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Islamophobia as a barrier to integration

Thursday, 29 July 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

We live in a world of diversity and the power of diversity is already substantiated through welcoming and open-minded policies of many states when it comes to migration. As a result of such open migration policies that also bring along significant financial, social and cultural added-values, the benefit of diversity is truly proven today.

The same goes for the impact on integration, as we witness more and more people with varying backgrounds easily developing bonds with the countries they live in, while also preserving their own culture and traditions.

Integrating into a society already starts at the earliest stage. The moment a person appreciates the welcoming atmosphere of a country, they become able to use their potential, wisdom, expertise, art and knowledge to make the most out of it and contribute to the society accordingly. In the long term, integration can be summarized as a win-win situation, resulting in solid benefits both for the person integrating and also for the country offering this opportunity.

Yet, peaceful migration policies continue to be endangered by extremist ideologies, also posing a threat to the integration of many who have fled or migrated to other countries. Similarly, lots of people still become victims of the tarnished reputation of Islam. Many victims have to fight against the prejudice just because they were born and raised in an Islamic family or country, or simply because they have Islamic belief.

While trying to integrate in a new society through several efforts like learning languages, adapting to new cultures, looking for new jobs, they also have to combat many biased views and prejudgments, making life even harder for them.

Here, one may wonder whether it is only the extremists to hold liable. Or could the reality be much more complex and could it be that from time to time other categories (such as politicians, social media providers and users) also pave the way for Islamophobia?

Before brainstorming about the triggering causes of Islamophobia, it might be useful to contemplate the term itself.

Islamophobia is basically described as “the fear, hatred of, or prejudice against the Islamic religion or Muslims“. Legally speaking, it is a typical example of hate speech. And just like hate speech itself, Islamophobia does not have a universally accepted definition either. And yes, this is a matter of concern, because many people believe that having a definition could indeed help institutions formulate their rules and structures more easily and uniformly on how to cope with Islamophobia. Some human rights defenders controversially define Islamophobia as a form of xenophobia or racism, whereas some refrain from addressing the issue as racism, simply because Islam is not a race.

Whatever the definition, there already is a rough consensus regarding different forms of Islamophobia. Violence against Muslims occurs in many different forms; such as verbal abuse, vandalizing of property (like mosques, schools), physical abuse and assault or even in indirect forms like discrimination in employment.

The list is surely open to be extended, but underneath each form of these anti-Islamic acts lies a severe violation of human rights that needs to be effectively addressed and punished.

Besides the role of governments, the role of local and international courts is also of great importance. Landmark judgments keep shedding light on today’s cases and help courts reach consistent legal approaches.

Some examples that are highly noteworthy: Norwood vs UK Case

In this caselaw of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), Mr. Norwood was convicted for displaying a flag on his window, a large poster of a photograph of the Twin Towers in flames, including the words “Islam out of Britain – Protect the British People.”

After he was convicted by the local court, Mr. Norwood applied to the ECtHR but his application was justly found inadmissible on the basis of article 17 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which regulates the prohibition of abuse of rights. Simply, the applicant, thanks to the court, could not enjoy the protection offered via article 10 of the ECHR.

Looking from the perspective of an example from social media:

One may have come across the “interesting” hate speech criteria of one of the well-known social media platforms. Indeed, it is very surprising to find out that the post “Muslim immigrants are all thieves” was not considered hate speech by the social media platform. It is because the concerned platform had two main criteria back then to consider a post a hate speech; namely an attack that is degrading generally and a victim affiliated to one of the protected categories (such as sex, religion, race).

In this example, the platform authorities decided that the post targeted the category of immigrants, a category that was not within the determined scope of protection. This led to the post being considered lawful by the social media platform, regarding it within the limits of freedom of expression.

In my opinion, this is not a well-grounded assessment as it can result in arbitrary interpretations. I think if it was a court case brought before the ECtHR, the interpretation would be more likely (and rightly in my view) in favour of hate speech (given the established case-law in that regard).

Another example of a national law…

In Germany, wearing of hijab was banned at a state school back in August 2006, on the grounds that the teachers were not allowed to express any world views or any religious beliefs which could disturb or endanger the peace at school. This decision was criticised for being Islamophobic.

I think the approach should have been more diligent and conditional. Some parents may choose to send their children to schools where there are no sign of religions or beliefs. Nothing is wrong about that. So the restrictive decision of the school could have been lawful in that sense.

However, the phrase that mentions “…which could disturb or endanger the peace at school” sounds slightly biased, as if differentiating between religions, implying only one of them and automatically considering it a “danger”.

This implication is the problem itself as it triggers a discriminative perception. Otherwise this banning of hijab could have been lawful in my opinion on the condition that this ambiguous phrase was left out, leaving the door open for all other religious symbols for being equally banned as well.

So… What could be the causes of Islamophobia?

The causes of Islamophobia today are surely controversial and subject of debate. Combatting all possible causes that seem to be triggering Islamophobia seems an effective start. One of the most likely causes of Islamophobia is the assertive discourse of right-wing extremists, whereas another equally significant cause is the Islamic extremists themselves. Both extremist groups incite violence and neglect the rights of people with different origins.

Islamic extremists abuse the religion for various reasons, often distorting the truth and trying to get advantages out of this distortion, such as achieving political authority, preserving power, gaining financial benefits, and avoiding empowerment and emancipation of girls and women.

On the other hand, some right-wing extremists in the West unconsciously provoke these ill efforts of Islamic extremists by convincing people that Islam is all about what such Islamic extremists tell, make up and act in accordance with. Some even call for adopting harsh and unlawful measures and rules on migration, on the grounds of a so-called “response to the increasing Muslim population in Western countries.

It is very worrying to see that some people even associate Islam with a source of violence, and dare to directly relate it to terrorism. From another point of view, Islam is deemed an impediment towards civilization and thus, an enemy to combat. At the end of the day, both extremist groups, although they seem to be on the opposite edges, work towards the same result: incitement to hatred and violence.

Other possible causes to consider are social media and traditional media outlets. These actors should ensure that they do not provide platforms that allow or facilitate the dissemination of hate speech. Instead, they should take precautions not to contribute to such extremists’ actions and gatherings.

For example, it should not be only the contents involving hate speech that need to be banned, but also extremist Islamic groups and their posts should be banned too and removed from media platforms in order to avoid their calls from being heard, and prevent possible illegal support they might get.

Aggressive declarations and speeches of some political leaders (from both Islamic countries and Western countries) could be amongst the other possible causes of the problem, triggering tension and discrimination towards other religions and beliefs. Such harmful speeches do not only undermine the reputation of Islam, but also frustrate many innocent people believing in Islam or respecting Islam even if they are not believers of it.

It is unfortunately common to encounter expressions that incite hatred and discrimination through speeches targeting Muslims and regarding them as if they are all terrorists. Similarly, Islamic extremists on the other hand, also speak out disrespectfully about other religions and degrade them.

Maybe all countries should cooperate more closely to combat such extremist discourse so that no one can incite violence towards any religion or its believers.

Moreover, it is not just these cliché reasons that underpin the hatred. Today, efforts of many countries with welcoming approaches towards immigrants and expats need to be appreciated and respected. It is a pleasure to see how people with different origins are treated equally before the laws in many countries. However, I do also agree that sometimes governments and courts need to play the “bad cop”, not to leave this role arbitrarily to individuals, especially to extremists, when it comes to addressing certain concerns.

For example, I had seen on the news that a few years ago, an imam during his preach at a mosque in Belgium said men can beat their wives under certain conditions. In such a situation, the imam definitely needs to dismissed and should face further sanctions, including but not limited to criminal investigation. His preach neither fits with Islam (not with the prevailing peaceful practice of the religion and many of the believers’ perception), nor with human rights, and it certainly damages the reputation of Islam and Muslims, also backing the violent and unfounded discourse of Islamic extremists.

It is definitely not within the scope of freedom of expression to disseminate such fallacious ideas that distort reality and try to show Islam as a source of violence. However, such misinterpretations of Islam by some individuals, like the imam in this example, should not be a ground to take it out on all innocent believers of the religion.

Many Muslim people treat both genders equally and there are states that constitute good examples in this regard, with most of their population composed of Muslims. For example; Turkey is a secular country with most of its population composed of Muslim people. In Turkey, women and men are legally equal and violence against women, no matter in which form, is a crime to be punished under national laws which are mostly in conformity with the EU laws.

So, clearly there are many good examples that have – for many years – demonstrated how Islam is indeed based on peace and is well in harmony with civilization. Yet, we also need to consider the other side of the coin and admit that the interpretation of Islam is not always that consistent amongst all believers around the world. Some people and even states regrettably continue to abuse the religion, resulting in a tarnished perception of it.

Looking from another important perspective, the fear of local people about migration should also be effectively addressed. Awareness should be increased to allow people to realize the positive impacts of migration as long as it goes hand in hand with integration. While enhancing the integration facilities, states and governments should also ensure that freedoms will never be compromised on the grounds of migration.

For example; in some countries with many Muslim citizens and immigrants, local people are often very hesitant to warn someone for even simple wrong actions if that person is likely to have Islamic origins. However, anyone can do such wrong things at a point in life, such as throwing rubbish in parks or damaging playground equipments. Most locals say that they refrain from saying anything because they are too afraid of being accused of Islamophobia or even racism. Yet, when they think the person (or the group) doing the same wrong act is non-Muslim, the same locals feel more free to interfere.

However, I cannot imagine a person being convicted in an EU country for example, for just warning a person not to throw rubbish in a park. This is an environmental responsibility in the end. And, there is no difference between warning a Muslim than warning a Jewish or a Christian or an atheist person for a similar act. It has nothing to do with religious beliefs, but is about moral values and factors like education and environmental awareness perhaps. It is surely never only one certain group; not Muslims, Christians, youth, immigrants nor any other groups who do wrong things like harming the environment or damaging public facilities.

It is just a human being doing something wrong, regardless of any category of belief, race, age or origin. So, protecting the rights of Islamic people should not lead to unintentionally providing extra comfort zones and benefits to certain groups while restricting the freedoms of others. Otherwise, if people feel too much pressure to refrain from saying anything to each other, we may end up with a new form of discrimination in favour of a group while our aim is to fight against an already existing discrimination, namely Islamophobia.

This – in the long run – would sadly strengthen the criticized and problematic discourse of the right-wing extremists when people start to get worried because of that extra protection offered to a certain group. Thus, fighting against Islamophobia should be conducted with due diligence. Protecting the rights of Muslim people at all times (while equally protecting the rights of every other religious or unreligious people) and easing the burdens for immigrants and expats on their way to integration should be the real target that we need to stick with. This should not be abused and extended to a level of limiting anyone else’s core freedoms, such as freedom of expression.

In addition, achievements of Western countries, again like Belgium and many Western European countries, that have open-minded and welcoming policies to immigrants, should not be sacrificed to satisfy each and every demand of a certain group. For example; schools should not allow little girls from being exempted from swimming classes or activities just on religious grounds. It is noteworthy to respect that many countries provide Islamic people with opportunities to preserve their rituals and carry out their worship. Yet, this should not lead to a contradiction with the core values, like human rights and gender equality.

In my opinion, integration cannot be fully achieved without a certain degree of sacrifice on both sides. Many people with different beliefs, including most of the Muslim-origined citizens or Muslim immigrants, do (and should) respect that modern laws require equal treatment of genders and this requires girls to be taught same skills with boys.

Excluding a little girl from a class or activity on swimming, just to meet a demand, sounds to me as against the core value of equality. After a certain age, a student may decide freely whether to follow a course or not (could be also on religious grounds this time), but at such young ages, parents should not be authorized to exclude their daughters from accessing the same opportunities with boys.

Just stop for a minute and think; what if that little girl would turn into a champion one day? Wouldn’t it be an achievement for herself and also an added-value for the country she lives in? Should we allow avoiding this chance from the start? Or maybe she will not be a champion but will face a situation where she can save her or someone else’s life if she knows how to swim. So isn’t this a skill to be worth to learn when there is the opportunity?

Thus, not all demands need to be met for integration. This would surely irritate many people, not only some locals and right wing supporters but even other immigrants and expats (including many Muslims as well) who have fled their countries or migrated hoping to live in states where gender equality is ensured. Whatever is contributing to girls and women’s empowerment should be left out of the debate, and should be respected by everyone in the society.

Not all sacrifices mean assimilation of religion, values or cultural identity. Some are a must on the road to full integration, adapting to civilization and to preserve the achievements and core values of the country that is welcoming immigrants.

Last but not the least, some prejudices also sadly continue to be another cause of Islamophobia today. Just like the above-mentioned suggestions, it is also important to facilitate education, avoid disinformation, focus on many good examples and promote the tolerance in societies to overcome the prejudices. In that way, more and more people can be aware of the positive contributions of diverse ethnic and religious groups, and can start seeing Islam (and diversity, in general) as a positive force that contributes to the welfare, wealth and development of a society.

In short, we must do everything possible to contribute to the strengthening of the bonds among people with different beliefs, faiths, origins and cultures. Action should be taken to combat prejudices and promote policies of tolerance, diversity and pluralistic views. And we, the individuals, should ensure respect and empathy towards each other, trying to put ourselves in others’ shoes and ease each others’ concerns even when we do not really agree. Otherwise, discrimination can continue to harm or hinder many innocent lives, and the opportunity of full integration and the continuity of the already proven contribution of many Muslim people to the world will be partly missed out.

Let’s never forget the famous saying: “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities!”