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Let’s not use Islamophobia to prejudice Muslims

By David Oginde | Feb 10th 2019 | 4 min read

There seems to be a new word recently introduced into our national discourse, but which seems to be gaining currency. Though not new in the international scene, the word “Islamophobia” is fairly recent in our lingua franca. This could be because circumstances necessitating the use of the word did not obtain in our context until recently. Without insulting the intelligence of our readers, let us explore the meaning of this word.

The etymology of the word “Islamophobia” shows it is made up of two root words, Islam and Phobia. Of course, Islam needs no exposition. Phobia, on the other hand, is defined as an anxiety disorder characterised by extreme and irrational fear of simple things or social situations. It has its origins from the ancient Greek word “phobos” which simply means “fear”, like in the fear of darkness. Accordingly, Islamophobia should basically mean the fear of Islam or at most, the fear of Muslims. What is interesting, however, is that the word has over time acquired a totally different meaning. Some dictionaries define Islamophobia as “prejudice against Muslims” while others call it “hatred for Muslims.” This twist to the original meaning of the word was actually officially adopted in 1997 in the UK, upon the presentation of 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”.

While CBMI may have been justified in their expansion of the meaning of the word, and the consequent introduction of a new item in the vocabulary, the import of their action may have inadvertently introduced a new problem in the social intercourse with Muslims and the discourse on Islamic matters. The situation that now obtains is that any critique – no matter how objective or well intentioned – on Islam or Muslim activities, is judged as Islamophobia. Likewise, decisions or actions taken by individuals, institutions, or groups, that appear to go against the general expectations of Muslims, are of necessity adjudged to be manifestations of Islamophobia.

In Kenya, Muslims have for a long time lived in harmony with the rest of society as to be unnoticeable as any different from others. I personally had Muslim friends in school and at university and never related with them any differently from my other friends. In fact, every once in a while, we would have deep and animated discussions and debates on matters faith, but never once did these degenerate to the point of creating any kind of phobia. Unfortunately, the situation seems to have changed in recent times. Discussions and debates on matters Islam, especially in the public arena, have tended to generate unexpected and unnecessary heat and hate. In such situations, Muslims and/or Islamophiles often come out, either in strong defence of the Islamic position, or in unfounded accusations of Islamophobia.

In the meantime, some of the activities or demands by the Islamic community in this nation call for an objective critique. Such cannot be silenced in the guise of repulsing Islamophobia. For example, the criticism of the recent Supreme Court ruling on the wearing of Hijab in Church sponsored schools appears unfounded. One of the reasons why religious institutions set up schools is to propagate their beliefs, norms, and values. This should be the expectation of any reasonable person enrolling into such institutions. It is thus unfair and totally unreasonable to willingly join these institutions and demand to be treated specially. The court however granted the management of the institutions to provide waivers at their own discretion. What is Islamophobic about that beats reason.

In another incident, an MP recently declared he was going to pay Madrasa teachers Sh15,000 per month from the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). It is anybody’s guess that if an MP were to pay Sunday School teachers such monies from the CDF, the said MP would face the wrath of the public and perhaps of the Auditor General. But perhaps the madrasa MP drew courage from the example of Hon Aden Duale who tweeted on May 13, 2017, “This is one of the new Madrasa with over 100 students and it’s part of the Tumaini Primary and Sec. schools funded by Garissa Township CDF.”

Of course, raising such questions are labelled as Islamophobia. But, could such accusations be deliberately meant to create the real Islamophobia – the fear of Muslims? One wonders.

- The writer is the Presiding Bishop of Christ is the Answer Ministries. [email protected]

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