Monday,20 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)
Monday,20 November, 2017
Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Why do they hate us?

Opinion polls indicate that anti-Muslim sentiments are escalating in some Western countries, sometimes giving rise to hate crimes, writes Gihan Shahine

Chapel Hill victims
Chapel Hill victims
Al-Ahram Weekly

When 23-year-old American-Syrian Muslim Deah Shaddy Barakat shared a video on the Facebook page of Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan criticising the media for “generalisation and bigotry when reporting on Muslims,” he could hardly have imagined that he himself would be the victim of that same anti-Muslim sentiment a few weeks later.
 
The wedding photographs of dental student Barakat, dancing passionately with his bride, 21-year-old Yusor Mohamed Abu Salha, spread over social media less than a month later when the beautiful couple were seen lying in their own blood, together with Yusor’s sister, 19-year-old Razan.

The three students, all Syrian-American and Muslim, were actively engaged in relief aid for Syrian refugees. They were all shot dead in an execution-style murder in the United States.
 
Razan had been visiting her sister’s lodgings at a residential complex of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, shot them dead. Police described the crime as part of an “ongoing neighbour dispute over parking.”

However, the victims’ families, friends and the entire local Muslim community, shocked at losing individuals they described as “three gems of the Muslim community,” insisted the murders were a hate crime motivated by the religious identity of the victims.

The father of the two female victims, both of whom were veiled, Mohamed Abu Salha, insisted that his daughters were killed because of their religion and that their veils were the reason for the murder.

He told the press, “When my son-in-law lived alone in the condominium complex the family never had any problems.” But once his daughter “moved in, wearing a head scarf that clearly identified her as Muslim, trouble started.”

 
Abu Salha said that his newlywed daughter had told him several times that they had a neighbour who was “hateful” and who carried “a gun in his waistband.” On his Facebook page, Hicks was said to have been vocal about his atheism and contempt for religion, another reason why the Muslim community alleged the Chapel Hill murders were a hate crime.

Investigations are still underway in the US to identify the real motives of the crime. But the Muslim community has expressed its concern over “media apathy” toward the crime as perhaps no more than “a lone incident” committed by “a crazy bigot” rather than a sign of escalating Islamophobia throughout the United States.

The hashtag #ChapelHillShooting went viral after the incident was reported, many of the tweets criticising the US and Western media for not covering the shootings. “Muslims were on edge: they were eager to hear a media uproar over the murder of three innocent lives akin to that which recently occurred in reaction to the French Charlie Hebdo murder of 12 cartoonists at the hands of Muslim extremists,” read one post shared on Facebook.

But that uproar has not come, suggesting that the Western media does not value Muslim lives.

HATE AGAINST MUSLIMS ESCALATES: The North Carolina shootings came on the heels of the equally horrific murder of a 28-year-old Somali-Canadian man. Mustafa Mattan was shot dead when he answered his door in the apartment he shared with his brother in Fort McMurray, Canada.
 
Lured by the promise of prosperity, Mattan had moved to the province of Alberta in the hope of helping his family back home in Ottawa and saving money for his wedding. That hope, however, ended with Mattan’s murder, and the killing received even less media attention than those in Chapel Hill.

Iraqi Muslim Ahmed Al-Jumaili, who had survived 36 years of violence in Iraq, was shot dead while watching a snowfall in Dallas, Texas. He had moved to the United States only one month before.

Like Mattan, Al-Jumaili, a young internet technician, had emigrated to the US in the hope of a better life with his wife Zahra, who had fled the violence in Iraq to the States a year earlier. Fate, however, did not allow the once-happy couple to attain a better life.

It was the evening of 5 March this year when a beautiful snowfall in Dallas lured Ahmed and his veiled wife Zahra to go out into the parking lot of the apartment complex where they lived. They marvelled at the scene, and took snapshots of the kind of snowfall they had never seen back home.

But instead of capturing the happy moment, Al-Jumaili’s camera was soon covered in his own blood, as he was mysteriously shot dead by four snipers.

Investigations are underway to determine the motives behind the mysterious shooting. But the fact that the area has a high Muslim population and that Al-Jumaili’s wife is veiled has made many suspect it was a hate crime.

The local Muslim community was in an uproar over the incident. A Dallas police spokesperson was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that police “did not rule out the possibility that Al-Jumaili was targeted for his faith.”

Alia Salem, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, notes that a series of recent incidents may testify to a rise in anti-Muslim sentiments that she believes are sometimes turning bloody.

In an interview with the US website the Daily Beast, Salem related stories of how she, as well as other Muslims living in Dallas, had been receiving “despicable comments” and “phone call threats,” such as “You’re dead” and “The North Carolina shooting was just the beginning.”

“I don’t mention these comments in the hope of eliciting sympathy,” Salem told the Daily Beast. “I mention them to give you a sense of the anti-Muslim climate down there so that you understand why the local Muslim community believes that the murder of a Muslim man in Dallas on March 5, 2015, was a hate crime.”

Many Muslims living in the US and Canada have related similar concerns to the Weekly. Twenty-five-year-old Ghadir Ahmed, an Egyptian Muslim living in Montreal, Canada, describes how her life has “been hell” since she decided to wear the Islamic headscarf two years ago.

“People here are aggressive,” she told the Weekly. “I will never forget the day when a group of people pushed me and I fell to the ground, hurting my knee badly. Since then, my main goal has been to move to Toronto where people are friendlier.”

Abdel-Rahman, another Egyptian living in the US, says that living in the US can prove worse than Canada when it comes to discrimination against Muslims. “On the US border,” he said, “a policeman kept staring at us because of my mother, who wears a headscarf, and when we were called in he said to his colleague ‘Good luck’ and ‘May God be with you,’ which I found very offensive because of the way he said it.”

Mohamed Elmasry, an assistant professor of communications at the University of North Alabama in the US, told the Weekly via email that Islamophobia appears to be increasing in the US and the West in general.

“Opinion poll data suggest that in many Western societies there are increasingly negative views of Muslims and Islam. This is certainly the case in the United States, where opinions about Muslims and Arabs have grown more negative over time,” Elmasry said.


“According to the most recent poll conducted by the Arab-American Institute, only 27 per cent of Americans hold favourable views of Muslims,” he added. Frequently, negative attitudes about Muslims translate into fears of Islam and Muslims. In the same Arab-American Institute poll, more than 40 per cent of Americans said they supported the profiling of Muslims and Arabs, according to Elmasry.

‘Those who think that they are taking revenge for the Prophet Mohamed by killing satirists and cartoonists need to understand that they are actually putting the Prophet’s followers as well as his mosques and schools in danger .... I can safely say that discrimination against Muslims in the West, particularly against veiled women, has grown into a daily business’

WHY ANTI-MUSLIM SENTIMENTS ARE RISING: The reasons why Islamophobia appears to be increasing are straightforward, according to Elmasry.
 
“First, American media coverage of Muslims is largely negative and stereotyped, making the negative actions of a relatively small number of Muslims prominent and largely ignoring mainstream Muslim voices,” he said. He added that American news organisations “could do a much better job” of covering Islam and Muslims.
 
“In their coverage of terrorism, for example, news organisations in the US largely ignore the hundreds of denunciations of terrorism made by Islamic scholarly organisations, councils and groups.

Also, Islam is generally mentioned only in the context of negative news — that is, news organisations tend to ignore Islam unless there has been an atrocity committed by a Muslim.

“News organisations tend to ignore Muslim voices, and ultimately they rely on stereotypical narratives to describe Islam and Muslims in Muslim-majority countries,” Elmasry said.
 
“There is a well-funded anti-Islam network at work in the US pushing an explicitly Islamophobic agenda,” according to Elmasry. “Anti-Islam voices — including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Steven Emerson, Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes — have large followings in the US. This network has successfully stoked fears about Islam,” he said, mentioning the names of prominent US media figures who have made careers out of criticising Muslims and Islam.

One recent report by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) has highlighted how “big money” is channelled to the ‘industry of Islamophobia’ in the West, which revolves around a fear-mongering demonisation of Arabs and Muslims intended to legitimise both US and Israeli bellicose machinations in a region with highly coveted resources.”

The report reveals how eight out of 11 donors “have in recent years given large sums to Daniel Pipes, president and founder of the Middle East Forum (MEF), just one of an abundance of US-based bastions of Islamophobia, who dutifully performs his own anti-Muslim routine while also funnelling money to other like-minded bastions.”

The entertainment media in the US are also blameworthy. US media scholar Jack Shaheen has studied 100 years of Hollywood movie portrayals of Muslims, finding that Muslims have been represented in “overwhelmingly negative and stereotypical ways.” According to Elmasry, “there are very few positive portrayals of Muslims in Hollywood.”

Some of the challenges are self-inflicted. “American Muslims have not done a good job developing political groups and programmes,” he said. Many would agree with Elmasry that there is a minimal Muslim presence on Capitol Hill in Washington, for instance.

Elmasry continued, “Also, American Muslims have done a relatively poor job in the media sphere. There are very few American Muslim journalists, writers and commentators.”

ISLAMOPHOBIA IN EUROPE: Since the killings of ten employees at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, including the editor-in-chief and several cartoonists, as well as two policemen, attacks against Muslims and their places of worship in France and across Europe have increased.
 
In France, Elsa Ray, spokesperson of the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) and member of the European Network against Racism, has attested to at least 100 attacks against mosques and Muslims, especially women wearing the Islamic veil that makes them visible targets, immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Ray was repeatedly quoted in the media saying that since the Charlie Hebdo tragedy the CCIF has registered “at least seven physical attacks against veiled women” in France, including “one who is still hospitalised for severe injuries.”

She said the CCIF was also working on reports by veiled women who claim that police officers pressured them to take off the veil on false legal pretexts when they entered a police station to report the attacks.
 
Ray said this type of discrimination was “unheard of before the Hebdo attacks and represents the widespread security paranoia in France triggered by the January 7 attacks.”
 
But even before the attacks, Ray said there had been a rise in Islamophobia across Europe in recent years.

In an article published on the website EurActiv, Ray lamented how “Muslim women are banned from restaurants and have been attacked on the streets” in many European countries in recent years. She added that Europe had also seen incidents in which “Muslim men with beards can’t sit in the metro without being avoided like the plague or insulted, where mosques are being vandalised every week” and where “Muslim cemeteries are defaced every month.”

In 2013 in France the CCIF recorded 691 cases of Islamophobia, an increase of 47 per cent compared to 2012. Women, the CCIF says, are a majority target, making up 78 per cent of anti-Muslim incidents and hate crimes, especially those who wear the Islamic veil. “The United Kingdom’s biggest police force, the Metropolitan Police, recorded 500 Islamophobic hate crimes in 2013,” the CCIF stated.

 
The Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union issued a report on discrimination against Muslims in 2009 and reported that “on average, 1 in 3 Muslim respondents stated that they had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months.” An earlier 2008 survey by the Pew Research Centre had warned that both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia had risen in Europe over the four years preceding the survey, but that attitudes towards Muslims were substantially more negative than those against Jews across Europe.

“At around 50 per cent, anti-Muslim feeling was most prevalent in Spain, Germany, and Poland. While Spain topped the list — 52 per cent of respondents said they had negative views of Muslims — that was actually a decline from 61 per cent in 2006,” the report said. Prejudices were stronger on the right than on the left or centre, the report added.

The president of the National Front Party in France, Marine Le Pen, who received one quarter of the votes in a recent election, has asked school canteens to stop offering Muslim children alternatives to pork. In Britain, the UK Independence Party has campaigned against the construction of mosques and it was the biggest winner in one recent set of elections, with an astonishing 27.5 percent of the vote.

“Many of these parties, as well as those who voted for them, do not consider themselves racists,” notes Sara Farris, an assistant professor of sociology at Goldsmiths College in the University of London. “The problem with Muslims, according to the likes of Le Pen, is their alleged backwardness, fanaticism and unwillingness to integrate.”

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, far-right political figures, including Le Pen, have used the attacks to promote their anti-Muslim agenda. “Extremism is on the rise in general, with more and more Muslims and non-Muslims heading to the right, and it is turning bloody,” says Fadel Soliman. He is the director of the London and Cairo-based Bridges Foundation, an international organisation aiming to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims by educating each side about the culture of the other.

“The reasons can be equally blamed on both Muslims and non-Muslims,” he said. Soliman is a strong believer in the fact that “ignorance is the greatest enemy.” Whereas non-Muslims have many misconceptions about Islam, some Muslims also misinterpret Islamic teachings in their own way, he said.

“Militant jihad, for instance, has strict conditions in Islam and should take place on the battlefield or in the case of a country that is military invaded,” Soliman explained. Jihadists, however, have violated that strict condition when they have expanded the battlefield to include the streets of Europe and the US.

“Those who think that they are taking revenge for the Prophet Mohamed by killing satirists and cartoonists need to understand that they are actually putting the Prophet’s followers as well as his mosques and schools in danger,” Soliman said.

In Islam, Fadel explained, no one is entitled to take it upon himself to kill in revenge of the Prophet. “There are absolutely other peaceful and legal ways to do that,” he said.
 

“Muslims are suffering as a result of these deviant thoughts. I can safely say that discrimination against Muslims in the West, particularly against veiled women, has grown into a daily business,” Soliman said.

HOW ISLAMOPHOBIA DEVELOPED: Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London, in an interview with the US magazine Foreign Policy, said that anti-Muslim sentiment could be classified in three ways.

“One group consists of racists who ride the wave of Islamophobia because it is convenient,” he said. “There is also a group of people who are anti-religion in general but find it more suitable to engage in Muslim-bashing because it is legitimised by the media and the government.”

And then there is a group with a political aim. “The pro-Zionist lobby falls in that category,” Shadjareh continued. “If they can show Muslims and Arabs in a demonising way, it legitimates their policies in the Middle East.”

In the 1970s, British politicians would sometimes “play what we used to call the race card because there were more racists than black people at the time,” according to Shadjareh. “Now there are more Islamophobes than Muslims, so politicians are playing the anti-Muslim card. You can increase your popularity by being anti-Muslim.”

Before the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, Islamophobia in Europe was more likely to be a variety of xenophobia, representing the anti-immigrant fears of those seen as taking jobs from European workers.

Such anti-immigrant sentiments escalated in the light of Europe’s moribund economy and the rise of unemployment. In the meantime, such growing concerns toward immigrants have increased the popularity of far-right parties and groups, who have been keen to use anti-immigrant policies as part of their agenda.

But xenophobia gave way to Islamophobia in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US. In the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the view of immigrants in Europe shifted. Suddenly, they were also seen as “possible suspects.”

“It was at this point that economic worries were pushed to the background in terms of Islamophobia, being replacing instead by political discrimination,” Murat Aksoy, a writer and journalist based in Istanbul, wrote in an article entitled “Who is Responsible for the Rise in Islamophobia?”

The French ban on women wearing the Islamic veil in schools and public offices that followed the 9/11 attacks and the offensive Danish cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2006 depicting the Prophet Mohamed wearing a turban-shaped bomb were seen as examples of European prejudices against Muslims.
 
The 2009 Stop the Minarets campaign in Switzerland, signed by 100,000 Swiss people in support of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party’s demands for a ban on the construction of minarets in a country that only has four minarets and has not seen any terror attacks, is another case in point.

The anti-minaret campaigners claimed at the time that minarets were dangerous because they represent a “symbol of Islamic power” and may amount to an “ideological intrusion” into the Swiss way of life.

The campaign also came on the heels of the 2009 tragic murder of Egyptian veiled pharmacist Marwa Al-Sherbini. She lost her life for no other reason than her religion in Dresden, Germany, at the hands of a Russian-German racist. “Nowadays, in Europe and throughout the West there is essentially a political perspective included in Islamophobia,” Aksoy said.
 
 
BOOSTING ANTI-MUSLIM SENTIMENTS IN THE WEST: “After the emergence of Al-Qaeda onto the scene,” Aksoy said, “a whole raft of organisations with purported ideological ties to Al-Qaeda also appeared.”

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) group, which has claimed a number of terrorist outrages, beheading their opponents in the name of Islam and in the hope of intimidating the West, has no doubt also provided fodder for anti-Muslim campaigns, thus giving a further boost to Islamophobia in the West.
 
In an interview with the Lebanon-based newspaper Al-Safir, Michael Brifu, chairman of the European Network against Racism, said that European Muslims “are now feeling a lot of social pressure to explain what is happening. This pressure follows them to work and school, and to every social environment they are in.”

Many Muslims living in the US and Canada related stories to the Weekly of how Muslims have suffered since the rise of IS. Many said they are always asked to provide an explanation for the terror of IS, some said they are feared as possible IS suspects, and some said that many Westerners believe that mainstream Muslims are not doing enough to counter IS terror.

In the meantime, the earlier rise of the far right in European countries has been reflected in government policies that have tended to treat the second generation of immigrants as perhaps foreign or second-class citizens, rather than fully-fledged citizens in their own right. The result has been that this younger generation of immigrants has experienced what Soliman calls “an identity crisis.”
 
“The problem with this second generation of immigrants,” he explains, “is that they are still seen as ‘foreign’ in the Western societies where they were born and live, and in the meantime are sometimes regarded by their own native communities as perhaps not proper Muslims who do not strictly hold on to the culture and traditions of their parents.”     Many of these “frustrated” young people suffer from an identity crisis as a result, and some of them, suffering from discriminatory policies in western countries, have become easy targets for IS recruitment techniques.

These “have been recently booming everywhere, promising frustrated young people a so-called Islamic state,” Soliman continued. For his part, he suspects that “many of those dreaming of living in a state that strictly applies Sharia law were frustrated when the Egyptian military ousted Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

This frustration, according to Soliman, “has provided a further boom for IS when some young zealots living in the West lost hope in democracy as a viable means to attain their dreams.”
 
On the other side of the spectrum, “Islamophobic professionals and their fear-inducing architects use and repeat any set of domestic and global events involving Muslims to originate and re-introduce racism and bigotry in the public mind and pass it off as facts and an objective and sound analysis of the ‘civilisational threat’ confronting society,” notes Hatem Bazian, the coeditor and founder of the University of California’s Islamophobia Studies journal and director of the US-based Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.

The influx of Muslim immigrants into Europe from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya following the 2011 Arab Spring has exacerbated such fears.

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS: For Brifu, in the case of Europe the solution to such problems lies in reforms in European countries that continue to exclude Muslims and “involving Muslim communities in decision-making through permanent mechanisms regulated by the state, which has the authority and the responsibility to institute them.”

Soliman, for his part, focuses on educating the younger generation of Muslims and non-Muslims living in the West about the true teachings of Islam through circulating a three-part documentary series subtitled in ten languages. Entitled “The Fog is Lifting,” the series explains Islam and Islamic beliefs, rituals and sometimes misunderstood concepts like jihad in a way appealing to western mentalities and helping ordinary Muslims refute misconceptions about their religion.
 
While the first part of the series tackled Islam in general, the second focused on the misconceptions surrounding the issue of jihad. “Islam in Women,” the third part of the series, explains why more than 75 per cent of Western converts to Islam have been women, despite the many misconceptions spread by the Western media that Islam is oppressive towards women.

Soliman is also currently launching a campaign entitled “Don’t hate, educate” in the UK. The campaign focuses on training school teachers and university professors on how to refute misconceptions about Islam with the help of the documentary series. “We focus on re-educating educationalists because we are targeting the younger generation of Muslims and non-Muslims, who we see as the real hope for a better future,” he said.

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