By Haifa Al Maashi
June 10, 2015
Thirty two-year-old Egyptian Marwa Al Sherbini died after being stabbed 18 times inside a courtroom in Dresden, Germany, six years ago, in front of her husband and child. Her only ‘crime’ was being a hijab-wearing Muslim. The entire world condemned the incident, especially the Germans. However, they saw it as an incident involving individual violence. But six years later, in the same German city, thousands rallied this January under the umbrella of the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) Movement to declare their hostility towards Islam and Islamists and demand the deportation of all Muslims — not only from Germany but also from all Europe.
The Al Sherbini incident has been repeated dozens of times during the past few years with varying degrees of violence, and the victims were Muslim women of various ages and races within Europe and the US. In a recent incident, an American Muslim woman called Fatme Dakroub was harassed by Michigan police. [She was arrested last month, allegedly for not having paid an earlier parking ticket, and was forced to remove her hijab]. She claimed that her First Amendment rights under the Constitution of the United States had been violated. The news was not the incident itself, but the inconsistent attitude of western readers towards it, which revealed a large degree of hostility towards Islam and Muslims. Instead of supporting the woman, many readers adopted a completely opposite stance, which grimly illustrated the state of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West and underscored the breadth of Islamophobia, which threatens to create new, non-Muslim militants within Europe who may exhibit degrees of extremism and fanaticism that equal those of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Al Qaida.
The readers’ comments, of course, do not reflect an honest and objective image of western public opinion on Islam and Muslims. Nor do they show an objective survey of their positions on this issue. But they do point to a segment of western society that may in the future form a political and social trend and this is what has emerged virtually through the Pegida Movement in Germany. However, this may just be the tip of the iceberg. What is hidden beneath may be worse.
The absence of any empathy towards the Muslim woman, especially with regard to her right not to remove her headscarf, was not shocking. These negative feelings have grown through the years as a result of the extremist behaviour of some Muslims and any attempt to track them may lead us back to history. However, such feelings have been strengthened since the events of September 11, 2001, and led to the Charlie Hebdo affair, which enabled Pegida to move beyond its borders to organise demonstrations attracting more than 18,000 people. It even spread to Britain.
Terrorist groups have succeeded in creating a reality that was imposed on the West (both western populations and western systems). This has led to new political, military, economic, social and cultural trends. It was necessary to counter extremist groups through all available means. The West has been pushed to adopt many legitimate, defensive tactics, but at the same time, these tactics had some negative aspects, which led to further extremism as an impulsive reaction.
Some believe that cases of intolerance against Islam and Muslims may eventually dwindle. This was already seen with regard to the Pegida Movement itself, which began its protests with thousands of supporters and ended up only with a few thousands. One high-profile incident involved switching off the lights of the Cologne Cathedral for the first time in history, through which, Germans expressed their rejection of extremism against Muslims.
Islamophobia is an extreme phenomenon; it is not part of European or western heritage and it does not reflect the general attitude of the society. It only represents individual attitudes — hostile feelings that can be eliminated if they are countered with logic and a peaceful approach. The same may apply to the terrorist movements that reflect extreme beliefs and attitudes that do not represent the real Islamic principles. Just as there are extremist Muslim militants there are also other peaceful and even oppressed Muslims in many parts of the world. For instance, the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Uighur Muslims in China and Muslims in Ahwaz in Iran.
The West is not in need of Islamic conquests to stop the wave of hostility against Islam and Muslims, but it is in need of openness and acceptance of others, whether the other is a Muslim or non-Muslim. Intolerance and racism amount to a kind of a fever that may find its way into Europe gradually, especially since the increase in immigration to the West in recent decades, which has now become one of the fundamental problems in Europe. This has escalated given the violence and political turmoil in the Middle East. This implies that confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims is widening.
The anti-Islam attitudes in Europe, in conjunction with the waves of migration from the Middle East, will lead the immigrants, who came looking for peace and safety, to live in ghettos to avoid friction. And these ghettos will soon become a fertile habitat for terrorists.
Fighting Islamophobia should not be limited to the West, as Muslims in the West have an obligation towards those who they associate with on a daily basis: The obligation to live with them in peace and harmony. And that can only be achieved through kind words and good deeds. The wrong ideas of Islam push towards militancy — whether Islamists indulging in terrorism or European hardliners who see Islam as Daesh and Al Qaida. There is an urgent need for Muslim clerics to redress this situation through the new generations of young Muslims in Europe who seek a link between their dreams, their reality and their beliefs. They do not seek to break away from this reality, but help to develop it through the Islamic spirit that embraces tolerance, moderation and love. And this is the true spirit of Islam.
The number of Pegida supporters may have decreased but the idea on which the movement was started has not vanished. Pegida depicts itself as a protector of Germans’ rights. Although everyone has the right to defend himself or herself, it is important to build civilised foundations away from extremism and intolerance to exercise this right. Protecting our rights does not mean the elimination of others’ rights — whether to live or to belong.
Haifa AlMaashi is a former professor at the University of Aden and a senior researcher in ‘b’huth’ (Dubai).