Isalamophobia is not a matter of misunderstanding between Islam and the West. For any dialogue it is important to reach the grassroots rather than being limited to the elite, argues Ekmeleddin Ihsanuglo, a man with a mission, in an interview with Hala Ahmed Zaky. In 2005, Ihsanuglo was elected secretary-general of the 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an inter-governmental forum for political, economic and scientific cooperation
How can you define and comment on the phenomenon of Islamophobia?
If we look at the word itself, phobia means an irrational fear of something, so by this definition Islamophobia would mean an irrational fear of Islam, which to say the least, is ludicrous and absurd. No religion, Islam or any other, has any element or message that instills fear. The word Islam emanates peace and the Islamic faith preaches peace, tolerance of other religions and beliefs, compassion and respect for humanity and human dignity.
However, if we look at this anti-Islam, anti-Muslim attitude, it is not about fear of Islam, it is about hate of Islam and Muslims. What some extremist right-wing elements in the West fear is the spread of Islam in their countries and the practice of Islam and the presence of its symbols on "their land"; an attitude that is derived from their racist, xenophobic beliefs. It is almost like a modern day inquisition where Muslims in the West have to relinquish their religion or hide it or even convert to prove they are worthy or integrated enough to live in the West.
These racist elements embarked on a well-orchestrated, well-financed campaign to malign the peaceful image of Islam through distortions and fear mongering. They resort to, among other things, manipulating and taking out of context words from the Quran and other Islamic texts and deliberately misinterpreting and misrepresenting statements and events to negatively portray the faith and its followers. They disseminate their views through various mediums, think tanks, writers, politicians, scholars, etc. These elements are pursuing an agenda of hatred and intolerance against Islam and Muslims. Their objective is to motivate the common person in the West to develop a negative mindset of Muslims in order to "cleanse" the West from Islam. As Geert Wilders famously said, "I don't have a problem with Muslims, I have a problem with Islam."
Do you agree that Islamophobia is a matter of misunderstanding between the West and the Muslims, as it belongs to a hard legacy that depends on previous stereotypes? And how do you see the phenomenon developing in the future?
No, Islamophobia is not a matter of misunderstanding between Muslims and the West. It is, clear and simple, a campaign that is directed to malign Islam and to proliferate negative stereotyping of Muslims and subject them to racial discrimination.
However, Islamophobia has certainly contributed to the misunderstanding and in creating a climate of mistrust among Muslims and the West, because there are those who are simply ill informed about Islam and therefore susceptible to believe what the Islamophobes are spreading.
But I would not agree that the phenomenon belongs to any hard legacy or previous stereotypes. The present day anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiments that are prevalent in the West stem from a political agenda of a small but highly motivated right-wing minority who feel that Muslims both indigenous and immigrants, living in the West, pose a threat to them in terms of jobs, business, and their assuming public offices. They are obsessed by the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity such as democracy and human rights.
Islamophobia has resulted in negative stereotyping of Muslims and has subjected them to racial discrimination and violation of their cultural and religious rights. The dangerous consequences of unabated Islamophobia in having succeeded in creating a negative mindset against Muslims and Islam in the West and corrupting the youths against Muslims is clear from the Norwegian massacre and incidents of desecrating mosques and Muslim cemeteries.
The OIC is well aware of the clear and present danger of Islamophobia in exacerbating the Muslim-West divide in the future if the phenomenon of Islamophobia is not addressed effectively on urgent basis. The OIC is involved closely with its counterparts and stakeholders of the West to combat religious intolerance including Islamophobia and to create an atmosphere of confidence and trust among diverse communities.
The unanimous adoption of the UNHRC Resolution 16/18 in 2011 and UN General Assembly Resolution A/66/167 on combating intolerance based on religion and belief is a landmark beginning for building a climate of trust between the West and the Muslim world and developing a culture of peaceful cohabitation among people of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds.
Still, many readers believe that the 11 September strikes are the godfather of Islamophobia, while other scholars believe that this term was actually older.
The book on Prophet Mohamed's (PBUH) life by Alphonse Ãâtienne Dinet and Algerian intellectual Sliman bin Ibrahim, which is dedicated to the Muslims who gave their lives during World War I used the term islamophobie, which when translated into English meant "feelings inimical to Islam". However, the term came into use only in the 1980s and 1990s and became common after 9/11.
9/11 was an outrageous and despicable act of terrorism, which was condemned by the OIC in the strongest possible terms. Those responsible were terrorists who have no respect for human life. Terrorists cannot belong to any religious faith as they pursue a path of violence and hatred that is not endorsed by any religion. Unfortunately, the act of the few terrorists who carried out 9/11 has been attributed to Muslims as a whole and hence its aftermath has fallen heavily on the global Muslim community. The anti Islam elements in the West exploited 9/11 fully to serve their purpose. Therefore, it would not be totally incorrect to say 9/11 was used to institutionalise Islamophobia in the West.
Do you think that there is a need for a dialogue of religions and civilisations, if the Muslims and the West do not really want to bridge this fabricated gap?
Dialogue is key to bridge the differences, to build mutual confidence among diverse civilisations and religions and to be tolerant of the other. The OIC has been a pioneer of the concept of Dialogue among Civilisations and the present day initiatives that you would see including the UN Alliance of Civilisations have drawn inspiration from the OIC initiative. So, I will not dismiss the need for dialogue, rather insist that it is strengthened and more importantly that it reaches the grassroots instead of being limited to the elite. I would also add that such dialogue should come with a political will to implement recommendations. I think the recent unfortunate and distressing incidents of violence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt is an example of where dialogue can be used to restore the harmony and respect historically and traditionally known to exist amongst them. They should not allow those trying to sow division and animosity to prevent them from building their country together. I welcome and support the initiative by Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church to heal the wounds and unite all Egyptians to work for a better future under a "bill of rights" that protects the rights of every Egyptian equally. The initiative is an example of how the well-established and respected Islamic institutions like Al-Azhar represent the real principles of Islam and how it works to create social harmony.
What was your motive in releasing "Islamophobia Observatory" that documents anti-Muslim bigotry? What were the main issues that this watch witnessed?
The OIC Islamophobia Observatory was established following a mandate by the head of state and governments during the third Extraordinary Makkah Summit in 2005. The Observatory was created to monitor and sensitise the world about Islamophobic incidents, and, at the same time, create an awareness campaign against Islamophobia. The Observatory has already presented four annual reports, and now has monthly reports, which are available in the OIC official website, and the main issues are related to desecration of cemeteries, mosques, Islamic cultural centres, the stigmatisation of Muslims in searching of work, in the work itself, at the airports, in a sense, in the public sphere. The June 2011 report dwelt extensively on the rise of the extreme right in parts of Europe and the US and its consequences for the integration of Muslims.
What was the OIC rationale behind sponsoring the resolution on "Combating Defamation of Religions"?
The OIC Group tabled the resolution on "Combating Defamation of Religions" in the former UN Human Rights Commission and now the Human Rights Council in Geneva first in 1999. The reason was to bring together the international community on a common position to prevent a small group of individuals who were active in inciting hatred among communities by defaming and maligning revered prophets of religions. Over the years, this resolution has been regularly passed by the UNHRC and the UNGA. The Western countries, which initially supported the resolution, later opposed it on grounds that it was Islam-centric and that it was designed to stifle freedom of expression. The UNHRC and the UNGA continued to adopt the Resolution albeit with less support because of the pressure exerted by powerful Western governments on other countries to change their position, even though the other countries may not be ideologically opposed to the logic of combating defamation of religions.
It is true that the resolution was initially tabled with a focus on Islam because Islam was specifically and more than any other religion targeted and defamed, in particular with the widespread rise of Islamophobia in the West. The climax was reached with the publication of the infamous caricatures in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. The OIC move to counter defamation of religions did not go well with the Western civil society activists, as many perceived it, incorrectly, as a way to keep Islam out of the reach of any criticism and to seek punishment of any person who may seek to criticise it. Some even conceived the resolution as a conspiracy to undermine other faiths, in particular Christianity and Judaism. They also placed a higher priority on the right to freedom of expression over the right to freedom of religion, which cannot be enjoyed when a person's religion is being denigrated and he is being discriminated against because he is practising his religion.
The position taken by the Western critics of the negative portrayal of the OIC apart from being regrettable is also drastically wrong and incorrect. The commitment of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to human rights is absolute. We value all human rights equally and we value human dignity and human life. This emanates from the fundamental principles of the Islamic faith. The OIC General Secretariat has never fallen short in condemning persecution and militancy of any kind, including religious. It has taken a lead to develop a culture of tolerance among diverse religious faiths and belief.
The OIC never demanded of the West to punish anyone for anti-Islamic speech but has always called for a way that would address malicious and contemptuous insults and scandalising revered personalities of all religions. Freedom of speech is sacred and its sanctity cannot be allowed to be abused for malicious and contemptuous purposes. Freedom of speech is for protection against oppression and not to oppress and hurt the freedom of another, including intrusion or mockery of one's religious and faith-based beliefs.
However, in order to reach a common ground on how to combat religious intolerance and the damaging consequences of that, which is our main goal, we moved beyond the resolution on "defamation of religions" and proposed Resolution 16/18. That resolution was unanimously and consensually adopted by all UN member states in 2011. It is a resolution that addresses all those concerns and objections raised against the resolution on "defamation of religions".
And how do the US and the European countries feel about the new resolution?
They are very supportive. In fact, the US played a key role in drafting the resolution.
The three-day meeting held at the US State Department in Washington DC in December 2011 on implementing Resolution 16/18: "Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief" is a confirmation of the commitment to implement the new resolution following the meeting in Istanbul.
The meeting in Istanbul on 15 July 2011 was significant. It was co-chaired by the US secretary of state and myself and attended by ministers from OIC and Western countries as well as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Lady Catherine Ashton with a view to implement Resolution 16/18 in order to consolidate a culture of tolerance of diversity in our communities, hence it became known as the "Istanbul Process". The follow-up Washington meeting was at the level of experts with the participation of government representatives of different countries of the world and international organisations including the OIC and the European Union. The deliberations made at the conference were constructive contributions to implement the provisions of the Resolution, which incidentally was also adopted without a vote by the UN General Assembly in November 2011. Its success was aptly described by the Human Rights First institution of the US as one that would "remain true to its goal, that is, to combat religious intolerance without undermining free speech".
How can both sides overcome the deep-rooted misunderstanding and miscommunication? What kinds of mechanisms are suggested to implement the resolution without infringing on freedom of expression or threatening it?
It will take time of course, but it is necessary to go down that difficult road in order to try and spare the world another tragedy caused by hate. As mentioned in the Resolution 16/18, steps to end double standards and racial profiling need to be taken. Such acts must not be condoned by states but duly addressed through structured and sustained engagement. Resolution 16/18 includes an eight-point approach I proposed at the 15th session of the Human Rights Council meeting in 2010 that calls for various measures to foster tolerance, including developing collaborative networks to build mutual understanding and constructive action, creating appropriate mechanisms within the government to identify and address potential areas of tension between members of religious communities, and raising awareness at the local, national and international levels on the effects of negative religious stereotyping and incitement to religious hatred.
Will the EU succeed in developing a mechanism to implement UNHRC Resolution 16/18 to establish tolerance and stopping violence based on religious beliefs?
The matter of deciding the venue and date is under consideration and we are awaiting a communication from the EU. What is important to note is that a member state of the European Union is hosting the meeting, which signifies the commitment of the EU and their support for the resolution because they realize that it is for the benefit of all. This is a great achievement for the OIC.
Do you think that the growing role of the extreme right in politics of different European countries poses a challenge for the OIC in achieving the goals of Resolution 16/18?
It is a challenge. We are concerned about the recent results of parliamentary elections in some European countries because it reflects the general mood of the people. The radical right-wing parties have won significant political weight in the parliaments in several European countries as well as the European Parliament, in addition, such groups as the British Defence League in Britain and CasaPound in Italy are also gaining ground. They all share an anti-Islam agenda that threatens the welfare of the Muslim community there.
How can Islam and modernisation come close together? And how can you urge both sides to work together to bring about a better world?
The idea that Islam is incongruent with modernisation is one of those distortions propagated by some in the West and unfortunately in some Muslim countries. What we need to clarify and understand is the fundamental principles of Islam and how they can be applied in modern day society that adopt secular laws. The progressive and accommodating nature of Islam is one of its strengths and that is how it spread across cultures. The Islamic faith is guided by the principles of moderation and modernisation. Its practice is simple and its followers are asked to commit themselves to the five simple pillars which are: faith in one God and that Mohamed is his Messenger, prayers, fasting in the month of Ramadan, zakat and hajj pilgrimage once in a lifetime if one can afford it. Islam does not impose itself on any person. One embraces the faith on his own accord other than those who are born into it. Therefore, a practising Muslim would not find any problem to adopt a secular form of life.
The situation we live in today calls for an inclusive engagement -- beyond the diplomatic and political elite -- involving all stakeholders with a view to promoting a multicultural approach towards coexistence in a globalised world. Such an engagement, however, would merely constitute the necessary condition towards stemming the escalating trend of Islamophobia. The sufficient condition could be met by making the engagement result oriented by implementing the existing international legal infrastructure towards combating Islamophobia, as for example the Resolution 16/18.
Finally, convinced of the importance of disseminating the culture of peace and concord, we at the OIC reiterate our call upon the West to foster commonalities among the Muslim and Christian worlds and to promote mutual interests. I have on several occasions called for a historic reconciliation between Islam and Christianity that could form the basis of dialogue involving religious scholars, academics professionals and civil society representatives to highlight the similarities and how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. The dialogue would also contribute in the acknowledgement of the differences in some vital areas and to develop tolerance of the differences. If we can do this, I am convinced that we can all contribute in making the world a better place to live where tolerance and respect for diversity would be the cohesive factors.