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Turkey can successfully pioneer anti-Islamophobia fight: Experts

A problem as complex as requires a multidimensional approach. has been taking concrete steps to this end and can lead others by institutionalizing the fight against the problem.

Daily Sabah TURKEY
Published July 20,2021
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There is no "easy cure" to counter the rise of Islamophobia, a deeply rooted and institutionalized hatred that psychologically exhausts and suffocates millions of Muslims living in the West.

Turkey, which has frankly and frequently brought up the issue in global forums, can play a leading role when it comes to raising awareness about the problem and putting an end to it as the country has successfully institutionalized the fight against hatred of Muslims, according to experts.

From Europe to North America, Muslim communities are increasingly concerned given the growing number of attacks on Muslims amid a political climate that normalizes anti-Muslim sentiment and racism.

Last month, the Turkish Parliament's subcommission on the increasing racism and Islamophobia in Europe stated that the anti-Muslim threat was growing both structurally and systematically as the political atmosphere tries to normalize Islamophobia and racism.

On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry condemned the European Court of Justice's decision to allow employers to ban headscarves, saying that it "violates the freedom of religion."

"We condemn the decision, which is legally and conscientiously wrong and dangerous regarding the Islamophobia it will fuel," the ministry said. The statement described the court's ruling as "a new example of efforts to give Islamophobia and intolerance toward Muslims an institutional and legal identity in Europe."

"This ruling will have the effect of pushing Muslim women to choose between their faith and careers – a wedge that no democracy should impose on its people," Khaled Beydoun, a law professor at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville School of Law and Senior Affiliated Faculty at U.C. Berkeley, said on Instagram.

"Muslims are the new Jews and blacks in today's world," Zeliha Eliaçık, a researcher at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) told Daily Sabah, explaining that Islamophobia includes all the mechanisms of racism and discrimination.

According to Eliaçık, Islamophobia had always existed in the West, and Europe in particular, but the fact that states have started legislating laws against Muslims that attempt to redesign the identity of Muslims living in these countries has brought a new dimension to the paralyzing problem.

"Austria, France and other countries have been institutionally trying to redesign the Muslim and Turkish presence in Europe and this indicates that the issue goes well beyond concerns about ideologically otherizing Islam," Eliaçık said and added: "They want to re-format Muslims through the state apparatus."

Different European countries attempting to impose their so-called version of Islam have passed laws or taken different measures in this regard.

Earlier this month, Austria passed a heavily criticized "counterterrorism" law that allows increased surveillance, targeting the country's Muslim community. The law defines "religiously motivated" crimes as separate criminal offenses and imposes several restrictions on the Muslim community. Judges, Muslim nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the opposition slammed the law for making an unnecessary distinction for crimes committed with "religious motivation," when racially motivated crimes are not treated any differently. The Muslim community and church leaders also criticized the law for attempting to regulate Islamic religious activity, as it requires the registration of all imams.

In Germany, where Muslims make up 6.7% of the total population, the government has also been imposing similar measures and came under fire for its state-appointed imam program.

Launched with the goal to reduce the number of Islamic leaders coming to the country from abroad, the German government's program was heavily criticized by the Turkish and Muslim communities alike, who argued that imams should not be politically influenced by the state.

The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), one of the largest Islamic organizations, which provides about half of the 2,500 imams in Germany, was especially targeted by the German government. In 2018, the domestic intelligence agency, BfV, reportedly decided to scrutinize the activities of the group.

The German Interior Ministry has also been organizing the controversial "German Islam Conference" for the past decade, which Muslims see as an attempt to interfere in their religious lives.

For instance, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lawmaker Markus Grübel told a German daily that Islam practiced by Muslims living in the country "must respect German values." But Muslims argue that the German Islam project pushes for the assimilation of minorities and puts pressure on foreign-born individuals.

In France, where the state is accused of exploiting secularism for anti-Muslim practices, French President Emmanuel Macron's so-called anti-separatism law also received backlash earlier this year, as it directly targeted the Muslim community.

The bill gives the state the prerogative to intervene in mosques and associations responsible for their administration while also controlling the finances of associations and nongovernmental organizations belonging to Muslims. It also prohibits patients from choosing doctors based on gender for religious or other reasons and makes "secularism education" compulsory for all public officials. Opponents say the law violates religious freedom and unfairly targets France's 5.7 million Muslim minority, the largest in Europe. Amnesty International also criticized the law, saying that it would be a serious attack on rights and freedoms in France.

"Anti-Muslim hatred has been skyrocketing since 9/11 and has recently manifested as terrorist attacks against Muslims. It is also being legitimized through laws and this trend has become the norm in some countries like France and Austria in Europe, while other countries follow their lead," Enes Bayraklı, an associate professor at the Turkish German University, told Daily Sabah.

Bayraklı noted that the processes that led to the legislation process in Austria and France were the result of two decades of growing radical rhetoric against Muslims.

NOT ALL MUSLIM COUNTRIES TAKE ACTION AGAINST ISLAMOPHOBIA

One of the reasons why not all Muslim countries take action against the paralyzing problem is because they are largely dependent on Western countries for support, Bayraklı said.

"There is a sense of codependency relationship with the West and some countries refrain from voicing things that may disturb some Western countries," Bayraklı said, adding that it was quite difficult for these countries to develop independent rhetoric.

More disturbingly, some "Muslim" countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) financially support anti-Muslim circles, Bayraklı noted.

For instance, Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs supported Macron's controversial statements on Muslims, saying that Muslims "need to be integrated in a better way; the French state has the right to search for ways to achieve this in parallel with combating extremism and societal closure."

However, Turkey stands out with its independent and autonomous rhetoric and has been making decisions without foreign influence, according to Bayraklı, who noted that civil society in the country needs to be more active in this regard.

LAWS CRUCIAL TO TACKLING ISLAMOPHOBIA

While racism and anti-Muslim sentiment are felt stronger in some countries than others, Bayraklı notes that laws are necessary to fight discrimination.

"It is important for all leaders to recognize the problem and bring it to their agenda," Bayraklı said, adding that you cannot fight a problem without naming it or without a legal framework.

Meanwhile, Katherine Bullock, a lecturer at the Political Science Department of the University of Toronto at Mississauga, notes that laws alone are not sufficient, but they are an important component in the fight against anti-Muslim hatred.

"Laws shape the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable, and interact with moral teachings in complex ways. If the laws of the society are anti-Muslim, the populace takes that as a cue that anti-Muslim hatred is permissible, even normative," she told Daily Sabah.

Bullock continued by saying that many individuals consider it a duty to "defend" their society and uphold the law.

"If the laws are not anti-Muslim, indeed, expressedly opposed to anti-Muslim racism, then the populace takes the cues that Muslims are their fellow citizens, with rights and responsibilities, and must be treated equally," Bullock said and added: "The haters will be squeezed and shamed, and then it will be up to social spaces to educate, reform and oppose such hate."

'ISLAMOPHOBIA A MULTIDIMENSIONAL PROBLEM'

For Eliaçık, the issue of Islamophobia should not be evaluated solely as a war against Islam as it is a multidimensional problem that involves domestic politics due to the fact that there are permanent Muslim communities in the West. She noted that the aforementioned states have been trying to destroy the presence of Muslims or render them invisible in the public sphere, which portrays Muslims as domestic targets.

Politicians successfully exploit and canalize the hatred of the masses against Muslims, according to Eliaçık.

"The EU is currently experiencing serious problems and the COVID-19 pandemic has multiplied these problems," Eliaçık said, noting that there are economic and social cracks in these societies amid the rise of polarization. Showing Muslims as enemies "camouflages" these problems, according to Eliaçık, who argues that the issue is not just cultural.

"It is about otherizing Muslims through the issue of terrorism. While so many problems are explained taking into consideration socio-psychological reasons, when Muslims are at stake, the issue is immediately attributed to their religion," she said.

This is why the participation of the media, NGOs and politicians is crucial in tackling the issue, experts highlight.

Eliaçık also suggested that cooperation with some NGOs and institutions fighting anti-Semitism could prove helpful in the fight against Islamophobia in Europe.

TURKEY UTILIZES ALL MEANS IN ANTI-ISLAMOPHOBIA FIGHT

Turkish officials have continuously called on world leaders to take action to stop the demonization of Muslims and have been taking action to tackle the growing problem.

Turkey has a large diaspora living in the West, particularly in Europe. According to the Foreign Ministry, the Turkish diaspora exceeds 6.5 million people, with around 5.5 million of them living in Western European countries. The growing anti-Muslim hatred and far-right sentiment in these countries have significantly affected the communities.

One of the main reasons for Turkey to lead the fight against Islamophobia is that its citizens are being restricted on a daily basis, as they face discrimination in education, at the workplace and more, according to Bayraklı.

"Initially it was mostly the religious segment of the diaspora that had been affected by Islamophobia, but now, whether religious or not, they all face discrimination in some way or another," he said, adding that the issue also affects the Turkish diaspora's integration in Western societies, as they are not represented in politics or the media.

According to Bayraklı, a second reason why Turkey is eager to take action against growing anti-Muslim sentiment is that it negatively impacts the country's EU accession process.

"Islamophobic rhetoric is reflected in Brussels' relations with Ankara, even though Turkey remains one of the most developed countries in the Muslim world," he said.

Bullock also agrees that Ankara can play a leading role against Islamophobia.

"We need such strong and global leadership to draw attention to the issue of anti-Muslim racism and to push Western countries to take it more seriously and to tackle it better," she told Daily Sabah.

Eliaçık also agrees that Turkey, among all other Muslim countries, can play a leading role as it demonstrates the strong and sincere political will to do so and has institutionalized the anti-Islamophobia fight.

Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that Turkey would prepare annual reports on acts of Islamophobia and racism in other countries, while work is ongoing to create a joint anti-Islamophobia English TV channel with Malaysia and Pakistan.

The decision was made during a trilateral meeting between Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, President Erdoğan and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in 2019.

"Anti-Islamophobia must be institutionalized in Turkey and concrete steps have been taken in this regard," Eliaçık said, adding that this step was the "most effective" response to institutionalized Islamophobia in the West.

She continued by noting that Turkey should also seek public support in Muslim countries and inform them about the issue as taking political cooperation into consideration with some countries was "impossible."

"(The) fight starts with rhetoric. Is there such Islamophobia as exaggerated by European leaders in the eyes of the public?" Eliaçık said.

Muslims also need to need to replace their "defensive" rhetoric with a more confident one that demands well-deserved rights, according to the researcher.

"In the long run, we need to make sure that the issue is tackled technically so it does not turn into a culture war," she said.

SITUATION GETTING WORSE IN NORTH AMERICA

Going out for a simple walk in Canada, considered to be one of the most tolerant countries in the West, has become a nightmare for thousands of families in the country after a ruthless terrorist killed a family in London, Ontario last month. The violence did not end there, as other Muslim women wearing headscarves became targets in different locations in Canada, with the most recent one taking place in Hamilton, considered to be one of the most diverse cities in the country, where one in four people living in the city is born outside of Canada.

The situation is no different in Mississauga, where over half of residents were born outside of the country, as Muslims say they fear going outside.

"I too feel unsafe when I walk in my neighborhood," Bullock said. While there is no concrete data on hate crimes and attacks against Muslim women, studies show that women wearing headscarves and face coverings take the brunt of Islamophobic attacks. For instance, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 69% of Muslim women wearing headscarves reported at least one incident of discrimination. However, Bullock says removing one's headscarf alone would not really make a positive contribution in the long run because it would only benefit white-passing women and there are still racist attacks against non-whites, whether or not you cover. More importantly, she noted that Muslim women are targeted because attackers perceive them as weak and submissive beings.

"People think twice before attacking a Muslim man," she said.

Down in the U.S., where former President Donald Trump worked to institutionalize anti-Muslim rhetoric through laws, his rhetoric and actions, hate crimes against Muslims continue to take place on a daily basis.

In 2020 alone, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), received 6,144 anti-Muslim incident complaints on a wide range of issues, including discrimination, immigration and travel restrictions, bias incidents, incarcerated inmates' rights, law enforcement and school-related incidents. A whopping 57% of all discrimination complaints consisted of employment discrimination, according to the U.S. Muslim civil rights advocacy group.

Muslim lawmaker Ilhan Omar has frequently brought up the issue of anti-Muslim stance in Congress. Only two months after she arrived in the Congress in 2019, the House approved a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry – without mentioning her – after she said: "We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan and the Taliban." Omar has also stated that she receives death threats for being Muslim.

In California, the first Muslim mayor of Irvine, who was elected in 2020, said that she struggled to become a mayor due to a strong anti-Muslim attitude in the region.

Mayor Farrah Khan said she has faced anti-Muslim threats in every election in which she has competed.

"From trying to link me to terrorist organizations to making claims that I took money from terrorist organizations, I saw it all," she said. In the 2020 elections, her opponent even filed a federal complaint against her for visiting Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority country.

The hatred does not stop in the West, as Islamophobia also exists in various countries like Myanmar, India and more.

Whether it's the ordinary citizen taking a stroll outside, working in public or private offices, or even the legislators and decision-makers, Islamophobia affects most Muslims and Turkey's determined leadership sends the message that it will continue to condemn, criticize and take concrete action to stop the "war."