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Can Islamophobia Be Considered as Religious Discrimination?
In the last decades, Europe and North America have had controversial relationships with Islam and Muslims. The rise of migration rates, the issues of assimilation of Muslims into the secular and liberal communities of the West, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks have all intensified the existing tensions between the Christian and Islamic cultures, leading to the emergence of Islamophobia, a largely irrational fear and discrimination of the Western societies toward the Muslim minorities. Although it is not new for different religious groups living within a single society to have ideological and normative tensions, the current phenomenon of Islamophobia could be considered a process of religious discrimination toward Islam and contradicts the basic norms and values that are promoted by the Western liberal democracies.
Islamophobia: origins and description
Although the term “Islamophobia” has emerged only in the late 1990’s, the name could be considered “a new word for an old concept” (Bleich 1582). While the negative stereotypes toward Muslim culture, religion, and Arab ethnicity have been present in the Western society for a long time, it is only in the recent decades that these attitudes have become an institutionalized discriminative phenomenon. With the opening of European borders, migration from the Arab countries to the West and the September 2001 terrorist attack, Western societies have gained fixed intolerance and fear toward Islam. The term “Islamophobia” has been given various definitions, some of which included Islam culture, others referring to religion or even direct irrational hatred and fear toward Muslim people. Despite such differences in interpretation, some common characteristics can express the discriminative Islamophobic attitudes. Islamophobia includes perceiving Islam as the inferior culture compared to the Western, as a violent, aggressive, radical, and totalitarian worldview that cannot be assimilated to the Western secular culture and coexist peacefully and comfortably to one another (Taras 418). Erik Bleich defined Islamophobia as “indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims” (Bleich 1585). Interestingly, the part “phobia” refers to the fact that most of these attitudes are rather irrational, with people viewing every Muslim as a potential terrorist or Islamic fundamentalist, carrying a threat to the comfortable existence of Western values, lifestyles, and liberal ideology. In fact, these fears are highly exaggerated, as an insignificantly small percentage of violent crimes in the US is committed by Muslims, with the great majority of violence being produced by the carriers of Western values (Gallup, Inc.).
Still, partly because of the large trauma of 9/11 attacks and mostly unintentional emphasis of governance system and media coverage of Muslim-related crimes and conflicts, Western societies express the rise in Islamophobic attitudes for the last decade. Such an issue leads to a further question of whether Islamophobia can be considered as religious discrimination or as a justiciable reaction of liberal society to the cultural and religious threat from the stranger Islamic worldview.
Islamophobia as religious discrimination
The issue of conceptualizing Islamophobia as solely a process of religious discrimination lies mainly in the unique evolution of the relationships between Muslim minorities in the Western countries. While originally the term religious discrimination referred to limitations and discrimination of a specific religious group in its right of peacefully practicing of beliefs and doctrines and fulfilling its religious life, the modern Islamophobia is a more complex phenomenon. On the one hand, most of the Muslim communities in the West feel free to perform their religious rituals, establish their churches and visit them. Thus, there is no direct deprivation of Islam as a religious system toward Muslims. On the other hand, many of the Islamic traditions and cultural norms have a controversial position in the ideological discourse of secular Western democracies. Despite the fact that Western communities are less religious, the impact of Christian domination could be seen in political, judicial, and cultural realms, making it hard for Muslim minorities find common ground with the West (Weller 304). At the same time, Western cultures also turned out to be poorly fit for the presence of monolithic Islam minorities, which, unlike many other ethnic and religious minorities, try to keep their religious and cultural identities and refuse to assimilate fully with the Western majority. Such tendencies have led to the emergence of direct legislation which limited the freedoms of religious expression. These include laws in France, which banned burqas – traditional Muslim headwear for women – from the public spaces (Weaver). The idea that elements of traditional clothing can carry extremism of dangerous fundamentalism has no logic and rational explanation. The only arguments from the supporters of this ban are based on the idea that burqas discriminate women in their freedom of choosing what to do with their bodies. However, a more constructive explanation might lie in the irrational fear and rejection toward the Muslim culture, which is expressed through such confusing and controversial legislation.
It seems that the irrationality of fear and aggressive attitudes that is expressed through the burqa ban are a simple, yet very illustrative example of why Islamophobia should be considered as religious discrimination. Although this modern type of discrimination does not include a direct limitation of Muslim religious rights, meaning that Muslims are not banned from going to mosques or worshiping Allah, it is concentrated on cultural and ideological elements that Islam carries and limits them, justifying this discrimination with liberal values. Although modern European and American societies tend to be more secular than the Muslim states, the Western liberal ideology was built upon Christian traditions and used social, political, and cultural institutions that were tightly connected to the Christian way of life. Thus, the deprivation of religious freedom means that Western societies favor more comfortable, understood, and institutionalized Christian religious practices and doctrine over the Muslim minorities’ cultural norms. The bias in the media that covers Muslim activity only reinforces the ideas that Muslim minorities are “others” or “aliens” toward Western societies, even if the majority of the Muslims are legal migrants who live peacefully and according to the law (Saeed 1). The above structural discriminative actions lead to the assumption that Islamophobia is not only a phenomenon of religious discrimination, it also has racist features.
However, there is also a contrasting view that envisions Muslim culture as unfit to coexist with the Western values. From that perspective, Muslim migrants to the West are cultural intruders who refuse to accept the Western set of values and fail to exist within the democratic and liberal world. Thus, to keep Western society within the liberal direction of development, political and judicial instruments are used to limit the influence of Muslim minorities in their public lives. Therefore, the Islamic minorities have a choice of whether to accept the Western lifestyle and values or to come back to the states where Islam is the normative and moral fundamental of the social and political structure. Despite the fairness of these arguments, it seems that they contradict the basic principles of modern democratic states. The idea that there is only one way for an ethnic and religious minority to live within the liberal society – that is, assimilation of this group with the values and lifestyle of the majority – contradicts the core principles of freedom of freedom of religious identity and individual expression. The West actively promotes ideas of individual freedom, freedom for religious, cultural, and ethnic identity, yet it seems that when it comes to Muslims, the West becomes lost. Of course, there are issues in the process of coexistence of distinct and different religious groups. However, it seems that the best way for a democracy to meet such responsibility with tolerance, constant dialogue and equal discussion, not falling into the trap of discrimination and banning of traditional clothing.
Although being a new term, Islamophobia is quite an old phenomenon that describes irrational fear and hatred toward Islam and Muslims. As the recent decades saw the growth of migrants from the Islamic states into Europe and North America, a cultural clash between the strong cultural and religious identity of Muslims and the secular and liberal values of the West has led to the phenomenon of Islamophobia, which has unfortunately become an answer to the question of coexistence between the two groups. Islamophobia is expressed through a variety of intolerant activities and could be considered a process of religious discrimination, as it includes discriminative actions on free social and formal governmental, legislative and journalistic media level of discourse.
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Gallup, Inc. “Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in The West.” Gallup.com, 2017, news.gallup.com/poll/157082/islamophobia-understanding-anti-muslim-sentiment-west.aspx.
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Weaver, Matthew. “Burqa Bans, Headscarves and Veils: A Timeline of Legislation in the West.” The Guardian, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/14/headscarves-and-muslim-veil-ban-debate-timeline.
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