“You know we Muslims are responsible for everything that is going wrong in the world … except maybe two things, climate change and the financial crisis,” says Zaheer Ahmad, president of the British National Association of Muslim Police, with a certain humor. “But then, someone recently told me that since the Arabs were producing most of the oil in the world, they could probably be considered responsible for climate change,” he adds smiling.
It may be said jokingly, but Ahmad’s remark nevertheless reveals a growing issue in Europe: In recent years, there has been an increasing wave of what has come to be known as “Islamophobia,” which could be grossly defined as the fear and/or hatred of Islam, Muslims or people believed to be Muslims.
“Opinion polls in several European countries reflect fear, suspicion and negative opinions of Muslims and Islamic culture. These Islamophobic prejudices are combined with racist attitudes – directed not least against people originating from Turkey, Arab countries and South Asia,” the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, wrote in a blog in 2010. Not only that: European Muslims are also stigmatized by populist rhetoric of politicians; even mainstream political discourse is now contaminated by xenophobic and anti-Muslim statements.
European Muslim Initiative for Social Cohesion
Political leaders on the whole have failed to counter these Islamophobic stereotypes. As a consequence, citizens everywhere in Europe are now taking the initiative. This is how two years ago people from different countries and with different backgrounds came together and created Emisco – European Muslim Initiative for Social Cohesion. The aim is to convince decision-makers in Europe to change their anti-Muslim discourse and consider them as co-citizens. Last week, Emisco organized a one-day international colloquium on “Protecting and Promoting Fundamental Rights for Muslim Communities” in the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss the issue. Around 140 people from various European countries attended the event.
“Many things have changed since 2009 and this may lead us to review our strategy,” the president of Emisco, Doudou Diène – Senegal’s former deputy representative to UNESCO and former United Nations Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance – explained. “For a long time, the central issue at the heart of Islamophobia was the supposed incompatibility between Islam and democracy and Islam and human rights. The revolutions in the Arab world have changed that perspective. Now, they all know what we already knew: that inside Islam, there are values of human rights and democracy.”
A second important element, according to Diène, is the 2011-mass shooting perpetrated by a young man named Breivik in Norway, “a country known for its tolerance and humanism. He killed 77 people simply because he considered the Norwegian government to be too tolerant toward Muslims. This shows that the Islamophobic political discourse and its trivialization has had an impact on the collective unconscious of the Europeans and has actually led them to take action.”
In other words, Islamophobia is no longer limited to words, it now has a violent and destructive component; and this has created a situation that represents a threat not only for Islam but for democracy and human rights themselves.
Seeing past ethnicity and race
A third major event is, of course, the financial or economic crisis. “In reality, when in a society there are so many crises, it is no longer about crises but about change or transformation. What is happening is a profound change in Europe and, I’d say, in the world. There is a change of paradigm. Behind this transformation, there is an identity crisis in the Western world: This is an expression of the contradiction between the old national identities and the new multicultural dynamics. If you want, there is a new multicultural identity that is in the process of been born. And as with any birth, this one is occurring with pain.”
Hence, the president of Emisco’s question: “Are we Muslims going to continue our old strategy of complaining against Islamophobia and denouncing only those discriminations against Muslims, thereby falling into the ideological trap of a clash of civilizations? Or are we going to adapt our strategy and consider Islam as a force for change and pluralism? This would give us an entirely different and much wider responsibility.” In other words, Diène says, Muslims should bring their struggle on the more general field of fundamental rights and democracy for all.
The idea here is to switch the struggle from the theological or religious level to a more ethical one. “It is no longer a question of theology but of values,” says Diène. “So we have to practice what we preach and integrate in our struggle the struggle of other communities for justice and human rights. People in Libya, Tunis, Syria, Egypt … are all fighting for democracy and human rights. Not only that: We have to search common values with the Christian and Jewish communities. The real struggle is about something bigger than just Islamophobia”.
“There is about 50 percent unemployment among the young people in Spain, Greece and Portugal,” says Sajjad Karim, a British member of the European Parliament supporting Emisco‘s event. “We cannot take all these issues here in isolation; we have to take the wider context into account. We are not doing enough to solve these social problems. We can talk about tolerance and diversity as much as we want, but as long as we don’t tackle the issues that are eating away the social fabric in Europe, it will be talk and only talk.”
“We have to build an inclusive project,” Merwan Muhammad, president of the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie, an association fighting Islamophobia in France, agrees. “Each time someone wants to underline Muslims’ supposed specificities, we should respond by saying that there are more things that unite us than separate us. Who cares about the veil, what really matters is: How are we going to give a job to all the young unemployed? We have to build a society project that is bigger than ethnic or religious communities’ fights.”
“Islamophobia is not about the beard or the veil, it is about social issues,” confirms the secretary general of Emisco, Bashy Quraishy – former president of the European Network Against Racism and a longtime human rights activist. “Muslim communities need to ally with other communities so that we stand a better chance to raise certain questions with our political leaders and be heard. Others are being demonized as well and we need to support them.”
Looking at the ‘other’
This is the approach now chosen by the CEJI: A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe — an association engaged in diversity education.
“There is that general tendency to the ‘othering,’” says Stéphanie Lecesne, CEJI’s training coordinator. “The other is different, he is evil, he is less than human and we are necessarily right. Our approach is different: We consider we are all unique and every person has its own potential and represents a great resource. We aim at fighting slurs-naming, dehumanization, scapegoating and ridicule. We try to confront stereotypes, prejudices, discrimination and social exclusion in general.
“We consider Islamophobia not just a problem for Muslims themselves,” Lecesne goes on. “On the contrary, prejudice, discrimination and hatred have to be – and always will be – a concern for all in society. Our training programs aim at raising personal and cultural awareness. Our first step is always the same: learn to know yourself. Only then can you have a cultural awareness and start working on the others and their cultural orientations. We work with different people from different backgrounds, believers and non-believers.”
“I think we should lead our strategy at different levels,” concludes Diène. “On the political front, we should do more to convince politicians to have the political will to fight against discrimination.
“We also have to be more active on the legal front, by using all the tools at our disposal, i.e., Human Rights Conventions and national laws, to address discrimination with whoever is involved and wherever they occur.”
Diène continues, “On the cultural and ethical level, we should foster education of common, shared values and work to deconstruct mental constructions. And of course, minorities should also defend themselves on the media front: Media do promote stereotypes sometimes, but they can also be a force for denunciation.”
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