Islamophobia is a term of recent coinage (neologism) that came into use in the late 1980s or 1990s and is in widespread use in many European languages today. It denotes a stance that is hostile towards Islam, one that is either entirely opposed to Islam or expresses fears of Islam. Etymologically, the word has two parts: Islam and phobia, the latter – derived from the Greek phobos – meaning fear, dread and a phenomenon, long familiar in psychology, that arises when people’s fears compel them to various forms of avoidance, or that arises when their fears render them incapable of action. In any event, phobias involve forms of avoidance or defensive reactions that defy rational explanation. The term became particularly prominent through a document on the subject (Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All), published by the UK anti-racism organisation Runnymede Trust in 1997. The term has gained even more currency since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001. Use of the term is part racist and part anti-religious in motivation; the result is that a fear of terrorist attack by Islamic extremists is projected upon Muslims generally, poisoning the prospects for peaceful coexistence with Muslims in Europe.
A religion’s extreme positions are viewed differently depending upon the perspective involved. Judged from within, these are marginal phenomena that often have little left in common with the religion. Viewed from the outside, these phenomena are closely associated, or even identified, with the religion itself.
Likely the oldest of these groupings acting in the name of Islam are the Deobandi on the Indian subcontinent, the Islamic Party (Jamaat-e-‑Islami) founded on the Indian subcontinent by Saiyid Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), and the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt by teacher Hasan al‑Banna (1906-1949). The overwhelming majority of the membership of the Muslim Brotherhood is peace-loving and seeks to augment the influence of Islam in politics through democratic means, yet the perception in the West is directed primarily at groups that also resort to violent means to achieve their political ends.
The Salafi movement is a broad phenomenon in Islam, one with a variety of nuances, yet Western perceptions have narrowed to the point that the term is associated exclusively with those who seek to make Islam a political-ideological direction. Particularly in Germany, Salafism is seen as a fanatical direction that considers its interpretation of religion to be the one true interpretation, that rejects democracy and interreligious dialogue, and that interprets jihad (i.e. struggle for the faith) as the obligation of every Muslim in such a way as to legitimise armed and even terrorist struggle against the majority society. Activities by Salafis in Germany rank among the reasons for an increase in Islamophobia, and Salafis in Germany are under observation by the German domestic intelligence service, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV).
During the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviets (1979-1989), a group of Qur’an students (Taliban) from the Deobandi School fought particularly fiercely against the Soviets before temporarily taking power in the country upon the Soviets’ withdrawal. American forces and their allies, intervening in the wake of the attacks of 11 September 2001, forced the Taliban to retreat; they have been active in the underground ever since. The Taliban pursued a course of radical orientation around a highly conservative interpretation of Islam and sharia, considerably restricting the rights of women and religious minorities. The Taliban were also not reluctant to resort to extremist violence in the name of Islam. These Taliban occasionally allied themselves with foreign Muslims who had come to Afghanistan to support the Afghans in their fight, first against the Soviets and then against the Americans. Many of them had joined forces with al-Qaeda, the group under the leadership of Saudi Arabia-born Osama bin Laden (1957-2011). They became best known for a large number of attacks and are feared and active in worldwide terrorism. No doubt their most shameful attack was the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the assault on the Pentagon in Washington on 11 September 2001.
The media in Germany also frequently report on attacks by less-renowned groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia. So it can be said without exaggeration that the discontented in many parts of the world have joined forces to take action against the interests in power, justifying their – often violent – fight against the existing order by invoking their interpretation of Islam. It cannot be ruled out that new groups with similar objectives will take shape in future, rendering even more difficult both the effort to combat Islamophobia and the sincere effort by Islamic and Christian theologians on behalf of interfaith dialogue.
A feature common to all of these movements is that they permit only their own views of religious obligation and their own interpretations of the Holy Scriptures. They combat dissenters within their own religion, reject persons with other religious affiliations, fight against dialogue in the name of their religion. They strive to gain and exercise political power through absolute rule and characterise as weakness any form of compromise. For these reasons, their existence as groups within states poses a genuine danger for peaceful coexistence with others who have other points of view within a particular country; their existence with a similar orientation in state form poses a threat to world peace.
Accordingly, the objective of all peace-loving people must be for all people of good will to come together in all parts of the world and, working together, to consider how they can confront the danger of extremism as a whole, and of religious extremism in particular, in order to ensure the peaceful coexistence of all.