|Implications of Islamophobia: The Global Ramifications of Stifling Progress|
|Athina W. TESFA-YOHANNES|
|Wednesday, 30 November 2011 16:59|
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:
the rise and penetration of Islamophobia worldwide.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.