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Islamophobia

In a special report on Islam and the West, The Economist described European approaches to Islam as represented by a "fundamental fear" of Muslim societies of the Middle East (The Economist, August 6, 1994). Willy Claes, then the Secretary General of NATO in the mid-1990s, pointed to the Islamic challenge as the major threat confronting the West.

The Runnymede Trust in Britain set up a Commission on Islamophobia in 1997, which revealed that Islamophobia-fear of and hostility towards Islam and Muslims-was one of the chief forms of racism in the country. The wide prevalence of Islamophobia in Western countries is reflected in the stigmatization and demonization of Islam and Muslims, in the opposition to the visibility of Islamic symbols in public places, in the distortion and misrepresentation of matters related to Muslims by the Western media, in racial profiling and surveillance, in the opposition to immigration by the far-right political parties, and in discrimination against Muslims in respect of employment, education and housing. It is widely believed in Europe that its over 20 million Muslims pose a serious threat to the security, culture and prosperity of European societies.


Islamophobia has been on the rise after 9/11.(see http://:www.eumc.eu.int) An Amnesty International report says that nearly 87 million people in the US-nearly a quarter of the national population-are at high risk of being victimized because they belong to racial, ethnic or religious minorities. Nearly 32 million people in the US, mostly Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia, have reported that they have been racially profiled.

Nick Griffin, a leader of the far-right British National Party, said in a recent speech that Islam was a vicious, wicked faith. He was tried for incitement to racial hatred, but on February 3, 2006 walked free at the end of the trial. In his defence, Griffin argued that he was attacking a religion, not a race. Curiously, Britain and Denmark have an anti-blasphemy law, but it is applicable only to Christianity and not to other religions. Both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party in Denmark have opposed a parliamentary move to abolish the anti-blasphemy law or to make it more inclusive. Most European countries have moved in the direction of making immigration laws and policies more stringent. In many countries the tough immigration policies and procedures betray Islamophobic tendencies. Thus the southern state of Baden-Wuttenberg in Germany has designed its own searching exam exclusively for Muslim applicants seeking German citizenship. Questions in the exam include the following: If your son told you he was a homosexual and wanted to live with another man, how would you react? If your adult daughter dressed like a German woman, would you try to prevent her from doing so?

In September 2005 a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 highly derogatory caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. In one of them he was shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban (thus portraying him as a terrorist). In early February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries republished some or all of the cartoons. The publication of these sacrilegious cartoons generated an enormous amount of anger and resentment among Muslims across the world, which was expressed in massive protests and demonstrations and in the boycott of Danish products. (see "Sacrilegious Cartoons" The IOS MINARET, Vol.1 (1), May 16, 2006)

In our globalizing era, people's perceptions and judgement of other communities tend to be shaped by what they read in the newspapers and magazines and what they see on television. The global media (which are largely controlled by Western media empires such as Time Warner and Reuters) often misrepresent news and events related to Muslims which reinforces stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims. Edward Said has perceptively observed that the coverage of Islam in the Western media or the public reactions to events in the Muslim world do not take place in a vacuum, but are nourished by a "subliminal culture consciousness" which derives its anti-Islamic attitudes from centuries of negative conditioning. Thus if the Palestinian Arabs vent their resentment and anger against the Israeli occupation of their homeland, it is described (by an American scholar of Jewish origin, Bernard Lewis, whose virulent dislike of Islam and Muslims is well-known) as the "return of Islam." Another Western scholar characterizes it as "Islamic opposition to non-Islamic peoples."

Muslims are generally portrayed by the Western media as fanatical, aggressive, bigoted, devious, debauch and as the quintessential Other. Arabs in the Middle East are perceived as a homogeneous people and painted in the darkest of colours. The Western media seems to be oblivious of the fact that there are more than 15 million Arab Christians-comprising Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant-living in the Middle East.

The wide prevalence of Islamphobia in the Western world is reflected in the currency of the term 'Islamic fundamentalism', which is indiscriminately used by the media and by writers and commentators in the West to describe Islamic movements, resistance to oppressive regimes, and assertions of religious and ethnic consciousness and identity among Muslims. Thus, struggles for self-determination by the Muslims of Central Asia have been described by Western observers as Islamic fundamentalism. The electoral results in Algeria in 1991 have been described in the Western media in terms of the reemergence of Islamic fundamentalism. The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections is dubbed as the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism. The massive world-wide protests over the publication of the slanderous cartoons of the Prophet in European newspapers were described as the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism.

A distinguished American psychologist Gordon Allport has spoken of 'word fetishism'. A fetish is an object or word that elicits an uncritical, habitual response, which is often laden with certain value presuppositions. The phrase Islamic fundamentalism provides a good example of word fetishism. There is now an increasing realization, even among Western scholars, writers and policy makers, that the term Islamic fundamentalism is highly contentious, that it obfuscates rather than clarifies, that it has pejorative, disparaging connotations.

In December 2005, the European Union launched an initiative to deepen ties with Muslim countries and reach out to the 20 million Muslims living in Europe. This is sought to be done by clarifying the discourse on Islam, by using the right vocabulary to steer clear of misunderstandings and misrepresentation, and by avoiding references to pejorative terms like Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism. The emphasis is on developing a "non-emotive lexicon for public communication" related to Muslims.

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