By: Chourouk Mestour

Voices/ April 2024


Muslims face growing challenges due to the escalating global phenomenon of Islamophobia, ranging from hate speech, attacks on mosques, and even to assaults on Muslim citizens in Western countries, as well as racism toward Muslim-majority countries. The roots of these violent practices are based in the history of Western colonialism, which has contributed to the reinforcement of suspicion towards Muslims, as it has a long history of treating non-Western cultures with derision. In this article, we will use a post-colonial perspective as a theoretical framework to explore the effects of colonialism on Western perceptions of Islam. This approach recognizes the importance of understanding the historical roots of colonialism to address biases, racism, and the phenomenon of Islamophobia in our time.


Keywords: Islamophobia, Colonialism, Postcolonialism, Muslims, Colonial History



Understanding Islamophobia

Historical Context of the Concept

The Impact of Colonialism on Deepening Islamophobia

A Historical Analysis of Islamophobia and Its Contemporary Perceptions



Muslims globally find themselves subjected to myriad challenges, ranging from violent assaults in Western nations to systemic discrimination within Muslim-majority countries. Such acts of Islamophobic violence manifest in distressing ways, including physical assaults, verbal abuse, and the desecration of sacred spaces like mosques and Islamic centers. However, to fully comprehend the roots of this phenomenon one must delve into its historical underpinnings.

Central to our exploration is the concept of “Islamophobia.” Within Western societies, pervasive skepticism towards Muslims has become alarmingly normalized and deeply embedded in interpersonal relations and institutional structures. This skepticism is deeply rooted in historical contexts, particularly those shaped by Western colonial endeavors. As Western nations expanded their colonial empires, they often viewed non-Western civilizations as the ‘other,’ and depicted them as backward and antithetical to Western ideals. Such a worldview inherently propagated a narrative of superiority and marginalized indigenous cultures and histories.

In recent years, the phenomenon of Islamophobia has significantly escalated. Although there have been fluctuations and variations during certain periods, the predominant trend has been towards negative expressions against Islam, such as public burnings of the Qur’an, and attacks on mosques, and Muslim communities and individuals, especially Muslim women, in the United States and Europe.

This paper relies on a postcolonial perspective, a theory that focuses on the impact of colonialism on identity during and after the colonial period. Postcolonial theory places heavy emphasis on religious, linguistic, cultural, and intellectual aspects. This is because postcolonial theory aims to disempower the mean which colonizers “know” the world, thereby creating space for decolonized peoples to have a voice of their own. We will analyze the impact of colonialism on two main levels: individuals and political systems.Haut du formulaire

The study will address the following question: How did colonial ideas influence the formation of the stereotypical image of Islam and Muslims in the Western mindset? Furthermore, do ideas from the colonial period contribute to fueling and exacerbating Islamophobia?

Based on the proposed problem, the following hypothesis can be presented:  Given the history of Western colonialism in Islamic regions, it can be argued that the ideas and concepts implemented during this period significantly influenced the formation of a negative stereotypical image of Islam and Muslims within the Western consciousness. Accordingly, these ideas might play a direct role in amplifying and intensifying the phenomenon of Islamophobia by perpetuating and reinforcing negative stereotypes and biases associated with Islam within Western culture.

The importance of studying this topic can be summarized into the following points:

 It offers historical insights into how biases against Islam and Muslims evolved during colonial times, aiding us in understanding current prejudices.

Understanding colonialism’s role in the rise of Islamophobia helps grasp its deep historical roots and address its modern-day effects, fostering inclusivity, challenging stereotypes, and promoting mutual respect in diverse societies, and challenging and breaking down the enduring stereotypes about Islam and its followers.

Understanding Islamophobia:

The term ‘Islamophobia’ has become increasingly pervasive in discussions and debates across various platforms. At its core, Islamophobia refers to an unfounded fear, prejudice, or hostility directed towards Islam and its followers. While the roots of this phenomenon are intricate and multifaceted, understanding its origins is pivotal for addressing misconceptions and fostering mutual respect. This chapter delves into the intricate facets of Islamophobia, offering insights into its definition and exploring its historical and contemporary roots.

By unpacking these layers, we aim to shed light on the complexities surrounding this issue and pave the way for informed discussions.

Islamophobia is considered a Western phenomenon that reflects individual tendencies, behaviors, and even public policies towards Muslims. Discussing the origins of this concept is challenging as some view it as a relatively new phenomenon that emerged recently. The widespread use of the term “Islamophobia” is largely attributed to the events following September 11, 2001. Others believe that the phenomenon has older roots that have been prevalent since the era of colonial regimes in Arab and Muslim countries. However, if Islamophobia can be described as a phenomenon with deep historical roots, anti-Islamic sentiments and feelings have undoubtedly spread more extensively in Western societies over the past two decades.

The term Islamophobia consists of two parts: “Islam” which refers to the religion of Islam, the final religion revealed by Allah to His Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. This encompasses monotheism, acts of worship, and Sharia law. The term “phobia” originates from the field of psychology and indicates a kind of hidden illogical fear of a specific thing, place, or behavior that afflicts an individual due to a psychological disorder. The fears of someone with a phobia are generally not based on a genuine and actual threat. Islamophobia, therefore, can be described as an unjustified, exaggerated, and artificially created state of panic and fear towards Muslims.

On the other hand, the collaboration between Lexico and the Oxford dictionary defined Islamophobia as, “A bias or hostility directed towards Islam or Muslims, specifically in a political context.” Therefore, this definition confines prejudice against Islam and Muslims primarily to its political aspect.

The Swedish scholar of comparative religion, Mattias Gardell, defines Islamophobia as a social production of fear and animosity towards Islam and Muslims. This includes practices that target aggression or discrimination against individuals, isolating them based on assumptions of their connection to Islam and Muslims. It is an intellectual phenomenon that has been strengthening in European societies, evolving into an ideological perspective based on a reductionist and stereotypical view of Islam and its immigrant adherents in Europe. This perspective perceives them as a closed and limited group that holds backward values that advocate violence, reductionism, and a negative outlook towards others, rejecting rationality, logic, and human rights.

As a comprehensive definition, Islamophobia can be described as a collection of practices and beliefs that contradict Islam and Muslims. This is expressed through actions and behaviors that demonstrate excessive fear or hatred towards Muslims based on misconceptions or false perceptions about Islam and its followers. This unfounded fear and negative stereotyping diminish the value of Muslims, portraying them as secondary entities or potential perpetrators of violence. Such misguided beliefs justify acts of racism and discrimination against Muslims, whether in their native countries or in foreign countries where they reside. These notions often further escalate attacks and psychological and physical discrimination against Muslims.

Historical Context of the Concept:

When examining the origin of the term “Islamophobia,” various narratives emerge regarding its inception. Among these accounts, one perspective suggests that the term can be traced back to the period of Orientalism. The concept of Islamophobia was reinforced as a preemptive portrayal of Islam, stemming from an Orientalist view rooted in colonial backgrounds. This perception is attributed to the French Orientalist Étienne Denie, who presented a negative image of Muslims in 1922, based on his personal understanding of Islamic society.

Some researchers trace the usage of the term “Islamophobia” back to French sociologists during the colonial era. During the period, the term was used to describe the reluctance French administrators displayed to work within Islamic societies. While they held administrative and political roles in these societies during the colonial period, some exhibited reluctance to collaborate with Muslims, which has been described as a manifestation of Islamophobia.

The discriminatory practices against Muslims are not solely the result of civilians’ attitudes but are also influenced by the colonial West’s approach and discourse towards indigenous inhabitants. This is rooted in the notion of Western cultural superiority whereby Westerners perceive themselves as advanced and others as backward. This perspective aims to maintain the vulnerability of the native population, by distancing them from participation in governance and politics under the colonial government, thereby safeguarding the colony’s interests.

Another narrative traces the origins of the term ‘Islamophobia’ back to its initial coinage in 1922. However, its widespread recognition and prominence in our lexicon became evident only in the 1990s. Beyond the well-known Runnymede Report of 1997, which amplified public awareness regarding the complexities of ‘Islamophobia,’ there are other significant sources for the term’s proliferation.

Gilles Kepel, an esteemed expert on the Middle East and Islam within Western contexts, suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood played a crucial role in popularizing the term. This Islamist organization aspires to establish a state governed by Islamic law, known as Shari’ah. Kepel contends that the Brotherhood strategically promoted the term to stifle any criticisms aimed at their religious and political doctrines, subtly likening such critiques to antisemitism. This nuanced association with antisemitism, according to Kepel, provided them with moral leverage, portraying them as victims and aligning them in opposition to Israel and Zionism.

A third narrative traces the contemporary origins of the term “Islamophobia” to a Vatican study published in 1985. The study highlighted that the global Muslim population had, for the first time in history, surpassed the number of Catholics. This demographic shift sounded alarm bells in Western societies. This fear was further exacerbated by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, an ideological adversary of the West. Consequently, voices emphasizing an inevitable clash between Islam and the West grew louder.

The Impact of Colonialism on Deepening Islamophobia:

The profound effects of colonialism continue to resonate in today’s societal frameworks. A notable outcome of colonial actions has been the global escalation of Islamophobia. This chapter sets out on a detailed exploration to uncover the complex ties between colonial pasts and the amplification of Islamophobic sentiments. By scrutinizing historical backgrounds, shifts in socio-political dynamics, and the dominant narratives shaped by colonial perspectives, the authors aim to understand how historical imperial pursuits have deeply influenced perceptions, policies, and biases against Islam and its followers. Through a careful analysis, this chapter aims to illuminate the diverse ways colonial histories continue to mold and exacerbate present-day Islamophobia.


Colonialism is a vast political and economic system that extends control beyond traditional borders to maximize profit or power. This expansive process has influenced human settlements globally, intertwining with our understanding of ‘matter’ over centuries.

Some scholars believe that defining colonialism too narrowly excludes specific communities that have faced injustice characterized as colonial. Conversely, an overly broad definition might label any power imbalance between international parties as colonialism. Robert Young emphasizes that colonialism encompasses a vast array of practices across diverse cultures over centuries. He cites examples like settler colonies such as British North America and Australia, and French Algeria; territories established for economic exploitation like British India and Japanese Taiwan; and maritime enclaves such as Hong Kong, Malta, and Singapore.

We can identify the first objective of colonialism as political domination, and its second objective as enabling the exploitation of the colonized country.

 As a comprehensive definition, we can say that colonialism is the expansive and invasive practice resulting from a power or state occupying territories beyond its borders. This infiltration typically involves robust military means, leading to confrontations with the native inhabitants. While colonization might also manifest politically or economically without direct military intervention, the primary objective in both scenarios remains consistent: to control the geographical area and its inhabitants, exploit natural resources for self-interests, and attempt to incorporate this land as part of the vital domain of the colonizing nation.

Now after defining the concept, we will delve into discussing how colonialism influenced countries and contributed to the development of Islamophobia during the colonial period itself and up to the present day. We will rely on the model of European colonialism, or more specifically the French colonial model in Algeria.

A Historical Analysis of Islamophobia and Its Contemporary Perceptions:

While the term ‘Islamophobia’ has gained significant attention in modern discourse, particularly post-9/11 due to its association with Islamist terrorism, it is essential to recognize that its origins and manifestations are deeply rooted in historical contexts. The assumption that European Islamophobia emerged solely as a post-9/11 phenomenon overlooks the enduring prejudices and perceptions of cultural inferiority towards Muslims that have persisted over time. Rather than being a recent development, Islamophobia can be understood as a dynamic and ongoing phenomenon that was shaped by centuries of historical interactions and dominance.

Karen Armstrong further illuminates this perspective, emphasizing that European subjugation of the Islamic world began long before contemporary debates. From the British control established in India during the nineteenth century to the subsequent colonization of various Islamic countries, Western cultural hegemony has consistently played a role in perpetuating negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims. Therefore, understanding Islamophobia requires acknowledging its historical continuity, as influenced by religious wars and the West’s imperialistic endeavors.

In the colonial period, Westerners were prejudiced against people outside of the West, whom they characterized as “uncivilized” and “uncultured”. This prejudice found expression in cultural racism against Muslims. In their writings, scholars such as Edward Said, Franz Fanon, and Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak described the European colonial attitudes towards culturally different people and the ill-treatment they received. The colonization of the Muslim world revealed that the reasons for their humiliation and discrimination were not rooted in Islam or Muslims, but in the European self-image of cultural superiority.

Although postcolonial scholars suggest that the portrayal of Muslims by Europeans as inferior is rooted in a self-perceived superiority among Europeans, this behavior has entrenched the concept of Islamophobia and contributed to escalating anti-Islamic practices. Among the cultural differences felt in the West, religious issues stand out. Many Europeans perceive religion as the reason for the perceived backwardness of Muslims, considering its laws as “medieval.” This is due to their perception that their superiority is due to their breaking free from religion.

Going back to history, Islamophobia is an old story of Christian European animosity towards Islam. Such hate is still dictating the ways in which Europeans see Muslims and behave towards them. For them, Muslims represent a source of danger, skepticism, and hate.

On an individual level, the historical narrative of colonization has led those opposed to Islam to treat Muslims in a demeaning manner, consequently alienating them from development. They view Islam as a stumbling block that does not allow people to adopt to modern and civilized ways of living.

The racism and superiority complex, or the initial seed of Islamophobia, can be observed in the idea of a “civilizing mission”. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during the era of imperialism, the civilizing mission was an ever-shifting set of ideas and practices that were used to justify and legitimize the establishment and continuation of overseas colonies, both to the subjugated peoples of the colony and the population back home.Haut du formulaire

Premodern imperial powers such as the Romans, Persians, Japanese and Chinese historically justified their conquests by claiming to bring a superior civilization to those they conquered. However, specifically during the 19th century, the Second and Third French Republics emphasized a “civilizing mission” or “colonial humanism.” This approach aimed to improve the lives of people seen as backward in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Initially, intellectuals like Leroy-Beaulieu believed that civilization should spread through commerce and exchanges rather than conquest.

Although some intellectuals like Leroy-Beaulieu suggested that civilization could spread through trade and cultural exchange, the historical reality demonstrates that colonial powers primarily leaned towards invasion and armed intervention. The true objective was not merely the dissemination of civilization or humanitarianism but was primarily centered on exploiting the resources of these regions. This goal could not be achieved through trade cooperation, especially as a reciprocal relationship would mean that Islamic civilization would also transfer trade and culture to the West. The fundamental aspect of these policies was indeed to undermine and eradicate Islamic civilization.

 However, by the early 1800s, the French moved away from republican ideals towards a more forceful assimilationist policy through colonial expansion. Governor Jules Brévié, who governed French West Africa and French Indochina, emphasized a “cultural renaissance” and teaching colonized subjects to adhere to “authentic African traditions.” Similar to British strategies, the French began adopting an “indirect mode of rule,” positioning themselves as the protectors of indigenous cultures while exerting control. Haut du formulaire

Between 1830 and 1915, France and Britain controlled the entirety of Algeria, Aden, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, and Morocco. Except for contemporary Turkey, the colonizers agreed amongst themselves on how to split the Ottoman Empire’s territory. Colonialism was more than just European military incursions into the Islamic world; it also exposed Europeans’ racial prejudices towards Muslims, whom they despised as culturally backward, corrupt, and religiously fanatical. These incidents had a huge impact on rising anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiments, defining a new Islamophobic reality in the West.

The impact of colonialism on the Islamic world cannot be understated. It led to a disruption of traditional power structures, cultural suppression, and the imposition of foreign governance. This weakened the political authority of prior governments and resulted in regimes that were alien to the region’s traditions.

French colonialism in North African countries, especially Algeria, was one of the most notable examples of oppression against Islam, and its impact is still evident in current policies. For instance, Joan Walach Scott, a prominent historian of France and the French Empire, discusses the task of internal French civilization, and emphasizes the approach France has adopted towards individuals of Algerian or North African descent at home. For instance, Scott sees the campaign of banning the hijab and abaya (dress worn by Muslim women) in France as a continuation of its failed colonial policies in Algeria. As immigration to France from Algeria and former North African colonies increased in the fifties even after independence in 1962, the focus of French civilization shifted towards its interest in immigrants within France. He noted that many of these immigrants were born in France, but white French citizens still see them as unwelcome “guests” from North Africa, while expecting support in returning to their countries of origin. By the end of the seventies, it was clear that the North African population of France, regardless of whether they were born in France or the Maghreb, did not have the desire or ability to “go home.”

A French Republic based on the values of equality and diversity should seek to empower and integrate its North African population. However, the younger generations of French in North Africa, at least since the early eighties, have shown resistance to France’s approach to its civilizing colonial mission.

Since the beginning of French colonization, France initiated efforts to undermine Algerian civilization by attempting to distort its cultural and civilizational components. These measures aimed to destroy Algerian identity and erase the essence of Islam.

The colonial discourse, needing to justify repression and violence, presented Muslims and Arabs as liars, thieves, and as lazy and fatalistic. Furthermore, according to French Orientalists, Arabs and Muslims respect only force and strength, and only fear God because they see Him as an omnipresent and supernatural power whose role is to punish. Thus, Captain Richard, head of the Arab Bureau in Ténès in the 1850s, asserts: “The Arab professes an exaggerated respect for the power which subjugates him, and as soon as he believes he has been conquered, there is no adulation, no servile bowing and scraping which he fails to lavish on his conqueror.” According to the myth of the French civilizing mission, pre-colonial Algeria was populated by fanatical barbarians rather than savages as the eighteenth century had claimed.

Racist and Islamophobic practices were not only prevalent during the colonial period against colonized peoples but also persisted even after independence. Cultural racism manifested as Islamophobia during the colonial era. However, its influence persisted into the postcolonial period and continues to shape contemporary prejudices against Muslims. Decolonization did not eradicate this racialized form of Islamophobia; instead, it laid the groundwork for ongoing discrimination against Muslims in the 21st century. A lasting legacy of colonialism is the misguided belief that despite colonial efforts to impart European values, Muslims cannot evolve culturally. This mindset underscores the process of racialization.

Anna Sophie Lauwers posits that anti-Muslim racism wrongly attributes negative traits to Islam as inherent and permanent characteristics of Muslims. Consequently, colonialism played a pivotal role in perpetuating racial stereotypes against Muslims. Postcolonial authors have adeptly highlighted the injustices of colonial legacy, leveraging their work to critique Western perspectives post-decolonization.

Edward Said’s groundbreaking work, Orientalism, critically examines Western cultural dominance and its portrayal of Muslims as the ‘primitive other.’ He argues that Orientalism is not merely a collection of falsehoods but a constructed narrative by the West to define the East, and particularly Islamic culture, in inferior terms. Said highlights how Western artists and writers, like Flaubert, de Nerval, and Scott were influenced by political biases, creating a skewed view of the East. He underscores the divisive ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative whereby the West dominates economically, technologically, and culturally. Furthermore, Said illustrates the enduring postcolonial anti-Muslim prejudices by detailing the challenges faced by Palestinian Arabs in Western societies, revealing that these stereotypes persisted even after the end of formal colonial rule.

During this post-colonial era, the crisis of Islamophobia has worsened as fueled by public anxiety over immigration and the integration of Muslim minorities into majority cultures in Europe. These tensions have been exacerbated by the aftermath of the economic crash of 2007, the rise of populist nationalist politicians and high-profile terrorist attacks carried out by Muslim extremists. Haut du formulaire

From another perspective, the rise of Islamophobia in Europe is inherently linked to the ascent of nationalism in European countries as stated in a report by a Belgium-based anti-Islamophobia group.

The EU Commission was called upon to appoint a coordinator to combat anti-Muslim hatred effectively and counteract far-right-driven racism. Concerns arising from efforts against radicalization and separatism were also highlighted.

Additionally, the CCIE emphasized the necessity for increased efforts to address discrimination against Muslims in recruitment and education. Throughout 2022, the group reported 787 Islamophobic incidents, encompassing acts ranging from discrimination and provocation to physical violence, defamation, and issues related to radicalization and separatism. Haut du formulaire

Such actions are tied to racial biases rooted in the belief that Muslims are foreign to European communities. Even those with European citizenship and lifelong residency in European nations frequently face condescension, as they are seen as vestiges of civilizations the West failed to help progress. Haut du formulaire



Given the intricate history of Western colonialism in Islamic regions, it becomes apparent that the ideologies and frameworks established during this era have profoundly shaped a distorted and negative perception of Islam and its adherents within Western societies. This historical backdrop not only laid the groundwork for biases but also continues to perpetuate to this day. Such ingrained biases contribute significantly to the pervasive phenomenon of Islamophobia, amplifying and intensifying negative stereotypes and biases associated with Islam within Western cultural narratives. Furthermore, in the Global South context, there is an urgent need to emphasize the imperative of liberation from Eurocentric perspectives that systematically devalue the rich cultural, social, and historical contributions of indigenous populations. Recognizing and challenging these entrenched views is pivotal for fostering genuine understanding, respect, and equitable relations among diverse global communities.

By studying Islamophobia from a post-colonial perspective, we can assert that the current perception of Muslims and the violence they face is not solely a result of the events of September 11 or the negative portrayal given to the religion by some extremists. Instead, it is a practice deeply rooted in Western history beginning with colonialism. Colonialism, in itself, as an attempt to spread civilization and even in its modern form through cultural penetration and represent a form of superiority or a narrative of self-versus other. To the West, Muslims are seen as the backward ‘other’ when economic and social underdevelopment stems from the exploitation experienced by previously colonized nations. This exploitation not only hindered their progress but also entrenched habits and negativities that have persisted even after gaining independence.


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Chourouk Mestour is an independent researcher and a doctoral candidate in international relations, holds a keen focus on security and strategic studies across Africa, with a particular emphasis on the North African domain, international relations theories, and postcolonial studies. Her scholarly footprint encompasses a range of outputs, including articles in Arabic, book reviews, reviews of research papers, as well as translations in both Arabic and English. Her contributions appear in diverse journals, research institutes, and numerous online platforms.

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