Stop Absolute Freedom in Encountering Islamophobia
The world has once again witnessed an extreme act of Islamophobia when Rasmus Paludan, a right-wing politician, burnt The Holy Quran in a recent rally in Stockholm.
Such an act has caused outrage, especially from the Muslim World, as it is an unacceptable act of dishonouring the Muslim holy book. The provocative act carried out in front of the Turkish Embassy proves that hatred towards Islam, or Islamophobia, continues to run thick in Europe.
This was not the first time such a prejudicial act against Islam and Muslims in the West happened under the guise of “absolute freedom”. In reality, such crimes are manifestations of Islamophobia. Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear and hostility towards Islam and Muslims that can lead to hate speech and social and political prejudice. It can be used to justify policies such as mass surveillance of certain groups, imprisonment, and loss of rights. Without correcting these negative perceptions, it can influence the domestic and foreign policies of Western countries.
Islamophobia began taking root in the Western discourse in The Middle Ages when negative stereotypes about Muslims helped build popular support during the Crusades. The false perception of Muslims as uncivilized and violent also contributed to justifying European colonial domination over Muslim countries. The term “Orientalism”, coined by renowned American sociologist Edward Said, best describes the negative stereotyped attitudes toward Muslims and other colonised peoples. On the other hand, the term “Islamophobia” was popularised in the 1997 report published by the Runnymede Trust, a British think-tank concerned with racial and ethnic discrimination.
Islamophobia, like Anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, and prejudice towards “outsiders”, is often rationalised in order to propagate discrimination driven by the interests of Western political actors.
Islamophobia is deeply ingrained in the minds of Westerners. They believe that Islam and Muslims advocate violence. Hence, Muslims are constantly reviled and discriminated against. For example, there is discrimination in some workplaces where Muslim women are prohibited from wearing hijabs and praying. Both in the mainstream and social media, Muslims have been portrayed and labelled as violent. Terrorism claims are exploited to legitimise the monitoring of Muslims, and under certain circumstances, they are used to justify acts of war against a group of Muslims and Muslim states.
On March 15, 2019, terrorists fueled by Islamophobia attacked the Al-Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 Muslims and injuring 49 others while attending Friday prayers. Despite New Zealand being one of the safest countries in the world and having one of the lowest murder rates, its reputation has been marred with xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia.
In reality, Islamophobia is spread through a variety of ideologies financed by anti-Islamic parties and disseminated through Western media, their think tanks, and social and political organisations.
In a 2011 meeting, the United Nations and the League of Arab States identified Islamophobia as a major global concern. As a result, Gallup has developed a set of analyses to measure public opinion among both majorities and minorities in selected countries in order to formulate policies addressing the worldwide issue of Islamophobia.
In the global context, Muslim minorities in the West find that the majority of non-Muslim population countries do not respect them. 52% of Americans and 48% of Canadians stated that the West does not respect Muslim communities. On the other hand, Muslim minorities felt they are respected in Italy (57% respect and 28% disrespect), France (56% respect and 30% disrespect), Germany (56% respect and 34% disrespect), and the United Kingdom (47% respect and 38% disrespect).
Among the factors that led to the above perceptions were differences in cultural, religious, and political practices between Muslim and Western communities. This clash of cultural and religious practices is a major source of tension between the two communities and has led to many Westerners having negative, prejudiced, and discriminatory attitudes towards Muslims. This is further demonstrated by the fact that a majority of them prefer not to live in areas populated by Muslim communities.
In order to actively encounter Islamophobia in the West, a holistic approach involving governments, institutions, and individuals is required. Encouragement of dialogues and engaging activities between diverse religious and ethnic communities must begin as early as elementary schools. Mutual respect and understanding of the diversity of religions and cultures must be emphasised and lived together in order to foster the belief that all are equal from the standpoint of humanity, descended from the same Prophet Adam AS.
Therefore, to combat Islamophobia, the international communities and all countries must reject the narrow understanding (prejudice) of religions and nations in the name of absolute freedom of expression. The international community, regardless of religious and national backgrounds, must rise to refute any actions that may incite hatred of members of other religions and nations and put a stop to any form of violence by any name.
In the effort to achieve religious and national harmony, the West must reassess the notion of absolute freedom of expression currently practised. Hate speech and behaviour towards any religion, especially towards Islam and Muslims, must be stopped by strengthening hate speech laws.
Similarly, blasphemy laws should apply to all religions rather than only Christianity, as it does in the United Kingdom. The recent act of burning the Quran in Sweden clearly shows contempt for the religion of Islam and should be prosecuted as blasphemy.
Without equitable response by Western governments, Islamophobia would fester, leading to acts of violence by various parties. Let us all work together to prevent social unrest and extreme actions by a few Muslims against the law and humanity, as occurred in 2001 (9/11) and the 2005 London Bombings.
Western governments must campaign for and educate the masses through programmes and activities on various platforms, either formally or informally, promoting Islam as a religion of peace and rejecting violence. This effort was once made in a special Fulbright Award program – Direct Access to the Muslim World after 9/11, where many speakers from Muslim countries were invited to the United States to educate Americans who were still misled and had negative perceptions about Islam.