The deaths were still being tolled, the casualties still being taken to hospital. But while the rest of the world was coming to terms with the Paris attacks, those keen to see anti-Muslim prejudice and bigotry everywhere just couldn’t help themselves. Out the familiar lines came: ‘demagogues [will] immediately blame it on Muslims’; ‘terrorist attacks in Paris are going to trigger more anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe’; ‘a field day for Islamophobes’; and, from the UK, ‘too often the response to such attacks is to hold responsible and scapegoat all Muslims’.
That so many commentators and MuslimsAreNotTerrorist hashtaggers were quick to dust off this tale of rampant anti-Muslim feeling just waiting to explode shouldn’t have been a surprise. We first heard of the rising tide of so-called Islamophobia in the mid-to-late 1990s, as the ascendant ethos of multiculturalism generated aspirations to victimhood among assorted cultural and ethnic groupings. And then, after every Islamist atrocity on Western soil, the same story has been trotted out: the Muslims will now get it in the neck. New York in 2001, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Toulouse in 2012, Paris earlier this year… the actual event made no difference to the tellers’ tale: a backlash against Muslims was always just around the corner.
And yet the backlash, Islam’s night and no doubt day of broken glass, never arrives. There never is an anti-Muslim pogrom. There never is a mass eruption of spitting, niqab-renting hatred. Some nasty graffiti and unpleasant tweets, yes; perhaps, lamentably, a fire at a mosque; and even the odd, isolated physical attack on a Muslim for no other reason than the fact he or she is a Muslim. But the actual anti-Muslim backlash, the actual fulfilment of Islamophobia proponents’ wet nightmares, the actual mass assault on each and every Muslim… it continues to lack reality.
But what Islamophobia doesn’t lack is a constituency willing to believe in its reality, willing to perceive a rising tide of anti-Muslim feeling. This conviction that Islamophobia is always on the march, especially after a terrorist atrocity, is not born of social fact, despite the inflated claims of advocacy groups like Tell Mama in the UK and the Collectif Contre L’Islamophobie en France, which have a vested interest in constructing a mass Islamophobic sentiment from an assortment of rude tweets, unverifiable claims, and the odd reported incident. No, it’s born of fear, a fear of the masses, a fear of the natives.