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…One of the most intriguing contributions to the debate about Islamophobia has been by the anthropologist Pnina Werbner, who argues that it is a form of scapegoating given a particular edge because political Islam evokes for Europeans the folk memory of a punitive, inquisitorial Church. In Islamophobia, Chris Allen sets out to give a history of this disputed concept after centuries of wars and colonial domination – and to clarify its proper use today, mainly in the British context. He shows how the primary political discourse associated with newly established migrant communities shifted from “colour” in the 1950s and 60s to “race” and “blackness” in the 1970s. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Satanic Verses affair of 1989 turned attention to Islam, and the Runnymede Trust responded in 1997 with an influential report, “Islamophobia: A challenge for us all”, published by its Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia.
Allen contends that the Runnymede Report was superficial. It was certainly a skilful distillation by the secretariat of the diverse views of the commissioners, whose composition was weighted towards interfaith expertise. He accepts that “Islamophobia” is a problematic word, especially because it implies a passive, quasi-medical condition, unlike the more active “anti-Semitism”; but it has gained currency, whereas “anti-Muslimism” has not. Allen concludes his book with his own definition, running to some 200 words.
Though Allen acknowledges three levels of Islamophobia, he seems not to realize that they need to be attacked in distinct ways. First is the level of ideology, which includes comparative theology and is imprinted with the history of Muslims’ relations with the rest of the world. This level can be approached in a spirit of rational argument, through the media and the educational system. Second is the level of prejudice, which is often irrational and can only abate over a period of time as individuals come to change their assumptions in response to experience. Prejudice can be opposed, but it cannot be legislated against in a society that allows freedom of thought. Third is the level of behaviour – including adverse discrimination, hate speech and violence – which can be banned and proportionately punished by the law. It is only at the third level, that of legal sanctions, that precise definition is necessary or practicable in this complicated lexical field. “British Muslims” are defined not only by religious affiliation but by ethnic and class markers with porous boundaries, and the same is true of Muslims in France or the United States with their different histories of immigration. In British law, the concept of “religiously aggravated crime” has taken root.