Against the misuse of the term “Islamophobia”
On 30th August 2010, Time Magazine had “Is America Islamophobic? What the anti-mosque uproar tells us about how the US regards Muslims” as its cover story. I must admit if the cover with a stars and stripes crescent shocked me, I was really appalled when I read the article inside.
The author wrote, “…“Islamophobia” in the US doesn’t approach levels seen in other countries where Muslims are a minority: there’s no American equivalent of France’s ban on the burqa or Switzerland’s new law against building minarets.” Is a ban on the burqa, the full veil for women, “Islamophobia”? Is a referendum against minarets “Islamophobia”? We should be careful when using the term. Both the burqa, typical of Afghanistan, and niqab, the full black veil that covers a woman’s face, are not Islamic at all.
In 2009 sheikh Mohammad Sayyid Tantawi, head of al-Azhar University, the world's leading school of Sunni Islam University in Cairo, banned women from wearing the burqa inside all its affiliate schools. Tantawi said the burqa was only a tradition and not necessarily Islamic. He explained to a female student wearing the burqa that it was only a tradition, telling her she was only required to wear her school uniform at al-Azhar. The majority of Islamic scholars say the face veil is not obligatory in Islam and is merely a custom that dates back to tribal, nomadic societies living in the Arabian desert before Islam began.
In Egypt a previous law by the Minister of Religious Endowment banned women preachers wearing the burqa from mosques. A ban on nurses wearing the full face veil was announced in 2008. Isn’t Egypt an Islamic country? Was Tantawi’s fatwa “Islamophobic”? The reaction to the fatwa coming from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood helps us to understand what is going on in the US and in Europe. As soon as Tantawi’s fatwa was issued, a Muslim Brotherhood lawyer, representatives of Egypt’s lower house of Parliament and the Sawaseya Center for Human Rights, joined forces to file a lawsuit against the Grand Imam of al-Azhar over what they called his “unconstitutional” ban that violated personal freedom and contradicted the principle of equality for all citizens.
The group also sought action against the country’s Minister of Higher Education and the President of Cairo University for their role in the recent decision to ban female students from wearing the burqa in al-Azhar affiliated schools and in the Cairo University dorms. “It might not be an obligation in Islam, but it is also not against Islam. So, women have the right to wear it when and where they choose.” The lawyer added that they would continue to fight the ban until its revocation by the courts. This is a problem. Do women freely choose to wear the burqa? I do not think so. What about their freedom? What about the equality of rights between women and men? If a recognised authority within Islam bans the burqa whilst the representatives of political Islam defend it, shouldn’t this mean that there is a problem within Islam itself? Doesn’t it mean that political Islam wants to spread the idea of “Islamophobia” in the West just to impose their view of Islam upon Muslim men and women, which is not the view that most Muslims have of their religion?
We now come to the Swiss referendum against minarets. Firstly, this referendum was not against mosques in general, therefore, it was not against Muslims and their freedom to pray. Personally I am in favour of the right of Muslims to pray and have their own places of worship. I love the beautiful architecture of mosques with their minarets in Islamic lands; these are buildings belonging to their history. However, when it comes to Europe and the US most of the mosques with minarets are controlled by Saudi Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood. For both, a minaret is a symbol of conquest. Moreover, we must remember that the massive minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia is the oldest standing minaret. Its construction began during the early 8th century and it was completed in 836AD. This means that minarets did not exist during Muhammad’s life. They are not Islamic symbols. Therefore, a ban on minarets cannot be defined as “Islamophobia”. For this reason we must pay attention to some Muslim “representatives” and their references, whether direct or indirect, to “Islamophobia” in the West. For instance Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and the President of the European Council for Fatwa and Research based in Dublin, warned of the negative impact of the initiative to ban minarets on Switzerland`s Muslims saying, “A Muslim in Switzerland can pray in a mosque without a minaret but if he feels that he is forced to do this, that the law bans him from doing this, and he feels threatened to do this, then he will consider himself a foreign element in this country as well as feeling rejected by its people. This will definitely negatively affect his loyalty to the homeland.” It is clear that al-Qaradawi is claiming discrimination and lack of freedom. He speaks as if the only problem facing Muslims in Switzerland is praying in a mosque, forgetting that successful integration starts with the ability to speak the country’s language as well as having sufficient education and employment opportunities.
This is the reason why the term “Islamophobia” is dangerous - very dangerous. I shall provide some more examples.
Both the Organisation of Islamic Conference(OIC), during its March 2008 Summit in Dakar and the Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, reiterated condemnation and a deep concern about the “Islamophobia” that is rampant in Europe. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Turkish OIC Secretary General, declared "…nevertheless we are encouraged to see that in the West there is a growing awareness of the dangers of Islamophobia. [...] However, mere condemnation or distancing from the perpetrators of Islamophobia will not resolve the issue until they are free to continue their campaign of incitement and provocation by invoking freedom of expression.” Amr Moussa, in turn, stressed, "We cannot ignore that there are disturbing signs of Islamophobia and that we must take this into account."
The European response has not been slow to materialise. The Council of Europe, in co-operation with the EU, the OIC, the Arab League and other Islamic organisations is working diligently to combat all forms of “Islamophobia” in Europe. Resolution 1605 of the Council of Europe directly addresses many of the issues regarding “Islamophopia”.
The Resolution states that all Council of Europe member states “should continue to remain vigilant in their work to prevent and combat the phenomenon of Islamophobia.” The Resolution continues with an action list with the Assembly calling on the member states to:
- Act strongly against discrimination in all areas;
- Condemn and combat Islamophobia;
- Encourage the participation of people with an immigrant background in political parties, trade unions and non-governmental organisations;
- Take all necessary measures to eliminate inequality of opportunity faced by immigrants, including unemployment and inadequate education;
- Remove unnecessary legal and administrative obstacles to the construction of a sufficient number of appropriate places of worship for the practice of Islam;
- Ensure that school textbooks do not portray Islam as a hostile or threatening religion.
The Resolution also states that leaders and opinion-makers need to “…act responsibly to avoid encouraging discrimination and Islamophobia,” and the Assembly calls on European Muslim organizations as well as leaders and opinion makers to:
- Encourage young European Muslims to become imams;
- Encourage the promotion of fair coverage of Muslim reality and views in the media and ensure that the voice of the moderate Muslims is also reported;
- Develop ethical guidelines to combat Islamophobia in the media in favour of cultural tolerance and understanding, in cooperation with the appropriate media organisations.
One immediate, spontaneous comment on Resolution 1605: What should the Judeo-Christian West say and do against the Arab-Muslim world where some mosques and TV stations like Al Jazeera, al-Manar, al-Aqsa consistently propagate profound anti-Western feelings and ideas?
Moreover, the most controversial point has to do with the mention of "the voice of the moderates."
If one only listened to the voices of true moderates, the so-called “liberal Muslims”, the resolution would never have been formulated. The Tunisian researcher Raja Benslama is very clear:
“We Muslims are crying because the image of Islam and Muslims is being damaged. As if this image was not the original. We deplore the rise of “Islamophobia” as if Islam, as we experience it today, was free of any phobia. Phobia of women and the weak, phobia of people who pray and think differently. Then come the cries of those who have decided to protect Islam, turbaned or not. Repeating that Islam is the religion of love, tolerance, equality and reason. They require that anyone who wants to talk about Islam and Muslims is like them and supports their views on Islam. Otherwise he has to apologise!”
Even Magdi Khalil, the Egyptian President of the Middle East Forum, a US-based think tank working to “define and promote American interests in the Middle East and protect the Constitutional order from Middle Eastern threats,” puts us on guard against those who report the spread of “Islamophobia”. According to the Middle East Forum, "There are a considerable number of individuals and organisations that support the concept of “Islamophobia” such as Tariq Ramadan in Europe, the Islamic organization, CAIR, in the United States, but none of them has ever described the terrorists as infidels who have abandoned Islam.” As a matter of fact, Tariq Ramadan called the result of the Swiss referendum on minarets “catastrophic.” Ramadan, who lives in Geneva, said: “The Swiss have expressed a real fear, that of the deep problem of the Islamic presence in Switzerland.” The Swiss are afraid of Islam, that is to say they are “Islamophobic”. The clearest accusation of “Islamophobia” against Switzerland came from the Observatory on Islamophobia of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
A confirmation of Khalil’s statement comes from Abd al-Khaliq Hussein, an Iraqi intellectual living in Britain. Hussein stated:
“The followers of political Islam have invented the term “Islamophobia”, they are the ones who are going to benefit from its increased usage and they do everything possible to nourish it. Their purpose is to put the Islamic communities in the West in conflict and confrontation with the peoples of the host nations and to push Muslims towards religious extremism.”
Hussein clarifies a key point that all, including the Council of Europe and the United Nations, should keep in mind that, “…in the West there is not the fear of Islam as a religion, but there is the fear of political Islam whose effect is Islamic terrorism that strikes and hurts Muslims more than it does the West." We should follow the advice of these true moderates and be careful when everyone screams “Islamophobia”.
The Council of Europe and the United Nations should be aware that since 1999, the 57 member -Organisation of the Islamic Conference has sponsored and actually pushed to pass a UN resolution calling on countries to criminalise what it terms “…the defamation of Islam” and that the OIC is now working to enshrine a binding version in international treaty law. The United Nations should remember that on October 24, 2004, some Arabic websites posted a petition from Arab liberals to United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, and the Security Council. Written primarily by the Tunisian intellectual Lafif Lakhdar, the petition called for an international treaty banning the use of religion to incite violence. The Saudi newspaper, Arab News, reported that, within a week of the petition's posting, over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from twenty-three countries had signed the petition. Shakir al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian academic and one of the signatories, noted, "…there are individuals in the Muslim world who pose as clerics and issue death sentences against those they disagree with. These individuals give Islam a bad name and foster hatred between civilisations."
The petition named several prominent clerics, among them Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian preacher working in Qatar, and cited a number of fatwas as examples. No action was taken. Now the people accused in the petition, such as Qaradawi, are the ones to ask the UN for a court punishing “Islamophobes”.
The West and its institutions must be very careful when they take a stand. Now they have to decide whether they want to protect free speech and Muslims or the representatives of radical Islam who employ the term “Islamophobia” as synonymous with infidels or apostates.