All the Faces of Islamophobia

Islamofobia jako technologia władzy. Studium z antropologii politycznej (Islamophobia as a technology of power. A study on political anthropology) Monika Bobako Universitas, Kraków 2017, s. 418.


In the spring 2015, exploring Islamophobia in Central-Eastern Europe could still be regarded as a somewhat exotic preoccupation. The reason was not that prejudices against Muslims did not appear in the public discourse, but they did not provide an important political fuel, remaining just an element of a debate on the events in the Middle East. In the autumn of the same year a complete change of scene has occurred. A great wave of Islamophobia swept over public debate, poisoned the language of politics, and conquered social media. All major political forces succumbed to a moral panic surrounding the refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, but it reached a climax when the Polish Right represented by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) won the elections by exploiting the worst Islamophobic clichés in the visual and discursive forms drawn from the anti-Semitic propaganda going back to the first half of the 20th century.

Fear, hatred, and contempt for Muslims invaded both the salons of the elite and everyday language, and remain there until today, although in our part of Europe Moslems themselves constitute an almost imperceptible minority. Understanding what has happened is neither easy nor obvious. The person who decided to take up this challenge was the Polish philosopher Monika Bobako, whose book Islamophobia as a technology of power is an excellent instrument for coping with the nature and origins of today’s Islamophobia in the entire Western world (including its Central European part).

The author argues that contemporary Islamophobia cannot be reduced to an exaggerated reaction to a real threat from Jihadist terrorism associated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Contemporary Islamophobia cannot be reduced to an exaggerated reaction to a real threat from Jihadist terrorism associated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

It was born much earlier and manifests itself across the whole spectrum of political-ideological groups and communities. At the same time, in contrast to anti-Semitism or biological racism, which had been banished from mainstream debate in Europe and North America for many decades, even the most primitive prejudices against Muslims go unpunished in serious media, in the highest echelons of power and in the communities regarding themselves as cultivated and progressive. This universality of top-down Islamophobia, which gradually grew since the Iran revolution in 1979, the Gulf War in 1990, the resistance against the colonization of Palestine in the nineties, and the events of September 11, 2001, turned it into a political and widespread development, as it happened during the electoral campaign in Poland in the summer and autumn 2015.

Modern Genealogy, or Racism

Bobako’s book combines a philosophical perspective with anthropology of politics, sociology, political economy, and history. The author provides a comprehensive analysis of hostility to Moslems, places it in a wide context of the emergence of Western modernity, and finally the mechanisms of ideological and material reproduction of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Islamophobia is for her not an archaic intrusion of a long overcome irrational prejudice into rational public sphere, but a modern ideological formation serving the requirements of the expansion of forms of political, ideological, and economic power characteristic for capitalist societies of the 20th and 21st centuries. Paraphrasing Max Horkheimer, Monika Bobako claims that you cannot speak about Islamophobia by keeping silent about capitalism.

Outlining the genealogy of contemporary Islamophobia, the author goes back to the historical beginnings of the modern era and the founding acts of the figure of the Other in the West. She points to two key events— the expulsion of Iberian Jews after the occupation of Granada by Catholic kings of Spain in 1492 and exiling the descendants of Muslims (Morysians) and Jews (Marranes) converted to Christianity in 1607-1614. Between these two episodes, which were genocidal in their consequences (in both cases the persecutions resulted in more than 100,000 deaths), a uniquely modern construction of the Other emerged, focused not on religion (which you can always change), but on racial features, for the first time appearing in the Spanish doctrine of blood purity (limpieza de sangro) and articulated in terms of essentialistically conceived culture, and since the 19th century in terms of biology (from which there is no escape). It is then, Bobako emphasizes, that

Islamophobia is for her not an archaic intrusion of a long overcome irrational prejudice into rational public sphere, but a modern ideological formation.

the outlines of contemporary anti-Semitism and Islamophobia appeared. Discovering the common historical roots of both these forms of xenophobia has important implications for understanding the connections between their contemporary forms. It also helps to overcome the limitations resulting from the political instrumentalization of the claim to unique status for anti-Semitism (or Islamophobia) in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The Political Economy of Islamophobia, or How Moslems Were Invented

Monika Bobako goes far beyond the dominant liberal-culturalist explanations of the current career of anti-Moslem prejudices. She associates them with the crisis of capitalism and especially with the effects of crisis management with the use of neoliberal policies. And thus she outlines a political economy of Islamophobia.

The neoliberal project means the state withdrawing from the role of a force ensuring a social and political integration of society, and at the same time offers an ideological vision supporting this retreat. It puts responsibility for the consequences of neoliberal policies on their victims. It explains pauperization, inequalities, instability of labor relations, or unemployment not through systemic factors, but through cultural limitations of the population groups affected. In this way the poorest, often destabilized segments of the working classes are regarded as cultural minorities (Muslims, immigrants), and in those areas where until now a class conflict was perceived, the neoliberal project wants us to see this conflict in terms of identity.

Districts of Brussels or Paris which until recently were called working-class suddenly become immigrant, although they are populated by people who have never been migrants. And it works as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, because the worsening situation on the labor market and the retreat of the state drives the poor to seek support in family networks and local communities, which in such circumstances acquire strong ethnic-religious features. In this way neoliberal economic policies literally produce the Other.

In the Name of Tradition and Progress

Today’s Islamophobia has two main faces—conservative and progressive. The first one brings together conservative-nationalist defenders of “Chris- tian European values” allegedly threatened with infiltration by minority groups which “do not want to integrate.” Hostility to Muslims is here a variant of hostility towards other groups accused of poisoning the healthy organism of the so-called Latin civilization—feminists, sexual minorities, or even environmentalists. Bobako analyses this trend through texts of Paweł Lisicki, one of the most influential Polish right-wing journalists, editor-in-chief of DoRzeczy, who combines Islamophobic journalism with attempts to relativize old anti-Semitic myths.

Districts of Brussels or Paris which until recently were called working-class suddenly become immigrant, although they are populated by people who have never been migrants.

The second type is no less dangerous. Since the nineties, the extreme right in Europe has increasingly often used Republican or even Enlightenment rhetoric, exploiting the issue of the rights of women or sexual minorities. The examples of the Dutch Freedom Party, its Austrian counterpart, or the French National Front demonstrate that paradoxically this rhetoric is meant to serve politicians who deny the very idea of equality, which has always laid at the basis of historical struggle for minority rights. Today the rights of women (or gays) are to be an instrument of exclusion. They are employed to stigmatize immigrants as culturally not mature enough to respect them and to close the borders to refugees. The pretended concern for women revitalizes the old colonial/anti-Semitic fantasy of a racially alien man threatening “our” women.

The uniqueness of the situation we found ourselves in after 2015 is that both these forms of Islamophobia have merged in the rhetoric of such ruling parties as Polish Law and Justice or the Hungarian Fidesz or in the speeches of US President Donald Trump and the Czech President Miloš Zeman. This post-modernist mixture is the trademark of the new post-fascist right and an expression of its ideological inconsistencies, which are very efficient tools in the political strategy of managing the fears and frustrations of the lower middle classes.

Prejudices across Traditional Political Divisions

The strength of Islamophobic prejudices is, therefore, that their impact often goes across traditional political divisions. Some progressive communities— liberal-feminist, rationalist, or gay—succumb to the charm of Republican Islamophobia (Bobako calls it progressivist), unintentionally becoming allies of post-fascism. Such are the cases of the famous Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci, French feminist Elizabeth Badinter, or liberal activists from the Polish Women’s Congress, discussed by Bobako.

Monika Bobako’s book presents a fascinating picture of the forms of Islamophobia and reconstructs the mechanisms governing it. Outlining its expansion against a wider backdrop of economic and political crisis, she indicates that an effective fight against this development cannot be limited to the area of multicultural education. It is of course necessary, but

The strength of Islamophobic prejudices is, therefore, that their impact often goes across traditional political divisions.

far from sufficient. What is more, focusing on issues of multiculturalism assumes accepting the vision of society imposed by Islamophobic right and its progressive fellow travelers, and so it reinforces its domination in the discourse on the new forms of xenophobia in the Western world. Any genuine opposition against the wave of hostility to Others must be based on a discursive rejection of forms of producing otherness, and hence also some forms of multiculturalism.

Indeed, conclusions to be drawn from Bobako’s analyses seem to suggest that the right way could be depoliticizing identity and re-politicizing class antagonism, bringing together the struggle for the rights of women, criticism of racism and the imperial policy of the West in the global South, and finally overcoming the theoretical-ideological constructs such as Judeo-Christiani- ty, which create a vision of a modern Mediterranean cultural community, but exclude from it the Arab-Moslem tradition, thus reproducing the exclusivist movement of 19th-century colonial Orientalism towards “Semitism.” Islamophobia is deeply enrooted in the culture and power formations of the Western

Any genuine opposition against the wave of hostility to Others must be based on a discursive rejection of forms of producing otherness, and hence also some forms of multiculturalism.

world in the 21st century. Today’s Muslims have entered the role of a generalized Other. They will play this role until the dismantling of the ideological-political-economic framework which constantly recreates this otherness, compiles the elements forming it, and uses it to reproduce the ruling system and to manage its crisis. The eponymous “Islamophobia as a technology of power” will cease to work along with the order the interests of which it serves.

Przemysław Wielgosz

Przemysław Wielgosz is the chief editor of The Library of Le Monde Diplomatique – Polish edition book series. Author, co-author and editor of several books, recently issued TTIP – A Transatlantic Trap (2015) and The Dictatorship of Debt (2016). Co-curator of the exhibition „Refugees. present / absent” presented in gallery Księgarnia | Wystawa in Krakow, he cooperates with the Polish Theatre (Teatr Polski) in Bydgoszcz.

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