Islamophobia and the Struggle for Recognition

Islamophobia and the Struggle for Recognition

Tariq Modood (University of Bristol)

It was not very long ago that Anglophone scholars of racism understood racism in terms of biology, and specifically in terms of the black-white binary. At the same time, other scholars, especially in continental Europe, understood racism in terms of anti-semitism, especially in the biologised forms that Europe manifested in the twentieth century. When it began to be clear that these two paradigms were failing to capture some contemporary experiences, such as anti-Asian cultural racism in Britain or anti-Arab cultural racism in France, some scholars began to move away from these paradigms. Even so, the pull of these biologistic models was so strong that even today many scholars of racism understand cultural racism in quasi-naturalistic terms, seeing culture as a ‘code’ for the biological racisms that they find more intelligible. West European Muslims have found these scholarly hegemonies an especially galling obstacle to getting academia and fellow citizens to understand the exclusionary discourses and misrecognitions that Muslims are subject to.

Following the assertive Muslim agency triggered off by The Satanic Verses affair and other Muslim controversies, as Muslims responded to such hostilities and articulated their misrecognition, they were constantly told, especially in Britain, that there is no such thing as anti-Muslim racism because Muslims are a religious group and not a race. Hence Muslims could legitimately ask for toleration and religious pluralism but not for inclusion in anti-racist egalitarian analyses and initiatives. While this view continues to be expressed even today, and some deny that there is a racism that could be labelled ‘Islamophobia’, it no longer has the hegemony it once did.

In that sense the concept of Islamophobia and the study of Islamophobia has come of age. So while we cannot point to anti-Islamophobia legislation or other more general legal sanction that redresses it, we certainly find it being studied in terms of its specificity, untrammelled by narrow paradigms of racism, based on other times and other oppressions, and studied alongside more familiar racisms such as anti-semitism and anti-black racism.

However, while understanding some contemporary treatment of Muslims and aspects of their societal status in terms of ‘racialisation’ is an advance, as Meer argues, the conceptualisation of Muslims in the West should not be reduced to racialisation or any other ‘Othering’ theoretical frame such as Orientalism. Minorities are never merely ‘projections’ of dominant groups but have their own subjectivity and agency through which they challenge how they are (mis)perceived and seek to not be defined by others but to supplant negative and exclusionary stereotypes with positive and prideful identities. Oppressive misrecognitions, thus, sociologically imply and politically demand recognition. Our analyses therefore should be framed in terms of a struggle for recognition or a struggle for representation.

Moreover, recognition and related concepts are intrinsically normative, and so social inquiry without a normative frame may capture Islamophobia but will fall short of a full engagement with it or bring out what is the best way to respond to it. For example, everyone will agree that Islamophobia must be distinguished from reasonable criticism of Muslims and aspects of Islam, but not only is this a difficult distinction to make but it begs the question what are ‘reasonable criticisms’ that Muslims and non-Muslims may make or discuss in relation to some Muslim views about say gender or education or secularism. Not only must the study of Islamophobia not squeeze out the possibility of such discussion, but by showing us where it becomes Islamophobic – by caricaturing, by assuming that all Muslims think in a particular way, by creating a climate in which reasonable dialogue is impossible – it should help to guide us. Merely identifying the unreasonable and the populist is not enough; our frames of analysis should lead us to the reasonable, to what criticisms may be made of Muslims and/or Islam and what criticisms that Muslims want to make of contemporary western societies too are worthy of hearing.

Let me give another example. It is generally agreed that Islamophobia is part of the backlash against multiculturalism and this is indeed important to bring out especially in Britain where ‘race’ and/or class perspectives have tended to dominate analyses in relation to minorities. We need, however, to go beyond identifying the racisms and insecurities, cultural and material, that are amongst the sources of anti-multiculturalism. We need to also identify principled and reasonable concerns that may be part of anti-multiculturalism or criticisms of aspects of multiculturalism. We therefore need a normative reference point for evaluating criticisms of multiculturalism and of offering reasoned and effective responses to such criticism.(1) This may be to offer suitable and reflexive understandings of multiculturalism that are able to take criticisms on board, whilst also pointing out the weaknesses in the criticisms. Or it may be to offer an alternative standpoint. What is not adequate is to merely identify and rhetorically condemn the backlash without considering what is right and wrong in the criticism of multiculturalism – or, to return to the main example, popularly expressed criticisms and anxieties about Muslims and Islam.

In the 1970s and 1980s a certain type of anti-racism developed in the academy and in certain polities like Britain. While critically alerting society to various forms of direct and indirect racism, it tended to frame non-white minorities in terms of racism, even to the point of creating a singular subject as the victim of racism, namely ‘blacks’, as if such groups of people had no identities of their own that were equal to that of the identities ascribed to them by white people (or by the political project of blackness). I have indicated that there is a danger that ‘anti-Islamophobia’ could go the same way as the earlier form of anti-racism, and some of the ways that this can be avoided. Namely, to ensure that Islamophobia does not become the primary analytical frame for the study of Muslims in the West but that it is situated within a broader ‘struggle for recognition’ frame.

(1) See Modood, T. (2005) Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain, Edinburgh University Press and Minnesota University Press; Modood, T. (2007/2013) Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea, Second Edition, Polity Press.


Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy, Director, University of Bristol Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, Robert Schuman Fellow, European University Institute, 2013-2015.

Image: Reflection Photography by Giulia Marangoni