In Focus

Combating Islamophobia: The Way Forward

The growing tide of Islamophobia around the world is touching dangerous levels. While Muslim countries take up the matter at global forums, the world must play its part in harmonizing the different religions.



Allama Iqbal said, "Pray, fast and perform the pilgrimage and feel that we have discharged our obligation to Islam. That is the easy part. Doing all those things is only a starting point for a much larger obligation: to keep advancing in knowledge of things' ultimate nature. We should never ignore this larger goal."
For nearly eight centuries, when Europe was still sulking in 'dark age,' Muslims ruled over a vast empire extending from the Near East to Western Europe. No field of knowledge escaped their attention and research. Muslim rulers encouraged critical thinking, investigation, exploration and invention. They promoted education in science, technology, medicine, philosophy, cartography, agriculture and patronized art, culture and architecture etc. 
Houses of Wisdom, the forerunners of today’s think tanks, flourished in the Muslim empire which attracted scholars from all over the world who spoke different languages and practiced varied religions. The force behind these initiatives was Islam's emphasis on knowledge and tolerance of other religions. Scholars and thinkers enjoyed respect and fame.  Muslim scientists considered their work in the service of humanity to be a sacred act of worship. 


In the recent years, Islamophobia has been fueled by public anxiety over immigration of Muslim minorities into majority Christian cultures, particularly in Europe. 


Europe began emerging from the dark ages around 13th century by establishing world-class universities that attracted independent scholars. In the following 500 years, Western Europe experienced the Renaissance, which contributed to intellectual and economic strength and military power. On the other hand, the Muslim world did not experience any such revolutions and gradually became militarily and politically weaker. By the 19th century, Muslims declined from the most progressive to the world's most backward nations.  
Today, instead of the world thronging to the Muslim world for knowledge, the Muslims, particularly the youth is migrating to the West in search of jobs. 
Today there are over 28 million Muslims living in Europe and millions more in North America, Australia and the Far East. Few exceptions notwithstanding, most of the immigrant Muslim communities live in segregated and tightly knit ghettos, at the bottom of the academic, social and economic ladder.
The commonly held perception is that 9/11 destroyed the Muslim image. While it was a major contributing factor to painting all Muslims with a broad brush as terrorists, there were other factors shaping the negative image of Muslims much before 9/11. Today, most Muslims, as members of minority communities, grow up against a background of everyday Islamophobia which in the last two decades, has become mainstream in the West. Although, it may not be wrong to say that Islamophobia is the last link in the chain of a long tradition of Eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and racism. The recent rise of Islamophobic policies and practices, in particular the false fear of Islam, which carried Trump in the U.S.A and many far-right political parties in Europe into power, seems to have turned into a ‘reason’ for all kinds of violence and oppression against Muslims.


Since 2001, Western media have succumbed to reporting based on stereotypes and used the actions of terrorists to stigmatize Muslims.


In the recent years, Islamophobia has been fueled by public anxiety over immigration of Muslim minorities into majority Christian cultures, particularly in Europe. The influx of a large number of refugees from war-torn Muslim countries like Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen further aggravated the situation. Islam and millions of Muslims living in the West are depicted as inherent threats to the Western way of life, even in countries where they have lived for generations. The myth of an ongoing Western “Islamization” or invasion has been nurtured by xenophobic, populist parties that are on the rise across the West.
Terrorist acts by violent jihadists in New York, London, Paris, Brussels, and Barcelona increased fear and anxiety in the West perceiving Islam as a threat and fundamentalism as the problematic heart of Islam and fearing Muslims as the enemy. Since 2001, Western media have succumbed to reporting based on stereotypes and used the actions of terrorists to stigmatize Muslims. These stereotypes and generalizations are feeding into counter-terrorism measures in Europe that restrict liberties for all and negatively impact Muslim communities.


Minorities also serve as scapegoats in times of economic and political crisis as we saw how these tensions exacerbated in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2007 and the rise of populist nationalist politics.


In a climate of rapidly expanding diversity in West, Muslim minorities are portrayed as non-belonging and wanting to separate themselves from the rest of society. Government policies have failed to ensure equal rights for all, forcing significant sections of Muslim minorities to face unemployment, poverty, and limited civic and political participation, all of which aggravate discrimination. Minorities also serve as scapegoats in times of economic and political crisis as we saw how these tensions exacerbated in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2007 and the rise of populist nationalist politics.


Adoption of a resolution sponsored by 57 OIC countries plus eight more including China and Russia by the UN General Assembly proclaiming March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia is a welcome development.


Today, Islamophobia in the West manifests itself through individual attitudes and behaviors, and the policies and practices of organizations and institutions. Policies or legislation that indirectly target or disproportionately affect Muslims, and unduly restrict their freedom of religion.  Examples – which vary across countries and time – include the following:
▪Physical or verbal attacks on property, places of worship, and people, especially those who display a visible manifestation of their religious identity such as women wearing hijab.
▪Verbal or online threats of violence, vilification, and abuse.
▪Policies or legislation that indirectly target or disproportionately affect Muslims, and unduly restrict their freedom of religion, such as bans on wearing visible religious and cultural symbols, laws against facial concealment, and bans on building mosques with minarets.
▪Discrimination in education, employment, housing, or access to goods and services.
▪Ethnic and religious profiling and police abuse, including some provisions of counterterrorism policing.
▪Public pronouncements by some journalists and politicians across the whole political spectrum that stigmatize Muslims as a group and disregard their positive contributions to the communities and countries in which they live.
Adoption of a resolution sponsored by 57 OIC countries plus eight more including China and Russia by the UN General Assembly proclaiming March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia is a welcome development. Marking the International Day to Combat Islamophobia will raise international awareness about the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred; send a clear message that the world opposes all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, negative stereotyping and stigmatization;  promote the message of tolerance, peaceful coexistence and interfaith and cultural harmony among all religions, races and nations; demonstrate by commemorating on this day unfettered solidarity with all humanity, convey a strong message of respect for human dignity, and reiterate common commitment to unity in diversity.
This is an important beginning but I believe a lot more needs to be done, particularly by the Muslim countries and communities themselves in order to change the narrative about Islam and Muslims. Combatting Islamophobia will not be possible by just focusing on what the Western world needs to integrate the Muslim communities and ensuring equal status and human rights to them. A deep introspection is required by the Muslims themselves to identify deficiencies and rectify them. 
The promotion of Islamophobia creates both prejudice and discrimination among the general population. Prejudice plays a key role in the existence and proliferation of Islamophobia. Prejudice alone, as a negative judgment, opinion, or attitude, is a detriment to a population's overall well-being. Prejudice combined with overt actions, rising to the level of discrimination, creates a dangerous environment for its victims. Some urgently required steps that the Muslim world needs to take to counter Islamophobia and change the negative perception of Muslims could include:
▪The Muslim world should rise from over five centuries of slumber and start preparing our youth to excel in science and technology. The OIC should seriously undertake an objective analysis of the shortfalls and our orientation to the world.
▪Our religious teachings dictate education as indicated by the Quranic commands and our Prophet's prayer to Allah SWT (Rabbi Zidni Ilmi), asking Him to increase our knowledge. 
▪ We need to study our Muslim scholars of the yesteryears and follow their paths to regain greatness once again. 
▪ Islam is a religion for all times. In order for it to keep pace with the changing realities and demands of time, the all-important concept of ijtihad is included in it. Lack of ijtihad and scholarly discourse on issues is plaguing the ummah and hampering development and therefore needs urgent attention.
▪ Muslims are increasingly developing harsh and fundamentalist attitudes, particularly with regard to the rights of women and minorities. Islam advocates moderation, a concept which is neither propagated nor understood by the majority of Muslims these days. Scholarly discourse on the concept of moderations needs to be encouraged for the Muslims to understand the true spirit of Islam and its universality.
▪ In the world of cloud, Artificial Intelligence, autonomous driving, and unlimited, unimaginable future technological advances, unless we catch up by updating our knowledge, we will fall further behind.
▪ An increasing number of online universities are popping up worldwide teaching young Muslims Fiqh and Shariah laws. There is nothing wrong with that, however, it would help to open online schools where the Muslim youth could simultaneously learn Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects which are equally important. 
▪ We need to take very bold and courageous steps for the acquisition of knowledge. Without understanding how the universe works and how we relate to it, it is not possible to understand Islam. We must emphasize that religion and science are integral parts of human life.
▪ Lack of democracy in the Muslim world is a reality. Reinstatement of democracies in the Muslim world will help improve the image of the Muslims.
▪ Electronic and print media plays a very important part in shaping opinions and attitudes. There is no indigenous media house in the Muslim world large and powerful enough to build and promote a counternarrative. There is, therefore, an urgent need for the ummah to focus on media.
▪ Films are another powerful medium to showcase the positive heritage, culture and society of a country or people. Here again we find no Muslim country making any meaningful contribution or effort to subtly project the Muslim world and its treasures.
▪ OIC should encourage and put in place effective mechanisms for investments by rich Muslim countries, first and foremost in their brotherly Muslim countries to lift them out of poverty and put them on the road to economic development.
▪ The Islamic Development Bank has to date only invested USD 8 billion in the OIC member states, whereas member states have invested trillions in the developed world. IDB needs to focus more and invest in the socioeconomic development of poorer members of OIC.
▪ OIC should focus on the Muslims living in non-Muslim countries and reach out to educate them on the spirit of Islam and encourage them to educate their children, respect the society and culture and religion of the countries they live in.
▪ Urge them to reach out to their host communities and build bridges through projecting peaceful, tolerant and progressive image of Islam.
▪Constitution and laws of all western countries lay emphasis on human rights and equality of all citizens. Muslim communities should familiarize themselves with these regulations to enable them to spot discrimination and abuse and take recourse to legal remedies.
It is time that all Muslim nations invest in modern rationalistic education. They can utilize other countries such as South Korea, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore as models. After all, these countries obtained their freedom about the same time as most Muslim colonies did. 
Muslim countries that have the political and economic resources should work on developing an integrated system to uplift and improve their image. With free-thinking and acting logically and rationally, Muslim nations can produce the scholars and scientists required to guide the Muslim world to its previous glory. Without socioeconomic development backed by strong intellectual and stable political environment, any efforts to combat Islamophobia will only be cosmetic and temporary.
Recently adopted UN Resolution, marking March 15 as the International Day to combat Islamophobia is a step in the right direction. However, the continued surge in Islamophobia requires comprehensive approach by all, especially the Muslim world. 


The writer has served as an Ambassador to China, the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourd and Ireland. She has also authored and edited several books including Magnificent Pakistan, Pakistan-China All Weather Friendship, and Lost Cities of Indus. 
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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