Islamophobia like 1930s anti-Semitism: Islamic forum head
By Paul Handley (AFP) – Nov 5, 2010
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Growing Islamophobia echoes the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s with US leaders resisting it but Europeans abetting the trend for political gain, the head of the world's largest Islamic group said.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), said xenophobia directed at Muslim immigrants was taking hold, especially in Europe.
Vote-seeking politicians were advancing extremist groups behind the anti-Muslim sentiment.
"This issue has become a political agenda item," the Turkish head of the 58-member OIC told AFP in an interview, while stressing that Islam was also a European religion.
"What worries me is that political authorities or political parties, instead of stopping this, or fighting this, some of them are using this for their political ends, to gain more popular support in elections," he said.
"I'm afraid that we are going through a process like the beginning of the '30s of the last century, when an anti-Semitic agenda became politically a big issue (together with) the rise of fascism and Naziism .... I think now we are in the first stages of such a thing."
A "pandemic of Islam vilification" is rising steadily, he warned, as documented by the OIC's newly-established office to monitor Islamophobia around the globe.
Ihsanoglu pointed to the protests in the United States against the "Ground Zero" Islamic centre in New York City, to the anti-burqa movement in Europe, to physical attacks on Muslims on both sides of the Atlantic.
The problem which most concerned him was the institutionalisation of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, citing Switzerland's ban on minarets atop mosques and the movement to ban Muslim women's "burqa" full-face covers.
"This burqa business is really a sad story, it's only a few people who are doing this (wearing the burqa) ... It's just part of old habits of certain tribes in certain countries, it's not at all to do with Islam."
Yet countries like France, Spain and Holland were reacting with legislation.
The OIC chief from secular Turkey predicted that time would take care of problem issues such as the burqa, as Muslims from less-developed cultures reach "a modern way of life."
But focusing on assimilation was the wrong approach.
"Why assimilation? If Europe and the West are advocating the rights of minorities all over the world, why then when it comes to Europe do we speak about assimilation? Again, that shows the double standard."
"Europe has to understand the reality of Islam today, and the reality that Islam is not an alien religion of Europe. Islam is a European religion, and Europe has to come to terms with Islam."
Mustachioed, with the erudite bearing of a scholarly British diplomat, Ihsanoglu is an expert in Islamic cultural history and the history of science, with a long career as a professor and department head at Istanbul University.
Born in Cairo in 1943, he has led the Jeddah-based OIC since 2005 through a period when the Islamic world has been mired in cultural wars with itself and with the West.
Ihsanoglu spoke to AFP before the massacre of more than 50 Christians by Al-Qaeda Islamists in a Baghdad church on October 31. In an official statement, he has vehemently condemned the killings as a "criminal and terrorist act."
While such violent attacks feed anti-Islamic hate, he argued Islamophobia arised separately from them. "I think we have to keep extremism out of this discussion, which is a different topic."
The real issue, he insisted, was how anti-Muslim sentiment was included in high-level policy debate in some European countries.
In the United States, he said, Islamophobia was not as virulent. One reason was that Muslim immigrants to the US were better-educated and fitted in more easily.
A key difference was how Washington had consistently resisted admitting anti-Islamic emotions into public policy.
"For instance, this marginal pastor who wanted to burn Korans. The (US) government took responsibility and talked to him and convinced him not to do that."
While he advocates cultural compromise, Ihsanoglu draws the line at certain things, like the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed that sparked outrage among Muslims worldwide after they first appeared in 2005.
"Asking us to accept the cartoons is asking to accept insults as a norm. How can people ask us to accept the cartoons? This is indecent," he said, adding a warning that radicals on both sides should not be allowed to set the agenda.
"We are getting held hostage by the marginal groups on the European side and on the Muslim side," he said.
The Lies of Islamophobia
First Published: 2010-11-09
The Crusades lasted hundreds of years. Let’s hope that Crusade 2.0, and the dark age that we find ourselves in, has a far shorter lifespan, says John Feffer.
The Muslims were bloodthirsty and treacherous. They conducted a sneak attack against the French army and slaughtered every single soldier, 20,000 in all. More than 1,000 years ago, in the mountain passes of Spain, the Muslim horde cut down the finest soldiers in Charlemagne’s command, including his brave nephew Roland. Then, according to the famous poem that immortalized the tragedy, Charlemagne exacted his revenge by routing the entire Muslim army.
The Song of Roland, an eleventh century rendering in verse of an eighth century battle, is a staple of Western Civilization classes at colleges around the country. A “masterpiece of epic drama,” in the words of its renowned translator Dorothy Sayers, it provides a handy preface for students before they delve into readings on the Crusades that began in 1095. More ominously, the poem has schooled generations of Judeo-Christians to view Muslims as perfidious enemies who once threatened the very foundations of Western civilization.
The problem, however, is that the whole epic is built on a curious falsehood. The army that fell upon Roland and his Frankish soldiers was not Muslim at all. In the real battle of 778, the slayers of the Franks were Christian Basques furious at Charlemagne for pillaging their city of Pamplona. Not epic at all, the battle emerged from a parochial dispute in the complex wars of medieval Spain. Only later, as kings and popes and knights prepared to do battle in the First Crusade, did an anonymous bard repurpose the text to serve the needs of an emerging cross-against-crescent holy war.
Similarly, we think of the Crusades as the archetypal “clash of civilizations” between the followers of Jesus and the followers of Mohammed. In the popular version of those Crusades, the Muslim adversary has, in fact, replaced a remarkable range of peoples the Crusaders dealt with as enemies, including Jews killed in pogroms on the way to the Holy Land, rival Catholics slaughtered in the Balkans and in Constantinople, and Christian heretics hunted down in southern France.
Much later, during the Cold War, mythmakers in Washington performed a similar act, substituting a monolithic crew labeled “godless communists” for a disparate group of anti-imperial nationalists in an attempt to transform conflicts in remote locations like Vietnam, Guatemala, and Iran into epic struggles between the forces of the Free World and the forces of evil. In recent years, the Bush administration did it all over again by portraying Arab nationalists as fiendish Islamic fundamentalists when we invaded Iraq and prepared to topple the regime in Syria.
Similar mythmaking continues today. The recent surge of Islamophobia in the United States has drawn strength from several extraordinary substitutions. A clearly Christian president has become Muslim in the minds of a significant number of Americans. The thoughtful Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan has become a closet fundamentalist in the writings of Paul Berman and others. And an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, organized by proponents of interfaith dialogue, has become an extremist “mosque at Ground Zero” in the TV appearances, political speeches, and Internet sputterings of a determined clique of right-wing activists.
This transformation of Islam into a violent caricature of itself -- as if Ann Coulter had suddenly morphed into the face of Christianity -- comes at a somewhat strange juncture in the United States. Anti-Islamic rhetoric and hate crimes, which spiked immediately after September 11, 2001, had been on the wane. No major terrorist attack had taken place in the U.S. or Europe since the London bombings in 2005. The current American president had reached out to the Muslim world and retired the controversial acronym GWOT, or “Global War on Terror.”
All the elements seemed in place, in other words, for us to turn the page on an ugly chapter in our history. Yet it’s as if we remain fixed in the eleventh century in a perpetual battle of “us” against “them.” Like the undead rising from their coffins, our previous “crusades” never go away. Indeed, we still seem to be fighting the three great wars of the millennium, even though two of these conflicts have long been over and the third has been rhetorically reduced to “overseas contingency operations.” The Crusades, which finally petered out in the seventeenth century, continue to shape our global imagination today. The Cold War ended in 1991, but key elements of the anti-communism credo have been awkwardly grafted onto the new Islamist adversary. And the Global War on Terror, which President Obama quietly renamed shortly after taking office, has in fact metastasized into the wars that his administration continues to prosecute in
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Those in Europe and the United States who cheer on these wars claim that they are issuing a wake-up call about the continued threat of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militants who claim the banner of Islam. However, what really keeps Islamophobes up at night is not the marginal and backwards-looking Islamic fundamentalists but rather the growing economic, political, and global influence of modern, mainstream Islam. Examples of Islam successfully grappling with modernity abound, from Turkey’s new foreign policy and Indonesia’s economic muscle to the Islamic political parties participating in elections in Lebanon, Morocco, and Jordan. Instead of providing reassurance, however, these trends only incite Islamophobes to intensify their battles to “save” Western civilization.
As long as our unfinished wars still burn in the collective consciousness -- and still rage in Kabul, Baghdad, Sana’a, and the Tribal Areas of Pakistan -- Islamophobia will make its impact felt in our media, politics, and daily life. Only if we decisively end the millennial Crusades, the half-century Cold War, and the decade-long War on Terror (under whatever name) will we overcome the dangerous divide that has consumed so many lives, wasted so much wealth, and distorted our very understanding of our Western selves.
The Crusades Continue
With their irrational fear of spiders, arachnophobes are scared of both harmless daddy longlegs and poisonous brown recluse spiders. In extreme cases, an arachnophobe can break out in a sweat while merely looking at photos of spiders. It is, of course, reasonable to steer clear of black widows. What makes a legitimate fear into an irrational phobia, however, is the tendency to lump all of any group, spiders or humans, into one lethal category and then to exaggerate how threatening they are. Spider bites, after all, are responsible for at most a handful of deaths a year in the United States.
Islamophobia is, similarly, an irrational fear of Islam. Yes, certain Muslim fundamentalists have been responsible for terrorist attacks, certain fantasists about a “global caliphate” continue to plot attacks on perceived enemies, and certain groups like Afghanistan’s Taliban and Somalia’s al-Shabaab practice medieval versions of the religion. But Islamophobes confuse these small parts with the whole and then see terrorist jihad under every Islamic pillow. They break out in a sweat at the mere picture of an imam.
Irrational fears are often rooted in our dimly remembered childhoods. Our irrational fear of Islam similarly seems to stem from events that happened in the early days of Christendom. Three myths inherited from the era of the Crusades constitute the core of Islamophobia today: Muslims are inherently violent, Muslims want to take over the world, and Muslims can’t be trusted.
The myth of Islam as a “religion of the sword” was a staple of Crusader literature and art. In fact, the atrocities committed by Muslim leaders and armies -- and there were some -- rarely rivaled the slaughters of the Crusaders, who retook Jerusalem in 1099 in a veritable bloodbath. “The heaps of the dead presented an immediate problem for the conquerors,” writes Christopher Tyerman in God’s War. “Many of the surviving Muslim population were forced to clear the streets and carry the bodies outside the walls to be burnt in great pyres, whereat they themselves were massacred.” Jerusalem’s Jews suffered a similar fate when the Crusaders burned many of them alive in their main synagogue. Four hundred years earlier, by contrast, Caliph ‘Umar put no one to the sword when he took over Jerusalem, signing a pact with the Christian patriarch Sophronius that pledged “no compulsion in religion.”
This myth of the inherently violent Muslim endures. Islam “teaches violence,” televangelist Pat Robertson proclaimed in 2005. “The Koran teaches violence and most Muslims, including so-called moderate Muslims, openly believe in violence,” was the way Major General Jerry Curry (U.S. Army, ret.), who served in the Carter, Reagan, and Bush Sr. administrations, put it.
The Crusaders justified their violence by arguing that Muslims were bent on taking over the world. In its early days, the expanding Islamic empire did indeed imagine an ever-growing dar-es-Islam (House of Islam). By the time of the Crusades, however, this initial burst of enthusiasm for holy war had long been spent. Moreover, the Christian West harbored its own set of desires when it came to extending the Pope’s authority to every corner of the globe. Even that early believer in soft power, Francis of Assisi, sat down with Sultan al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade with the aim of eliminating Islam through conversion.
Today, Islamophobes portray the building of Cordoba House in lower Manhattan as just another gambit in this millennial power grab: "This is Islamic domination and expansionism,” writes right-wing blogger Pamela Geller, who made the “Ground Zero Mosque” into a media obsession. “Islam is a religion with a very political agenda,” warns ex-Muslim Ali Sina. “The ultimate goal of Islam is to rule the world.”
These two myths -- of inherent violence and global ambitions -- led to the firm conviction that Muslims were by nature untrustworthy. Robert of Ketton, a twelfth century translator of the Koran, was typical in badmouthing the prophet Mohammad this way: “Like the liar you are, you everywhere contradict yourself.” The suspicion of untrustworthiness fell as well on any Christian who took up the possibility of coexistence with Islam. Pope Gregory, for instance, believed that the thirteenth century Crusader Frederick II was the Anti-Christ himself because he developed close relationships with Muslims.
For Islamophobes today, Muslims abroad are similarly terrorists-in-waiting. As for Muslims at home, “American Muslims must face their either/or,” writes the novelist Edward Cline, “to repudiate Islam or remain a quiet, sanctioning fifth column.” Even American Muslims in high places, like Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), are not above suspicion. In a 2006 CNN interview, Glenn Beck said, “I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’"
These three myths of Islamophobia flourish in our era, just as they did almost a millennium ago, because of a cunning conflation of a certain type of Islamic fundamentalism with Islam itself. Bill O’Reilly was neatly channeling this Crusader mindset when he asserted recently that “the Muslim threat to the world is not isolated. It’s huge!” When Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence William Boykin, in an infamous 2003 sermon, thundered "What I'm here to do today is to recruit you to be warriors of God's kingdom," he was issuing the Crusader call to arms.
But O’Reilly and Boykin, who represent the violence, duplicity, and expansionist mind-set of today’s Western crusaders, were also invoking a more recent tradition, closer in time and far more familiar.
The Totalitarian Myth
In 1951, the CIA and the emerging anti-communist elite, including soon-to-be-president Dwight Eisenhower, created the Crusade for Freedom as a key component of a growing psychological warfare campaign against the Soviet Union and the satellite countries it controlled in Eastern Europe. The language of this “crusade” was intentionally religious. It reached out to “peoples deeply rooted in the heritage of western civilization,” living under the “crushing weight of a godless dictatorship.” In its call for the liberation of the communist world, it echoed the nearly thousand-year-old crusader rhetoric of “recovering” Jerusalem and other outposts of Christianity.
In the theology of the Cold War, the Soviet Union replaced the Islamic world as the untrustworthy infidel. However unconsciously, the old crusader myths about Islam translated remarkably easily into governing assumptions about the communist enemy: The Soviets and their allies were bent on taking over the world, could not be trusted with their rhetoric of peaceful coexistence, imperiled Western civilization, and fought with unique savagery as well as a willingness to martyr themselves for the greater ideological good.
Ironically, Western governments were so obsessed with fighting this new scourge that, in the Cold War years, on the theory that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, they nurtured radical Islam as a weapon. As journalist Robert Dreyfuss ably details in his book The Devil’s Game, the U.S. funding of the mujahideen in Afghanistan was only one part of the anti-communist crusade in the Islamic world. To undermine Arab nationalists and leftists who might align themselves with the Soviet Union, the United States (and Israel) worked with Iranian mullahs, helped create Hamas, and facilitated the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Though the Cold War ended with the sudden disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991, that era’s mind-set -- and so many of the Cold Warriors sporting it -- never went with it. The prevailing mythology was simply transferred back to the Islamic world. In anti-communist theology, for example, the worst curse word was “totalitarianism,” said to describe the essence of the all-encompassing Soviet state and system. According to the gloss that early neoconservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick provided in her book Dictatorships and Double Standards, the West had every reason to support right-wing authoritarian dictatorships because they would steadfastly oppose left-wing totalitarian dictatorships, which, unlike the autocracies we allied with, were supposedly incapable of internal reform.
According to the new “Islamo-fascism” school -- and its acolytes like Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, Bill O’Reilly, Pamela Geller -- the fundamentalists are simply the “new totalitarians,” as hidebound, fanatical, and incapable of change as communists. For a more sophisticated treatment of the Islamo-fascist argument, check out Paul Berman, a rightward-leaning liberal intellectual who has tried to demonstrate that “moderate Muslims” are fundamentalists in reformist clothing.
These Cold Warriors all treat the Islamic world as an undifferentiated mass -- in spirit, a modern Soviet Union -- where Arab governments and radical Islamists work hand in glove. They simply fail to grasp that the Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian governments have launched their own attacks on radical Islam. The sharp divides between the Iranian regime and the Taliban, between the Jordanian government and the Palestinians, between Shi’ites and Sunni in Iraq, and even among Kurds all disappear in the totalitarian blender, just as anti-communists generally failed to distinguish between the Communist hardliner Leonid Brezhnev and the Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.
At the root of terrorism, according to Berman, are “immense failures of political courage and imagination within the Muslim world,” rather than the violent fantasies of a group of religious outliers or the Crusader-ish military operations of the West. In other words, something flawed at the very core of Islam itself is responsible for the violence done in its name -- a line of argument remarkably similar to one Cold Warriors made about communism.
All of this, of course, represents a mirror image of al-Qaeda’s arguments about the inherent perversities of the infidel West. As during the Cold War, hardliners reinforce one another.
The persistence of Crusader myths and their transposition into a Cold War framework help explain why the West is saddled with so many misconceptions about Islam. They don’t, however, explain the recent spike in Islamophobia in the United States after several years of relative tolerance. To understand this, we must turn to the third unfinished war: the Global War on Terror or GWOT, launched by George W. Bush.
Fanning the Flames
President Obama was careful to groom his Christian image during his campaign. He was repeatedly seen praying in churches, and he studiously avoided mosques. He did everything possible to efface the traces of Muslim identity in his past.
His opponents, of course, did just the opposite. They emphasized his middle name, Hussein, challenged his birth records, and asserted that he was too close to the Palestinian cause. They also tried to turn liberal constituencies -- particularly Jewish-American ones -- against the presumptive president. Like Frederick II for an earlier generation of Christian fundamentalists, since entering the Oval Office Obama has become the Anti-Christ of the Islamophobes.
Once in power, he broke with Bush administration policies toward the Islamic world on a few points. He did indeed push ahead with his plan to remove combat troops from Iraq (with some important exceptions). He has attempted to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to stop expanding settlements in occupied Palestinian lands and to negotiate in good faith (though he has done so without resorting to the kind of pressure that might be meaningful, like a cutback of or even cessation of U.S. arms exports to Israel). In a highly publicized speech in Cairo in June 2009, he also reached out rhetorically to the Islamic world at a time when he was also eliminating the name “Global War on Terror” from the government’s vocabulary.
For Muslims worldwide, however, GWOT itself continues. The United States has orchestrated a surge in Afghanistan. The CIA’s drone war in the Pakistani borderlands has escalated rapidly. U.S. Special Forces now operate in 75 countries, at least 15 more than during the Bush years. Meanwhile, Guantánamo remains open, the United States still practices extraordinary rendition, and assassination remains an active part of Washington’s toolbox.
The civilians killed in these overseas contingency operations are predominantly Muslim. The people seized and interrogated are mostly Muslim. The buildings destroyed are largely Muslim-owned. As a result, the rhetoric of “crusaders and imperialists” used by al-Qaeda falls on receptive ears. Despite his Cairo speech, the favorability rating of the United States in the Muslim world, already grim enough, has slid even further since Obama took office -- in Egypt, from 41% in 2009 to 31% percent now; in Turkey, from 33% to 23%; and in Pakistan, from 13% to 8%.
The U.S. wars, occupations, raids, and repeated air strikes have produced much of this disaffection and, as political scientist Robert Pape has consistently argued, most of the suicide bombings and other attacks against Western troops and targets as well. This is revenge, not religion, talking -- just as it was for Americans after September 11, 2001. As commentator M. Junaid Levesque-Alam astutely pointed out, “When three planes hurtled into national icons, did anger and hatred rise in American hearts only after consultation of Biblical verses?”
And yet those dismal polling figures do not actually reflect a rejection of Western values (despite Islamophobe assurances that they mean exactly that). “Numerous polls that we have conducted,” writes pollster Stephen Kull, “as well as others by the World Values Survey and Arab Barometer, show strong support in the Muslim world for democracy, for human rights, and for an international order based on international law and a strong United Nations.”
In other words, nine years after September 11th a second spike in Islamophobia and in home-grown terrorist attacks like that of the would-be Times Square bomber has been born of two intersecting pressures: American critics of Obama’s foreign policy believe that he has backed away from the major civilizational struggle of our time, even as many in the Muslim world see Obama-era foreign policy as a continuation, even an escalation, of Bush-era policies of war and occupation.
Here is the irony: aAlongside the indisputable rise of fundamentalism over the last two decades, only some of it oriented towards violence, the Islamic world has undergone a shift which deep-sixes the cliché that Islam has held countries back from political and economic development. "Since the early 1990s, 23 Muslim countries have developed more democratic institutions, with fairly run elections, energized and competitive political parties, greater civil liberties, or better legal protections for journalists," writes Philip Howard in The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Turkey has emerged as a vibrant democracy and a major foreign policy player. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is now the largest economy in Southeast Asia and the eighteenth largest economy in the world.
Are Islamophobes missing this story of mainstream Islam’s accommodation with democracy and economic growth? Or is it this story (not Islamo-fascism starring al-Qaeda) that is their real concern?
The recent preoccupations of Islamophobes are telling in this regard. Pamela Geller, after all, was typical in the way she went after not a radical mosque, but an Islamic center about two blocks from Ground Zero proposed by a proponent of interfaith dialogue. As journalist Stephen Salisbury writes, “The mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it’s about the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and fear that now dominate the nation’s psyche.” For her latest venture, Geller is pushing a boycott of Campbell’s Soup because it accepts halal certification -- the Islamic version of kosher certification by a rabbi -- from the Islamic Society of North America, a group which, by the way, has gone out of its way to denounce religious extremism.
Paul Berman, meanwhile, has devoted his latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, to deconstructing the arguments not of Osama bin-Laden or his ilk, but of Tariq Ramadan, the foremost mainstream Islamic theologian. Ramadan is a man firmly committed to breaking down the old distinctions between “us” and “them.” Critical of the West for colonialism, racism, and other ills, he also challenges the injustices of the Islamic world. He is far from a fundamentalist.
And what country, by the way, has exercised European Islamophobes more than any other? Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? Taliban Afghanistan? No, the answer is: Turkey. "The Turks are conquering Germany in the same way the Kosovars conquered Kosovo: by using higher birth-rates,” argues Germany’s Islamophobe du jour, Thilo Sarrazin, a member of Germany's Social Democratic Party. The far right has even united around a Europe-wide referendum to keep Turkey out of the European Union.
Despite his many defects, George W. Bush at least knew enough to distinguish Islam from Islamism. By targeting a perfectly normal Islamic center, a perfectly normal Islamic scholar, and a perfectly normal Islamic country -- all firmly in the mainstream of that religion -- the Islamophobes have actually declared war on normalcy, not extremism.
The victories of the tea party movement and the increased power of Republican militants in Congress, not to mention the renaissance of the far right in Europe, suggest that we will be living with this Islamophobia and the three unfinished wars of the West against the Rest for some time. The Crusades lasted hundreds of years. Let’s hope that Crusade 2.0, and the dark age that we find ourselves in, has a far shorter lifespan.
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes its regular World Beat column, and will be publishing a book on Islamophobia with City Lights Press in 2011. This article first appeared at Tomdispatch.com
© 2010 John Feffer -- distributed by Agence Global
The Wrong Way to Combat 'Islamophobia'
By PAULA SCHRIEFER
Published: November 9, 2010
This week, member states of the United Nations will vote on what has become an annual resolution, “On Combating Defamation of Religions,” put forward by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 57 states with large Islamic populations. The resolution condemns what it calls “defamation of religions” — a vague notion that can perhaps best be described as a form of expression that offends another’s religious sensibilities — and urges countries to enact laws that prohibit such forms of expression. The resolutions are part of a larger and dangerous campaign to create a global blasphemy law to combat what Muslim leaders refer to as “Islamophobia.”
Such a campaign is deeply flawed from a human rights perspective, both in its equation of religious discrimination (a legitimate human rights violation) with the vague concept of defamation, as well as in the proposed remedy of imposing legal limits on freedom of expression. A recent Freedom House report looking at blasphemy laws in seven countries documents the negative impact of such laws on a range of fundamental human rights, while noting how such laws actually contribute to greater interfaith strife and conflict.
Because no one can agree on what constitutes blasphemy, laws that attempt to ban it are themselves vague, highly prone to arbitrary enforcement and are used to stifle everything from political opposition to religious inquiry. Particularly when applied in countries with weak democratic safeguards — e.g., strong executives, subservient judiciaries, corrupt law enforcement — blasphemy laws do nothing to achieve their supposed goals of promoting religious tolerance and harmony and instead are disproportionally used to suppress the freedom of religious minorities or members of the majority religion that hold views considered unorthodox.
In Pakistan, for example, Christians and Ahmadiyya (Muslims who do not believe Muhammad was the final prophet) make up only 2 percent of the population, but have been the target of nearly half of the more than 900 prosecutions for blasphemy in the past two decades. The remaining prosecutions have been made against Muslims themselves, often simply as an easy way to settle personal scores that have nothing to do with religion. Mere accusations of blasphemy have led to mob violence in which people have been maimed or killed and whole communities devastated.
The governments of countries that already have such problematic laws on the books are precisely those countries leading the charge to create an international blasphemy law through the United Nations. The motivations of states like Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — countries with appalling records on religious freedom and broader human rights — are unquestionably hypocritical and have more to do with their desire to score points with unhappy domestic populations and religious extremists than the desire to foster religious tolerance.
Support for blasphemy laws is high among the general public in the Islamic world. Even the staunchest advocates of human rights in the Middle East, individuals who are openly critical of their corrupt and authoritarian leaders, balk at the idea that the publication of the Danish cartoons or the burning of a Koran should be protected forms of freedom of expression. In a part of the world where one’s religion is as key to one’s identity as nationality and race, most people simply view such forms of expression as a bigoted attack on their very existence.
Such views are bolstered by the need to better address the real issues of discrimination and violence against individuals because of their religious beliefs, even in established democracies. It is a fact that political parties espousing xenophobic and anti-Islamic views in Europe have gained in both popularity and representation, and that legal policies have been enacted that most human rights organizations rightly see as restricting the fundamental rights of Muslims to practice their religious beliefs. It is also a fact that many of the same people who defended the Danish cartoons as an important form of free expression somehow feel perfectly justified in criticizing the plans to build an Islamic Center near the site of the World Trade Center because it offends them.
Yet hypocrisy in Europe and the United States does not justify attempts to bring governmental oversight into what constitutes offensive expression. Even with the best intentions, which are often lacking, governments should never be in the business of policing speech. The tools of defeating intolerance, including religious intolerance, start with a legislative environment that protects people’s fundamental political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of expression. Blasphemy laws don’t work in any context and U.N. member states should reject them unconditionally.
Paula Schriefer is the advocacy director at Freedom House.
Islamophobia feeds stereotypes
Are you afraid?
He said he would be fearful if he were sitting in an airplane with anyone dressed in Muslim garb.
This type of comment is yet another example of Islamophobia. It is a growing misconception that the majority of Muslims are violent people. It seems like incidents encouraging this type of belief are on the rise.
Some of the most prominent incidents that have happened in the past few months include rejection of a proposal to build a mosque, the threat to burn Qurans (the holy book of Muslims) and this latest discriminatory statement by Juan Willliams of NPR.
According to the Washington Post, Williams was on the Fox network show The O’Reilly Factor when he said, “I mean, look, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” Williams lost his job over that statement.
That is a really stereotypical thing to say. He pretty much said that if you are a Muslim and dress like one then you are a terrorist. One can’t just define someone and make judgment about them by the way they dress, our country’s fundamental principles rejects this type of behavior. We, as American citizens, are all guaranteed the right to freedom of expression and that includes the way we dress.
A recent TIME magazine poll backs up this type of reaction in it 46 percent of Americans said that Islam is more likely than other faiths to promote violence. This is yet another stereotype. Just to clear things up, even though many Islamic groups have repeated it over and over again, Islam is a peaceful religion and Muslims are peaceful people, the word Islam comes from salaam, which means peace.
Most American Muslims are just everyday ordinary citizens trying to live normal lives. They have degrees, careers and families just like everyone else. In fact a recent study and poll conducted by John Zogby found that 59 percent had at least a college degree.
How many of you have met a Muslim? Another TIME magazine poll found that only 37 percent of Americans know a Muslim American. There is a way to end this type of prejudice. You can try to get to know Muslim students on campus; there are many of them. There is also the student group the Muslim Students Association; you could also visit the local Mosques. Go in with an open mind. You might just find that all of your fears are gone.
Still Hating: Our Summer Of Islamophobia
After 9/11, Muslims Spent Nine Years Educating Neighbors, Coworkers About Islam
November 14, 2010
This summer, we rolled over and showed our ugly underbelly.
While hounds bayed over a not-mosque planned for not-Ground Zero, a nutty pastor in Florida threatened to mark 9/11's ninth anniversary by burning the Qu'ran. People who in times of floods might volunteer to fill sandbags contributed to a different kind of deluge by staging loud opposition to the construction of mosques in their neighborhoods in Tennessee, in California.
We can still hate in America. We have this summer to prove it.
Imam Abdullah Antepli is a former Hartford Seminary student, former Muslim chaplain at Welseyan University, and now Duke University's first Muslim chaplain. Right after college, Antepli left his native Turkey to avoid pressure to homogenize in a land once proud of its colorful tapestry of cultures.
We are not the same, we won't ever be, and it suits us better to embrace our differences. As Antepli earned his education around the world, he discovered the golden truth about multi-faith efforts.
"Some of my most transcendental personal moments have not come in a mosque, not when I am dealing with a uniquely Muslim community, but when I am dealing in a cross-religious, cross-lingual society," Antepli said. "That's when I say, 'Oh, my God. There you are.'"
The terrorist attack of 9/11 was a horrible way to be introduced to Islam because that act was not Islam. That was evil, and for nine long – and, up until the summer, fruitful – years, Muslims in this country made important inroads educating neighbors and co-workers about what Islam is not.
There should have been time to talk about what Islam is, but ignorance is an ugly beast and sometimes, the terrorists win. They may not kill our physical selves, but they kill the American tradition of standing together.
And then this cancer of a summer happened, and the beast arose again.
Antepli chose Duke over Princeton or Yale. He was drawn to the opportunity to serve the school's 6,600 undergraduates, including its 500 Muslim Blue Devils. He became the face and voice of Islam for a land not overly familiar with his religion.
That has been challenging, to say the least. Duke Country is dotted with church signs that say things like "Hell is Full of Fags and Muslims." Antepli has visited churches where, before he settles into a pew, someone asks him about the virgins he can expect in the afterlife.
In answer, he hands them his Qu'ran and asks them to find the verse that promises virgins. In fact, it's not there. My response? People generally don't read their own sacred text, much less the holy verses of someone else. They prefer someone to spoon-feed them their religious beliefs because learning for themselves takes blood, sweat and tears. Ignorance is and ever will be easier. But that's me talking, not Antepli.
Dawn pierces even the darkest night. As a Duke chaplain, Antepli befriended U.S. Rep. David Price, who invited him to deliver the opening prayer for a House session in March. That, in turn, has led to more contacts in Washington.
"The civic culture we have in this society is one of the best, shariah-compliant, in my understanding of Islamic theology," Antepli said. "We've made huge progress. We've inspired the global community with our successes. And we have worked together, but the work is not done."
Of course there's hope. Summer's in the rearview. We just may come through these times as we've come through others: A little battered, a lot sadder, but a whole lot smarter.
Abdullah Antepli is the keynote speaker at the Hartford Prayer Breakfast at 7:30 a.m. Thursday at The Artists Collective, 1200 Albany Ave., Hartford. For more information, go to http://www.hartfordprayerbreakfast.org.
On Fox CT Monday: Reporter Laurie Perez takes a look at 10 p.m. at Islamophobia in Connecticut — how more than ever it's influencing development, leading to debate, and creating controversy. There will be a panel discussion on the issue on the Fox CT morning show at 8 a.m.
German multiculturalism 'failing'
Chancellor's remarks add to ongoing debate over immigration and Islam within her conservative coalition.
Last Modified: 17 Oct 2010 19:54 GMT
Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, has said that the country's attempt to create a multicultural society has "utterly failed", adding fuel to a debate over immigration and Islam which is polarising her conservative coalition.
Speaking to a meeting of young members of her Christian Democrats (CDU), Merkel said allowing people of different cultural backgrounds to live side by side without integrating had not worked in a country that is home to some four million Muslims.
"This [multicultural] approach has failed, utterly failed," Merkel told the meeting in Potsdam.
The chancellor has faced pressure from within her party to take a tougher line on immigrants who do not show a willingness to adapt to German society and her comments appeared intended to pacify her critics.
She said too little had been required of immigrants in the past and repeated her usual line that they should learn German in order to get by in school and have opportunities in the labour market.
The debate over foreigners in Germany has shifted since Thilo Sarrazin, a former central banker, published a book saying Muslim immigrants lowered the intelligence of German society.
Sarrazin was criticised for his views and stepped down from the Bundesbank last month, but his book proved highly popular and polls showed a majority of Germans agreed with the thrust of his arguments.
Merkel has tried to accommodate both sides of the debate, talking tough on integration but also telling Germans that they must accept that mosques have become part of their landscape.
She said on Saturday that the education of unemployed Germans should take priority over recruiting workers from abroad, while noting Germany could not get by without skilled foreign workers.
In a weekend newspaper interview, Ursula von der Leyen, Merkel's labour minister, raised the possibility of lowering barriers to entry for some foreign workers in order to tackle the lack of skilled workers in Europe's largest economy.
"For a few years, more people have been leaving our country than entering it," she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
"Wherever it is possible, we must lower the entry hurdles for those who bring the country forward."
The German Chamber of Industry and Commerce says the country lacks about 400,000 skilled workers.
However, Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the Christian Social Union, the CDU's sister party, has rejected any relaxation of immigration laws and said last week there was no room in Germany for more people from "alien cultures".
Paris court hands woman suspended sentence for veil attack
Jeanne Ruby bit, slapped and scratched Middle Eastern woman who was wearing face-covering Muslim veil
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 November 2010 18.02 GMT
A Paris court today gave a retired French teacher a one-month suspended sentence for attacking a Middle Eastern woman who was wearing a face-covering Muslim veil.
The court also ordered Jeanne Ruby to pay €800 (£698) in damages to the victim, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates.
Ruby had been charged with aggravated violence, and the prosecutor had asked that she be given a two-month suspended sentence.
The incident – in which Ruby bit, slapped and scratched her victim – happened in a shop in the French capital in February.
In a recent interview with Le Parisien newspaper, Ruby compared the niqab to a "muzzle" and said she did not mean to harm the woman and had wanted to pull the veil off.