Islamophobia and antisemitism: do we need the words?

Brian Klug

This article is part of a Public Spirit series on Religious Discrimination and Hatred.

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Brian KlugAddressing a UN seminar in 2004, Secretary-General Kofi Annan observed: “when the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with Islamophobia”.[1] Antisemitism is an older term, but it too names a widespread form of bigotry. Both words name attitudes and practices that need denouncing. But do we need these particular words to denounce them?

In both the public debate and the more scholarly literature, a great deal of attention is paid to the terms, as if a great deal hangs on this, such as the question of whether or not antisemitism and Islamophobia are analogous. Commentators point out that both words are complex and, assuming that a word is the sum of its parts, they calculate the meaning by adding up the parts. ‘Antisemitism’ is the product of placing the prefix ‘anti’ before the substantive ‘Semitism’.[2] ‘Islamophobia’ combines ‘Islam’ with ‘phobia’. ‘Semitism’ (at the time that ‘antisemitism’ was coined) signified “a body of uniformly negative traits supposedly clinging to Jews”,[3] whereas ‘Islam’ names a religion. ‘Phobia’ means fear, ‘anti’ indicates opposition. So, put the parts together and what do you get? What you seem to get, in the one case, is opposition to a particular group (or the traits ascribed to that group), and, in the other case, fear and trembling in the face of a certain religion. These are not similar. They could hardly be more different.

But is this the way to understand the meaning of words? Salman Sayyid refers to this species of reasoning as ‘etymological fundamentalism’.[4] It consists in thinking that the meaning of a word – the concept for which it stands – is given by its semantic origins. You could also call it a form of literalism.

To use an analogy: imagine asking someone what a pen is and they answer: a pen is a thin object, normally made of metal or plastic, usually about six inches long. Just as the etymological fundamentalist reduces a word to the parts that make it up, so this answer reduces the pen to its material properties. Consequently, it fails to explain what a pen is. So, what is a pen? It is a writing implement of a certain kind. To understand the concept it is necessary to look beyond the list of the pen’s physical properties and to grasp the use to which it is put.

“To understand the concepts of antisemitism and Islamophobia we must look and see how the words are used”

Similarly, to understand the concepts of antisemitism and Islamophobia we must look and see how the words are used. Wittgenstein remarks, “For a large class of cases – though not for all – in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”[5] ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘antisemitism’ fall into this class. If, despite the disparities in the origin and composition of the two words, their uses turn out to be similar, then they are analogous.

There are a number of related fallacies that suffer from the same fault, namely, making a fetish out of the words. So, for example, again and again I have run into the view that antisemitism is aimed at Arabs as well as Jews as both groups are ‘Semites’. But, setting aside the dodginess of the category ‘Semite’, the word ‘antisemitism’ in practice singles out Jews. Thus, its use in the language, is its meaning.

Some scholars prefer the term ‘anti-Muslim racism’ to ‘Islamophobia’, others argue for ‘anti-Muslimism’, others for ‘Muslimophobia’.[6] There is a similar debate over the word ‘antisemitism’, with ‘anti-Jewish racism’ and ‘Judeophobia’ among the alternatives that some scholars prefer. To which Wittgenstein’s response to an interlocutor in another context seems apt: “Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts.”[7] A thorn is a thorn by any other name, so choose another name if you will; but once a word is out of the box and into the language it takes on a life of its own. ‘Islamophobia’ has caught on. No one can be compelled to use it but it is too late for a committee of academics to veto it. Like it or not, we are stuck with it. Rather than pursue a fruitless debate over the felicitousness or otherwise of the word, better to pay attention to the concept.

“Do we need the words ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘antisemitism’? Well, we need something to do the jobs they do. Never mind the term, feel the use.”

So, do we need the words ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘antisemitism’? Well, we need something to do the jobs they do. Never mind the term, feel the use.


Note: this article is adapted from Brian Klug, ‘The limits of analogy: comparing Islamophobia and antisemitism’, Patterns of Prejudice (forthcoming).


Brian Klug is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy, St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and Hon. Fellow of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, University of Southampton. In 2012 he was Visiting Scholar at the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding, University of South Australia, Adelaide.


[1] United Nations Press release, 7 December 2004,  [accessed 14/07/2014].

[2] Richard S Levy, ‘Antisemitism, etymology of’ in Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, vol. 1, ed. Richard S Levy (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2005), p. 24.

[3] Ibid.

[4] S. Sayyid, ‘Out of the devil’s dictionary’, in Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives, ed. S. Sayyid and AbdoolKarim Vakil, (London: Hurst & Co, 2010), p. 13.

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), p. 20, par. 43.

[6] Fred Halliday, ‘“Islamophobia” reconsidered’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 22, no. 5 (1999), p. 898. See also his Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996), chapter 6, where he introduces the term ‘anti-Muslimism’.

[7] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 37, par. 79. The interlocutor is imaginary (and could be himself).

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