Defining Islamophobia And Its Socio-Political Applications In The Light Of The Charlie Hebdo Attacks In Paris

Ills.: UK Human Rights Blog

This study concentrates on the definition of Islamophobia based on an etymological overview of the term and application of it in political discourse in Europe, following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris (encompassing the attacks on the magazine’s office, Jewish supermarket and police officers). Firstly, emphasizing the influential Runnymede Report on Islamophobia (1997), an extensive research on the application and definition of the term are presented. Secondly, a political discourse analyses (PDA) method is applied to official responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks by leading politicians from twelve European countries. Results of this analytical framework are discussed in light of contemporary definitions of Islamophobia with particular attention given to the definition by Runnymede Trust. The study culminates with an elaborated discussion and presumptive solutions to the growing ambiguity and dispute concerning the phenomenon of Islamophobia and its definition.

Key words: Islamophobia, Runnymede Report, Charlie Hebdo attacks, European Union, populism

Historical perspective
The phenomenon of Islamophobia, considered as fear, dislike or prejudice against Islam and its followers, is arguably as long as Islam itself. In the contemporary world, a pivotal moment in the study of Islamophobia as a phenomenon and its definition was the publication of a report titled: Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All (Runnymede Trust, 1997, hereafter: The RT Report) by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, established by the Runnymede Trust. In a pioneering study the independent race, ethnic and religious equality think-tank attempted at the identification of causes and reasons for the phenomenon of Islamophobia as well as defining it. According to the Runnymede Trust, Islamophobia is: ‘… a shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’ (The RT Report, 1). And further: ‘the term Islamophobia refers to unfounded hostility towards Islam. It refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities, and to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs (ibid.; 4).’ The report reached much further than a mere identification of the terminology and consequently the definition along with its characteristics (outlined below) remain the most quoted and influential study on Islamophobia as a phenomenon and from an etymological perspective. In an attempt at breaking down the causes and reasons for the ‘hatred’, ‘hostility’ and ‘discrimination’ towards Islam the authors made an essential distinction between ‘legitimate criticism’ and ‘unfounded prejudice and hostility’ towards Muslims (The RT Report; 4). Consequently, the commission proposed closed and open views towards Islam and its believers, illustrating two essentialised approaches a non-Muslim can have towards the Islamic religion and its worshippers. ‘Phobic dread of Islam is the recurring characteristic of closed views. [While] legitimate disagreement and criticism, as also appreciation and respect, are aspects of open views’ (The RT Report; 4). Identification of the two contrastive views was based on acknowledging eight main features of each of them. The eight features of the closed/open views were recognized as: monolithic/diverse; separate/interacting; inferior/different; enemy/partner; manipulative/sincere; criticism of West rejected/considered; discrimination defended/criticized; Islamophobia seen as natural/problematic (The RT Report, p. 5).

The report achieved international recognition and for a long time it was the go-to definition and study on the phenomenon of Islamophobia. However, nearly two decades on, scholars began to question the underpinning closed/open views approach (Allen, 2007, 2010). Most notably Allen (2010) highlights that the report was intended as a policy document aimed at raising awareness of the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia, influence policy makers and provide an informative resource for anyone working in the equality field and beyond (55). Initially the closed views described in the report served as an attempt at illustrating what constituted to be a prejudice against Muslims, but as Allen (2007; 5) points out, the closed views became largely the definitive of the term Islamophobia. In other words, Islamophobia is identified as a result of the closed views of Islam, but nothing more. This black and white approach simplifies the complexity and scope of the phenomenon. The grey area overlooked in this approach consists of prejudice originating not from closed views but from the differences in values, culture and world outlooks, visible in workplace interactions, education or in service provisions (ibid.). Furthermore, lack of the grey areas in the distinction between closed and open views could suggest that there are only two ways a non-Muslim could perceive Islam and its believers – either by being a closed view Islamophobe or an open view Islamophile. Allen (2007; 6) argues that the vast middle ground omitted in the report gave space to a more indirect and complex form of prejudice against Muslims. In this sense, the report ignored issues such as the niqab debate, multiculturalism and processes of religious and cultural integration.

Indeed the lack of the middle ground within open and closed views excludes the possibility of the diversification of the Muslim community and as a result creates a generalized image of what Allen calls ‘essentialised Muslims’ (Allen, 2010; 76). The ‘essentialised Muslim’ can only be viewed in two essentialised ways: from an open view perspective and a closed view perspective. ‘Consequently Islamophobia becomes reduced to a phenomenon that is both overly simplistic and largely superficial, defined more by the characteristics of the victims than the motivation and purpose of the perpetrators themselves’ (Allen, 2010; 80). By creating contrastively opposite categories, the Runnymede report does not fully address the problems of Islamophobia and what may constitute to it. It creates artificial essentialised categorizations of Muslims and non-Muslims that hardly respond to socio-political realities. More importantly though, Muslims who do not prescribe or fit into the black and white dimensions of the report – and effectively fall into the grey areas – are being excluded from the Islamophobia discourse and automatically can become the main victims of the phenomenon itself. ‘(…) Islamophobia cannot be determined, differentiated and defined by “type”of Muslims being victimized. It has to go beyond this and take into account the recognition of an actual or perceived “Muslim-ness’’ (Allen 2010; 79). Addressing Islamophobia begins from a mere generalization of the Muslim population and a further generalization of non-Muslims who perceive Islam in various ways. ‘(…) What equally emerges from this, is an Islamophobia that is ‘abstract in its understanding, definition and conceptualization, dependent upon both the views and perceptions of non-Muslims as well as the very condition, actions, beliefs and behaviors of some, rather than all Muslims themselves’ (ibid.; 80).

Allen’s analyses of the influential report opened up new dimensions to the previously simplified phenomenon and its definition. The ambiguity and complexity of it, hardly addressed during the 1990s, have been taken to a new level in the post 9/11 world, where the terminology of Islamophobia became arguably even more problematic. Scholars and authors began to question the very definition of Islamophobia and endeavored to re-define the umbrella term for all things anti-Islam. In their diverse definitions, authors such as Deepa Kumar (2012; 2), Ibrahim Kalin (2011; 11) concentrate on the racial dimension of the phenomenon; Nathan Lean and John Esposito (2012; 13) along with Tahir Abbas (2011; 65) highlight the ‘fear’ and ‘phobia’ aspects of the phenomenon and its definition; while Mohamed Nimer (2011; 78) and Hedvig Ekerwald (2011), as well as aforementioned Abbas, pay attention to the cultural and religious characteristics of Islamophobia. Even Chris Allen (2011; 190), following his elaborated criticism of the Runnymede Report attempted at re-defining the problematic definition. Yet, his 224 words long explanation, comprising of a list of all the above-mentioned factors contributing and resulting from Islamophobia is not only unquotable but more importantly: dysfunctional.

One of the most interesting descriptions of the phenomenon comes from Jocelyne Cesari’s (2011) contemporary socio-political definition and further explanation: ‘[Islamophobia] is a modern and secular anti-Islamic discourse and practice appearing in the public sphere with the integration of Muslim immigrant communities and intensifying after 9/11’ (ibid.; 21). ‘The term Islamophobia is contested because it is often imprecisely applied to very diverse phenomena, ranging from xenophobia to antiterrorism. It groups together all kinds of different forms of discourse, speech, and acts by suggesting that they all emanate from an identical ideological core, which is an irrational fear (a phobia) of Islam.’ (ibid.; p. 21). Cesari’s observations are perhaps the most accurate account of what is currently wrong with the definition of Islamophobia. It is its ambiguity, generality, diversity and underpinning its fear that make it impossible to apply it to all the various phenomena that can originate or follow from prejudice towards Islam. Furthermore, the term’s etymology exemplifies how the terminology grew from a simple definition of unfounded prejudice and fear to an ideology comprising complex socio-political aspects.

Commemorating the 20th anniversary of its initial publication, in 2017 the Runnymede think-tank published a follow up to the 1997 report (Elahi & Khan, 2017). The aim of the report was ‘to improve the accuracy and quality of public debate and action in response to Islamophobia’, which followed in the two decades after the publication of the original report (1). Based on the feedback on the original Runnymede report, the authors provide ten recommendations for raising awareness and acting against Islamophobia as well as formulating two new definitions. An elaborated one: ‘Islamophobia is any distinction, exclusion, or restriction towards, or preference against, Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.’ (Elahi & Khan, 2017; 1); and a shortened one: ‘Islamophobia is anti-Muslim racism’ (ibid.; 1). While the report includes 16 short articles addressing the phenomenon from numerous different perspectives, the contribution of Bunglawala (2017) is particularly interesting as it tackles the question if ‘Islamophobia is more a hindrance than a help to those of us concerned with negative outcomes for individuals who are, or are assumed to be, of Muslim background’ (69). She also discusses alternative definitions of the term, such as ‘anti-Muslim racism’, ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’ or ‘anti-Muslim discrimination’, but considers retaining of the term Islamophobia necessary for two reasons. Firstly: ‘media reporting on Islam and Muslims shows that “Islam” and “Islamic” are more likely to be negatively framed in the British press than “Muslims”, thus placing group association and (perceived) group membership at the core of collective stereotyping and its consequences’ (70). And secondly: ‘reverting to a victim-centered terminology (focusing on the “Muslim”, not “Islam”) risks bifurcating the counter-narrative and dislodging it from contextual factors that are themselves collectivizing and homogenizing when it comes to Islam and Muslims’ (70). Contrary to other contributors of the new report, Bunglawala returns to the initial open/closed views approach initiated by the first Runnymede Report (72). She considers it a useful and effective development in the etymological debate on Islamophobia, especially in light of the new shortened definition considering Islamophobia as merely ‘anti-Muslim racism’. While expressing her objections, Bunglawala continues using the term Islamophobia, as do other authors in the follow up report, argueing: ‘At a time when the terms ‘Islam’, ‘Islamic’, ‘extremist Islam’ and ‘Islamist’ are prolifically used and laden with negative overtones, is it so surprising that ‘Islamophobia’ retains its potency in naming the object of hate?’ (ibid.; 72).

It is the aim of this article to analyze how functional the contemporary definitions and understandings of Islamophobia in political discourse of contemporary Europe are. Europe-wide political reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015 are taken as a case in point. The attacks, as the first in a series of terrorist violence in Europe in 2015, heralded an era of increased prejudice and racist discourse and activities directed at Muslims communities across the European Union (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), 2016). Moreover, given the characteristics of the attacks’ perpetrators, the tragedy reinforces the fear of homegrown religious radicalization in Europe. The political reactions to the attacks are crucial in identifying the contemporary political discourse regarding Islamophobia, with implications on, firstly the phenomenon and its definition itself, and secondly on political, legislative and social levels.

Following the introduction, this article presents an overview of the Charlie Hebdo attacks (section 2), a description of the applied methodology (section 3), the presentation and analysis of the data (sections 4 and 5) and a conclusion and discussion where an alternative term and definition for Islamophobia are suggested (section 6).

Overview of Charlie Hebdo Attacks
On January 7 2015, Said and Cherif Kouachi, two brothers of Algerian origin, born and raised in France, committed a terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo Magazine office in Paris, killing eleven people using assault rifles. The following day Amedy Coulibaly, of Malian origins, also born and raised in France shot and killed a municipal officer in one of the Parisian suburbs. A two-day manhunt culminated on the 9th of January when the Kouachi brothers were shot dead by the French police following raiding a hideout of the brothers. The same day saw Coulibaly storming a kosher supermarket in Paris and killing four hostages inside the store. Coulibaly was shot dead following a police raid on the building. While all of the attackers were of Muslim faith, their understanding and commitment to the religion had been heavily disputed following an investigation (Meichtry, Bisserbe & Faucon, 2015). The Al Qaeda branch in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office as a response to the frequent caricatures lampooning the Prophet Muhammad (Schmitt, 2015), yet no terrorist organization claimed responsibility for Coulibaly’s actions (Burke & Mark, 2015). In a video released posthumously, Coulibaly himself claimed affiliation with the Islamic State (Borger, 2015).

The study setup was based on a data corpus of immediate political responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, issued by political parties, party leaders and national governments of selected European Union (EU) countries and further crossed checked with official party manifestos. Discourse analyses were carried in accordance with the Political Discourse Analysis (PDA) method (Fairclough, 1995; van Dijk, 1993, 1997; Blommaert & Bulcaen, 2000), focusing on establishing who do the authors of each political response blame for the attacks, and how the attack’s perpetrators were referred to. The aim of PDA in this study is to analyze the language in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in order to assess how, and if, the linguistic reproduction of racism or any form of prejudice works in the context of contemporary definitions of Islamophobia. ‘Political actions or practices are at the same time discursive practices. In other words, forms of text and talk in such cases have political functions and implications’ (van Dijk, 1997; 14). Consequently, politician’s responses, as well as party manifestos provide essential evidence of the political and personal stance, as well as insights into the application of the definition of Islamophobia in a broader social context.

3.1 Country and Political Party Selection
The selection of countries for analysis was based on two elements: the initial membership in the European Union and a significant Muslim population in a given country. It can be feasibly argued that countries with a longer membership and integration history maintain stronger political and diplomatic ties with each other, which consequently contributes to a higher expectation for official responses to the attack. Further, the chosen countries are among the most populated EU members, which, along with their longstanding membership in the European Union, have influential implications and can serve as an example to newer and/or less populated member states.

The initial signatories of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 – considered as official creation of the European Union – were: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom (Council of the European Communities and Commission of the European Communities (Maastricht Treaty), 1992). The Muslim population in all of the initial signatory states of the treaty (except for Ireland and Portugal) is higher, or significantly higher, than 2% of the overall population (Hackett, 2016). It is the 2% population threshold this study considers as ‘significant population’. Furthermore, it is feasible to argue that all of the chosen countries do not have a long history of Islam in their societies (with a notable exception of Spain and Greece for geographical reasons – in other words, directly neighboring with Muslim majority countries). The selected countries have been experiencing an influx and development of Muslim communities over the last 100 years, rather than hosting significant number of Muslim communities due to historical and geographical reasons. In other words, these are the countries at the forefront of the problematic notions of multiculturalism, cultural integration and religious pluralism in Europe.

In order for a more accurate representation and data analysis, two exceptions in the choice of countries were made. Austria (5.4% of overall country’s population is Muslim) and Sweden (4.6%) replaced two initial signatory countries with insignificant Muslim population (Ireland 1.1% and Portugal 0.3%). Both of these countries (Austria and Sweden) ratified the Maastricht Treaty in 1994, becoming the second oldest members of the European Union (Finland was the third country to sign the Treaty in 1994, however its Muslim population stands at 0.8%). Summarizing, Table 1 (below) outlines all the countries and parties selected for the study along with information on percentages of Muslims in the overall population in each country, as well as whether a party or party representative issued a statement on the attacks or not.

In order to provide an accurate picture of the European Union political spectrum, the selection of political responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks presents a complete list of statements from parties in power (ruling parties), main opposition parties, and populist parties from selected member states. Parties in power were determined by their membership in (the leading coalition forming) the government. Opposition parties were selected according to the highest number of votes outside of the parties that won the elections or formed the leading coalition or government. The populist parties were determined by their anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-elitisms political stance as exemplified in the party manifestos and overall political discourse of the party. In two instances (Austria’s Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV)) the main opposition party and populist party categories overlapped. Due to their political stance, these parties were considered as populist parties.

It is clear that ruling parties along with their main opponents receive the biggest media coverage and therefore their responses may be considered the most influential and significant. Main opposition parties are also likely to use a stronger rhetoric in order to highlight the ruling parties response as well as possible future legislative actions, or lack of thereof, taken by the parties in power. Populist parties on the other hand, are most likely to benefit from a prejudiced discourse (van Dijk, 1993; 60), and therefore add additional dimensions to the analytical framework, consequently allowing for a complete picture of the political dialogue used in the context of the attack. Based on these considerations the study made a distinction between (1) ruling parties (including coalitions), (2) main opposition parties and (3) populist parties. Additionally, in analyzing the responses, political party manifestos have been taken into consideration allowing for a larger contextual framework.

Summarizing, out of the 12 selected countries: 33 ruling parties (including coalitions) with 20 party manifestos; 9 opposition parties with 6 manifestos; and 7 populist parties with 7 manifestos were analyzed – all together accounting for 49 political parties and 33 party manifestos.

3.2 Data gathering
The method of investigation and data gathering was conducted exclusively online, using the online search engine Google – for individual leaders’ responses; and government and party websites – for official statements, press releases and party manifestos. In case a party response was not issued or a manifesto not attainable online, such instances were reported and used for further analysis. The majority of the statements were not issued in English. Consequently, translations of the responses were carried using Google Translate online software and additionally verified by native speakers of the country and language in question.

Many parties in power, in addition to their leader’s response, issued official statements on governmental websites or official party websites. If such a statement was available, it was included in the study. In five cases (Germany’s CDU, Italy’s PD, the Netherlands’ VVD, Belgium’s MR, Sweden’s SD) additional statements by other influential party politicians (not party leaders) were published on party websites – such statements were also included in the study. If political responses or statements were not published via official party or government websites, but reported by a news agency, the information was crosschecked with other media outlets. Following, appropriate quotations regarding issues concerning identification of perpetrators, blame of the attacks and any mention of Islamic religion, Muslims, terrorism or radicalization were selected and included in the list of responses and data corpus. Party manifestos or programs were downloaded from official party websites and used for supporting analyzes in order to identify the party stance on Islam and Muslims but also more generally, on racism, prejudice, religion, extremism, radicalization and terror.

3.3 Data analysis
Political responses were collected and formulated into a data corpus concentrating on selected quotations of the responses addressing perpetrators of the attacks as well as terrorism and religious aspects by each party and/or politician. Each entry in the corpus considered the context of the response (e.g. time of the response, medium of communication, party manifesto), as well as on the identification of the discourse on Islam and Muslims conceived in each response through identification of how the perpetrators were recognized or described by political leaders. The discourse analyses concentrated on a two-fold analytical procedure. Firstly, in accordance with the most influential definition of Islamophobia by the Runnymede Report, and following its distinctions between open and closed views towards Islam, the analyses of each party response establish three crucial aspects of each response:
(1) Responsibility: Mention of the responsibility of the attacks in the statement (i.e. whom the politicians blame for the attacks);
(2) Islam or Muslims mentioned in the statement or not;
(3) Distinction made: Mention of the distinction between positive and negative aspects and members of Islamic religion in the statement.

Secondly, Political Discourse Analyses (PDA) of the responses was conducted using the analytical framework for the textual analysis discussed in van Dijk (1997, 2003) and Fairclough (1995). In doing so, the core tenants of the PDA (outlined below) are taken as a guideline for the critical analyses resulting in the identification of contemporary definitions of Islamophobia having been affected or not.

3.4 Political Discourse Analysis (PDA)
Political Discourse Analyses (PDA) can be treated as a cross-discipline deriving from Critical Discourse Analyses (CDA) and as such it builds upon the core assumptions of CDA such as: discourse constitutes society and culture; discourse does ideological work; the link between text and society is mediated; discourse is a form of social action; and discourse analysis is interpretive and explanatory (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997; 271-280). PDA differs from CDA in the significance given to the political context surrounding a political discourse, as well as the reproduction of political power, power abuse or domination and ‘discursive conditions and consequences of social and political inequality [sic] that results from such domination’ (van Dijk, 1997; 11). PDA concentrates on political actors, rhetoric, context, time, medium of communication as well as any other related issue by identifying it and including it in the analytical framework – it is also resultantly characterized by it (van Dijk, 1997, 2003). The central aim of PDA is to critically evaluate a text, speech or any type of human discourse in order to extract or explore the subliminal messages, broader social context and social ramifications of the text (Fairclough, 1995; 23). Indeed, CDA’s as well as PDA’s ‘locus of critique is the nexus of language/discourse/speech and social structure’ (Blommaert & Bulcaen, 2000; 449). Critical Discourse Analyses are crucial in unraveling the hidden, as well as the more obvious power relation structures buried in a particular discourse.

Context of the political discourse in this study is the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris in January 2015 and the immediate reaction of political leaders to it. Immediate responses to such attacks are crucial, as firstly: political discourse is expected to be analyzed by political commentators (i.e. media), as well as politicians themselves; secondly: the abrupt reactions are often carried before the fully known assessment of the unfolding tragedy and therefore are more expressive and analytically compelling. In this study all of the political responses have been recorded or published within three days of the attack (with an exception of the Austrian FPÖ party leader).

Actors in this process are the leaders of nationwide political parties of each selected country: those in power, the main opposition and the populist parties at the time of the attack.

Macro and micro levels of the political discourse analyzed in this study were approached as follows: macro – three levels of political power (parties in power, opposition and populist parties), as well as the relation between political parties as a social group and its audience (population of each country and by extension the population of Europe) as another social group; micro – language used in each response and verbal interaction as exemplified in various mediums of communication.

Medium of communication varied and included communication channels such as parliamentary speeches, media interviews, and official, party or government websites. The importance of medium of communication was crucial in highlighting the possible difference in responses issued officially (e.g. government website, party website, official telegraph) and unofficially (e.g. media interview, parliamentary speech).

Political Parties’ Responses
The responses of the political parties and/or leaders of the selected countries are presented in the following three sections in accordance with the methods outlined in the previous section, i.e. the responses of the ruling parties (4.1), the main opposition parties (4.2) and the populist parties (4.3).

4.1 Ruling Parties Response