August 5, 2019 Abdul Haqq

Islamophobia and its origins: Secularism & Islam

Definition of Islamophobia: the fear, hatred of, or prejudice against the Islamic religion or Muslims generally, especially when seen as a geopolitical force or the source of terrorism.[1]

First use of the term was reportedly at the beginning of the 20th century:

“The term was first used in the early 20th century, emerging as a [newly coined expression] in the 1970s. Its use increased during the 1980s and 1990s and reached public policy prominence with the report by the Runnymede Trust‘s Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia (CBMI) entitled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All (1997). The introduction of the term was justified by the report’s assessment that “anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new item in the vocabulary is needed””[2]

 History of the term [3]

One early use of the term was by the painter Alphonse Étienne Dinet and Algerian intellectual Sliman ben Ibrahim in their 1918 biography of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. Writing in French, they used the term islamophobie. Robin Richardson writes that in the English version of the book the word was not translated as “Islamophobia” but rather as “feelings inimical to Islam”. Dahou Ezzerhouni has cited several other uses in French as early as 1910, and from 1912 to 1918.

These early uses of the term did not, according to Christopher Allen, have the same meaning as in contemporary usage, as they described a fear of Islam by liberal Muslims and Muslim feminists, rather than a fear or dislike/hatred of Muslims by non-Muslims. Fernando Bravo López notes that an early definition of Islamophobia appears in the PhD thesis of Alain Quellien, a French colonial bureaucrat:

“For some, the Muslim is the natural and irreconcilable enemy of the Christian and the European; Islam is the negation of civilization, and barbarism, bad faith and cruelty are the best one can expect from the Mohammedans.”

Furthermore, he notes that Quellien’s work draws heavily on the work of the French colonial department’s 1902–06 administrator, who published a work in 1906, which to a great extent mirrors John Esposito‘s The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?

The first recorded use of the term in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1923 in an article in The Journal of Theological Studies.[4]

Misplaced fear of Islam and Muslims has existed way before the term Islamophobia was coined.

The term Islamophobia may be relatively new but opposition and fear of Islam and Muslims has existed preceding the era of the Crusades. Sufficient archival and historic accounts illustrate the extent to which anti-Muslim sentiment – Islamophobia led to campaigns to eliminate the Muslim presence. On 24th November 1095, Pope Urban II’s issued a call for the 1st Crusade against a common enemy – the alien ‘other’ – Muslims:

By the end of the 11th century, the Holy Land—the area now commonly referred to as the Middle East—had become a point of conflict for European Christians. Since the 6th century, Christians frequently made pilgrimages to the birthplace of their religion, but when the Seljuk Turks took control of Jerusalem, Christians were barred from the Holy City. When the Turks then threatened to invade the Byzantine Empire and take Constantinople, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I made a special appeal to Urban for help.

At the Council of Clermont, in France, at which several hundred clerics and noblemen gathered, Urban delivered a rousing speech summoning rich and poor alike to stop their in-fighting and embark on a righteous war to help their fellow Christians in the East and take back Jerusalem. Urban denigrated the Muslims, exaggerating stories of their anti-Christian acts…”

“Urban’s war cry caught fire, mobilizing clerics to drum up support throughout Europe for the crusade against the Muslims. All told, between 60,000 and 100,000 people responded to Urban’s call to march on Jerusalem.” [5]

Fast-forward to the 21st century and compare this with the US and its coalition War on Terror – initially named as a crusade by President George W Bush at the time.

What is Secularism & does Islam pose an inherent threat to it as a system?

Secularism is a system of beliefs [that] rejects all forms of religious faith and worship. It is also the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element.”[6]

Today’s secularised societies contrast those of the medieval period discussed earlier in that the previous era resorted to faith in the first instance, i.e. the church etc. whereas secular societies have relegated religion to solely a personal affair that should not influence or shape societal policies or trends.  The 16th and 17th centuries promoted progress towards developing intellectual faculties and worldly aspirations in preference to older more esoteric religiosity. Theological rhetoric therefore declined in societal significance to such an extent that we are witnessing today a drive towards a type of liberalism that actually conflict with various religions’ fundamental principles and teachings, i.e. the LGBT movement, attempts to introduce elements of this into sex education curricula for minors and same-sex ‘marriages’, to name but a few.

Islam within a secular environment

Some scholars assert that:

The concept of secularism is in direct conflict with the foundation of Islamic [societies]. Faith and worship are interwoven into the fabric of that societ[ies].” Sharia governs education and civic policy.[7]

However, the above assertion – while possible to implement within predominantly Muslim populated societies – is difficult to  completely enact within a  largely secular context. That said, the ability to practise Islam on an individual and communal basis is possible and continues to be the practice in such environments.  In fact, doctrinal and legal principles of Islamic law (Maqasid Sharia) are actually compatible with essential aspects of secular society dictates that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 30 Articles of the HR Declaration include the following:

Article 3: Everyone having the right to life, liberty and security of person,”[8]

Article 16: “1) Men and women of full age…having the right to marry and [establish] a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
2) Marriage being entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
3) The family [being] the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”

Article 17: “1) Everyone having the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
2) No one [being] arbitrarily deprived of his property”

Article 18 [in part]: “Everyone having the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…”

The Maqasid Sharia’s  five fundamental requirements for mankind stipulate the preservation of the following:

  1. Intellect (aql)
  2. Religion (deen)
  3. Life (nafs)
  4. Progeny/offspring (nasl) and;
  5. Wealth (maal)


In an attempt to reduce the influence of religion in various spheres of public and private life, Secularism has created a vacuum in which an increasing moral decline is being witnessed via aggressive and intolerant forms of liberalism taking root at socio-political and socio-cultural levels.

Across many societies – in response to this – we are also witnessing the return of social conservatism – some arguably more favourable than others. For example, religious communities are rejecting liberal policies considered antithetical to fundamental and immutable aspects of their faith – uniting with other faith groups to register the extent of their opposition. The rise of populism and the ensuing bigotry that accompanies it,  under Trump’s presidency, alongside the increasing influence of far right groups in Europe can also be cited as examples of the rejection of liberally extreme values.

Arguably, religion – and many would state Islam in particular – provides a moral counterbalance that is compatible with the type of social conservatism observed across the West up until the mid – late 20th century. Indeed, this is being recognised and acknowledged in the secular and liberal West with the growing number of conversions to Islam.






[5]St. Pierre, J: ‘What caused the Dark Ages’, Quora: 21st March 2019).

[6]Philips, B: ‘The Class of Civilisations: An Islamic View’,  Al-Hidaayah Publishing & Distribution, 2007, p.22 (citing The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, p.869)

[7]Ibid, pp.23&24

[8]UN Charter: Declaration of Human Rights, 10thDecember 1948:

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