Why I Confronted Top European Liberal Politicians On Their Role In Mainstreaming Islamophobia

The city of Sarajevo, Bosnia hosted a European Islamophobia Summit this June that brought together leading politicians, academics and activists for intensive discussions on the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping across Europe and North America. Held for two three days, the featured three former top government officials from Western Europe -- former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw (UK), ex-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero and former French Minister of Foreign Affairs and Doctors Without Borders co-founder Bernard Kouchner -- in its opening session. With them was sitting Al Jazeera English host Mehdi Hassan, who delivered an impassioned speech lashing out at the narrative of Islamophobes and terrorist organisations alike that are seeking to -- as ISIL puts it -- destroy the "gray zone," or the space of coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West.


Politically correct and not so correct

What might have been another mundane public relations event with foreign government officials ended up in a heated debate between the audience and three figures who have played an influential role in shaping the political atmosphere in Western Europe and the Middle East.

Despite having been invited to speak on Europe’s dangerous trend of Islamophobia, Straw set the tone by wondering why Muslims were not loud enough in condemning 9/11 or bold enough to address global terrorism -- ignoring all the blanket condemnations French media either did not report or omitted from their coverage. Addressing the growing refugee crisis in Europe and the rise of anti-migrant attitudes in his country, Kouchner staunchly refused to hold France’s successive administrations responsible for the numerous laws and measures specifically targeting French Muslim citizens. In return, Kouchner expressed his satisfaction at laws limiting the garb Muslims are allowed to wear in public spaces because, according to him, “freed Muslim girls and women from the oppression of their brothers, fathers, and husbands”.

Though Spain’s Zapatero denied the existence of Islamophobic attacks in his country, he distinguished himself by refusing to draw a direct link between Islam and terrorism and called for widespread efforts to tackle anti-Muslim sentiment through education and dialogue.

“Stop!”

Although the official program did not include exchanges between the speakers and the audience, as one of the participants, I took the floor and addressed the three panelists.

In a heated exchange with the three VIP speakers, I called Straw on the mat for his hackneyed and discredited claim that Muslims had not condemned extremist violence against innocents. Next, I addressed Bernard Kouchner on the questions of Islamophobia in France and the of use laïcité, or the French republican understanding of separation of religion and state, to exclude, discipline and dominate Muslims. You can watch the exchange below:

After explaining how laïcité has been warped from a constitutional principle to protect freedom of religion into an ideological tool to legalise Islamophobia and how his statements were not backed up by facts, Kouchner shouted, “Stop!” and ordered me to quit talking.

I continued ahead, reminding Mr Kouchner of his silence during his tenure under President Nicolas Sarkozy when Islamophobia was reaching unprecedented levels. I listed the number of laws specifically targeting Muslim women and how Kouchner did not speak up while the Sarkozy initiated a debate on national identity right at the onset of the 2009 financial crisis. The “debate” he launched became a national platform for crude racist discourse, so much so that the government, growing embarrassed by the blatant uselessness and controversies surrounding it, decided to abort the diversionary strategy.

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“We do not need you to free us!”

After my three minute intervention and Kouchner’s restating his position on banning certain religious symbols from the public square, Muslim female attendees called on Kouchner to change his “condescending point of view”.  One of them, a British researcher based in Belgium, asked him to stop patronising Muslim women or to think on their behalf.

Another speaker, Professor Hatem Bazian from the University of California-Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law and co-founder of the Zaytuna Institute, turned to Straw -- a key author of the invasion of Iraq -- and held him to account for the chaos that has engulfed the Middle East. Highlighting Straw’s attempt to blame Muslims for the rise of global terrorism, Bazian reminded the audience that it was Western statesmen like Straw who paved the way for the rise of ISIS, while overseeing acts of state terror during invasions of sovereign countries like Iraq.

The scourge of islamophobia in the West

Defined as the attacks against people and/or institutions, Islamophobia has become one of Europe’s main societal challenges in the 21st century. In countries like the United Kingdom or the United States, Muslim citizens are targets of continuous attacks from political figures who have made Islamophobia a cornerstone of demagogic campaigns. The case of Donald Trump, who has supported the idea of banning Muslims from entering the US, is but a blatant demonstration of how Islamophobia has been pushed into the mainstream. A recent investigation conducted by the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) sheds light on the industrial nature of Islamophobia in the US, exposing how a network of anti-Muslim activists rake in an annual $205M in funding to spread bigotry and disinformation.

With a heavy colonial heritage exacerbated by the recent refugee crisis and a stalled EU project, tensions have exacerbated in Europe. France is once more emerging as the laboratory of Islamophobia just as it had been the laboratory of anti-Semitism a century ago. Since the early 2000’s, Islamophobia has become such an acceptable form of racism in France that politicians, media figures and state officials from across the spectrum have spouted anti-Muslim rhetoric and even expressed pride in doing so.

Indeed, Islamophobia is far from the preserve of the far right or fascist movements. Opinions that were unacceptable or marginalised opinions in the 1980’s are now being promoted by centrist and liberal politicians from Europe to the US. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party in France, is no longer alone in developing programs to exclude Muslim citizens from the rest of society. The current mandate of François Hollande has been marked by a series of measures to crack down on Muslim citizens. The state of emergency enacted after the November Paris attacks by ISIS sympathizers has been exploited to push for further exclusion of veiled Muslim women, including by punishing Muslim students with expulsion for wearing their skirts too long.

Marine Le Pen -- who inherited her party from her notoriously anti-Semitic father, Jean Marie Le Pen -- was provided a column in the New York Times to publicize her support for the Brexit. The byline in America’s so-called newspaper of record lent legitimacy to a political party that has nurtured close ties with xenophobic, fascist and antisemitic grassroots movements in France, and whose supporters have regularly been involved in violent Islamophobic demonstrations against Muslim citizens and their places of worship.

Fulfilling ISIL’s wish

The normalisation of islamophobia and its continuous rise means that millions of people in the US, France, the UK or many other European countries, are subject to daily discrimination - -at school, at work, housing or even when seeking healthcare. Physical and verbal assaults on Muslims is at peak levels across the West, spurred by a campaign of high level political incitement.

The deepening polarization has been exacerbated by terrorist attacks on civilians in Western cities by supporters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In a long and detailed articled published on their online portal, ISIL explained that beyond spreading bloodshed and fear in Western society, such attacks are meant to destroy what they call “the gray zone”, or the area of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non Muslims. By encouraging repercussions against Muslims in the form of state sponsored discrimination and by cultivating society-wide bigotry, ISIL aims to force Muslim citizens of the West to flee and seek sanctuary in the realm of the so-called Islamic State.

This is why initiatives like AlterNet’s Grayzone Project are so necessary. Islamophobia is in no way a problem for Muslims alone. As decades of rampant normalisation of bigotry have shown, this “respectable” form of racism, disguised behind free speech and unequivocal liberalism, is not only playing into the hands of terrorist organisations, but is also a useful tool for government actors seeking to hollow out the public sector. Indeed, the manufacturing of an enemy within allows Western governments to divert public opinion in times of highly unpopular socio-economic policies and to seek broader powers for the executive, implement mass surveillance and enable the accumulation of power and wealth by those who are already wealthy beyond measure. The Patriot Act in the US, the Prevent Program in the US and the state of emergency in France are clear illustrations of this disturbing phenomenon.

When my turn came to take the floor and close the summit, my mind was on how Muslims and non-Muslims alike have a historic responsibility to protect their common interest of living in peace, and to get beyond wishful thinking. My exchanges with Jack Straw and Bernard Kouchner in Bosnia’s national library had a symbolic meaning to me. It took place where over two million books were burned by the Serbian army of Republika Srpska (VRS) and a few miles away from where Islamophobia reached its ultimate realization in the form of a massacre in Srebrenica.

The European Islamophobia Summit ended on Sunday 26th of June with a call on governments to take Islamophobia seriously and to have the political courage to accept their Muslims as fully fledged citizens, and on participants to join forces at the academic and grassroots levels.

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