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Navigating the Causes and Roots of Discrimination in Europe

As far as many in our age are concerned, faith in general, and maybe your faith as a Muslim in particular, represents not merely an antiquated set of beliefs that should maybe be tolerated, but not embraced, but as something ultimately threatening this Enlightenment tradition. ‘We fought hard for our liberties against Church dogmatism’, the argument goes, ‘and now Muslims have come and are trying to challenge them by wanting to reintroduce near-similar dogmas’, a notion that puts even many well-wishers on the defensive.

As far as many in our age are concerned, faith in general, and maybe your faith as a Muslim in particular, represents not merely an antiquated set of beliefs that should maybe be tolerated, but not embraced, but as something ultimately threatening this Enlightenment tradition. ‘We fought hard for our liberties against Church dogmatism’, the argument goes, ‘and now Muslims have come and are trying to challenge them by wanting to reintroduce near-similar dogmas’, a notion that puts even many well-wishers on the defensive.

The current zeitgeist is certainly worrisome as we are treading our first unstable steps into a new decade. We leave a decade in which Islamophobia became a term much used and also abused. Ranging from outrightly xenophobic, discriminatory, and racist attitudes to sometimes inquisitive questions, initially well-intended actions with negative consequences, and even reasonable posed scrutiny, the term has been applied over a broad range of matters and situations.

Some, I included, would even argue that it has in some cases become overused and lost some of its meaning in certain contexts, countries, and situations, ending up becoming eroded. Calls made by some of our activist siblings to criminalize or ban an ill-defined Islamophobia may just in the end prove not just futile, but counterproductive. This is especially if the very real problems in our communities continue to manifest in ways that affect not just us but also the surrounding society.

Many in dominant society have come to feel that the term has been used to stifle discussion on topics relating to the Muslim community that causes concern, fear, or resentment. Whether those concerns, fears, or dislikes are legitimate or not is not as much the issue as is the almost automatic habit by some in our communities to immediately brush them off as effects of irrationality, oversensitivity, or even manifestations of xenophobia. Rather than reacting emotionally or attacking back, some deeper analysis needs to be made.

The reactions that produce these responses towards real and perceived prejudice on account of the majority are at least partially due to a sense of shock that society does not in fact always live up to the ideals it claims to embrace. Here a lot of Muslims have gone wrong and ended up feeling deceived as some have come to believe that firstly, the ideals a society holds for itself reflects its actual reality, and secondly, the sense of injustice in finding oneself Otherised and regarded not on the basis of personal merit but as stereotypes.

Each individual should be assessed on the content of their character is what we are taught after all. And society is claiming to be tolerant, inclusive, and provide equal opportunity, but as a practicing Muslim I can’t get hired for a job or find a house, someone might say, or not be allowed to wear my headscarf in my profession, what is going on?

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These issues often affect those of our communities who have grown up in Western lands, gone through its educational systems but due to various reasons, stemming from social, cultural, or religious issues or other factors have on a deeper level remained partly or wholly disconnected from the sociocultural realities of the majority. And as such, are not fully aware of unspoken rules, unofficial codes, or the overall social culture inherited from the past and crafted in our contemporary age that largely govern these societies.

No one is to blame if these were not made available to you, but if you intend to go out and engage with people, you have a duty to be able to navigate your surroundings. I have personally come across many fellow Muslims in my days who know next to nothing about my own country’s history and have no intentions of learning it either, believing it has no relevance to them or that studying it is of ‘no benefit’ since it is not “our” history. But being familiar with these things is essentially vital to master in order to achieve success, establish dialogue, and function in any society.

In addition to this, knowing the social and cultural sensitivities of your society and how to engage with them is key, even if you might not agree with them. Relevant criticism is intellectually stimulative, but to dismiss, ignore or even mock such sensitivities as some of our community brazenly have attempted to do creates little beyond frustration and the sense increasingly articulated by the political classes, that this community, on the whole, is little beyond an alien entity that neither intends nor has the ability to function in society.

All societies have their achievements they uphold and draw national pride from. For many European states, for example, it is victory in the Second World War, resistance against the German occupation, and later, in the east, liberation from Communist rule. For others, it is their historic empires and their struggles. And for much of western Europe, besides kings and battles, it is the Enlightenment and its values that are regarded as the foundation for the societies of today.

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In order to at least partially understand contemporary Western opposition to the Islamic faith in particular you have to be aware of what the Enlightenment was and what it brought with it. One of these things, and also one of the most celebrated, was the marginalisation of the Church and its position. The process had started roughly one century earlier after the Thirty Year’s War but grew through the 18th century, the French revolution, and beyond, it came to take on what we know today as more or less normative secularism. To push back against Church power did bring along positive aspects, such as more tolerance for minorities, more freedoms and economic growth, and more prevention of abuse from those of the clergy that misused their positions. But it also brought the notion, depending on the society, that faith should not be articulated in the public sphere, and in the end that religion itself is but a pre-modern relic that serves no real purpose and is bound to perish along with progress.

And as such, as far as many in our age are concerned, faith in general, and maybe your faith as a Muslim in particular, represents not merely an antiquated set of beliefs that should maybe be tolerated, but not embraced, but as something ultimately threatening this Enlightenment tradition. ‘We fought hard for our liberties against Church dogmatism’, the argument goes, ‘and now Muslims have come and are trying to challenge them by wanting to reintroduce near-similar dogmas’, a notion that puts even many well-wishers on the defensive.

In and of itself it is not a new tension, even Rosseau spoke about it in the mid-18th century concerning Christians and how to deal with demands from enlightenment society, as did the later Napoleonic regime in relation to both Christians and Jews. Napoleon even posed several direct questions to especially the Jewish community in which he inquired to which degree their faith traditions were compatible with the post-French revolution political ideals, and in cases their traditions were found incompatible, how the community would regulate tensions between their faith and wider society.

We partly see a rehash of that debate now but with Muslims, but also far more alarmist and aggressive. We have to remind ourselves that in our Western societies, what is related to Islam and Muslims is typically regarded as culturally alien entities. Unfortunately, some in our community also insist that it should stay as such as well, believing any jurisprudential (fiqh)-based adaptation to changing realities in order to function with our surroundings is an affront to orthodoxy itself, and that only staunch confrontationalism is how Muslims should approach their societies.

We have seen this many times as well in the culture of posing ‘demands’ rather than entering into dialogue with concerned parties about how their religious sensitivities might be accommodated. Unfortunately, this was how a lot of Muslim organisations started out in Western lands as well back in the 1980ies and beyond, setting a negative precedence. Add to this the last two decades intense crisis-reporting on Muslims in the media.

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We do not bear the sins of others in the Hereafter, but in this life, we certainly do. The general dysfunction of the community is a source of a lot of collateral damage, to use the infamous military term. Issues such as problematic cultural customs without basis in religion, or the manipulation of the very religion itself, crime, abuse of both women and men, hypocrisy, or belligerent violent extremism have been real and very unfortunate occurrences in too many of our communities which impacts not just the community but also its surroundings.

Even worse are the instances of those who when confronted with such behaviours attempt to justify them with reference to our faith. If we take an objective perspective, we would have to admit that reacting negatively against such things can hardly be argued to be strange. The issue rather lies in the increasingly and oft-occurring frightening generalizations which make out ”Muslims” or ”Islam” in general as the problem and claim such repugnant phenomenon as mentioned above represents the very spirit of our faith tradition. This is where things get nasty and dangerous.

In all of this, who you are as a person and your own relation to your faith or community does not necessarily really matter here. These problems affect everyone by default. This is Otherisation, and we have all at least once been subjected to it. A lot of people I know and I myself have faced instances where our faith identity has indirectly or directly played a role in poor or unjust treatment or being turned away from work positions or other life opportunities. How so? The reply is always as blunt as it needs to be honest.

I know through both research and personal experience that at least in some Western European societies, many otherwise perfectly decent people have become affected by the general crisis-talk relating to Muslim communities and specific repeated incidents involving Muslims trusted with certain functions who have, when examined, turned out to either hold controversial opinions, be crypto-extremists or involved in various shady dealings. Some of it is definitely unjust and biased reporting taken out of proportion, but as we know, not all.

Many have in response become cautious of investing trust in Muslims. There have emerged concerns over how your real or perceived beliefs and affiliations will impact your performance and function in the social dynamics in a work environment. Will you become a source of discomfort for your colleagues? Is there something in your past or your contemporary private engagements that could be of concern? Will you pose demands for policies or exceptions relating to faith requirements to be enacted?

Owing to all of the aforementioned, people may simply feel uncertain if they can trust you, and many may in the end choose to opt for the ’better safe than sorry’ alternative. Even though such concerns may appear xenophobic at first glance, unfortunate experiences and the sociopolitical climates in many contemporary Western cultures have brought them about. Or they are in fact real racists and xenophobes. While you might be in your right to feel hurt and unjustly treated if such a scenario has happened to you, it is important to know where this is coming from and how to properly deal with it. Yes, even though we are hurt and offended by being treated with safety gloves and kept at an arm’s length, to respond with aggression is not helping anyone.

We need to approach the issues with the degree of sensitivity they call for but without compromising on justice. A lot of this is due to the political climate, which is turning increasingly hostile and polarised. The root causes are often to be found in other factors, such as globalization which has led to the general decline of traditional cultures, or due to economic interests and other various tensions.

But notwithstanding the core reasons, the Muslim communities have received the heat for much of it, as some have come to believe that this decline and various types of societal taboos have been instigated by Muslims demanding unreasonable privileges for their group. It is very important therefore to both highlight the real root causes for this, as well as keep a cool head, listening and responding with insight and understanding. If not, we will most likely see this downward spiral become the norm during this decade.

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