By Linh Tran Huy
Recently, an employer refused to hire a woman at Abercrombie & Fitch because she was wearing a hijab at the interview. In another instance, a flight attendant refused to give a can of coke to a veiled woman for fear she might use it as a weapon. One passenger told the woman in question to “shut the fuck up, you Muslim” when she complained.
250 heavily armed protesters rallied in front of the Phoenix Center of Islam and clamored their Islamophobia with pride. Death and rape threats toward the Muslim community rose after the release of American Sniper. As an indicator, the FBI was collaborating with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to sort the over 100 death threats it had received a few days before the movie’s release. Chris Kyle’s own statement that he would like to shoot everyone with a Qur’an was welcomed.
The trend has been going on for a while and not just on the American continent. Take the infamous Pegida movement, whose militants marched in January in every big German city to protest against Islam. Its leader – wearing a Hitler mustache and idolizing the KKK – would then go on to call the Muslim people “thrash” and “scumbags”. The same month in Sweden, two mosques were set ablaze and a third one almost caught fire, probably through a well-aimed Molotov cocktail.
And in the 48 hours that followed the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, attacks against mosques grew exponentially. A window was found shattered by bullets in Aude and by grenades in Mans. Tags clamoring “Mort aux Arabes” (“Death to Arabs”) and the likes appeared in bigger numbers. The same week, an explosion reduced the front of a Kebab restaurant in the Rhone region to rubbles. Vandals hung pig heads and guts in front of Muslim prayer rooms and drew swastikas on the walls.
Let’s not blind ourselves: hate crime is common and has always been. The Jewish, LGBT and African American communities can attest to that. It is one of the (many) elephants in the room, a pathetic example demonstrating that we still have a long way to go when it comes to embodying the ideals of human rights and the American Dream. The difference, however, is that discrimination against Muslims grew along with the War on Terror and was fed by the activism of radical terrorist groups in addition to our own set of ignorance and prejudices.
How could one watch Jihadi John put down James Foley and not be moved? The common man in Western countries does not know that radical Islam represents the tiniest of minority within the Muslim community. He does not know what separates a Sunni from a Shi’a, a Salafist from a Houthi, Hezbollah from the Fatah. He does not know that most of ISIS’ victims are Sunni Muslims or that Muslim feminists are currently advocating for equality through the Qu’ran in Indonesia. He saw the crash of the Twin Towers and the decapitation of innocents. While the discourse of media personalities such as Bill O’Reilly or Eric Zemmour in France left many unfazed, a number of people were led astray.
Some people took the bait without realizing that they were playing directly into the radicals’ hands. ISIS gets many of its international recruits from marginalized youths pushed over the edge by an overdose of discrimination and hate. They wish for a better life in a society that has failed to integrate them. It could have been a dream come true when jihadists online offered them a shot at glory and wealth by joining the battle. Recruiters are skilled in the art of persuasion and will not hesitate to use conspiracy theories and quotes from obscure (and sometimes fake) Muslim scholars to win over the most reluctant teenagers. One could mention Facebook groups and forums related to Anwar Al Awlaki as evidence.
While the Charlie Hebdo attack was about “avenging the prophet” by attacking the satirical journal, it also had another consequence: to fuel Islamophobia for some extra labor force. At this point, it is a vicious cycle. Hatred toward the Muslim community helps to radicalize the youth, who join the ranks of the likes of ISIS and reinforce the power of such extremist groups. As these groups organize more attacks and grow in influence, so does the fear, and thus hatred toward Muslims.
It would not be fair to say that nothing is being done. States often call out to Muslim mainstream groups to condemn these attacks and the responses are almost always unanimous. Following the 9/11 attacks, the American Muslim Political Coordination Committee, composed of 14 major Muslim organizations, released a statement in which they firmly condemned the act. In 2010, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri issued a fatwa and demonstrated through the Quran that terrorism and suicide bombings were foul, un-Islamic acts. Groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the French Muslim Council and the Arab League (representing 22 countries with a mostly Muslim population) spoke out against the Charlie Hebdo attack and called it “barbaric” as well as “brutal and cowardly”.
Whether or not moderate Muslim groups should have to justify themselves for the actions of fanatics is debatable, but there is a certain logic to it: to have official voices speak out against terrorism is a way to prevent further radicalization. However, this method is not very effective, as evidenced by the number of people that have left their countries to fight with ISIS. In truth, counter-narratives from famous institutions will not stop radicalization because they do not reach out to the target demographics: the marginalized youth. Young people do not look up the websites of Muslim organizations every day in search for a condemnation, nor do they necessarily consult the news and listen to official speeches to differentiate right from wrong.
In contrast, jihadist recruiters have become dangerously skilled at marketing and using new technologies. They use Facebook and forums because they know their targets to be Internet-savvy. They combine their extremist discourse with moderate elements to attract the youth, and then captivate them completely through music videos, video games and even Instagram photos of cats. By resorting to modern means of communication, entertainment and even Internet memes, the recruiters are able to properly connect with their audience and give the impression that they are, indeed, not so different after all.
If one wants to stop radicalization, it is not enough to condemn the attacks in a top-down fashion. Akin to the jihadist marketing experts, it is necessary to reach out to the marginalized communities in a bottom-up manner. Besides attempting to inform people about the reality of jihad and spreading counter-narratives, the state should also work more closely with Muslim representatives as well as associations to assist the disadvantaged youth and prevent them from becoming such easy recruits for Daesh and the like. In the field of education, measures could include facilitating access to education as well as organizing programs to help integrate young people into the job market. Programs could also be organized for non-Muslim groups to educate them about Islam in order to undemonize the religion.
On the legal and cultural side, there needs to be genuine discussions between the State and associations representing Muslims on a number of sensitive issues. Since 9/11, Western countries have often prioritized counterterrorism to the detriment of social cohesion. As such, talks could call attention to abusive surveillance practices that target people based on appearance, name and faith, rules that alter detention standards depending on whether or not one is Muslim, and citizenship criteria that discriminate against residents of Arab origins or of Muslim faith.
Finally, the Muslim community should be given a voice to address some cultural policies that have prohibited their practices and traditions specifically (the veil ban in France and the minarets ban in Switzerland, for example) while leaving other religions untouched. To deter radicalization, we must promote social cohesion. This means involving the marginalized community (both young and old) into the discussion and decision making scene, and having the possibility to challenge some of the rules and prejudices in place.
When the anti-Muslim protest was raging in front of the Phoenix Center of Islam, president Usama Shami came out to welcome the protesters in peace and to invite them to the evening prayers if they so desired. The ones that stayed were then stunned to realize that the worshippers present were peaceful, regular people, far from the devilish idea that they had construed in their minds. Shami later revealed that most of the protesters had never met a Muslim before and had been “charged with hatred”.
When all was said and done, they shook hands and smiled. In the end, there is no question that the Muslim community can be integrated. Efforts must be made, however, to work more closely with its representatives and, most importantly, to give them a voice. Only then can we hope to stop radicalization and alter the cycle.
Featured image credit: Magdalena Roesler, Flickr CC. License can be found here