In 1910, a French editor in the colonial ministry, Alain Quellien, published The Muslim Policy in West Africa. This work, addressed to specialists, is one of measured praise for the religion of the Koran, a “practical and indulgent” religion, better adapted to indigenous peoples, while Christianity is “too complicated, too abstract, too austere for the rudimentary and materialist mentality of the Negro.” Seeing Islam as a civilizing force that “removes peoples from fetishism and its degrading practices” and thus facilitates European penetration, the author calls for an end to prejudices that equate this confession with barbarism and fanaticism, castigating the “Islamophobia” prevalent among colonial personnel. What is needed, on the contrary, 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 may be the abuses, which he considers minor, of which it is guilty—that is, slavery and polygamy? Since Islam is the best ally of colonialism, believers must be protected from the nefarious influence of modern ideas; their way of life must be respected.
Maurice Delafosse, a colonial administrator living in Dakar, writes at about the same time: “Whatever may say those for whom Islamophobia is a principle of indigenous administration, France has nothing more to fear from Muslims in West Africa than from non-Muslims.” He adds: “Islamophobia therefore serves no purpose in West Africa.”
The term “Islamophobia” probably existed before these 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 the pressure of 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 antiracism, this term has the ambition of making Islam untouchable by placing it on the same level as anti-Semitism.
Read more at City Journal.