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Normalizing And Politicizing “Islamophobia” (Andrea Stanton, G. Carole Woodall)

Over the past three years, the word “Islamophobia” has gone from an obscure term used by well-intentioned academics to one that regularly appears in US print and television news media.

Newsbank, which aggregates print media and wire service articles, blog posts, television and other Internet videos, magazines and other periodicals, and government documents, from the United States and other countries, reports over 24,000 mentions of the word “Islamophobia” in US sources as of early June 2017. Over 60% of them occurred in 2015 (4712), 2016 (7224), and the first six months of 2017 (2860), suggesting that “Islamophobia” has moved from fringe to mainstream. (2010 was a breakthrough year, with 1772 mentions, up from 454 in 2009, but 2015 was a major increase over 987 in 2014.)

The term “Islamophobia” has several possible origin points. The University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender says: “The term “Islamophobia” was first introduced as a concept in a 1990s Runnymede Trust Report and defined as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims,” along the model of “xenophobia”.

But a former Runnymede staffer involved with the report says that the term already existed, describing its origin as a French term (islamophobie) used in the early 1900s to “criticize French colonial administrators for their treatment of Muslim subjects”. He suggests that well-known cultural theorist Edward Said was the first to employ the term in English-language discourse, starting in the 1980s, and framing it as an issue similar to anti-Semitism.

Perhaps ironically, the first time that “Islamophobia” appeared in the New York Times, one of the United States’ flagship newspapers, was on Sunday, September 9, 2001 – but in the context of excerpts from a United Nations conference held in Durban, South Africa, which in part addressed rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia around the world. Subsequent usages were few: one in December 2001 that defined Islamophobia as “a Western fear of Islam”, two in 2002, three in 2003, seven in 2004, and continuing to increase slowly through the rest of the decade.

The word was often used with quotation marks. After the Park 51 community center became a cause célèbre as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy in Summer 2010, “Islamophobia” began appearing in the Times and other news media publications, much more frequently.

Since 2010, the term has begun to gain traction in Arabic as well, as a transliterated word. For example, a December 2014 broadcast on Al Jazeera discussed Islamophobia in Europe, with an accompanying article that defined the term as “fear of Islam” (al-khauf min al-Islam).­ “Islamophobia” has its own Arabic-language Wikipedia page, as well as one in Turkish. This suggests that the term is gaining credence in Muslim-majority societies as well as in Europe and North America, with English-language references dominating both pages.

Together, the geometric all suggests “Islamophobia’s increasing normalization in US political and analytic discourse – as a recognized, if not yet household term. But the striking point is the ways in which its television and print media usage differ. On US television networks, Fox News is by far the most frequent user of “Islamophobia”. Not CNN, not MSNBC, not even the now-defunct Al Jazeera America.  What does the fact that America’s most prominent right-wing television network, not middle-of-the-road or liberal ones, is the most frequent user of “Islamophobia” tell us about how conservative journalists and commentators are employing the term?

Using Television Explorer, which examines how many times a particular word or phrase is used on the closed captioning transcripts of major American news networks (Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, Fox Business, MSNBC), the BBC, and/or regional news network affiliates, we examined the frequency with which “Islamophobia” was used within the past twelve months: 217 times, in total. Fox News used the term 96 times, and Fox Business 39 times. CNN used it 42 times, MSNBC 29 times, Bloomberg eight times, and CNBC three times.

We then zoomed in, to look at the frequency with which “Islamophobia” was used over the past three months. While the total number was relatively low – 55 – the distribution of use was striking. Fox News used the term 45 times, and Fox Business 3 times. CNN used it six times, while MSNBC used the term once. What is striking is that usage of “Islamophobia” is not evenly distributed across each period of time. The daily usage chart shows major spikes on particular days, suggesting that particular programs used the term heavily – as with the October 10 and 11, 2016 news coverage of the October 9 town hall-style presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, in which one questioner, an American Muslim, asked about Islamophobia.

More recently, Fox News’ “The Five”, a nightly roundtable discussion that airs at 9pm Eastern time, used the term extensively during its May 24 show on “Confronting terror and the ISIS threat”. “The whole strategy is that Islamophobia as a term is designed to shut people down”, said Greg Gutfeld, arguing that liberals deploy the term to stop discussion of what he considers more pertinent topics, such as immigration and terrorism.

“Islamophobia” isn’t the only term for which Fox News outstrips other news networks. It also uses “radical Islam” and “political correctness” much more frequently. From March to June 2017, Fox News used “political correctness” 224 times, and Fox Business used the phrase 133 times. MSNBC used it 25 times, and CNN used it 20 times. In other words, Fox anchors and commentators have taken the term “Islamophobia” and positioned it within a discourse about radical Islam and political correctness.

This is a new use of the technique of linguistic reappropriation, the effort “whereby a stigmatized group revalues an externally imposed negative label by self-consciously referring to itself in terms of that label”. By deploying the term “Islamophobia” in the context of a self-consciously anti-“politically correct” discourse, Fox News’ commentators and others in similar contexts are reclaiming the term – suggesting that identifying as Islamophobic, just like being politically incorrect, is a brave and honorable act.

Andrea L Stanton is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Denver. G. Carole Woodall is Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Women’s and Ethnics Studies Department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.


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