Barâa Arar

It might seem there is an increasing number of “isms” and “phobias” in our society lately. Transphobia. Sexism. Fatophobia. Ableism. Islamophobia.

Perhaps it is overwhelming to keep up with the terminology, but understanding why these terms exist goes a long way towards identifying and eliminating them in our systems and societies. Activists and academics coined these terms to encapsulate forms of discrimination against certain groups of people, who are often minorities in a given population.

Long before I knew there was a word for it, I knew what Islamophobia felt like.  

These terms are not meant to be scary. They are meant to provide us with the vocabulary to explain systemic and social inequality in our lived experiences.

Barâa Arar will be writing a regular column for The Leveller this year, focused on Islamophobia in Canada.

Although I am a visible Muslim, I only learned the world Islamophobia in the last few years. The origins of the word are debated, but its employment in public discourse has increased recently, as anti-Muslim sentiment and tabled policies rose in North America.

Long before I knew there was a word for it, I knew what Islamophobia felt like.  

In grade 3, my father picked me up from school and as we were exiting the car, a woman approached my father, yelling insults at him. I do not remember all the details, but I recall that as she launched herself in our general direction, she accused him of stealing jobs and told him to go back to where he came from. After a few minutes of these attacks, a man who identified himself as her boyfriend took her aside and apologized to us on her behalf.  

At the time, I did not have the vocabulary to articulate what it felt like to be accused by a stranger. I knew something about her actions was abnormal and reprehensible, but I did not know what inclined her to do it. As an adult, I know what words to use, but identifying exactly what happened that day is still not so obvious. Was this really an act of Islamophobia? Xenophobia? Or maybe it was plain old racism?

Moments like the one I just described are messy and unclear. We might never get all the details about what pushed someone to treat others this way. But as a writer, it is helpful for me to use the term Islamophobia to speak about anti-Muslim sentiment and violence in a meaningful way.

When discussing Islamophobia, we must remember it seldom arrives to the party alone. It usually brings along its buddies: racism, sexism and classism.

Gender is a particularly important factor to consider when thinking about Islamophobia. Articles of clothing like hijab, niqab, burqa and/or abaya mark people both as Muslim and women. That type of targeting is coupled with racialization and becomes another factor in this perpetuated violence. To understand how Islamophobia operates on individuals and communities, we must approach it intersectionally.  

Like other forms of discrimination, Islamophobia operates on two interlocking levels: the systemic and the social. Islamophobia has also become more common in our political discourse and institutions. Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s unsuccessful yet rigourous campaign against Zunera Ishaq, who wished to wear a niqab at her citizenship ceremony, is a prime example of the state’s engagement in Islamophobic practices. Moreover, Pauline Marois’ 2013 Quebec Charter of Values, which disproportionately targeted Muslim women who wear hijab or niqab, is another example of politicians legislating with undercurrents of Islamophobia.

At other times, Islamophobia trickles down to everyday aggressions against those who are racialized Muslims. The 2017 Quebec mosque shooting that claimed the lives of six innocent Muslim congregants is an example, albeit more extreme, of the social manifestations of Islamophobia.

Systemic and social Islamophobia are intimately interconnected. Like I wrote almost a year ago now in The Leveller, Islamophobia translates from the political spheres to the social ones easily. The politicization of Muslim identities in politics makes targeting those communities fair game to the general public. It homogenizes and dehumanizes Muslims and makes them vulnerable targets.

Contrary to what many might assume, Islamophobia did not begin with U.S. President Donald Trump’s “not-a-Muslim ban” Muslim ban. Or the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11. Much like racism, Islamophobia ebbs and flows. Events like those I mentioned often cause violent reactions and outcries on the ground. But let us not be fooled, Islamophobia lingers even between those cataclysmic events.

Islamophobia is not always easy to pinpoint; it is messy and complicated. Defeating it requires a widespread collective response that begins with learning the right words and their meanings.

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