Discrimination and outright hatred towards Muslims have risen to "epidemic proportions", the UN said while issuing a warning to mark the first anniversary of the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. Launched on the third anniversary of the Christchurch Mosque shootings in New Zealand, in which 51 Muslim worshippers were killed by a far-right terrorist, the occasion is observed with a special event in the General Assembly, where global leaders uphold the need for concrete action in the face of rising hatred, discrimination and violence against Muslims.
Many governments have since taken steps to combat Islamophobia by establishing anti-hate-crime legislation. Measures have also been adopted to prevent and prosecute hate crimes and by conducting public awareness campaigns about Muslims and Islam that are designed to dispel negative myths and misconceptions. Marking the first anniversary of the International Day to Combat Islamophobia, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, pointed out that anti-Muslim bigotry is part of a larger trend of a resurgence in ethno-nationalism, neo-Nazism, stigma and hate speech targeting vulnerable populations.
Guterres' remark underlined a crucial feature of anti-Muslims racism that makes Islamophobia more pernicious and dangerous than other forms of discrimination: state sponsorship. The post 9/11 years are distinct for the way in which democracies and autocracies have fomented, weaponised and exploited fear of Muslims to further their ideological agenda. Whether it is to advance the kind of narrow ethno-nationalism mentioned by Guterres or to justify security measures that chip away at human freedoms, fear and misconceptions about Islam and Muslims are used to carry out and defend previously unthinkable state sponsored human rights abuse.
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From Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang facing genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party to India's 200 million Muslims who, too, are facing the threat of genocide according to the expert who predicted the massacre of the Tutsi in Rwanda, or millions of Palestinians subjected to daily humiliation and human rights abuse by Israel, state sponsored Islamophobia unifies governments from every ideological spectrum in their persecution of Muslims.
While China, India and Israel are at the extreme end of a global phenomenon notable for the backsliding of democracy and move towards authoritarianism, countries like Austria, France and many others are not far behind when it comes to the treatment of Muslims. In the name of fighting terrorism, democratic principles such as the equal treatment of citizens have come under assault. Institutional suspicion of Muslims has not only escalated to "epidemic proportions", as the UN noted numerous states, as well as regional and international bodies, have responded to security threats by adopting measures that disproportionately target Muslims and define Muslims as high-risk and at risk of radicalisation. Such measures have coincided with widespread negative representations of Islam, and harmful stereotypes that depict Muslims and their beliefs and culture as a threat. They have served to perpetuate, validate and normalise discrimination, hostility and violence towards Muslim individuals and communities, not to mention hateful conspiracy theories such as the Great Replacement that underpin current anxieties about Muslims.
As the latest European Islamophobia Report shows, government policy remains the essential driver of anti-Muslim prejudice. Governments have set the agenda and facilitated taboo-breaking language and behaviour which have normalised anti-Muslim racism in ways that would have been unthinkable even at the height of the so-called "War on Terror", following the 9/11 terror attack.
Who could have imagined that the "us and them" rhetoric, along with discriminatory measures used to justify America's fight against Al-Qaeda, would become the inspiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping to embark on a genocidal policy towards Uyghur Muslims? The likes of Xi Jinping have adopted the "War on Terror" template. For example, in 2014 when Uyghur terrorists took dozens of lives in the autonomous territory of Xinjiang, state media referred to the attacks as "China's 9/11". Xi urged Chinese officials to follow the American post-9/11 script, setting in motion a crackdown that would eventually lead to a million Uyghurs being thrown into concentration camps.
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Closer to home in Europe, the rise of Islamophobia is primarily the result of States seeking to establish their own version of Islam or attempts by governments to criminalise Muslim activism. Political parties from the right and the left have been virtually indistinguishable in this regard. Anti-Muslim racism has not only been normalised, the ability of a political party to also disseminate racist tropes about Muslims has become decisive for who wins and loses an election. In Hungary, for instance, the so-called threat of Muslim migrants "flooding" the country and shattering its "Christian foundations" continues to frame its political discourse and has kept the likes of the far-right nationalist leader, Victor Orban, in power since 2010.
Orban is not alone in this regard. Muslim communities in Europe are estimated to account for approximately 25.8 million people, or roughly 4.9 per cent of the region's total population, but nonetheless hateful narrative about Islam taking over the continent and destroying Western civilisation – a view which conveniently ignores Islam and Muslim contribution to the "West" -animates much of the political discourse, from Budapest through Paris and London and across the Atlantic to Washington and beyond. As the UK Tory Party is demonstrating through its hateful language around refugees – arriving mostly from Muslim majority countries – Orban and his far-right acolytes are not alone in exploiting irrational and trumped-up fear of terrorism and crimes of sexual violence to malign Muslims.
Ideologically charged reports and opinion pieces portraying Muslims as an internal security threat by right-wing commentators and anti-Muslim think tanks does, of course, fuel Islamophobia, but the hate generated could not have been normalised without government sponsorship and endorsement. This is precisely why Amnesty International, in its 2022 report on Islamophobia in Europe, said: "State authorities have repeatedly targeted Muslim individuals and communities under a range of overly broad and vague counter-terrorism and national security laws. Such deliberate and sustained targeting, including by both overt and covert monitoring and surveillance measures, has cultivated a generalised suspicion of Muslims in Europe that has provided fertile ground for the ongoing erosion of their human rights, including in access to education, employment, housing, sport and with respect to their freedom of expression, religion, association and right to non-discrimination."
As the world pledges to combat Islamophobia today, let us be honest and acknowledge that the fight against anti-Muslim racism is a contest between the values of tolerance and freedom that underpin our modern society and the values of intolerance, hate and narrow-mindedness that seek to overturn the progress of culture and civilisation. The world is undergoing once in a century political transformation, where the ascendency of authoritarianism has been accelerated through the vilification of Muslims and the faith of two billion people on the planet. We cannot begin to defeat regressive ethno-nationalism, neo-Nazism and hate speech targeting vulnerable populations, without first reasserting our commitment to combating the rising tide of Islamophobia.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.