Implications of Islamophobia: The Global Ramifications of Stifling Progress

Athina Tesfa YOHANNES
30 November 2011
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Since the beginning of 2011, the revolts throughout the Middle East have captured the attention (and even imagination) of the world’s audience. As rusted dictatorships are being steadily uprooted and likely to be replaced by budding makeshift democracies, all as a result of civil initiative, a greater issue has been largely glossed over: Islamophobia, which can loosely be described as the fear or disdain for anything related to Islam or its’ practitioners (Muslims), has been a principal underlying factor in policy-making within many Western countries, including many of those in Europe and the United States. Many governments in Europe (including the Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland) have gained speed in their respective elections by running on conservative platforms. Many of the parties are not only fiscally conservative (in light of the financial downturn in Europe), but conservative in arenas of immigration as well.

 


Islamophobia in Recent Years

In the U.S., Islamophobia was at an all-time high immediately after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington D.C., serving as a test for the then-newly elected Republican president George W. Bush. Within the following months after the attacks, the U.S. found itself engaged in two wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, flanking America’s theoretical arch-nemesis, Iran. Immigration reform has experienced a renewed vigor in the States, particularly with 2010 legal changes in Arizona state law regarding the topic. The recent opening of the Park51, a new Muslim community center (including a prayer area) located several blocks from ‘Ground Zero’ where the Twin Towers fell in New York City, also faced Islamophobic-based controversy during its construction. The center, which was misbranded as ‘the Ground Zero mosque’ by its opponents, instead found itself steep in false rumors that the institution was a victory for the 9/11 hijackers, and was dishonorable to the memory of the attack’s victims.


Muslim-American politician Keith Ellison caused quite a stir in 2007 during his swearing-in ceremony by choosing to take his oath on a copy of the Koran. Swearing on the Bible is a common tradition within most American courtrooms. However, to counter the roar of criticism, Ellison instead choose to do his ceremony with a London-published 1764 version of the Koran that once belonged to former American president Thomas Jefferson.


Even the American president hasn’t been left untouched by the effects of Islamophobia. The so-called ‘birther movement’ finally managed to lose steam in April 2011, when President Obama, under the pressure of swirling controversies, felt compelled to release further birth records (held in the state of Hawaii) proving he was eligible to hold office as president. The birther movement doesn’t merely seek to uphold legal statutes about election eligibility, but also maintains certain Islamophobic elements that insist Obama is indeed a foreign-born Muslim. Although the controversy was more-or-less put to rest, the damage can still be seen, with more than 1/5th of Americans still believing that Obama is neither Christian nor domestic-born. (1) Islamophobia has even managed to reach the U.S. president on a personal level, indicating just how pervasive the unfounded fear has become in American society today.


The Damaging Media Effects of Perpetuating Myths

Although Islamophobia in the States now isn’t nearly near the level as it was immediately post 9/11, it continues to be buoyed at unnatural numbers, when compared to America’s past history with Islam. A landmark report entitled ‘Fear, Inc’ (published in August 2011 by key American think-tank Center for American Progress) follows the money trail of how Islamophobia is funded and fermented by key political institutions and the mainstream media in America. The report highlights how various self-anointed academic ‘experts’ receive both exorbitant funding and regular airplay in the media, continuing to churn out anti-Islam statements that are often either skewed or hardly grounded in any truth. Given the strength and influence of think-tanks in America’s policy-making process, any elements or persons that provide buttressing support for such fundamental cultural and religious hatred must be exposed for political and moral reasons, as ‘Fear, Inc.’ accomplished to an extent. However, other ways of siphoning off funding (and/or influence) for such figures that manage to regularly slander a religion without having the proper facts (or worse, cherry-picking facts out of context to support an argument) is critical to having a cleaner social and academic debate about matters that concern citizens. More often than not, Islam is unfortunately propped up as a target by fear-mongering groups, as a means of directing the public’s attention away from important matters and instead towards a falsely created political scapegoat.


Islamophobia can readily be seen in the number of anti-Islam rhetoric that can be seen in mainstream media, such as television, key political blogs, and newspapers. Key political representatives in Washington, along with various religious figures and smaller organizations, also contribute to anti-Islam diatribes that can be seen throughout the media landscape. Interestingly, Doha-based “Al Jazeera network” (which is often viewed as a voice of the Middle East) has had difficulty getting airtime on even basic cable network packages in America due to a combination of factors (mainly because of protests against the network state-side). According to a 2009 Pew Research survey, only 26% of Americans had a ‘high familiarity’ of Islam, and up to 58% of Americans are aware that Muslims receive the most discrimination from any other religious group.(2) This is particularly worrisome, especially when Muslims only make up 0.3% of America’s (nearly 312 million) population. Estimates say that America’s Muslim population is likely to double, ranging from 2010 figures of 2.6 million to nearly 6.2 million Muslims in 2030.(3) America’s northern neighbor Canada is expected to see a bigger increase, with its Muslim population likely tripling by 2030, at current rates.


Sharia Law: Something the Average Person Can Define?

Despite growing numbers of Muslims, and thus increasing the chances of inter-religious understanding in terms of pure numbers, the misinformation about Islam continues to dominate the landscape. One example can be seen in the growing ‘anti-Sharia’ law amendments in various state legislatures. ‘Sharia’ refers to Islamic law, or fiqh, that is gathered from various sources within Islamic literature (like the holy Quran, the Hadiths, Qanun, and religious interpretations of Islamic law). However, the use of Sharia law has been explicitly banned in at least one state (Oklahoma), and such legal enactment (particularly in a country like the U.S. that hosts such few Muslim populations) shows the effects of fear in policy-making. While other religious texts, like the Bible and the Torah are often read in context within the time they were written, the Quran (along with the texts that have contributed to the Sharia’s statutes) isn’t often afforded the same courtesy in modern interpretation, which labels Sharia, and thus Islam as stagnantly ‘backward’ and resistant to today’s modern values. While many within the Muslim world can agree that varying opinions amongst religious scholars can be difficult to find at times, simply disregarding Islam’s tenets and mislabeling Islam’s believers is a disservice to everyone. Sharia law often deals with issues concerning the family, such as inheritance law.(4) In fact, despite his secular roots, past American president Thomas Jefferson referenced the Koran during his law studies, as an alternative legal structure.(5) Despite general unfamiliarity about Islam and particularly Islamic law, many have turned ‘Sharia’ into the new buzzword used against Islam-related law implementation. Knowing whether Sharia law is compatible with democracy has become a critical topic at this point. Many countries with predominantly Muslim populations often don’t employ Sharia law at the national levels, but often instead offer local governments the option of incorporating Sharia elements of justice at the society level. Proper investigation into Sharia law, along with modern updated interpretations by various Muslim scholars, will need to be conducted and published to ensure its viability with democracy, as this is the concern of many within the vocal anti-Islam minority groups.

 

A Struggling Europe: Xenophobia Worsened by Deepening Economic Crisis

With far-right parties steadily gaining speed in many European countries, Islamophobia has also taken even deeper roots than usual on the continent. The European experience with Islam greatly differs from the American experience, as Europe’s close proximity to the Middle East and deeper history with Islam gives a different perspective to the issue. Europe also hosts much larger populations of Muslim immigrants from throughout North Africa and the greater Middle East. However, the Muslim ‘experience’ in Europe greatly differs from those smaller Muslim populations in America, who are generally better integrated (and often better educated) by comparison. Despite what European media trends may show, only 3 terrorist attacks in 2010 were related to extremists falsely acting in the name of Islam, according to Europol [European Police].(6) As a matter of comparison, the same report says that nearly 160 internal (non-Islam related) separatist attacks occurred in Europe in 2009. Despite the small number of attacks connected to radicals who pirate and corrupt the ideals of Islam, Europol has stated that it has arrested 50% more people related to such acts of terrorism since 2009, and attributes some causes as influx of north African immigrants, returning self-proclaimed ‘jihadist’ EU nationals who fought in conflict zones (like Pakistan, Somalia, or Afghanistan), and the changing structure of terrorist cell groups in the EU. EU interests, and nationals, are often targeted abroad by radicalized Muslims in troubled political regions. Coupled with the economic recession, and growing support for far-right groups throughout Europe, the increase of radicalized EU citizens, Muslim or not, is bound to increase [as can be seen in the recent massacre in Norway]. Therefore, the threat of Islamophobia has also infiltrated the European atmosphere on many levels, albeit in different scales.


Islamophobia…within the Muslim World?

A subject that needs further examining is the role of Islamophobia within the Muslim world itself. As many post-Arab Spring countries are juggling state-rebuilding tactics, many outside of the Middle East region see the Arab revolutions as an opportunity to plant the democratic seed within many countries, which in this case is inherently intertwined with the notion of secularism. Islamophobia, in a smaller and different form, also exists within the Middle East. States like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Somalia contribute to that internal regional Islamophobia to an extent, with other countries within the Middle East not being appealed by those extreme (often Wahhabism) interpretations of Islam and its inexorability from the creation of national laws. These three countries are often unfortunately held up as false role models of Islam among extreme right groups within both America and Europe. Also, secularists within the Middle East, of both Muslim and non-Muslim origin, worry about the potential intertwine of Islam and governance, and how it can be morphed and (often) abused over time, as can be seen in various examples throughout the world.


To Be or Not To Be…Secular

Turkey is often being carried as the ideal Muslim-majority democracy. However, not only has Turkey’s new democracy not had the time to fully mature, but also the fact that Turkish history and the Turkish experience with republic-building differs greatly from those backgrounds of many north African countries, which have a history scarred by colonial occupiers, racism, and dictatorships. Also, the brand of secularism practiced in Turkey has French roots, with the Turkish version being rather strict, even extreme in some views. Secularism within some Arab populations, however, may even be regarded as a form of atheism, as eliminating religion from the way in which one governs their life can hint as such ideas. (7) Many Middle Eastern countries also host great amount of religious minorities, both within Islam (sects like Shi’ite, Druze, Alevis, or from different schools of Islamic thought like Maliki or Sha’afis) and outside of Islam (all sects of Christianity, Jews, Bahai, etc). Therefore, finding a type of secularism (with roots that are compatible to Muslim values) that is compatible with both acknowledging the majority Muslim populations without alienating its’ minority groups is critical; the same applies to applications of Sharia law.

However, one item is certain: having increasingly democratic regimes with majority Muslim populations will, to some effect, decrease cries of Islamophobia and stereotypes within political and social circles, as democracy holds certain universal values that are compatible with Islam. Therefore, increasingly democratic Middle Eastern nations that have quasi-secular elements are likely to be seen after the first round of elections post-Arab Spring. However, democracies require time and patience to build and function properly, so support from fellow democratic nations will be needed during their rebuilding periods.


What Can Be Done?

Due to the infiltration of Islamophobic elements in both politics and society, combating the phenomenon will need to be stimulated at the civil society level, in a moral ‘trickle-up’ effect. Legal liberties on free speech prevent authorities from clamping down on such Islamophobic sources. However, ethics committees should be created to prevent the slander of religious groups, especially when it can negatively harm the society and produce negative and undesirable outcomes, which then influence voting procedures and further legislation and policy-making.


Media watchdog groups and inter-faith organizations (not solely restricted to Muslim organizations) need to be further funded by both civil and government sources to assist with lobbying against media conglomerates who allow negative or stereotypical advertisements or programs to air on national media circuits. This includes lobbying against foundations that support faux think-tanks and their tactics in order to siphon off funding that fuels hate in societies. A little less than half of America’s citizens personally know a Muslim (according to Pew’s 2009 research findings), but with this number set to grow in the next twenty years, local school systems and community centers will need to be pro-active in educating their fellow American. On the whole, Muslims in America are not united in a sense, as many Muslim immigrants in the States represent an array of countries and languages, and thus practices and sects within Islam. Therefore, the efforts of Muslim-Americans and non-Muslim-Americans alike will be needed to combat irrational ‘phobias’ such as this unfortunate phenomenon. In Europe, while significant efforts have been seen by various EU member states in terms of integrating their Muslim populations, further efforts must be exerted for continued integration efforts and equal treatment of the EU’s Muslim citizens.(8) The integration burden lies on both EU member states and those Muslim (and even non-Muslim) leaders within the civil society, as building levels of trust and cooperation will help stem increasingly radicalized citizens on their continent.


Granted, creating an informed public opinion is difficult, particularly in prejudiced or wounded societies (like those in the West from bad integration experiences and/or reeling from terrorist attacks by radicalized self-described Muslims). However, it must be done, and given that there are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, their voice and image must be properly displayed for better inter-cultural communication and policy-making.


Both domestically and internationally, further academic initiatives will also need to takeplace. Gathering Islamic scholars of the various schools of Islam (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki,Hanabali), and the various sects (Sunni/Sh’ite/Alawite, etc) is needed to shape informed and critical opinions about Islamic law. Building an academically diverse and multi-national ‘ulama,’ or scholars in the Islamic justice system, would then interpret Sharia law for not only those in the West but also within the Muslim world (as there are skeptics and critics of Sharia law within this part of the world as well). Understanding Sharia law will give insight into Islam to a certain extent, shedding light on issues that extend from the cultural level to even the world of Islamic finance structures. Creating a foundation that houses such scholars would prove to be an immense resource, a governing body that can be referenced by various countries and institutions for proper and up-to-date interpretations about Sharia law.


Post-Arab revolution countries could also have such a body to serve as an advisory body in setting up legal systems within their new respective governments. Such a council would be able to answer questions pertinent to Western figures skeptical of Islam, including questions such as: can a country be both Islamic and democratic? How can Sharia law be applied and woven into national and local laws? Will Sharia law apply to non-Muslims within a Muslim majority state? Will being prosecuted by Sharia law be a choice of the defendant? Such bodies would also be able to define Islamic ideas like ‘jihad,’ which are perpetually misinterpreted in Western media and radicals who seek to attack Islam. Real forms of ‘jihad’ (derived from its original sense)throughout today’s world do not quite exist, but extremists who proclaim to fight ‘jihad’ are supporting radically false ideologies like those of Al Qaeda or Somalia’s Al Shabaab.


The oft-lamented lack of effectiveness within the Arab League might change in the wake of the Arab Spring. In the past, the Arab League hasn’t been particularly effective or united due to internal disagreements among Arab member states and other regional distractions. However, the League has been rather vocal about the recent removal of Libya’s (now-deceased) leader Col. Muammer Ghaddafi and the Syrian regime’s crackdown on its citizens. So while its political victories may be few in number, the Arab League has had success on the social level, affecting policies that affect education and the welfare of women and children throughout the region. Given the shifts in the Middle East, the issue of Islamophobia should not be tabled in future Arab League meetings, as the elements of this destructive phenomenon on the region should encourage the growth of a newly unified political will among member states. Every Arab League nation could also thus nominate their most esteemed scholars for such Islam interpretation and governance committees, as Islamophobia is counter-productive for cross-cultural trade (including tourism), etc. The re-shifting and construction of the Muslim world within the Middle East is an opportune moment for investments into such ethics investigations. With Arab confidence being gradually restored during the revolutions, the performance of the Arab League will ideally improve as well, using the original Pan-Arabism appeal that founded the union to stamp out issues that adversely affect the region, like Islamophobia.


One item to curb Islamophobia could be an initiative where Persian Gulf Coast countries, being among the wealthiest in the Muslim world, could also sponsor trans-Atlantic (and Mediterranean) programs to host European and American students to study within their societies. Under the framework of either the Arab League or Organization of Islamic States, an coordinated ‘ERASMUS’-like study abroad program within the Muslim world would help in alleviating such Islamophobia tendencies. For example, countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates already play host to a number of foreign institutions’ Middle East campuses, using English as the medium language. With the proper organization and pooling of funds for less capable Muslim states, the Middle East’s Muslim world, in particular, is rife with academic opportunities for exchange that can help reduce Islamophobia.

United We Stand…but Divided?

With growing Muslim populations worldwide, it’s critical for both the United States and Europe to take a stand against Islamophobia, serving as examples to other leading nations with (or without) Muslim populations. As shown by the Arab Spring, underestimating the value of events within the civil society can prove disastrous for a nation. Tackling Islamophobia and how it is steadily serving to separate societies must be closely examined, as the risk of challenging societal fragility in an economically unsure environment cannot be ignored.

 

 

Endnotes:
(1) 18% of Americans believe that President Barack Obama is Muslims, according to Pew Research findings, August 2010.
(2)“View of Religious Similarities and Differences: Muslims Widely Seen as Facing Discrimination.” Results from the 2009 Annual Religion and Public Life Survey. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Page. 5.
(3) “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030.” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. January 2011. Page 137.
(4) Tellenbach, Silvia. “Muslim Countries Between Religious and Secular Law.” Islam and the Rule of Law. Editors: Birgit Krawietz and Helmut Reifeld. Page 118.
(5)“All Things Considered.” Politics. National Public Radio. January 3, 2007. Radio.
(6)“TE-SAT 2011: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report.” Europol. Page 15.
(7)Semin, Ali. “Türkiye’nin Laikliği Arap Ülkelerinde Model Olur Mu?” BILGESAM publications. October 21, 2011. < http://www.bilgesam.org/tr/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1202:tuerkiyenin-laiklii-arap-uelkelerinde-model-olur-mu&catid=77:ortadogu-analizler&Itemid=150.>
(8)Archick, Kristin, et al. “Muslims in Europe: Promoting Integration and Countering Extremism.” Congressional Research Service, Federation of American Scientists. September 7th, 2011. <http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33166.pdf.>

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