ODVV Interview: Europe has not provided a convincing counter-narrative to populist...

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Publish Date : 04/26/2021 20:36
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The media takes much of the responsibility for this, and while I cannot speak for Europe as a whole, in the UK much of the media is very right-wing and anti-immigrant in its leanings. As noted, there are some counter-examples, but from Europe to India and elsewhere, we see the right dictating the narratives and others simply having no convincing alternative narrative at the national level, though often this is better at the local level.

On March 15, the International Day to Combat Islamophobia, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced his concern over the spiraling surge of anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry worldwide, calling on governments and stakeholders to play a more consequential role in containing this byzantine form of racism that has impaired harmony and stability in multicultural settings. As far-right discourses gain traction and ultra-nationalist politics pick up steam internationally, fissures between the Muslim communities and Western societies tend to become deeper and more resistant to healing.


Throughout the European Union, aversion to Muslims is cropping up in a panoply of ways and shapes. Discrimination in recruitment and provision of job opportunities, harassment at workplace and hate speech seeping from the media into the public sphere are only some examples.


While the Muslim communities represent an indispensable minority of more than 25 million people in the 27 European Union member states, a 2018 CNN poll found that within the bloc, on average 37 percent of the population admits to having unfavorable views of Muslims. Earlier this year, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s human rights agency Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) released the details of its survey of hate crimes across 45 participating countries in 2019, and chronicled a total of 558 anti-Muslim hate crimes. The agency affirmed that due to underreporting, the actual figures may never become known. In the United States, the president who routinely scapegoated migrants and Muslims has just left office and is replaced by a moderate leader who is apparently determined to reverse the poisonous impacts of his predecessor’s policies and rhetoric that had critically fomented intolerance and xenophobia.


Paul Hedges is an associate professor in interreligious studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is on the editorial board of the “Journal of Religious History” and “Studies in Interreligious Dialogue.” His latest book is “Religious Hatred: Prejudice, Islamophobia and Antisemitism in Global Context.”

Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Prof. Hedges to discuss the global uptick in anti-Muslim bigotry, the role of media and governments in scaling up Islamophobic prejudices and the interplay between Islamophobia and youth radicalization.


Q: In a recent report, the United Nations Human Rights Council asserted that suspicion, discrimination and outright hatred against Muslims worldwide has peaked to “epic proportions” emerging in forms such as excessive restrictions on Muslims manifesting their beliefs and rituals publicly, limits on their access to citizenship and widespread stigmatization of Muslim communities. Is this worrying trend of Islamophobia inevitable and impossible to be contained or are there strategies that can be adopted to confront it?

A: I think this has to be seen against a backdrop where we are also seeing rising anti-Semitism in many places, alongside prejudice against atheists, Christians and others on the rise. It is certainly not inevitable, but we live in a world where religious and ethno-religious identity politics are rampant in many places, and populist leaders, politicians, media personalities and others have seen Islamophobia as a hot-button issue to rile up their supporters.

It can be combatted at many levels, which includes in the work of politicians, and, for instance, in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch attack of 2019 showed a degree of reaching out across borders and empathy with the victims that undercut any headway that Islamophobic narratives could have made in the public space there in the way they did in, for instance, Australia – given the attacker’s nationality, with some politicians suggesting that Muslims had brought it on themselves. Again, religious literacy in schools, amongst media and journalists all provide pushback to this, but it needs a whole of society response from government to media, to the legal realm and education, and also amongst communities.


Q: Experts argue Islamophobia should not be viewed in isolation from the runaway stream of xenophobia, discrimination and hate speech against vulnerable communities such as immigrants transpiring on the global stage. Considering that the rise of alt-right movements in Europe, the political crises of the Middle East and the malign activities of extremist groups continue to widen civilizational and cultural gaps, do you believe the world governments are on the right track, moving in the direction of addressing these prejudices, or is the international community not taking effective steps?

A: I think you’re right to see these as linked. On the whole, I don’t see many countries going down the right track here. European moderate, leftist, and centrist politicians have not been able to provide a convincing counter-narrative to the alt-right and populist right-wing Islamophobia. Partly this has been because they have let them dominate the space around immigration and only responded reactively to this, without making a good case for immigration and multiculturalism.

The media takes much of the responsibility for this, and while I cannot speak for Europe as a whole, in the UK much of the media is very right-wing and anti-immigrant in its leanings. As noted, there are some counter-examples, but from Europe to India and elsewhere, we see the right dictating the narratives and others simply having no convincing alternative narrative at the national level, though often this is better at the local level.


Q: As substantiated by researchers, hate crimes against Muslims in countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada and France have spiked markedly in the recent years. In Britain, for example, Home Office data show in the year ending in March 2020, almost half of the religiously motivated hate crimes, namely 3,089 offences, were targeted at Muslims. In the United States, anti-Muslim hate crimes soared to a 16-year high in 2018. Does the response by the governments and law enforcement agencies represent a deterrence against such transgressions, or are the Muslim communities left vulnerable and unprotected?

A: In all the polities noted, there are legal deterrents against Islamophobic attacks. Of course, differing political and social backdrops may make the experience of this very different. Without checking the datasets noted, there are some aspects that may account for this, especially in the United States with the Trump presidency which no doubt empowered those seeking to attack or target Muslims. However, even here legal enforcement remained in place. The number of complaints to police and records may even suggest that Muslims feel that they can rely upon the rule of law as recourse against Islamophobia.


Q: What is the role of the rhetoric by political leaders in the exacerbation of religious and cultural frictions? Do you believe the former US President Donald Trump contributed to stoking Islamophobic sentiments globally? His successor, President Joe Biden, rescinded the Muslim Ban on his first day in office and promised that he would fight racism. Is he able to leave a significant impact on efforts to extinguish the flames of Islamophobia?

A: I have already noted Trump and political incitement, which of course plays a huge role. I wouldn’t like to double guess the US context, but as we are seeing polarization in news narratives and sources along political lines, it is doubtful that Biden can have much impact on many of the most Islamophobic elements in society. However, he can strengthen legal protections and the rule of law in this area.


Q: What is the relationship between Islamophobia and the radicalization of Muslim youths? Is this relationship, as argued by psychologists, a symbiotic one, meaning that the more Muslims are denied social and political opportunities and excluded in the public space, the more they will be prone to be recruited by extremist organizations operating under the name of Islam? With this understanding, is it realistic to assert the alienation of Muslim communities undermines the national security of countries hosting them?

A: Absolutely there appears to be a correlation. It seems that the concept of relative deprivation can be key in radicalization, because – regardless of the socio-economic status of any group in terms of poverty or rank – it is a perception of their own lower standing in terms of prestige, wealth and status that can lead people into feelings of inequality, unfairness, and persecution. An alienated community and its members is therefore far more likely to be out of step, and so if the correct ideological framing exists, for this to be expressed in violent action against a host community, or also for those overseas seen as contributing to this, or again to minorities within a country deemed to be unfairly profiting at the expense of the majority.


Q: How is it possible to ensure the Muslim minority communities feel belong in their host countries and do not run into conflict with the values dominating these mostly Western societies? On the other hand, how is it possible to help these societies, founded upon secularism, where religious practice belongs in the private space and is mostly perceived as an exception to the overriding norms, acquire a better understanding of Muslims, do not view them as aliens and refrain from otherizing them?

A: Excellent question, and this really gets to the heart of the matter. One issue is to have a more nuanced understanding and practice of secularism. There is not, in the West or any specific country, only one understanding and practice of secularism. It is a complex set of phenomena that has developed over several centuries in diverse ways. As such, how far it is seen as being inimical to a range of religious identities, and not just Islam will always be matters of dispute and negotiation.

Islam, per se, is arguably not antithetical to secularism, any more than Christianity is, but the latter tradition has of course adapted over time within the societies where secularism has developed – but it can still, in certain forms, find itself in tension within a secular milieu. As such, something that doesn’t tend to happen, is both education – in schools and beyond – and a public narrative – politicians and media – that outlines what secularism is and why it matters and how it can live in harmony with religious standpoints.

Of course, as in France at the moment, secularism or laïcité is being presented as essentially hostile to Islam and Islamic values, but it is not the only way to understand either secularism more broadly nor laïcité itself.

On the other part of this question, religious literacy is needed, and again this requires a whole of society approach via education, political sphere, media and so on to promote views and attitudes towards Islam that are more broad in scope and do not just focus on perceived issues or problems, but show a wider 1,500-year-old tradition that has fostered an Islamicate culture of tolerance, harmony, science, literature, etc. Of course, this is not to endorse simply Islamophilia and ignore the harmful interpretations nor problems that might arise, because then one simply fails to address questions which need to be asked.


Q: The mainstream media by and large give coverage to Muslim matters through the prism of negative and counterproductive stereotypes. For instance, the findings of a study by the Muslim Council of Britain, submitted to the British parliament in 2018, showed a 59-percent majority of some 10,000 articles surveyed from the British press discussing Muslim issues and Islam, identified Muslims with negative behaviors. Where do such biased attitudes in the media come from? How does the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media affect their social standing and life quality?

A: Since Edward Said’s seminal Covering Islam, there has been a longstanding academic understanding of this problem, and it sits, undoubtedly, within a thousand-year-long Islamophobic tradition that has grown up in Europe.

There have been cultural stereotypes – some positive, but often negative – of the Saracens, Turks and Arabs, as Muslims have typically been understood over time through medieval, early modern, and modern periods.

Islamophobic tropes are also found in academic writing and Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis that oversimplified and created monolithic blocks which did not exist, but whose simple black and white provides a ready-to-use guide for media and policy-makers to play into, and which allows existing Islamophobic stereotypes within society to be reinforced and remain as simple markers.

Of course, another fact of the media is that bad news sells, and so it is natural that it will be the problems rather than the good news that hits the headlines, but as your question implies this focused on religious-identity with Muslim perpetrators in a way that is not the case with non-Muslims, and so feeds into existing stereotypes and tropes.



By: Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV Interview: Europe has not provided a convincing counter-narrative to populist Islamophobia ”