Islamophobia and Natural Language Processing

At some point early in 2019 I found that various research interests were converging upon a new problem (for me). I have a history of working on problems in semantics and to a lesser extent sentiment. I’ve also been generally interested in the state of the world, and concerned about larger trends that I’ve observed both in my own country and around the world. I began to feel like computational approaches to identifying and potentially understanding Islamophobia would be both an engrossing and important problem for me to work on. And so it began.

I’ve already learned that Islamophobia is a difficult and even controversial term to define. So much the better — years of trying to manage word sense disambiguation has inoculated me to worrying too much about this. Many terms are hard to define - word meanings are by their nature slippery — this is the way words work. My own working definition as of now is fairly broad, and is that Islamophobia is prejudice against people who are Muslim or who are believed to be Muslim. Because of my research interests I am particularly interested in expressions of Islamophobia that are primarily conveyed in written language, be it on social media, in the news, in academic articles, etc.

While there is a lot of interesting work on hate speech and offensive language, Islamophobia seems to me a distinct form of such expressions since it is ostensibly directed at a religion. However, Anti-Muslim bias is not just about religion, such prejudices often include elements of race, ethnicity, class, gender, political affiliation, country of origin, and immigration status. This is all made far more difficult since there is a degree of acceptability and normality to anti-Muslim prejudice in this country and others. Islamophobia is not (always) obviously profane or outside the boundaries of any acceptable discourse, it is often (seemingly) expressed politely or academically in what are seen to be respectable outlets.

I’ve been doing some reading, both on the general topic of Islamophobia and then more specifically on automatic detection. My intent is to keep this relatively current and to update as I go along. Please feel free to make suggestions for other readings, videos, etc. that you think might be helpful.


American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, by Khaled A. Beydoun, April 2018

A mix of personal anecdote and historical perspective on Islamophobia in the United States. Discusses Islamophobia on three levels : private (fear of individual Muslims), structural (fear of Muslims in positions of authority), and dialectical (how these fears are propagated within and outside the USA). Discusses negative impact of western academic tradition of “Orientialism”. Discusses mixed messages of Obama administration, and the role of Islamophobia in the 2016 US Presidential election.

Presumed Guilty : Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism, by Todd H. Green, September 2018

A very readable debunking of the presumption that Muslims are sympathetic to or complicit with terrorists, and that Islam is at its core a religion of violence. Also points out that Islam is not the only religion to be used to justify evil and includes examples where Christianity has been similarly mis-used. Discusses role of Islamophobia in 2016 US Presidential election and thereafter.

One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway — and Its Aftermath, by Åsne Seierstad, April 2016

Detailed retelling of Anders Breivik’s horrific massacre of 77 in Oslo and on Utoyo on July 22, 2011. Provides a great deal of background on his Islamophobic beliefs and where those came from, must of it motivated (seemingly) by a fear of Muslim immigration and the belief that Europe would be transformed into “Eurabia”.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable, April 2011

Biography of Malcolm X that sheds considerable light on the man, his work, and the Nation of Islam. While NOI is not representative of more mainstream Islamic belief and practice, I believe it has had an outsized influence on perceptions of Islam in the USA and so it important to understand.


Ihan Omar Never Stood a Chance, by Zak Cheney-Rice, New York Magazine, April 2019

The Three Intersecting Reasons Ilhan Omar Gets Singled Out, by Vanessa Taylor, The Intercept, March 2019

Unveiling the Blackness of Hijab, by Vanessa Taylor, Racked, May 2017

Natural Language Processing

Detecting Weak and Strong Islamophobic Hate Speech on Social Media, by Bertie Vidgen and Taha Yasseri, December 2018

Predicting Online Islamophobic Behavior after #ParisAttacks, by Kareem Darwish, et al., March 2018

Mixed Messages? The Limits of Automated Social Media Content Analysis, by Natasha Duarte, et al., February 2018

Computer Science professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Natural Language Processing and Computational Linguistics.

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