POLITICS

The Media Has Embraced The Word 'Islamophobia'

And more Americans appear to be interested in its rise, too.

Amid a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric and incidents in 2015, the American media has embraced the word "Islamophobia" more than any other time in recent history, a new report shows. 

Use of the word in news headlines in the United States quadrupled from 2014 to 2015, according to a report published Friday by the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. Whereas in 2014 there were just 147 news articles with "Islamophobia" in the headline, there were 542 such headlines in 2015. 

For perspective, in 2002 there were only 22 headlines with the word "Islamophobia."

 Five months into 2016, there have already been 216 headlines with "Islamophobia."

"A few years ago, the term was rarely used," the Bridge Initiative report states. "It primarily appeared in obscure blogs and foreign outlets, or in right-wing or explicitly anti-Muslim websites that contested the term (and the reality of anti-Muslim prejudice.) When it did appear in mainstream outlets, it was almost always put in quotation marks." 

The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS, CNN, the BBC, Time, Newsweek, and the host of NBC's influential "Meet The Press," Chuck Todd, were among those using the term in 2015 -- a year that, according to the Bridge Initiative, saw the number of anti-Muslim attacks rise to levels six to nine times higher than the number tracked by the FBI before Sept. 11. 

It was also a year that saw the now-presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.

The ascendance of the word "Islamophobia" comes just four years after the Associated Press stated that it would no longer use the term, or the term "homophobia." 

The AP Style Book -- a guide referenced by journalists around the world -- was updated to say that "-phobia," "an irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness" should not be used "in political or social contexts," including "homophobia" and "Islamophobia."

The AP suggested instead using phrases such as "anti-gay" or "anti-Muslim."

The news organization's decision was met with some derision. 

The Huffington Post uses the term "Islamophobia."
The Huffington Post uses the term "Islamophobia."

Zack Ford, the LGBT editor at Think Progress, wrote in 2012 that "the journey of the word 'homophobia' emphasizes the current need for the word 'Islamophobia.'"

"As a different concept, it might very well be true that people 'fear' Islam, Muslim people, and Muslim culture as a threat to physical safety," Ford wrote. "Muslim people are unfairly cast as terrorists just as gay men have been cast as pedophiles. While education has opened up new language to describe anti-gay attitudes, rhetorical options for the wide-spread efforts to demonize the Islamic faith remain limited. And like 'homophobia' did four decades ago, 'Islamophobia' effectively captures the intensity of these vitriolic campaigns."

Earlier this month, prominent New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof publicly defended his use of "Islamophobia" after a reader complained about it in a letter to the editor

"A phobia is a state of mind for which there is no rational basis," the New York Times reader wrote. "Does Kristof really believe that the revulsion one feels at reading stories of torture and murder is phobic in character? If so, would he kindly explain the basis for this view?"

"I use 'Islamophobia' to criticize what I see as irrational fears stigmatizing 1.6 billion Muslims," Kristof shot back in a tweet. "That's why." 

The Huffington Post, which has in recent months documented the daily harassment, discrimination and violence faced by American Muslims, also uses the term "Islamophobia." 

Corey Saylor, director of the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in an email that his organization uses the term because "we feel it is the best description for efforts to problematize Islam and Muslims in the United States."

"Our observation is that in 2010 it organically became the term adopted by most media outlets and NGOs discussing the national controversies surrounding the Park 51 project in New York and Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ International Burn a Koran Day," Saylor said.

But while the media has embraced "Islamophobia," it's also been guilty of its own anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

"Most Americans are not familiar with Islam," David Uberti noted in the Columbia Journalism Review's review of the best and worst journalism of 2015. "And media have tended to capitalize on that with fear-mongering and unfair lines of questioning after Islamist terrorist attacks. Journalists at various outlets have misreported 'no-go zones' in Europe, asked a Muslim human rights lawyer if they support ISIS, asked an American mayor if she’s afraid of the Muslim citizens in her town, and emphasized the religious background of suspects rather than the violent act they committed."

"The worry is that such reactionary coverage will influence policy makers to take drastic measures under the guise of popular fears," Uberti continued. "And that threat is very real, if Trump’s candidacy is any indication." 

According to the Bridge Initiative, the American public has grown more curious about the term "Islamophobia." Google searches for term spiked to an all-time high last year, according to data from Google Trends. 

And major political figures on the left have also started publicly saying "Islamophobia." Secretary of State John Kerry used the term, as did all three major Democratic presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. 

For the Bridge Initiative -- which bills itself as "a multi-year research project that connects the academic study of Islamophobia with the public square" -- the rising use of "Islamophobia" is encouraging.

"Americans’ increased awareness of the reality of Islamophobia, coupled with the rise in curiosity about the term, suggests that many Americans may have settled on a word to describe both the incidents of hate violence they hear about in the news and the prejudicial rhetoric from pundits and political leaders," the organization wrote in its report Friday. 

"In a time when anti-Muslim attacks continue, this is a positive step," the report continues. "The naming of prejudice is crucial, and signals that a society has begun to recognize how wrong it is."