By Maha Akeel
Last week, the world’s largest Muslim organisation - the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) - the second biggest intergovernmental body after the United Nations made up of 57 Muslim-majority countries - released its annual Islamophobia report at a conference in London.
Our new report confirms that Islamophobia is a rising trend across the West, and concludes that Islamophobia must be seen not simply as a scourge against Muslims, but rather as a scourge against the heart of all civilised societies. At the reviewed time period of the report, the negative trend of anti-Muslim hate was assessed to have been boosted mostly by three factors, namely: the victory of Donald Trump, the immigrant issue in Europe, and the rise of far-right populism in Europe.
Far-right extremist narratives have for years portrayed Muslims in Europe as foot-soldiers in a stealth demographic war against western civilization. It is no surprise then that even as Daesh-inspired terrorist attacks on Europe have escalated, so too has the trend in anti-Muslim hate crimes, where the whole Muslim community is punished for the horrendous acts of a few.
In Britain, the attack on the Finsbury Park mosque and the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox were both motivated by an ideology that rejects the viability, or even desirability of Muslims and non-Muslims coexisting peacefully in the same societies.
But it is not widely recognised that such episodes are part of an escalating spectrum of sporadic attacks on Muslims across the US, Britain and Western Europe.
In the US, we have had the Chapel Hill murders of three Muslim students; the Portland stabbings of two bystanders who defended a Muslim woman being harassed; the assault and murder of a Muslim teenager on her way home from a mosque near Washington.
In Canada, six Muslims were killed in a mosque shooting in Quebec by a man known for his far-right views, including support for Marine Le Pen in France and for Donald Trump.
Across the West, we have seen a dramatic rise in violent arson attacks on mosques; physical assaults on Muslims, especially women wearing headscarves; harassment, threats and hate speech; and even discrimination in employment and education.
Our report found, disturbingly, that there is a connection between these rising trends on different sides of the Atlantic. On the one hand, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign repeatedly used rhetoric that seemed openly hostile to Islam. This was reinforced by his Muslim ban.
The latest Pew Research Centre survey of Muslims released a few days ago confirms that the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency have been an anxious time for many Muslim Americans. Overall, Muslims in the United States perceive a lot of discrimination against their religious group are leery of Trump and think their fellow Americans do not see Islam as part of mainstream US society.
Since then, to his credit, President Trump has dialled back on such rhetoric. But there has been little condemnation from his administration of the increasingly toxic environment of anti-Muslim hostility resulting in hate crimes, murders, shootings and arson attacks.
Unmistakably, our report finds that the rightward shift of the US government has emboldened far-right political parties and movements in Europe. Many of the leaders of these groups, such as Le Pen or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands - who have openly demonised Muslims wholesale - were the first to welcome Trump’s victory.
But it is not just far-right parties that are voicing these sentiments. Mainstream political leaders and figures have mingled fear of immigration with the idea that “Islam” in general is a problem because it supposedly does not align with western values, forgetting that Islam has existed there for centuries and that their own laws protect freedom of religion. In Europe, this view has led to more restrictive legislation on clothing.
In France, 30 towns banned the so-called ‘Burkini’ swim suit, despite it being barely any different in appearance to a wet-suit. The ban was later declared a serious breach of basic freedoms by France’s higher administrative court, but revealed how widespread anti-Islam sentiment was becoming across the country.
Since then, the European Court of Justice has ruled that employers should be allowed to ban their staff from wearing headscarves if they see fit. Muslim women who choose to wear a headscarf are thus not only finding that they are less likely to be employed, they are also more likely to be attacked in the street.
These trends show that in many ways, Daesh’s campaign of terror in the West is working. Daesh’s goals are to use violence to create a weak, divided and fearful West, where Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live and work together in peace and mutual respect.
We must remember that the Islamic world is as much a victim of Daesh and al-Qaeda as the West. According to the Counter Terrorism Centre of the US Military Academy at West Point, al-Qaeda kills over seven times more Muslims than non-Muslims. Similarly, the UN reports that Muslims are the largest victims of Daesh attacks, most of which are being carried out in different Muslim countries. Those refugees trying to reach the shores of Europe are escaping the horrors of Daesh and deserve to live in safety.
Terrorism and Islamophobia are two sides of the same coin of hate; they feed off each other. The distorted views of the ‘other’ held by both terrorists and Islamophobes, along with their extremist ideologies and convictions, are linked in a vicious cycle that is affecting world peace and security.
The OIC’s annual Islamophobia report did, however, note many positive developments in the West at the policy and court levels, as well as community and interfaith levels, which countered the negative trends. We need to do more of that, more dialogue aimed at fostering mutual understanding and respect, as well as better measures to stop discrimination and encourage social integration.