A strategy is needed to address evolving realities
Islamophobia is commonly understood as a condition directed toward Islam and Muslims. This includes verbal and physical abuse against their scriptures, holy personalities, and symbols. It has also been demonstrated through assault against mosques, cemeteries, and religious centres.
Some have also pointed out that Islamophobia is no longer a spontaneous expression of emotions. Instead, it has turned into an ideology that has found its way into the political agendas of right wing extremist groups and populists seeking political gains by promoting hatred against Islam and Muslims.
This systematic effort to distort the image of Islam and Muslims has continued to worsen over the last five years. The unfortunate increase in terrorist activities, and socio-political and economic problems that have resulted in a greater refugee crisis in Europe, has also exacerbated the propaganda against Islam by the far right wing politicians.
This manifestation appears to have now taken a turn for the worse, thanks to the fanatic activities carried out by fundamentalist groups in different parts of the Middle East and also in Europe.
The markers of identification of communities have clearly moved from just race, colour, national or ethnic origin to include religion being the cause for cultural superiority and inferiority.
In more ways than one, Islamophobia appears to have gained multi-dimensional manifestations -- both in the social and political spheres. This has made it less anomalous and less mysterious.
It needs to be mentioned here that the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims span the full range of human appearance, and there is no way to actually “look Muslim.” Nevertheless, race operates at the very core of Islamophobia.
In the aftermath of 9/11, in America and beyond, repetitive violent attacks were reported against non-Muslims, such as Sikh Americans, Indians, South Asians, and others.
Everyone hurt or killed in these attacks were vulnerable to Islamophobia, because their appearance was consistent with the racial description of what a Muslim was supposed to look like. Some sociologists feel that it needs to be interpreted as discrimination against people who look different.
The social construction of racial categories has today become the heart of the process by which Islamophobia has evolved with the potential of affecting anyone who “looks Muslim” and also created the racialization of Muslims.
This method of creating a separate social and cultural dimension has in recent years helped to generate an extraordinary surge in Islamophobic hate crimes and discrimination across the world. This unfortunate development, according to strategists, cannot be disassociated from the fact that Muslims are now being portrayed in the mindset of the people not only as racially distinct, inferior, and savage but also as anathema to modern pluralist culture.
Consequently, many historians are suggesting that any effective understanding of Islamophobia must take into account the full scope of race and racism.
In many parts of the Western world, the offensive stereotypical and distorted discourses against Islam and its followers have led to the production of a collective mindset that is difficult to uproot and is being invoked whenever clashes occur involving anyone from the Muslim community.
This approach is particularly employed for political reasons by many right wing extremist movements that are today employing Islamophobia as a means to gain popularity by intimidating Muslims and promising their electorates, if elected, to enact strict laws against them.
Such a dimension has already emerged in many countries in Western Europe. Based on these realities, including racial profiling of Muslims, Islamophobia has become a form of racism mixed with cultural intolerance as a whole, rather than simply intolerance of Muslims and Islam.
This matrix is emerging despite the civil society and sections of the international community making efforts to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance through the introduction of international legal measures as reflected in the UN Convention against Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the agreement on the Durban Declaration.
However, it is also generally held that since Muslims are not a race, racially based anti-discrimination legislations are insufficient to counter Islamophobic discrimination. In the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, the European Union asserted the principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of religion in Article 13.
The UN has also developed a number of instruments, including treaties, conventions, and protocols with regard to religious discrimination. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) for example, prohibits more specifically religious discrimination while the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, adopted in 1981, provides a comprehensive list of rights regarding freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
The 1993 Vienna Conference has also underlined the need to implement speedy and comprehensive elimination of all forms of racism and racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance as a priority task for the international community.
The 2001 World Conference against racism also clearly recognized the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world and urged all states to take effective measures to prevent the emergence of movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas concerning these communities.
Unfortunately, while these proposed refinements have gradually become part of member states policies and anti-discrimination legislations, the surge in Islamophobia has continued to threaten the effectiveness of these strategies in tackling the negative manifestations of racism. This is also favouring an ethnic or racial interpretation of social, economic, and political problems and immigration.
Consequently, we are witnessing racial and religious intolerance, reflected mainly through identity constructs and the rejection of diversity. This has been evidenced strongly in the Rakhine state of Myanmar in the case of Rohingya Muslims where there is resistance to the process of multiculturalization of societies.
It is this situation that has led analysts to underline the creative need for a civil rights strategy that can effectively deal with these evolving realities.
In this context, some states, including Bangladesh, have drawn attention to advance reforms, both at the legal and political levels, for the protection of minorities and communities affected by all contemporary forms of racism, including Islamophobia.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]