.
  • A confusion between detection and prevention: Most programs are based on the idea of “detection” which leads to the search for signs of radicalization: beard, type of clothing, vocabulary, etc. This confusion, which has been highlighted by many authors, risks profiling entire social groups based on external signs. The focus on detection conceals the need to act in terms of prevention, making it possible to take into account the context of “co-radicalization” that characterizes our situation. There is, in fact, an interrelation between “racist radicalization” and what is called “jihadist radicalization.” Only through a preventive approach can these two mutually supporting factors be taken into account.


These errors feed into contemporary Islamophobia even more by providing it with targets that can be identified based on external appearance (clothes, beards, etc.).




Contemporary Islamophobia is a new form of racism following on biologist and culturalist forms. For several decades, Islamophobic theorizations and positions have worked their way through
industrialized societies with an effectiveness that is all the stronger because many actors have contributed to spreading it (white supremacists, media and political discourses, military-industrial complex).
Its efficacy is further reinforced by the breakdown of new social categories (poor whites and lower middle classes) that give Islamophobia a potential societal base. Only a proactive and aggressive prevention policy focused on all forms of nihilism (including white supremacy) can hope to turn back this new face of racism.



(1) Albert Memmi, Le racisme [Racism] (Paris: Gallimard, 1982): 158.

(2) Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery [Capitalisme et esclavagisme], (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1968): 6.

(3) Karl Marx, Le 18 brumaire de Louis Napoléon Bonaparte [The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte], (Paris: Editions sociales, 1968): 15.

(4) Frantz Fanon, Racisme et Culture: Pour la Révolution Africaine [Racism and Culture: Toward the African Revolution], Complete Works (Paris: La Découverte, 2011): 716.

(5) On this topic, refer to: Abdellali Hajjat and Marwan Mohammed, Islamophobie [Islamophobia]. Comment les élites françaises fabriquent  le “problème musulman” [How French elites manufacture the “Muslim problem”], La (Paris: Découverte, 2013).

(6) Dwight David Eisenhower, farewell address, January 17, 1961,, last accessed on January 27, 2018.

(7) Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990, 47-60.

(8) Samuel Huntington, Who are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004): French translation: Qui sommes-nous ? Identité nationale et choc des cultures [National Identity and Culture Clash], (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2004).

(9) On this subject, see my book: Saïd Bouamama, L’affaire du foulard islamique: La production d’un racisme respectable [The Islamic Headscarf Affair: The Creation of Respectable Racism], (Lille: Le Geai Bleu, 2004).

Cover: cartoon by Carlos Latuff


Source: Carter Center report “Countering the Islamophobia Industry – Toward More Effective Strategies”


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