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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 16   01-15 January 2015

Rising Islamophobia in Germany, Australia and Southeast Asia

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Islamophobia may be defined as a complex and irrational mix of sentiments, attitudes and behaviour patterns that is marked by the fear of and antipathy towards Islam and Muslims. These sentiments are deeply entrenched in the collective consciousness of many societies and groups across large parts of the world and are often manifested in social and political movements, electoral rhetoric and agitational politics.

Racist and xenophobic sentiments have been deeply entrenched in European cultural consciousness for centuries. Racism and xenophobia in European societies are reinforced and fuelled by the far-right political parties, extremist and neo-Nazi outfits and a section of the media, and legitimised by the writings of some influential intellectuals and writers. The victims of racism and xenophobia include Jews, Gypsies, racially and ethnically identifiable immigrants and minority groups, especially Muslims, and immigrants from Poland, Albania, Romania and other Eastern European countries. Racism and xenophobia in European societies are manifested in the stigmatization and demonization of immigrants and ethnic minorities, in discrimination in education, employment and housing, in acts of harassment and physical violence, in attacks on synagogues, mosques and cemeteries, and in the denunciation and prohibition of Islamic symbols such as the headscarf. During the past few decades, racist sentiments and violence against foreigners and immigrants spearheaded by neo-Nazi and other racist groups have been on the rise in many European countries.

Spurt in Islamophobia in Germany

Germany has an exceptionally liberal and tolerant policy in respect of immigration and asylum. It takes more asylum seekers than any other European country and is the second most favourite destination after the US for refugees and asylum seekers. It welcomed 465,000 migrants in 2013, including 200,000 asylum seekers.

However, resentment and anger directed against immigrants, especially Muslims, has been on the rise in Germany. A recent study, carried out in five European countries by the University of Munster in Germany, revealed that Germans agitate against new mosques and minarets much more than the French, the Dutch, the Danes and the Portuguese. “They are also less willing to concede equal rights to other religions,” said Professor Detlef Pollack, director of the study. “Compared to other Europeans, their image of Hindus, Buddhists and Jews is more negative.” According to the study, while 62% of the Dutch, 56% of the French and 55% of the Danes have a generally positive perception of Muslims, the majority of Germans (66% in the West and 74% in the East) have a negative image of Muslims. A survey conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that 56 per cent of Germans consider Islam to be an “archaic religion” incapable of fitting into modern life and many believe religious freedom for Muslims should be “substantially restricted.” According to a recent poll conducted by Spiegel, a widely circulated and respectable German newspaper, some 34% of Germans believe that Germany is becoming increasingly Islamicized.

The rising public resentment and anger against immigration can be gauged from the popularity of a recently published book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Does Away with Itself) by Thilo Sarrazin, a German economist who was until recently on the board of Germany’s Bundesbank. In his controversial book, which has sold more than a million copies since its publication in August 2010, Sarrazin says that German women are having far too few babies, while Muslims and other immigrant minorities are producing too many. The result, according to him, is that Germany’s population is shrinking and is getting dumber. Sarrazin has been thoroughly denounced by Germany’s political establishment, and Chancellor Angela Merkel accused him of “dividing society”. The Bundesbank has sacked him. However, Sarrazin’s book continues to remain on the best seller list.

A half-built mosque in the German town of Dormagen has been spray-painted with swastikas and racist graffiti In recent months there has been a marked rise in xenophobic attacks directed at refugees, Muslims (particularly those of Turkish origin) and Jews. On July 1, 2009, Marwa El Sherbini, a headscarf-wearing Arab woman, was stabbed to death in a courtroom in Dresden. She had just given evidence against her German attacker who called her an “Islamist terrorist” and a slut. There were at least 86 attacks on asylum seekers’ hostels between January and September 2014. Dozens of mosques have been desecrated and vandalized by extremist and neo-Nazi groups. Several mosques have been spray-painted with swastikas and racist graffiti. Politically Incorrect, Germany’s most prominent anti-Islam website, has as many as 120,000 visitors per day.

A recently-formed far-right group, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamification of the West (known by its German acronym PEGIDA) has spearheaded a series of anti-immigrant and anti-Islam protests and demonstrations in Kassel, Wurzburg and other German cities since October this year. PEGIDA was born out of a Facebook group started by Lutz Bachmann, a chef turned graphic designer who has been convicted for drug dealing and burglary. The group aims at the “preservation of Judaeo-Christian Western culture” against what it described as the “rise of radicalism” and “parallel societies with Sharia police.” Since October, PEGIDA activists have marched through the streets of Dresden every Monday. Such demonstrations have received support from far-right and neo-Nazi groups. Today PEGIDA has more than 44,000 Facebook fans.

PEGIDA organized a protest rally in the German city of Dresden on December 22, 2014, in which a record 17,500 people participated. Demonstrators sang Christmas carols, held placards against the “Islamification of Europe” and listened to speeches that were suffused with anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric. “We are the people” is the refrain of PEGIDA protesters and marchers.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned the anti-immigrant rallies organized by PEGIDA. “There is freedom of assembly in Germany, but there is no place for incitement (to hatred) and lies about people who come to us from other countries,” she said. Heiko Maas, Germany’s justice minister, called PEGIDA a “disgrace for Germany.”

There have been counter-rallies against PEGIDA in Cologne, Munich, Bonn and other German cities. A huge anti-PEGIDA rally was held in Munich on December 22, 2014, in which more than 25,000 people participated. They carried placards which said, “Make space – Refugees are welcome!” The rally was organized by a broad coalition of church groups, artists, political parties and refugee organizations as a mark of solidarity with refugees and Muslims. More than 65,000 Germans have signed an Internet petition against PEGIDA.

Lingering Legacy of Racism and Xenophobia in Australia

Lying in the Southern Hemisphere between the Pacific and Indian oceans, Australia is the sixth-largest country (by area) in the world. It is a developed country and is the world’s 13th largest economy with the world’s fifth-largest per capita income ($ 42,131).

Prior to the arrival of British settlers in the 18th century, Australia was inhabited by Aborigines, the original inhabitants of the region. Britain established control over the region in 1770 and a Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901. European colonization had a calamitous impact on Aborigines. The indigenous population, which was estimated to be between 750,000 and 1000,000 at the time of the arrival of Europeans, sharply declined as a result of infectious diseases brought by the European settlers, forced displacement and destitution. They were forcibly evicted from forests and shunted to far-flung areas, away from contact with the Europeans. In the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century, they were prevented from living in areas reserved for Europeans and were prohibited from taking up certain occupations. For nearly two centuries, British colonizers and settlers insisted that the Aboriginal people were primitive, sub-human and disorganized who deserved no rights over land. They systematically invented a fallacy, which came to be known as Terra Nullius, which held that they had no land rights before the arrival of the first settlers in 1788. This policy was used to deprive the indigenous people of their land. Eddie Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander, launched a campaign in the early 1970s to get this policy overturned through legal petitions and representations. After 18 years of unrelenting struggle, the Australian High Court overturned the policy in 1992. Until 1967 the Aborigines were not given citizenship rights. They were also subjected to forced assimilation. Before the arrival of European colonizers and settlers, nearly 250 indigenous languages were spoken in Australia. The Aborigines were prevented from speaking their native languages. Now only about 20 indigenous languages are spoken in the country on a daily basis. Between 1869 and 1969, at least 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander children were taken away from their parents by force or deceit and placed in the care of white foster parents or Christian missions with a view to inculcate them with “civilized” European values. These children -- known as the “Stolen Generation”-- were cut off from their biological families and were forcibly assimilated into mainstream white society.

Australia, like the US, Canada and Suriname, is a country of immigrants. In the 19th and early 20th century, the vast majority of immigrants came from the British Isles. The Gold rush era that began in 1851 spurred the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Europeans and a small number of Chinese. Under the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, commonly known as the White Australia policy, the immigration of Asians or the ‘coloured races’ was prohibited as it was considered a threat to the survival and well-being of the country. The recruitment policy of the Australian government initially favoured British immigrants. However, after World War II, when the Australian government realized that the country’s existing population was not sufficient to run its growing factories and infrastructure projects, a massive immigration programme was launched. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe arrived in the country with their families.

From the time of the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, Australia was seen as an Asian outpost of Britain. Consequently, the country’s national identity was defined on the basis of its Anglo-Celtic ancestry and cultural heritage. Until 1948, Australians were British citizens. The ruling elite believed that in the course of time, Aborigines and other small groups of non-European descent would die out, and Australia would remain a purely white nation. But this did not happen. The indigenous population increased substantially and Aborigines held on to their distinctive identities and traditions.

The second phase in the trajectory of Australia’s national identity began with the dismantling of the White Australia policy and the introduction of multiculturalism as an official policy in 1972 in the context of the failure of the assimilationist project and the growing need for immigration. Multiculturalism was defined as a system of rights and freedoms as well as of commitments and obligations, and the acceptance of basic principles such as tolerance, equality and the rule of law. Australian multiculturalism recognized four types of rights -- civil, political, social and cultural. In the early 1990s the characterization of Australia as a multicultural nation had become commonplace. Multiculturalism signified, at least in the official discourse, that Australia had made a break with its racist past and had embraced a non-racial national identity.

The edifice of Australian multiculturalism was built on extremely fragile foundations and was fraught with ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions. For one thing, the official discourse of multiculturalism did not find much favour with the white majority. It took little or no cognizance of deep-seated racist sentiments and attitudes in the white population and of the fact that for two centuries race had been a central factor in Australia’s national imaginary. There is institutional racism in Australia, which is reflected in some provisions of the 1901 constitution, in education and in the treatment meted out to Aborigines. Some clauses of the constitution are clearly discriminatory and reflect the country’s racist legacy. Section 25 of the constitution, for example, says that states can disqualify people, such as Aborigines, from voting. Section 51 says that the federal parliament can make laws based upon a person’s race. A report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission points out that Aborigines and other ethnic groups experience marginalization and are disadvantaged and under-represented in public life. Australian Aborigines have been at the receiving end of dispossession, marginalization and exclusion for more than two centuries. Young Aborigines are four times more likely to commit suicide than non-indigenous Australians. They continue to have lower life expectancy, lower levels of education and higher rates of unemployment.

In the past few years there has been a backlash against multiculturalism, mainly from the conservative sections of the white population. The 1996 elections were accompanied by racist outbursts against Aborigines and non-white immigrants. The victory of the Liberal-National coalition in the 1996 elections and the election of John Howard as prime minister led to a reversal of multicultural policies. Howard, who had a characteristic distaste for multiculturalism, emphasized Australia’s national identity in terms of its white, Anglo-Saxon heritage. He said, ‘You’ve got to have a dominant culture. Ours is Anglo-Saxon – our language, our literature, our institutions.’ Howard disbanded several institutions and agencies that were established by the previous government, including the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research. During the tenure of John Howard, racial riots erupted in Melbourne, Sydney and other cities, in which Asian and African immigrants were targeted. There were racially motivated riots in Cronulla, Sydney in 2005 and in 2009 there was a spate of racist attacks on Indian students in Sydney and Melbourne. Since 2008 Australia’s political elite have made some conciliatory gestures towards non-European minority groups, especially Aborigines. In a significant move, former prime minister Kevin Rud made a formal apology in parliament on February 12, 2008 for laws and policies relating to Aborigines adopted by successive white governments, which “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss.”

The vast majority of Australians (90 per cent) are people of European descent. The rest of the population consists of immigrants from over 100 countries. Australia receives nearly 200,000 immigrants a year, one of the highest immigration rates worldwide. The largest non-white groups are Asians (predominantly Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Indians) who constitute about 8 per cent of the population, and Aborigines (2.3 per cent). About 64 per cent of the population are Christian, while a substantial number (19 per cent) have no religious affiliation. There are small communities of Buddhists (2.1 per cent), Muslims (2 per cent), Hindus (0.8 per cent) and Jews (0.3 per cent). More than 24 per cent of Australians are foreign-born.

The population of Muslims in Australia is estimated to be around half a million, which accounts for about 2% of the country’s population of 23.13 million. Racist sentiments and attitudes, which remain deeply ingrained in Australia’s national consciousness, are often directed against immigrants, especially Muslims. Several mosques have been defaced and vandalized and some have been spray-painted with swastikas and racist, Islamophobic graffiti. A proposed mosque site in Padstow in south-west Sydney was vandalized by white extremist groups in December 2014, causing damages that are estimated to be worth about $50,000. The grand mufti of Australia has received a death threat. Islamophobic comments and posts on Facebook and Twitter are becoming commonplace.

A particular target of racist attack is the Islamic veil. Women wearing face-c0vering veils are often subjected to racist abuse. A senator of Palmer United Party, Jacqui Lambie, has demanded a ban on face-covering veils. Some months ago, Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott controversially described the face-covering veil as a “confronting” item of clothing which he wished women would not wear. In October this year, Australian parliament passed a ruling to the effect that women visitors with their faces covered would have to sit in a separate section of the public gallery. The ruling was enforced in the context of growing concerns about the threat of terrorist attacks in Australia and the involvement of a few Australian Muslims in the terrorist network of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). The move was widely seen as targeting Muslim women and was condemned as discriminatory. Faced with widespread public outcry, especially from Muslim groups and human rights organisations, the Australian government reversed the decision and issued a clarification that women with full-face veils would now be required to lift their veils for a brief while to security personnel, following which they would be free to sit anywhere in the public gallery.

An Ominous Alliance against Muslims in Southeast Asia

In the past few years, Muslim minorities in Myanmar and Sri Lanka have been systematically targeted by the majority Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Extremist Buddhist groups, including monks, have indulged in large-scale rioting, arson and violent attacks directed against Muslims with the connivance of the government and law-enforcement agencies. The anti-Muslim tirade is spearheaded by 969, a radical and militant outfit in Myanmar led by Asin Wirathu, and Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka.

Asin Wirathu, Myanmar’s 46-year-old firebrand Buddhist monk, frequently rants against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, whom he describes as “the enemy.” “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Wirathu says, referring to Muslims. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist,” he adds. He exhorts his followers, “Now is not the time for calm. Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil.” He sees Myanmar’s Muslim minority, who make up about 5% of the country’s population of 60 million, a threat to the country and its Buddhist culture. Wirathu’s vituperative sermons and speeches have clearly stoked the fires of hatred against Muslims. In a recent sermon, Wirathu described the brutal massacre of Muslims, including school children, in the city of Meiktila in March 2013 as a show of strength. “If we are weak, our land will become Muslim,” he said. Wirathu says that around 90% of Muslims in Myanmar are “Radical, bad people.” Wirathu’s hatred for Muslims is not confined to those living in Myanmar; it encompasses Muslims in general.

Wirathu spearheads a radical movement called 969—the figure symbolizes Buddha’s virtues, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community. The movement calls upon Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and Muslim-made goods. This message is disseminated through the network of regular sermons, the DVDs of these sermons and pamphlets. Wirathu was jailed for eight years by the military junta for inciting hatred against Muslims in 2003. The July 1, 2013 issue of Time magazine published a photograph of Wirathu on the cover page, with the caption “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”

In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have taken a leaf from their coreligionists in Myanmar and have been involved in attacks on Muslims and the destruction of Muslim houses and shops. A militant Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which has thousands of followers, carries on a regular campaign of demonization and vilification against the Muslim minority. It demands a ban on halal slaughter and on the wearing of Islamic headscarves.

On 9 August, 2013, the second day of the Muslim feast of Eid, a Buddhist mob attacked a mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo. The attack triggered clashes between Muslims and Buddhists, in which at least nine people were injured. In July, hardline Buddhist groups had held a protest rally near the mosque, demanding its relocation to another area.

The Bodu Bala Sena held a convention in Colombo in September 2014. The guest of honour was Asin Wirathu. Sri Lankan Muslims and Christians had pleaded with the Sri Lankan government to deny Wirathu a visa, but the government of Mahindra Rajapaksa ignored their plea. Galagodaththe Gnanasara, a leader of Bodu Bala Sena, declared at the convention that “the time has come to ally internationally.” A week before the convention Mr Gnanasara claimed that he was in discussions “at a high level” with the RSS in India in connection with the formation of a “Hindu-Buddhist peace zone.”

On his 79th birthday on July 6, 2014, the Dalai Lama urged Buddhist extremist groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to refrain from launching attacks on Muslims. He said, “I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime. Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha were there, he would have protected the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

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