Islamophobia is commonly understood to be a condition of phobia directed towards Islam and Muslims. This includes hostile behaviour, including verbal and physical abuse against Muslims, their scripture, holy personalities and symbols. In some countries and communities it has been demonstrated through assault against mosques, cemeteries and religious centres. The Runnymede Trust, a British think-tank, has characterised Islamophobia as a state where the animosity harboured against Islam and Muslims in Western societies are unique and can only be grasped through this term and concept.
Analysts today consider that this mindset has evolved since the terrorist incident of 9/11. Some have also pointed out that Islamophobia is no longer a spontaneous expression of emotions. Instead, it has turned into an ideology that has found its way into the political agendas of right-wing extremist groups and populists seeking political gains by promoting hatred against Islam and Muslims.
This systematic effort to distort the image of Islam and Muslims has continued to worsen over the last five years. The unfortunate increase in terrorist activities, socio-political and economic problems that have resulted in greater refugee crisis in Europe has also exacerbated the propaganda against Islam by the far-right politicians, public figures and media in many countries. Consequently, the number of hate crimes committed against Muslims, or even those who "look like Muslims" (based on their physical or cultural expression) have increased manifold.
This contemporary manifestation appears to have now taken a turn for the worse thanks to the fanatic activities carried out by fundamentalist groups in different parts of the Middle East and also in Europe. The markers of identification of communities have clearly moved from just race, colour and national or ethnic origin to include religion. The understanding of racism has moved from a definition of "prejudice based on (now disqualified biological notions of) race" to a recognition of various forms of racism as: (i) an individual's discriminatory attitudes and behaviours (individual racism); (ii) policies and practices of organisations, which directly or indirectly operate to sustain the advantages of peoples of certain "social races" (institutional racism); (iii) a value system, which is embedded in society and supports and allows discriminatory actions based on perceptions of racial difference, cultural superiority and inferiority (cultural racism) .
In more ways than one, Islamophobia appears to have gained multi-dimensional manifestations - both in the social and political spheres. This has made it less anomalous and less mysterious. While racism has always been present in some form or the other in global history, Islamophobia has been playing an increasing role in the social construction of racism, with roots that extend far deeper in history than 2001.
It needs to be mentioned here that the world's 1.6 billion Muslims span the full range of human appearance, and there is no way to actually "look Muslim." Nevertheless, race operates at the very core of Islamophobia. In the aftermath of 9/11, in America and beyond, repetitive violent attacks were reported against non-Muslims, such as Sikh Americans, Indians, South Asians, and others. Everyone hurt or killed in these attacks were vulnerable to Islamophobia because their appearance was consistent with the racial description of what a Muslim was supposed to look like.
Some sociologists have however noted that Islamophobia does not belong to the realm of "rational" criticism of Islam or Muslims in any way. According to them, it needs to be interpreted as discrimination against people who look different. The stereotypical Muslim has been constructed as an ominous figure: the bearded, dark-skinned, turban-wearing terrorist guided by perceived archaic religious practices. However, even those not falling in this stereotypical appearance are sometimes subjected to discrimination as soon as their religious identity is revealed through any process.
The social construction of racial categories has today become the heart of the process by which Islamophobia has evolved with the potential of affecting anyone who "looks Muslim" and also created the racialisation of Muslims.
This method of creating a separate social and cultural dimension has in recent years helped to generate an extraordinary surge in Islamophobic hate crimes and discrimination across the world. Muslims are now being portrayed in the mindset of the people not only as racially distinct, inferior and savage but also as anathema to modern pluralist culture. Consequently, many historians are suggesting that any effective understanding of Islamophobia must take into account the full scope of race and racism.
In many parts of the Western world, the offensive stereotypical and distorted discourses against Islam and Muslims have led to the production of a collective mindset that is difficult to uproot, and is being invoked whenever clashes occur involving anyone from the Muslim community. This approach is particularly employed for political reasons by many right-wing extremist movements that are today employing Islamophobia as a means to gain popularity by intimidating Muslims and promising their electorates, if elected, to enact strict laws against them. Such a dimension has already emerged in many countries in Western Europe.
Based on these realities, including racial profiling of Muslims, Islamophobia has become a form of racism mixed with cultural intolerance as a whole, rather than simply intolerance of Muslims and Islam. This matrix is emerging despite the civil society and sections of the international community making efforts to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance through the introduction of international legal measures as reflected in the UN Convention against Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the agreement on the Durban Declaration.
It may be mentioned here that in traditional Western legal discourse, anti-Semitism is included in various racial discrimination laws under the category of ethno-religious prejudice. However, it is also generally held that since Muslims are not a race, therefore, racially based anti-discrimination legislations are insufficient or restrictive to counter Islamophobic discrimination. In the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, the European Union asserted the principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of religion in Article 13. The United Nations has also developed a number of instruments, including treaties, conventions and protocols with regard to religious discrimination. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) for example, prohibits more specifically religious discrimination while the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, adopted in 1981, provides a comprehensive list of rights regarding freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 in Vienna reiterated the importance of taking all appropriate measures to counter intolerance and related violence based on religion or belief, and invited all States to put into practice the provisions of the 1981 Declaration on Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The 1993 Vienna Conference also underlined the need to implement speedy and comprehensive elimination of all forms of racism and racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance as priority task for the international community. The 2001 World Conference against Racism also clearly recognised the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world and urged all States to take effective measures to prevent the emergence of movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas concerning these communities.
Unfortunately, while these proposed refinements have gradually become part of UN Member States' policies and anti-discrimination legislations, the surge in Islamophobia, as a form of racial discrimination, has continued to threaten the effectiveness of these strategies in tackling the negative manifestations of racism. In addition, we also continue to witness the resurgence of racist and xenophobic violence directed mostly against Muslims. There is also a general increase in manifestations of racial and religious intolerance/and hatred, reflected mainly through manifestations of Islamophobia as well as the increased importance in identity constructs and the rejection of diversity. As evidenced so strongly in the Rakhine State of Myanmar in the case of Rohingya Muslims, there is also resistance to the process of multi-culturalisation of societies.
This deteriorating socio-cultural dimension and the emerging trend of far-right and xenophobic platforms within democratic parties is further exacerbating the situation. This is also favouring an ethnic or racial interpretation of social, economic and political problems and immigration.
It is this situation that has led analysts to underline the creative need for a civil rights strategy that can effectively deal with these evolving realities. Some states, including Bangladesh, have drawn attention to advance reforms, both at the legal and political levels, for the protection of minorities and communities affected by all contemporary forms of racism, including Islamophobia.
In this regard, special efforts are being undertaken to establish a multi-stakeholder' dialogue to objectively analyse Islamophobia and discuss the crucial questions about complexities, dilemmas, and paradoxes of racial identity and Islamophobia, and the disturbing implications of rising Islamophobia for the persistence of racism in modern societies. This approach is seeking to apply the tools developed for understanding racial discrimination to analyse Islamophobia.
Within this framework, efforts are being undertaken to trace the roots and practices of discriminatory behaviour and policies against Muslim communities, to understand the context in which Islamophobic racism has developed and the role it plays today in undermining human rights within different communities in several areas of the world. This is being done for identifying and agreeing on the best practices that are required for confronting various forms of racial and religious discriminations.
These measures need to be coordinated across the globe. This will help us to see how the challenges and negative consequences of communalism can be overcome and positive equations promoted for universal guidance and application at different levels, both by the State and non-State actors through legal and non-legal measures.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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