In 1910, a French editor in the colonial ministry, Alain Quellien, published The Muslim Policy in West Africa. This work praised the religion of the Quran as “practical and indulgent,” better adapted to indigenous peoples than Christianity, which is “too complicated, too abstract, too austere for the rudimentary and materialist mentality of the Negro.” Seeing Islam as a civilizing force that facilitated European penetration, the author called for an end to the “Islamophobia” prevalent among colonial personnel. What is needed, he said, is to tolerate Islam and to treat it impartially.
Quellien was writing as an administrator, concerned with order. Why demonize a religion that keeps peace in the empire, whatever its abuses (which he considered minor) such as slavery and polygamy? Since Islam is the best ally of colonialism, he thought believers must be protected from the nefarious influence of modern ideas; their way of life must be respected.
The term “Islamophobia” probably existed before bureaucrats of the empire used it. Still, this language remained rare until the late 1980s, when the word was transformed, little by little, into a political tool, under pressure from British Muslims reacting to the fatwa that the Ayatollah Khomeini had pronounced against novelist Salman Rushdie following his publication of The Satanic Verses.
With its fluid meaning, the word Islamophobia amalgamates two very different concepts: the persecution of believers, which is a crime; and the critique of religion, which is a right. A newcomer in the semantic field of anti-racism, this term has the ambition of making Islam untouchable by placing it on the same level as anti-Semitism.
h/t Joost Niemöller