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28 December 2004

'Islamophobia' Spreading Far and Wide 

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Thalif Deen

A renowned Islamic scholar is barred from taking up a post in one of the most prestigious U.S. universities. A nationwide survey discovers that nearly one-half of all respondents believe Muslim-Americans' civil liberties should be restricted.
"Islamophobia" is fast spreading in the United States and Western Europe, warn academics, Middle East experts and senior U.N. officials.

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 21 (IPS) - A renowned Islamic scholar of Egyptian origin is barred from taking up a post in one of the most prestigious institutions in the United States -- the University of Notre Dame -- after the U.S. State Department invokes an anti-terrorism law to keep him out of the country.

A nationwide survey discovers that nearly one-half of all Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim-Americans.

The growing new phenomenon labelled ”Islamophobia” -- the paranoid fear of Muslims -- is fast spreading, both in the United States and in Western Europe, warn academics, Middle East experts and senior U.N. officials.

Alarmed at the rising racial and religious intolerance, the United Nations is expressing ''deep concern'' over the increase in anti-Semitism, Christianophobia and Islamophobia worldwide.

A resolution adopted by the 191-member U.N. General Assembly this week calls upon all states to cooperate with the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to eliminate the growing new trends in racial and religious discrimination.

For the first time, the United Nations earlier this month hosted a seminar zeroing in on the subject of Islamophobia, symbolising the gravity of the situation.

''When a new word enters the language, it is often the result of a scientific advance or a diverting fad,'' said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. ''But when the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with Islamophobia,'' he added.

Addressing the seminar, which was attended by religious leaders, academics and senior U.N. officials, Annan said that efforts to combat Islamophobia must also contend with the question of terrorism and violence carried out in the name of Islam.

''Islam should not be judged by the acts of extremists who deliberately target and kill civilians. The few give a bad name to the many, and this is unfair,'' he added.

''The Christian West has feared Islam both religiously and politically,'' according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University and keynote speaker at the seminar. ''Today, the paradox of Islamophobia remains that many people afraid of Islam know very little about it. They feel a great need to see 'the other' as the enemy.”

In the United States, the targeting of Muslims was triggered by the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001 (9/11) because all of the attackers were of Middle Eastern origin.

Last week, Cornell University released the results of a survey it conducted in September revealing U.S. citizens' willingness to restrict the civil liberties of Muslim-Americans. The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has previously accused U.S. law enforcement agencies of racial profiling of Muslims living in the United States.

''In U.S. media and political discourse, a mixed -- and often implicitly negative -- view of Islam exists,'' says Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy.

''There's a lot of anti-Muslim bigotry. Some of it is based on religious chauvinism from Christians and Jews. Some of it is racist,'' he told IPS.

The perception that Muslims hate Israel has fed anti-Islamic fervour among strong supporters of Israel. And -- particularly since 9/11 -- U.S. nationalism has largely and foolishly identified Islam as a major threat to America, added Solomon, co-author of 'Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You'.

''Ultimately I believe that public hostility toward Islam in the United States today is mostly a matter of geopolitics and U.S. nationalism,'' he added.

''While the 9/11 attacks clearly had an impact on Islamophobia, it is important to recognise that this phenomenon has been around in one form or another virtually since the advent of Islam in the seventh century,'' says Mouin Rabbani, a contributing editor to the Washington-based 'Middle East Report'.

It has developed and changed over the centuries on the basis of a variety of religious and racial prejudices, he added, as well as associated political factors such as colonialism, nationalism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, and socio-economic issues like oil and immigration.

''Islamophobia as a phenomenon has evolved and ebbed and flowed over time and across space,'' Rabbani told IPS.

In the United States, for example, Islam was largely associated with the African slave population and resistance to slavery (and to a lesser extent subsequent African-American militancy), and Islamophobia served as part of the process of the dehumanisation and domestication of this population.

Since 1945, by contrast, U.S. Islamophobia has largely been projected externally, particularly against Arabs (and Iranians -- who seem more often than not to be identified as Arabs -- as well as assorted others like non-Arab, non-Muslim Sikhs, for those incapable of making distinctions).

This, Rabbani points out, is related to the emergence of the United States as a global power, its pursuit of control over the strategically significance Middle East, and its increasingly close embrace of Israel.

More recently, with the end of the Cold War (during which prejudice against Muslims coincided with support for Islamic militancy), some intellectuals, such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, sought to formulate a theory of Islam as an enemy civilisation.

In a report to the General Assembly last month, Doudou Diene, special rapporteur of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, said ''there appears to be agreement that racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the upswing in Europe.''

Rabbani said European Islamophobia has had a somewhat different trajectory, emerging initially in response to the theological and territorial challenge presented by the rise of Islam as an alternative monotheistic religion and the expansion of Islamic empires.

It was then put into the service of European colonialism in the Middle East and other Muslim territories, and more recently in response to the growth of Muslim migrant populations in western Europe.

''My impression is that while prejudice against Muslims has certainly intensified, hostility to Islam as a religion has grown exponentially -- though the two are obviously inter-related,'' he added.

''A main effect of 9/11 has been to make Islamophobia not only more widespread but also considerably more mainstream and respectable -- it has let the genie out of the bottle,'' Rabbani said.

Solomon said that until recent decades, the U.S. mass media and overall political climate have unequivocally embraced only Christianity. Anti-Jewish undertones -- and sometimes-explicit anti-Semitism -- were present through the middle of the 20th century, until the Jewish faith gained general acceptance at least in public.

Before and during the air war on Yugoslavia in spring 1999, for instance, a lot of sympathy was generated by the White House and the U.S. news media for Muslim victims of Serbs in Kosovo.

''Granted, this was opportunistic and propagandistic. But the U.S. establishment is quite capable of at least going through the motions of lauding Muslims,'' he said.

And in fact, the rhetoric of the administration of President George W Bush, with some lapses, has tried to make clear its supposed respect for the Islamic faith while singling out a few Islamic terrorists for condemnation, according to Solomon.

''That said, the hostility toward Muslims in the United States is, overall, appalling. The events of 9/11 were used as an excuse to greatly magnify that hostility and cloak it in pseudo-patriotism.” (END)

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