Is Islam open to interpretation

Right-wing extremism

Armin Pfahl-Traughber

The author

Dr. phil., political scientist and sociologist, professor at the Federal University of Applied Sciences, Brühl.

Which term is actually appropriate when speaking about reservations or resentments towards Islam or its followers or when criticizing the religion? The political scientist Armin Pfahl-Traughber leads through the jungle of terms.

Thursday, December 23, 2004: In the prayer room of the Ahmadiyya Mosque in Usingen, investigators secure traces of an arson attack that had been carried out the night before. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Allegedly independent citizens' groups want to prevent the construction of mosques. In opinion polls, significant parts of the population are in favor of restricting the religious freedom of Muslims. Book authors cite a backward Islam as the cause of "honor killings" and forced marriages. Feminists see the headscarf as a symbol of women's oppression and Islamism. Internet sites talk about Islam as a "green plague" and about Muslims as "butt-high prayers". Islamic organizations describe any criticism of Islam and Muslims as an expression of xenophobia and racism. Right-wing extremists claim an existential threat to Germany from the Islamization and foreign infiltration of Muslims.

These highlights are examples of positions in an often emotional debate about Islam and Muslims. Both in the political discourse and in the scientific analysis of the phenomenon there is an almost unmanageable variety of terms. A wide variety of terms are used in specialist literature, often without a precise definition. In view of this confusion, the following article tries to clarify the content of the terms that are circulating about hostility and criticism of Islam and Muslims.

This is done from a human rights perspective, that is: The question is how the terms and their contents relate to a basic conception that grants all human beings rights such as freedom of opinion and freedom of religion. Ultimately, this criterion also makes a statement about the extent to which this is an anti-democratic, i.e. extremist position in the sense of political science research on extremism (see Backes 1989, Pfahl-Traughber 2008).


The most established term in the field is "Islamophobia". The first part of the word means the religion of the Muslims, the second part stands for "fear" in ancient Greek. Accordingly, "Islamophobia" means a strong feeling of fear related to Islam or Muslims that goes beyond what is considered appropriate or normal. However, the term "Islamophobia" does not seem appropriate for hostile attitudes towards Muslims. Because he misleadingly suggests that the attitudes are only about exaggerated feelings of fear and not about momentous resentment.

The British anti-racism foundation Runnymede Trust ensured a broad reception of the term. In 1997 she published a report entitled "Islamophobia - A Challenge for Us All", which caused quite a stir and formulated an influential definition. Accordingly, the criteria for "Islamophobia" include: the interpretation of Islam as monolithic and static, separate and alien, aggressive and inferior. In addition, a blanket rejection of Muslims' criticism of the "West" and the justification of discriminatory behavior towards Muslims were among the characteristics (cf. Runnymede Trust 1997, pp. 4-12).

This approach claims to distinguish legitimate criticism from unfounded prejudices, but does not fulfill it. Because individual points of view that are mentioned here as criteria of "Islamophobia" - that is, unfounded prejudices - can have real points of reference: This applies, for example, to the perception of an otherness and alienation of Islam with regard to the willingness to integrate or the clothing of some Muslims. The assertion that Islam is static can point to sociological findings about low dynamics in societies characterized by Islam (cf.e.g. Merkel 2003). Undoubtedly, these cases are also generalizations, but probably not schemes that should be called "phobia".

In Germany, the term "Islamophobia" was particularly widespread through research on "Group-related enmity" (GMF), which the Bielefeld Institute for Conflict and Violence Research has carried out since 2002. In the first eight annual episodes of these studies, "Islamophobia" stood for generally negative attitudes towards Muslim people and all denominations, symbols and religious practices of Islam (cf. Leibold / Kühnel 2003, pp. 101-103). Since the ninth episode, published in 2010, the GMF studies have also spoken of "Islamophobia". In this definition, however, levels get mixed up: while a rejection of Muslims as Muslims stands for a kind of group-related enmity, this does not necessarily apply to the rejection of the practices and symbols of Islam. An atheist could, for example, take up such a position without associating it with an intention to discriminate against Muslims (cf. for detailed criticism: Kahlweiß / Salzborn 2011; Pfahl-Traughber 2010a).


While there are still definitions and criteria for "Islamophobia" in public and academic debates, this usually no longer applies to the following terms. It is generally formulated that "Islamophobia" stands for rigorously negative views on Islam. Those who argue in a way that are hostile to Islam draw a consistently negative image of Islam and bring their own views into a confrontational opposing position. A general and undifferentiated view of Islam as a threat, which must be fought in order to preserve one's own will, however described, could be regarded as typical.

The most important political propagandists and bearers of this attitude are currently the right-wing extremist and right-wing populist parties in Europe. Since the agitation with images of the enemy has long been known to such parties, the actual conception of xenophobia disguised as Islamophobia can be proven very well (cf. Hafez 2009; Pfeiffer 2011). Similar political views in connection with negative images about Islam can be found - sometimes more, sometimes less clearly formulated - on websites with apparently high visitor numbers such as "The Green Plague", "", "Politically Incorrect", " Stop Islam "or" Islamic Files. For Europe - Against Eurabia "(cf. Lohlker 2010; Shooman 2008).

In principle, however, not every rigorous devaluation of Islam that asserts totalitarian or anti-rational traits of this religion (as occurs from the atheist or ex-Muslim side - cf. Gopal 2004; Warraq 2004) must be motivated by extremists or hostile to Muslims. An atheist in the sense of a secular humanism, for example, also fundamentally rejects Christianity, but on the basis of this view will not plead for the abolition of basic rights for the followers of this faith.

Islam criticism

Another term used to denote certain attitudes towards Islam and Muslims is "Islam criticism", with a wide variety of applications: On the one hand, anti-Islamists refer to themselves as "Islam critics" in the above sense, as this designation is less negative in public discourse is occupied. On the other hand, representatives of Islamic organizations or prejudice researchers accuse some critics of Islam that their objections are actually based on "Islamophobia". In view of the emotionalization and politicization of the controversy that goes along with it, the following working definition is proposed: "Criticism of Islam" is directed against certain manifestations of religion, but does not reject religion in the sense of a blanket enemy image.

This then also means that criticism of Islam does not have to be differentiated and factual in a sociological sense. Accordingly - contrary to different assessments (cf. Bühl 2010, pp. 183-198; Rommelspacher 2009) - publications by authors such as Seyran Ates or Necla Kelek (cf. Ates 2007; Kelek 2006) should not be viewed as hostile to Islam but as critical of Islam. Both authors of Turkish origin grew up in a Muslim environment, where they often experienced misogynistic behavior and wrote books about them that were critical of Islam. It was expressed in the opinion that the causes of the complained facts are to be seen in the contents and specifications of religion. Understood in a narrower sense, these were not books with a scientific claim, but experience reports with personal reflections. In terms of content and method, it is worthy of criticism that the analyzes are monocausal: Social phenomena such as misogyny and the cult of masculinity are only or primarily explained from Islam. Nevertheless, this one-sidedness does not turn the criticism into enmity, as both authors advocate modernization and not condemnation of Islam. In each individual case in which an author describes himself as an "Islamic critic", it should be checked whether the argumentation disputes the fundamental rights of Muslims and, in this respect, may in fact be classified as anti-Muslim (cf. e.g. Brumlik 2009; Widmann 2008 ).

Precisely through the respective basic position there is also the possibility of a distinction between "Islamophobia" and "Islam criticism" in the context discussed here. Ignoring this significant point of view, as sometimes happens in literature (cf. Bühl 2010; Schneiders 2009), could lead to a critical blurring of the boundaries: This would equate the criticism of oppression of women with a reference to Islam with a blanket condemnation religion as an expression of violence and corruption. However, there are differences between a women's rights and a xenophobic position. A view that fails to recognize these differences hinders the detection of actual hostility towards Islam and defames all objections to Islam as an expression of prejudice.

"Anti-Muslim hostility"

The terms discussed so far all refer to Islam as a religion, not to the Muslims as their adherents. This reference is extremely important for an analysis and evaluation of attitudes and positions from a human rights perspective, since the Muslims as people and not Islam as a religion are the bearers of these rights. In addition, reference can be made to a fundamental difference: even those who rigorously reject Islam and regard it as anti-enlightenment and backward-looking need not combine this with discrimination against Muslims with regard to their civil and human rights. This is also shown by empirical studies. According to the aforementioned GMF study from 2003, for example, 69.9 percent of those questioned rejected the statement "The Muslim culture fits perfectly into our western world". But the majority of respondents (65.6 percent) also rejected the statement "I am more suspicious of people of Muslim faith". According to these results (cf. Leibold / Kühnel 2003, p. 103) there are empirical and theoretical reasons for clearly distinguishing between aversion to Islam and hostility towards Muslims.

"Anti-Muslim hostility" therefore means that there are general and rigorous negative images of the followers of this religion and that they are treated as individuals with discrimination and degradation. The statement typical for this attitude "For Muslims in Germany the practice of religion should be considerably restricted" received an agreement of 58.4 percent of the respondents in a 2010 study (see Decker et al. 2010, p. 134). However, such a view does not primarily represent an expression of Islamophobia or Islamophobia, as it is intended to deny basic rights to people and not to a religion. Therefore, a related use of the term is required, for which the terms "anti-Muslimism" or "Muslim hostility" are appropriate (cf. Pfahl-Traughber 2010, pp. 612f.).

"Muslim criticism"

"Muslim criticism" should be distinguished from "hostility towards Muslims" in such a political sense. Here, too, it is a matter of emphasizing negatively assessed alleged or actual characteristics of the followers of Islam. But where can the criteria for an at least ideal-typical demarcation of the two attitudes be seen? The points of view of "reality content" and "range" are appropriate here. In the first sense, the question is to what extent the formulated views can be empirically proven: Members of the most diverse social groups, who can be distinguished by criteria such as age, occupation, education, opinions, religion, social status or voting behavior, have certain peculiarities. If these are pointed out with a critical undertone, this does not necessarily mean a general hostile attitude towards the members of the intended group.

For example, a number of social science studies show certain peculiarities of Muslims living in Germany, including a relatively low interest in education, a relatively traditional image of women, a relatively pronounced religious orientation or a relatively strong tendency to segregate (cf. among others Brettfeld / Wetzels 2007; Haug / Müssig / Stichs 2009). Whether these tendencies are related to Islam or to the status of Muslims as a minority does not play a primary role in the context to be discussed here. The critical reference to these peculiarities alone cannot therefore be regarded as an expression of "Islamophobia" or "Islamophobia", as happens occasionally.

Such views arose sometimes as impressions from personal everyday life, but also from knowledge of social science studies. Therefore, they do not necessarily have to do with the acceptance of discrimination ideologies. This would only be the case if the characteristics and actions of minority Muslims were transferred in a blanket and distorted manner to the entire group of believers. Such an image of the enemy would then in fact represent "hostility towards Muslims". Opinions can be delimited and differentiated from this, which refer critically to particular developments and attitudes among the followers of Islam.

Modifying a statement on the distinction between the Enlightenment and criticism of Islam, the following can be formulated: "Criticism of Muslims" is directed against particular attitudes and grievances in the group of believers, while "hostility towards Muslims" accuses the entire population group of followers of Islam (cf. . 222).

"Anti-Muslim Racism"

And finally, the term "anti-Muslim racism" keeps circulating. The name is irritating because Muslims are not a "race". In order to better understand what is meant by this, a definition of racism must first be made: It denotes biological conceptions which, firstly, derive a "race" from alleged ethnic peculiarities of human groups and, secondly, discriminate and devalue the people assigned to this race. This applies to attitudes, expressions and actions and goes as far as violence.

Since racists can hardly openly refer to "racial" ideas in view of the Holocaust, relevant discrimination would mostly only take place with reference to the intended "cultures". Their biologized interpretation leads to a "racism without races" (e.g. Balibar / Wallerstein 1990; Hall 1989). This view is also known as "cultural racism" or "neo-racism". This is based on a biologization of the cultural, sometimes "culturalism" is used instead of "racism".

A special form of this is "anti-Muslim racism", whereby the category "Muslims" is included in the ethnicization. Those who are meant could not escape the discrimination, because it also meant people from the Islamic regions without an Islamic religious affiliation. The followers of this conceptual understanding do not actually see a "race" in the Muslims. They want those affected to be constructed into a homogeneous group based on their actual or assumed religion. Everything that is questionable can be deduced from their "being Muslim" (cf. Eickhoff 2010; Kuhn 2015).

These approaches indicate that today's "xenophobia" speaks more of "Islam" and less of "race". However, the category "anti-Muslim racism" is also criticized in terms of its sharpness of definition and the understanding of the content.First of all, reference can be made to the questionable expansion of the understanding of racism, because with the term the historical peculiarities of what is actually meant are lost. In relation to racism, one has to do with a not intended but objective relativization or trivialization.

A second objection is that the designation blurs the line between an enlightenment-based human rights concept and a xenophobic and inflammatory position. Argumentative objections to abuses in the Muslim religious community that are worthy of criticism are thus discredited. This is supported by a human rights criticism, which is directed against the discrimination against women in Islam, but which should be considered a form of "anti-Muslim racism". In contrast, the term "hostility towards Muslims" proves to be a more selective term.


So it is by no means just an argument about words. Rather, there are different contents behind the terms that range between the two poles of an enlightening human rights criticism of Islam on the one hand and a xenophobic and inflammatory hostility towards Muslims on the other. A definition and use of the terms that are as clear and selective as possible can bring more objectivity to a highly emotionalized and politicized debate: Sometimes critics of Islam are defamed as "enemies of Islam", sometimes actual anti-Muslims portray themselves as "critics of Islam", and sometimes Muslims interpret all criticism as an expression of xenophobia and racism, critics of Islam sometimes ignore the dubious list of their arguments.

The balance of the definitions at a glance: The word "Islamophobia" is only meaningful for concepts that consist of a pronounced fear of Islam as a subjective attitude. More suitable terms can be used for additional attitudes or actions. This includes "Islamophobia", which stands for a pronounced, fundamental and unconditional rejection of Islam as a religion and its blanket interpretation as dangerous, immoral and reprehensible. This attitude can, but does not have to be, associated with hostility towards Muslims. A "criticism of Islam" can be distinguished from this, which questions individual components or interpretations of religion and its effects in society.

While these three terms refer to religion, the three following terms refer to the Muslims as their followers. "Anti-Muslim hostility" stands for hostility towards Muslims as Muslims, which means that individuals or groups are rejected and discriminated against primarily because of their belief in Islam. This is not only accompanied by a negative image in the sense of a public degradation, but also a desired disadvantage in the sense of a lower legal status. A fundamental distinction should be made between this and a "critique of Muslims", which refers to the questionable attitudes and actions of followers of Islam, without associating it with generalizations and distorted images. Such a criticism is sometimes right and necessary from a human rights perspective. And this would also have nothing to do with "anti-Muslim racism", which is a content-wise ambiguous and not very clear-cut category.


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