Local Time

Sunday, January 02, 2005


The growing new phenomenon labeled "Islamophobia" - the paranoid fear of Muslims - is fast spreading, both in the United States and in Western Europe, warn academics, Middle East experts and senior United Nations officials. Alarmed at the rising racial and religious intolerance, the UN is expressing "deep concern" over the increase in anti-Semitism, Christianophobia and Islamophobia worldwide. A resolution adopted by the 191-member UN General Assembly this week calls upon all states to cooperate with the UN Commission on Human Rights to eliminate the growing new trends in racial and religious discrimination. For the first time, the UN this month hosted a seminar zeroing in on the subject of Islamophobia, symbolizing the gravity of the situation. "When a new word enters the language, it is often the result of a scientific advance or a diverting fad," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. "But when the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with Islamophobia." Addressing the seminar, which was attended by religious leaders, academics and senior UN officials, Annan said efforts to combat Islamophobia must also contend with the question of terrorism and violence carried out in the name of Islam. "Islam should not be judged by the acts of extremists who deliberately target and kill civilians. The few give a bad name to the many, and this is unfair," he said. "The Christian West has feared Islam both religiously and politically," said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University and keynote speaker at the seminar. "Today, the paradox of Islamophobia remains that many people afraid of Islam know very little about it. They feel a great need to see 'the other' as the enemy." In the United States, the targeting of Muslims was triggered by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, because all of the attackers were of Middle Eastern origin. Last week Cornell University released the results of a survey it conducted in September revealing US citizens' willingness to restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has previously accused US law-enforcement agencies of racial profiling of Muslims living in the United States. "In US media and political discourse, a mixed - and often implicitly negative - view of Islam exists," said Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy. "There's a lot of anti-Muslim bigotry. Some of it is based on religious chauvinism from Christians and Jews. Some of it is racist." The perception that Muslims hate Israel has fed anti-Islamic fervor among strong supporters of Israel. And - particularly since September 11 - US nationalism has largely and foolishly identified Islam as a major threat to America, said Solomon, co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You. "Ultimately I believe that public hostility toward Islam in the United States today is mostly a matter of geopolitics and US nationalism," he said. "While the [September 11] attacks clearly had an impact on Islamophobia, it is important to recognize that this phenomenon has been around in one form or another virtually since the advent of Islam in the 7th century," said Mouin Rabbani, a contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report. It has developed and changed over the centuries on the basis of a variety of religious and racial prejudices, he added, as well as associated political factors such as colonialism, nationalism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, and socio-economic issues like oil and immigration. "Islamophobia as a phenomenon has evolved and ebbed and flowed over time and across space," Rabbani said. In the United States, for example, Islam was largely associated with the African slave population and resistance to slavery (and to a lesser extent subsequent black-American militancy), and Islamophobia served as part of the process of the dehumanization and domestication of this population. Since 1945, by contrast, US Islamophobia has largely been projected externally, particularly against Arabs (and Iranians - who seem more often than not to be identified as Arabs - as well as assorted others such as non-Arab, non-Muslim Sikhs, for those incapable of making distinctions). This, Rabbani pointed out, is related to the emergence of the United States as a global power, its pursuit of control over the strategically significance Middle East, and its increasingly close embrace of Israel. More recently, with the end of the Cold War (during which prejudice against Muslims coincided with support for Islamic militancy), some intellectuals, such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, sought to formulate a theory of Islam as an enemy civilization. In a report to the General Assembly last month, Doudou Diene, special rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, said, "There appears to be agreement that racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the upswing in Europe." Rabbani said European Islamophobia has had a somewhat different trajectory, emerging initially in response to the theological and territorial challenge presented by the rise of Islam as an alternative monotheistic religion and the expansion of Islamic empires. It was then put into the service of European colonialism in the Middle East and other Muslim territories, and more recently in response to the growth of Muslim migrant populations in Western Europe. "My impression is that while prejudice against Muslims has certainly intensified, hostility to Islam as a religion has grown exponentially - though the two are obviously interrelated," Rabbani said. "A main effect of [September 11] has been to make Islamophobia not only more widespread but also considerably more mainstream and respectable - it has let the genie out of the bottle." Solomon said that until recent decades, the US mass media and overall political climate have unequivocally embraced only Christianity. Anti-Jewish undertones - and sometimes explicit anti-Semitism - were present through the middle of the 20th century, until the Jewish faith gained general acceptance, at least in public. Before and during the air war on Yugoslavia in spring 1999, for instance, a lot of sympathy was generated by the White House and the US news media for Muslim victims of Serbs in Kosovo. "Granted, this was opportunistic and propagandistic. But the US establishment is quite capable of at least going through the motions of lauding Muslims," Solomon said. And in fact, the rhetoric of the administration of President George W Bush, with some lapses, has tried to make clear its supposed respect for the Islamic faith while singling out a few Islamic terrorists for condemnation, according to Solomon. "That said, the hostility toward Muslims in the United States is, overall, appalling. The events of [September 11] were used as an excuse to greatly magnify that hostility and cloak it in pseudo-patriotism."


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