Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Islam & Liberty Network Council. He is writing in a personal capacity.
Sadly, humans have a long history of disliking, possibly hating, possibly mistreating people who are not like them. We define groups, that we then regard as “other people who are not like us” using three broad approaches:
- Biological differences such as skin colour, categorising people into “races.” These can be broadly defined such as “white people” despising “black people” or very narrowly defined such as Zulus in South Africa being hostile to Xhosas in South Africa.
- Cultural differences such as language, mode of dress, or dietary habits.
- Religious differences.
This article considers Islamophobia. As the definition of this word is controversial in the UK, for this article, I define it as hostility towards Muslims because they are Muslims.
Why is Islamophobia rising?
Religious hatred has a long history in many parts of the world. For example, for centuries Christian Europe was riven by religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. In Spain, there was conflict until the Christians reconquered Spain and expelled all Muslims and all Jews.
More recently, there are several broad reasons for the rise of Islamophobia. The relative weight of these reasons varies over time and over geography.
In the United Kingdom, in the late 1980’s, Islamophobia was sparked by the reaction of British Muslims to the publication of “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie. Non-Muslim Britons were understandably appalled to see books being burned in the street, which was reminiscent of book burning in Nazi Germany, and even more appalled by calls for the death of Mr Rushdie.
More recently, the world has watched with horror Muslim groups such as ISIS butchering other Muslims in Iraq and Syria, as well as enslaving women from non-Muslim groups such as the Yazidis. When terrorists from groups such as ISIS and previously Al Qaeda kill large numbers of people in the USA starting with 9/11 or in Spain, France, Britain and Germany, there should be no surprise that many of the citizens of these countries develop Islamophobic sentiments.
Quite separately, Islamophobia is also driven by a rapid increase in the immigrant Muslim population of certain localities. Research on intolerance shows that it is not the absolute level of ethnic or religious diversity that leads to hostility but rather the pace of change. If a locality has a particularly rapid rate of inward migration, the original residents often develop hostile attitudes towards the incomers.
Finally, and most depressingly, Islamophobia is sometimes deliberately whipped up by politicians for political purposes. We can see this in India with the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoting a narrative that the only authentic Indians are Hindus and that all other religious groups, particularly Muslims, are not true Indians and therefore should be regarded with suspicion and often with hostility.
How should Muslims respond?
The most important strategic requirement is a clear vision of the desired goal.
In my opinion, the key goal is a society in which every individual receives equal treatment from the state, is free from discrimination by either the state or private sector actors; and has equal levels of personal safety.
When it comes to religion, every individual in society should have the religious freedom rights which are set out in Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is a vital point that none of the above strategic goals are specific to Muslims.
Politically, it should never be a case of Muslims seeking rights for themselves as Muslims; but rather Muslims and non-Muslims together seeking to ensure that the human rights of all citizens are respected. Instead of a minority seeking rights from a majority, it should be a case of everyone in society who values equality, freedom and non-discrimination acting together to ensure that those in society who promote bigotry are defeated.
This leads to several tactical requirements.
Political parties specific to Muslims are a complete dead-end. Their very existence helps Islamophobic bigots to promote anti-Muslim hatred. Instead, Muslims should join those broad, inclusive political parties which emphasise equality and human rights.
The same point applies to non-governmental organisations (“NGOs”). It is far more useful for Muslims in Britain (for example) to support an organisation such as Liberty (previously called the National Council for Civil Liberties) which advocates for civil rights for all citizens than it is for Muslims in Britain to support an organisation such as the Islamic Human Rights Commission.
When campaigning, Muslims should not lobby for rights which appear to be Muslim-specific. For example, instead of campaigns to protect halal slaughter, the campaigns should be conducted jointly with the Jewish community to protect religious slaughter generally, covering both halal and kosher slaughter. I am not aware of any rights that Muslims may be seeking which are not also rights that some other group also wishes to secure.
It is also essential for Muslims not to defend the indefensible. Doing so ends up promoting Islamophobia.
As a concrete example, I recently had a private conversation with an individual from a Muslim NGO in the UK. This individual found it impossible, even in a private conversation with me, to condemn the Taliban of Afghanistan. Virtually every non-Muslim in Britain, and I believe the overwhelming majority of British Muslims, regard the Taliban as a completely unacceptable organisation of bloodthirsty killers.
Even when the Taliban is not a direct subject of discussion, non-Muslims who deal with this individual are likely to become aware of the attitudes that he holds, and in turn that will make him a far less effective advocate for the human rights of all British citizens including Muslims. Indeed, it is quite possible that interaction with him may well encourage people to develop Islamophobic attitudes.
The very best thing that Muslims can do to counter Islamophobia is to become model citizens. This requires them to be highly educated, economically successful, generous in donating money for causes that will help the whole of society (as opposed to purely Muslim causes such as mosques or charities operating exclusively in Muslim majority countries). It also requires them to actively engage with their non-Muslim fellow citizens.
If you live in a diverse society, ask yourself how many organisations you belong to that are not Muslim-specific. Ask yourself how many non-Muslims you have had conversations with during the last week, excluding purely work-related conversations. Ask yourself when you last went on holiday with a non-Muslim friend.