Muslims Living in Fear

Commentary | November 15, 2010

Greg Austin wrote this piece for New Europe.

“I am not a fascist, a nazi, a terrorist, a criminal or violent. But I am constantly being forced on the defensive”. This is one piece of the evidence of a Muslim student to a Dutch court hearing race-hate charges against Geert Wilders, a member of parliament in October this year. According to Wilders: “Islam is not a religion, it's an ideology, the ideology of a retarded culture. I have a problem with Islamic tradition, culture, ideology.” In another place he says: “The Koran is a fascist book which incites violence.” He called for it to be banned, like Hitler’s book Mein Kampf.

The current Netherlands government, currently a minority government, has come to office by relying on the support of Wilders’ party. This was a sad day for democracy and for the Netherlands.

Switch to the United States and Newt Gingrich, former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. He called Muslim organizers of a planned religious centre near Ground Zero in New York “radical Islamists” interested in “supremacy” and likened them to Nazis wanting to put up a sign beside the Holocaust memorial or Japanese wanting to put up a sign at Peal Harbor.

New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, countered Gingrich by saying it would be a “sad day for America” if opponents of the planned religious centre got their way. President Obama also backed the right of the organizers of the centre to go ahead with their plans.
Islamophobia is now at the centre of national politics in a number of liberal democratic countries. It has surfaced strongly in international politics. The Organization of Islamic Conference, an international grouping of 57 countries, has initiated a global campaign against Islamophobia.  Al Qaeda has taken note of the rising hostility to Muslims and threatened retaliation for it. There is an escalating climate of fear and hate around this religion in too many places.

What is Islamophobia? According to the Runnymede Trust, it has many faces that include the following. Islam is seen “as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change”. It is seen as inferior to the West, barbaric, irrational, primitive, sexist, violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism and engaged in a 'clash of civilizations'. It is seen as a political ideology. The Trust also noted that hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims.

Runnymede, a name taken by the Trust mentioned above, is the place in Britain where the Magna Carta was signed, the document seen as one of the principal sources of political and civil rights enjoyed across Europe today. Ironically, the document was bound by its time. The first provision in it does not grant religious freedom but grants freedom to organized religion, the “Church”. That tells us something. Religion has always been highly politicized and remains so.  In fact, religious freedom (freedom of conscience) is arguably one of the last freedoms to arrive, is often the most politically contested and the most fragile. One reason is that because a religion offers potentially decisive views on what is right and wrong, all sorts of demagogues see it as very fertile ground for sowing the seeds of division and hate to produce a false flower of legitimacy for their own political goals.

The revolutions of Europe and the United States over two centuries ago were supposed to have forced the separation of state and religion, and to have guaranteed freedom of conscience. All citizens might therefore reasonably expect governments in liberal pluralist democracies (and their parliamentarians) not to implement policy or act in any way to appease religious hate or an irrational discomfort with Islam. Oppose Islamophobia, now.