There's that word again — this time on the front page of the New York Times.
What does it mean? The Times doesn't say. But the newspaper reports that there's been a "surge" in it:
Hebh Jamal does not remember the Sept. 11 attacks. She was 1. Growing up in the Bronx, she was unaware of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and was mostly insulated from the surge in suspicion that engulfed Muslims in the United States, the programs of police surveillance and the rise in bias attacks.
But in the past year, especially in the past several months, as her emergence from childhood into young womanhood has coincided with the violent spread of the Islamic State and a surge in Islamophobia, she has had to confront some harsh challenges of being a young Muslim in America.
Similarly, as GetReligion noted yesterday, the Los Angeles Times used the I-phobia word in a recent story on Muslims women saying headscarves have made them a target for harassment:
The Washington-based nonprofit Council on American–Islamic Relations has documented dozens of Islamophobic incidents nationwide since last month, including many against women wearing headscarves.
Dictionary.com defines "Islamophobia" as "hatred or fear of Muslims or their politics or culture."
So what's my problem with journalists sprinkling their stories with that term?
My concern is simple: Islamophobia is a loaded word — an explosive, editorialized term that unfairly castigates everyone who might have a problem or concern with Islam or certain elements of it.
Take Wissam Al-Aethawi, for example. I profiled Al-Aethawi for The Christian Chronicle earlier this year. He's a former Muslim now serving as a Christian missionary in the heavily Arab city of Dearborn, Mich. He escaped religious persecution in his native Iraq. He grew up reading the Quran and characterizes Islam as an inherently violent faith, even if most Muslims in the U.S. choose to be peaceful. Does that make him Islamophobic? Or does it simply mean he has a different perspective based on his own experience and research?
Here's why journalists ought to resist the casual use of "Islamophobia": It serves no real purpose and damages a newspaper's ability to provide impartial coverage of ongoing debates concerning Islam. Instead, news organizations ought to quote a wide variety of sources and let readers (or viewers) decide for themselves whether someone is "Islamophobic."
If the media don't want to listen to me, maybe they'll pay attention to the Associated Press Stylebook — "the journalist's bible" — which also says not to use that term:
phobia An irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness. Examples: acrophobia, a fear of heights, and claustrophobia, a fear of being in small, enclosed spaces. Do not use in political or social contexts: homophobia, Islamophobia.
Yes, I'd make an exception for "Islamophobia" or "Islamophobic" inside quote marks when a relevant source uses that term and it seems relevant to the story. But even then, I'd urge care not to overdo it or take it out of proper context.
Overall, today's New York Times story does a nice job of letting young Muslims express their fears and concerns. I enjoyed hearing from them:
Alas, this story — surprise, surprise — runs with the familiar narrative that anti-Muslim hostility is spiking:
Ms. Jamal is part of a generation of Muslim Americans who have grown up amid the fight against terrorism, in an America in which anti-Muslim hostility, by many measures, has been historically high.
What are some of those "many measures?" The Times never bothers to elaborate. So once again, I'll ask: Where's the hard data?
Image: Cover of Aug. 30, 2010, edition of Time magazine