GIR Seminar | “Islamophobia” as an essentially contested term
“Islamophobia” is a relatively new and highly contested term. While it is becoming increasingly prevalent in media and political discourse across the English-speaking world, it is yet to achieve the discursive resonance of terms such as “racism” or “antisemitism”. Like these terms, however, it often generates complaints that it is being used to stifle legitimate political debate. These complaints often take on a populist cast, with politicians and media figures claiming that activists and governmental elites use the accusation of Islamophobia to dismiss the fears of ordinary citizens about Islam. This paper rigorously explores the dynamics of contestation around the term Islamophobia through frame analysis of more than five hundred speeches mentioning the term in the British, American, Canadian and Australian national legislatures. I find widely-varying levels of contestation across the cases, with the most important variable being the extent to which conservatives accept and use the term to denote social problems. In the UK, where the term Islamophobia originated and is most widely used, it is least contested in parliament but also least likely to be used as an accusation. Instead, the institutionalisation of the term, which was widely used in British officialdom before entering popular discourse, allows it to be used by members of all parties to describe structural problems in impersonal ways. In the other cases, to different degrees, Islamophobia is regularly contested by mainstream conservative politicians and also regularly levelled as an accusation by parties of the left. This paper explores the contextual reasons for this variance, as well as important similarities across cases—the use of Islamophobia to refer to problems in civil society rather than the state, the frequent discursive pairing of Islamophobia with antisemitism, and the symbolic nature of legislative debate about Islamophobia, which is generally unconnected to concrete political action.
About the Speaker
David Smith is jointly appointed between the United States Studies Centre and the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.