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There are No Simple Reasons for Islamophobia
The international edition of al-Jazeera recently published an article about the increase of 'Muslim cleansing' around the world. The author, Professor Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University, begins with an overview of islamophobic events worldwide; he then proposes that they are the ultimate result of "the rise of islamophobia in the US and Europe rooted in historic hatred of Islam and Muslims in the European context". Moreover, he relates it to antisemitism in Europe and states that "that European disease has shifted its target [from Jews to Muslims] and become global".
There can be no doubt about the deep ideological differences between Modernity and Islam, or about the mutual distrust that is the result of those differences. However, reducing them to simplistic explanations such as 'historic hatred' does not help to understand the situation. It is instead an obstacle to better understanding.
The contemporary increase of anti-Islam feelings and opinions in Sweden may serve as a useful case-study in this respect, and as a way to broaden the analysis of the reasons for real or perceived islamophobia. It can safely be said that there was no historical hatred of Islam or of Muslims in Sweden, neither from people in general, nor from the leading circles in the country. This can be confirmed, for example, by reading the entry for 'Islam' in the late-19th-century issue of the major Swedish encyclopaedia (Nordisk Familjebok).
This positive attitude was also seen during the 1980's when we received large numbers of refugees from Iran and from Iraq, especially after the arrival to power of Ayatollah Khomeiny, and as the result of the war between Iraq and Iran. These refugees were welcomed into our society without any problems. The same applied for the refugees, especially from Bosnia, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
The first substantial instances of anti-Islam feelings began to appear around 2005, but they were marginal at first. When we received an extremely large number of refugees in 2015, and in particular from Syria, but also from several of its neighboring countries, both the government and many volunteer groups cooperated in order to handle both the reception process and the activities for integrating the new-comers into the society.
At the same time, one can not deny that there have been numerous reports of harassment of Muslims during the last ten years, as well as a significant increase of debate articles that are critical or negative against various aspects of Islam, or branches of Islam. Both harassment and criticism is often combined under the general title of 'islamophobia'.
What can then be the reasons for this development, if historic hatred is obviously not a reason? I propose that it is best to understand it as a combination of xenophobia and a cultural clash. A major part of the harassments can be seen as manifestations of xenophobia, and they need not be specific to Muslims. For example, in his memoirs, Zlatan Izetbegovich describes the troubles that he and his companions had to put up with, during their teenage years, in the city of Malmö. (Izetbegovich is a Catholic).
The culture-clash aspect is more complex, and a discussion of how it has emerged in Sweden may be of some interest in a broader context as well. Many conditions and events have interacted in the development during these ten years, and in causing the mutual hardening of positions in some parts of the groups involved. Among these small and large events, there are two specific events that stand out as being particularly significant. First, before our parliamentary election in 2006, a certain Mahmoud Aldebe sent a letter to all the Swedish political parties requesting significant changes of Swedish practices in order to accomodate Muslim rules. Aldebe was the chairperson of the Muslim Association of Sweden at the time, and his demands were said to be fully supported by the Association, although several other Muslim leaders soon stated their disagreement. The proposals were also uniformly rejected by the political parties as being incompatible with the Swedish political system.
The fundamental point in this disagreement was that in his letter, Aldebe requested that the principle of freedom of religion should fully apply to Islam, but at the same time he defined religion in a way that is much broader than what he had seen in Sweden. He objected to our 'individualized' view of religion, and argued that we needed to change it. He wrote: "It is in life itself, with all its socially motivated rules and values, that the religious affiliation is manifested and the religion is practiced". This seems to mean, for example, that if a religion authorizes a man to exert control over his wife and his children, then this control should be confirmed by society as part of the freedom of religion. Such an interpretation would certainly not be acceptable in our country, exactly because of our 'individualized' view of religion.
The other significant event was the ascendance of a new political party, the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), which has strong criticism of dogmatic and political Islam as one of its major political issues. In 2005 they elected Jimmie Åkesson as their new party leader; they did not get enough votes for entering parliament in 2006, but they did reach 5.7 percent of the votes in 2010 whereby they could enter parliament. Their support in the 2018 election was about three times as much.
The rapid increase in support for the Sweden Democrats has evolved concurrently with a development of the attitudes that were first proposed by Mahmoud Aldebe. A variety of Muslim organizations have pursued policies that they describe as a strengthening of the religious identity of their members, and which detractors see as attempts to create a 'parallel society' within Sweden, in opposition to the society at large. The public perception of this development has become increasingly critical.
Several factors have contributed to this shift of opinion. There have been reports of an increasing number of demands for separation of boys and girls in school activities, and for restrictions on school-meal diets. This is perceived as a refusal to integrate, in ways that have not occurred with earlier immigrant groups. Another example of cultural clashes is when women officials, such as women police and women medical doctors encounter men from the Middle East that disregard them blatantly and disobey their instructions. Stories such as these circulate informally and it is difficult to know how frequent these problems are, but it seems clear that they anyway have an effect on a significant part of the general opinion.
There has also been an increasing attention to problems of law and order that are seen, rightly or wrongly, as a result of immigration of Muslims. This includes the too frequent problem of forced marriages. It also includes the problem of so-called 'honour' crimes, where a family member (usually a young woman) is killed for not having conformed to the family's rules of conduct, for example with respect to the choice of friends, or to the dress code. Finally there has been a considerable increase in reported rapes and rape attempts, and immigrants from Muslim countries are strongly over-represented in this statistics.
Some of these incidents have involved non-Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, but the distinction has not always been understood by everyone, so that Muslim immigrants can be affected anyway. Similarly, the law-and-order problems are apparently caused by a minority in the immigrant group in question, but unfortunately they reflect badly on the group as a whole. The culture clashes may be more serious and more deeply felt than the harassments. They are also aggravated by religious leaders who have been sent here from Middle-East countries and who apparently have little understanding of, or sympathy for conditions in Sweden.
When trying to understand the reactions to these problems on the Swedish side, it is important to keep in mind that this country is somewhat extreme in two respects, as shown by international studies: there is a particularly strong emphasis on individualism, combined with a strong trust in the system of governance, including also the acceptance of secularism. Therefore, a doctrine that emphasizes the subordination of the individual under a religious law, under the family, and under a religious community that is separate from the state, will necessarily be met with strong resistance. One can see that this leads to many opportunities for culture clashes.
In this context it has also been worrying to see how conflicts in the Middle East have spilled over into the immigrant communities in Sweden. We have seen conflicts between different groups of refugees, and we have also seen how the Jewish community in Sweden has been under frequent attacks, usually (according to those afflicted) by Muslims or their Swedish sympathizers. This has added to the apprehensions in a significant part of the native Swedish population.
Swedish government and media have tried to alleviate these problems, in particular by restricting the information about the number of violations and the ethnicity of the perpetrators. This policy has been successful in the sense that a large part of the population apparently feel that the problems are under control, but it has also led to the formation of another group that distrusts standard media, relies on other information channels, and promotes real islamophobia. Some of the perceptions of this latter group have been mentioned above.
The difficulties described here are understandable when a community of dedicated Muslims encounters the Swedish society. Some immigrants are not affected, in particular those that accept the secular premise that religion is only a matter between a person and God, in his or her own belief about the same. Those that leave Islam are also not very much affected, of course. On the other hand, with respect to those immigrants that insist on, and promote the political interpretation of Islam, mutual distrust and hard feelings are a natural consequence and a reason for what they call 'islamophobia'.
While it is important to look for viable solutions to these problems, it seems very unlikely that Swedes in general would compromise on the issue of parallel societies, or on the issue of secularism. Our tradition of a single and coherent system of governance has served us well, and countries where different ethnic and religious groups operate quite autonomously seem to have much bigger problems.
Here I have only discussed the situation in Sweden and tried to explain the circumstances that have given rise to negative opinions about Islam in a sizable segment of the population. This can not be said to be the 'fault' of one group or another; it must just be seen as a deep and strong clash of cultures. Other European countries may have a different situation in some respects, but much of what has been said here must apply to them as well.
With respect to the view of Islam in a broader European context, Hamid Dabashi referred to a traditional 'hatred' of Islam here. I do not think this is true, but in any case one must not forget that for many centuries, Islam was an existential threat to European culture. It had conquered previously Christian lands in the Middle East and in North Africa, and it had also extended its control into the Iberian peninsula and into the Balkans. This Muslim advance was not stopped until the end of the seventeenth century, and 'cleansing of Christians' has continued into the present days. Therefore, 'fear' or 'apprehension' must be more adequate descriptions of the historical attitude in Europe, rather than 'hatred'.
The conclusion is clear: explaining contemporary islamophobia as being the result of a 'historical hatred' on the side of Europeans in general is just a way of turning a blind eye to the real issues. Instead, we must discuss our differences openly in order to work towards a solution to the present problems.
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