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By Talip Kucukcan, for Today’s Zaman:

There is no doubt that the presence of Muslims in many European countries has changed the demographic and religious landscape of the West.

The arrival of Muslims in large numbers to Europe since the 1950s and 1960s and their permanent settlement through citizenship thereafter call for a reconsideration of the dominant view on the relationship between religion and society that is held in Europe. Since the Enlightenment, modernity has steadily secularized European societies, where church and state are separated, which has created different models depending on the political and cultural legacies of the countries concerned. As a consequence of social, political and legal developments after the Enlightenment, many people came to believe that modernism necessarily leads to secularism and the withdrawal of religion from the public sphere, which has largely been the European experience. However, when we look beyond Europe there is a different picture, including in the United States, which demonstrates that religion is a vitally important social phenomenon. Many social scientists today believe that Europe is an exception rather than a universal model as far as the public presence of religion and its relationship with society and the state are concerned.

One of the widely held beliefs and deeply rooted assumptions that we must free ourselves from is the idea that there is an inevitable conflict between religion and modernity. The global reality and human experience throughout the centuries provide ample evidence that religion and multiple forms of modernity are reconcilable. Various forms of state-religion relations and the role of religion in providing education, health and social welfare services and the governments’ recognition of and support for religious institutions in many European countries and the US confirm the fact that religion does not necessarily challenge modern values and institutions, rather it makes contributions where the state may fall short.

Although Europe has opened its arms to Muslims and largely allowed them to become citizens and settle down, several reports indicate that European politicians, the media and the public have not had similar success in opening their hearts and minds to accept Muslims and their culture. Reports by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, the European Network against Racism and the Runneymede Trust demonstrate that there is widespread Islamophobia in Europe.

Image of Islam and Muslims in Europe

Recent polls demonstrate that there is a growing mistrust towards Muslims in Europe. For example, a 2006 Deutsche Welle article shared findings from a survey which indicated that “Germans’ esteem for Islam has been falling since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, with 83 percent of the 1,076 Germans questioned in the survey agreeing with the statement that Islam is driven by fanaticism.” That amount is 10 percent higher than the previous survey results. A majority of the survey’s respondents (71 percent) is reported to have said “they believed Islam to be ‘intolerant,’ up from 66 percent.” The same survey also reports that “when asked what they associate with the word ‘Islam,’ 91 percent of respondents connected the religion to the discrimination of women, and 61 percent called Islam ‘undemocratic.’ Only 8 percent of Germans associated ‘peacefulness’ with Islam.” Moreover, it should also be underlined that content of the news coverage and the language of media reporting tends to focus predominantly on negative representations of Islam, such as conflicts and violence in the Middle East and issues related to terrorism and extremism. All of these contribute to the rise of essentialist views about Islam and Muslims in Western public opinion, leading to Islamophobia.

For those who are skeptical about the notion of Islamophobia or who think that such a conceptualization is nothing more than an exaggeration, I would recommend looking at newspapers and other sources of information on current affairs. Let us see how our perception of Islam and Muslims in Europe is shaped and construed by the names, places, events, ideas, practices and objects that we tend associate with the words “Islam” or “Muslim” while reading or listening to the news. Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg, in their book “Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy,” state that the names and events people “think of tend to be associated with violence [e.g. Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 tragedies, Palestinian suicide bombers], the ideas and practices associated with oppression [e.g. jihad, veiling, Islamic law], and the places limited to the Middle East [e.g. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran].” Islam is, more often than usual, equated with dogmatism, fundamentalism, extremism, violence and authoritarianism in the public and political discourse.

Monolithic and essentialized perception of Islam

At this point we should turn to some factors that deepen social anxiety, fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims (Islamophobia) in Europe. Europeans tend to see Muslims as a monolithic community with a single identity and shared culture and imagination. However, a closer examination of Muslims will yield that there is great diversity among Muslim nations and communities. There are different zones of Islam (Asian, Arabic, Persian and Turkish) that have created enormous diversity through the centuries. Today there is yet another zone of Islam, which is the European zone, constructed by Muslims who are born, educated, employed and integrated in the receiving societies and have developed hybrid identities with a sense of belonging to Europe rather than their ancestral home. This hybridization of Muslim identity should be acknowledged and a monolithic perception of Islam and Muslim identity as essentialized categories should be given up.

Securitization of Islam and Muslims

Now I would like to touch upon yet another important aspect of Islamophobia, the securitization of Islam and Muslims, especially after Sept. 11 and other tragic terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere. Islam and Muslims are usually singled out in the media and in political discourse which leads to the emergence of a sense of threat and fear. Muslims in Europe and elsewhere are viewed with suspicion because their beliefs are easily associated with violence and terrorism. The securitization of Islam erects a huge social barrier between Muslims and their European neighbors. The perceived Islamic threat leads to the profiling of Muslims, the restriction of civil liberties and the alienation of Muslims from the wider society through their withdrawal to a communitarian lifestyle.

The root causes of violence and terror should be sought somewhere else rather than in religion, as suggested by thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, who argue that global inequalities, injustices in the distribution of social welfare and deepening social problems are the main causes of violence and terror. As Karen Armstrong eloquently pointed out in a recent interview: “The divisions in our world are not the result of religion or of culture, but are politically based. There is an imbalance of power in the world, and the powerless are beginning to challenge hegemony of the Great Powers, declaring their independence of them; often using religious language to do so.” This requires the desecuritization of Islam and Muslims in Europe where they live, work and study alongside other Europeans.

What to do to combat Islamophobia?

Dominant views on the place of religion in modern society, its expression and representation should be reconsidered. Religion should be given a legitimate place and position in the public sphere.

Islam should be recognized legally and officially and granted an equal status with other major religions. Muslims should feel that they are equal citizens of the countries in which they live, where their faith has legal recognition and enjoy the same rights and privileges as other faiths.

Islam/Muslims (and other faiths) should not be considered a threat to European values. The securitization and stigmatization of Islam/Muslims should be avoided.

Islam/Muslims should be not essentialized and regarded as a monolithic block. Diversity and plurality within Islamic communities should be acknowledged and the institutionalization of interpretational and intellectual diversity should be supported.

Regular research on the aspects and dimensions of Islamophobia should be carried out. In order to conduct a rational debate on Islamophobia, a Europe-wide research group should be established to collect reliable data.

Islamic institutions of higher educational should be established to provide Islamic education to young Muslims in Europe and to educate religious teachers and imams.

International cooperation in the field of Islamic/religious studies should be established between European institutions and schools of higher education in the Muslim world to facilitate intellectual exchanges. In order to pursue such a project, the following is proposed: Dual degree programs should be established. Muslim students can register for BA, MA and Ph.D. studies and can be taught both in Europe and in recognized universities in the Muslim world. Graduates of such programs can have dual degrees and be eligible for employment in Europe.

Centers of excellence in Islamic scholarship and learning should be established in various European countries in order perform three main tasks: 1) to inform the European public, the media and politicians about Islam/Muslim culture; 2) to contribute to the emergence of Muslim thinkers and scholars who will be capable of independent and original intellectual research; 3) to establish links between Muslims in Europe and the intellectual trends of their ancestral homes in the Muslim world.

The existing institutional structures and experiences of Muslim countries should be utilized. In this context Turkey offers some interesting models. There are 24 faculties of Islamic studies, offering state-of-the-art bachelor’s degrees in Turkey. Two of these faculties in Ankara and İstanbul launched a joint program two years ago called the “International Islamic Studies Program.” This program accepts students of Turkish origin from European countries who are citizens of the countries they live. They follow a Turkish program augmented with subjects held in several European languages. More recently, the faculty of Islamic studies at Marmara University in İstanbul created a “Bachelor of Islamic Studies in English” which is open to all nationalities. These courses should be examined and utilized in the context of educating young Muslims and providing religious leadership to Muslim communities in Europe in the medium and long terms.

The media should be paid a greater attention and educated in their reporting about Muslims. Professional guidelines should be prepared and journalists should be made aware of the sensibilities of Muslims.

A closer dialogue and cooperation should be established among media professionals and journalists to enhance international understanding. To this end, exchange programs between Western and Muslim media institutions should be initiated to foster mutual understanding and gain an insider perspective about the “other.”

Media organizations and Internet service providers should ensure that vulnerable groups have easy access to complaint procedures. To this end appropriate legislation should be enacted to prevent the dissemination of illegal, racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic material in the media. Such initiatives, of course, should not be confused with censorship.

Diversity in the media should be increased by the employment of more journalists with an Islamic background in the mainstream media who would be qualified to understand the significant distinctions and relations between religion and politics.

A longer version of this article was presented at the “Hearing on Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia in Europe” organized by the Committee on Culture, Science and Education, Council of Europe on Sept. 8, 2009.

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