The term is commonly used now to describe the anti-Muslim animosity that is currently sweeping across Europe and the United States in the rhetoric and the policies of so-called “populist” movements and governments. We live in a world in which North Korea seeks to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the American homeland, and in which both China and Russia assert their status as world powers challenging U.S. interests in one place after another. Do “populists” like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders really stay awake at night worrying about an “existential threat” from militant Islam? Or are they simply reviving the old strategy of mobilizing resentful masses by directing their hatred against an allegedly evil religious enemy? Temporarily at least, especially in America, Jews are less plausible in this role than they used to be. Muslims will do just fine.
Yet the term “Islamophobia” is problematic. “Phobia” is a psychiatric term applied to an irrational fear—such as entomophobia (a.k.a. insectophobia), the fear that one is about to be attacked by swarms of huge, poison-spewing insects. Is fear of Islam quite as irrational? Comparable, therefore, to the anti-Semitic fantasies of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tract produced in Russia in the late 19th century, depicting a fictitious conspiracy by Jewish leaders to establish a world government? (By the way, an Arabic translation of the tract has recently been circulated by a radical Islamist group in the Middle East.) Some time ago a (rather brave) Egyptian journalist wrote that, while of course most Muslims are not terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims these days.
If one wants to get a vivid sense of the global reality of contemporary terrorism by radical Islamists, an easy way is to look at the daily online bulletin of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. It was established in 2008 by the former British Prime Minister (an engaged Christian, lately converted to Roman Catholicism) “to counter extremism in all six leading religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism.” Although this alphabetically organized list was obviously put together with interfaith politeness in mind, this must have required a degree of effort. The “leading” religion, as in the one with the most adherents, is probably Chinese folk religion. There are perhaps a dozen of fanatical Israelis who go out shooting Palestinians at random (usually in retaliation against many more fanatical Palestinian Muslims randomly attacking Israelis), but that’s it under the rubric of Judaism. There is a remarkable shortage of Christian suicide bombers. Just a few days ago the Blair Foundation’s bulletin, in addition to the attack on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, had items on Islamist acts of terror in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and Britain.
The Obama Administration avoided any mention of Islam in connection with terrorism (not easy to do when many acts of terrorism are performed by individuals who shout “Allahu Akbar!” during the attack). The rationale for this politesse is that we need the help of the millions of Muslims who detest terrorism in the name of their faith and who should not think that we are engaged in a war against that faith, which is just what the terrorists want them to think. That is a persuasive idea and one can only hope that eventually it will penetrate the minds of Donald Trump and his advisers. But those of us who continue to think of Islam as one of the great faiths, with immense contributions to human civilization, have more than tactical reasons for opposing the idea of war against it. In 1996 the Harvard historian Samuel Huntington published his book The Clash of Civilizations, in which he predicted that future wars would be fought over issues of religion and cultural identity, rather than political ideologies or economic interests. He explicitly mentioned “the bloody frontiers of Islam.” In an interview after 9/11 he was asked whether he did not feel vindicated in his prediction. He said that yes, but that we must do everything we can to prevent its actual coming about. That is still good advice.