on 4 January 2011
Any book which discusses and opposes the bigotry of the moment is welcome. This is an interesting book, certainly useful in parts but is ultimately a little frustrating and something of a missed opportunity. There are better analyses of the issue, specifically the politics, of Islamophobia in existence.
The basis of Allen's book is a critique of the Runnymede Trust's analysis of Islamophobia and his suggestion of an alternative definition, and this is one of the most useful parts of the book.
Allen argues that the Runnymede Trust definition itself essentialises Muslims and Islam and the Trust is inconsistent in the way that it treats Antisemitism and Islamophobia. The criticism is fair enough and the alternative definition that Allen offers at the end of the book is useful enough. The critique does seem stuck, however, in the realm of academic sociological models rather than in the world of politics.
Allen recognises long standing hostility in the West to Islam and yet places too much emphasis on terrorist atrocities like 9/11 and 7/7 as the cause of Islamophobia. The motivation of the terrorists, the injustices perpetrated by Western powers in the Islamic world, don't seem to warrant a mention, the terrorist attacks, in Allen's narrative, seem to just happen - without context. In other parts of the book, Allen acknowledges that a colonialist past has shaped the Western view of Muslims but current wars and conflicts and the role they play in shaping events are not considered.
Allen largely ignores the whole background of current imperialism, wars, the War on Terror, the way that hostility to Muslims and hostility to migrants and asylum seekers meshes and informs one another and creates new forms of racism that has been so well analysed and described by those working for the Institute of Race Relations.
Likewise the issue of the Danish cartoons controversy. Allen seems to imagine that this was purely an issue of free speech and ignores the racist content of the cartoons, how they borrow from a tradition of racist cartoon imagery in Europe, were produced in a country that has seen the rise of a right wing racist party which targets Muslims and the where the editor of the paper concerned has expressed hostile views towards Muslim immigration to Denmark. I would not expect a serious examination of Islamophobia to miss this context. Again, the background to this sort of controversy has been well analysed, and better analysed, by writers like Liz Fekete who Allen doesn't cite at all.
Allen is better when he comes to the examination of the essence of Islamophobia. His borrowing of Thompson's model of how ideology works is useful in explaining how ideas can become established in society.
And Allen is absolutely correct to characterise Islamophobia as an ideology. This makes his attachment to the term `Islamophobia' all the more curious. For if it is an ideology, then, surely it is an `ism' not a `phobia'. Allen believes, rightly in my opinion, that phenomena can exist in history even though contemporaries didn't identify and name them. Allen also believes, wrongly in my opinion, that racism is a constant in human history. Allen had, thus, freed himself to name Islamophobia as `Anti-Muslim Racism' and yet chose to dismiss this, in my opinion, more accurate label through his rejection of the concept of `cultural racism'. Allen would have been on stronger ground if he'd worked into his analysis the idea that racism exists without race and that race itself is a social construct and a product of racialisation and that all racisms have involved antipathy to the culture of the victims of racism. If Allen had considered, for example, Matt Carr's work on the way that Islamophobes, in their growing `literary' output, which Allen doesn't reference, borrow heavily from past racist discourses, then he could have overcome this hurdle.
The definition of Islamophobia offered by Allen is useful. Ultimately, though, I feel that Allen's analysis, while useful, doesn't really take us any further forward in understanding the racism that is directed at Muslims, where it comes from, what causes it, how it meshes with other political issues and what can be done to combat it. There are better analyses already out there from authors like Fekete and Kundnani.