the Blog Papers of Dr. Michael Sakbani; Economics, Finance and Politics

Dr. Michael Sakbani is a professor of economics and Finance at the Geneva campus of Webster-Europe. He is a senior international consultant to the UN system, European Union and Swiss banks. His career began at the State university of NY at Stoney Brook,then the Federal Reserve Bank of New York followed by UNCTAD where he was Director of the divisions of Economic Cooperation, Poverty Alleviation, and UNCTAD`s Special Programs. Published over 100 professional papers.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Islamophobia in the contemporary Scene

Islamophobia in the Contemporary Scene

ByDr. Michael Sakbani

Text of a collogue given at Webster University
24 November 2010.

Anybody who applies these days for an immigration visa or for just a tourist visa to most countries will find out that being a Muslim, no matter who he might be, arouses suspicions and calls for extra scrutiny by the receiving country. For example, several years ago, the US drew up a list of countries whose citizens should be subjected to extra scrutiny and whose visa applications should be processed under special procedures. This list of more than thirty-five states had only three non-Muslim countries. Among the countries included were Turkey, a staunch NATO member, Indonesia, a strong ally of the US and Nigeria, the largest African country, close to half of whose population are non-Muslims. It is now customary to resort to profiling Muslims for security checks in airports.
Countless examples are reported every regularly about discrimination in hiring and housing suffered by Muslims in European countries, even when the persons involved are often bona -fide native citizens of the countries in question. Such examples are reported, in France where Muslims have immigrated since the beginning of the Twentieth Century and Germany where one finds today third-generation German Turks.
Sociopolitical manifestations of Islamophobia also abound. It is reported recently that in a small town in Tennessee, USA, an application for a local mosque was denied, for fear of potential terrorism, to a local community some of whose members have resided peacefully with their neighbors for thirty years. In New York City, an application for building a cultural, multi-faith Islamic center in downtown Manhattan faced a political storm by those who believe that 9/11 was a terrorist incident for which the Muslim community is collectively responsible. Worse, the right-wing populist parties in Europe have generally found a selling plank in anti-Muslim political slogans and anti-Muslim demagoguery. In Switzerland, a referendum to ban minarets passed with a majority vote. It was preceded by publicity showing Minarets as missiles and Muslims in Switzerland as black sheep. Under the cover of freedom of speech, cartoonists and personalities in the public domain in half a dozen European countries, have deliberately and gratuitously, insulted the prophet of Islam and depicted him as a terrorist and a war criminal. In the US, Glen Beck, a Fox news demagogue, said on his radio program that 10% of Muslims are terrorists. The arithmetic works to about a hallucinatory 160 million terrorists.
Such depictions of Muslims found their way to the press, which has contributed to the stereotyping of Muslims. For example, when the Pope visited England in the fall of 2010, a group of street cleaners working for a street cleaning company was arrested on a precautionary basis by the London Police, because they came from Algeria. The populist London Press published full front-page headlines screaming": Muslim Plot to Kill the Pope". The news that the Police released these street cleaners with no charges two days later went as a minor news item hidden inside the various papers.
This phenomenon of Islamophobia is a cause of concern, not only because it is based on ignorance, fear of the other and unfounded assertions, but more importantly, because it is directed at 1.6 billion people, 23%, of the human race. If there is concern about future risks to humanity and world peace, then Islamophobia must head the list of dangers.

What explains this phenomenon?

Even though Islamophobia has been an underlying phenomenon in Western history, its contemporary manifestation has new sources in which the Muslim world, immigrant Muslims and Jihadi Islamist terrorists have combined to add to the underlying suspicion and rejection. When terrorist Islamists commit their reprehensible acts under the rubric of Jihad and in the name of Islam, the average Westerner cannot be blamed to think, at least initially, that there is something wrong with Islam and its followers. To add to that, there has been until very recently a mute reaction to such acts in the Muslim countries, especially by the Islamic establishment. The impulse of many Muslims to explain why such acts happen and why such Muslims do them only adds to this impulsive Western reaction. Like all other religions, Islam has experienced in its history violent movements with special claims to God`s will or to his ward. The Khawarage come to mind as an example. However, the way these were dealt with was to reject and condemn their actions and their extremist interpretations from within the community led by the religious establishment. Because Muslims feel victimized and aggressed and because they have not had in our era, the power to protect themselves, there is, in some Muslim communities, a perverse culture nurtured by failure which tolerates acts of terror as a form of revenge.
Another background factor is the failure of modernization and economic and social development of many Muslim countries. Pakistan and most of the Arab fall into this category. When the average person in Europe sees every day on TV screens, civil strife, acts of violence, delirious bearded medieval fanatics, fraudulent elections and fabulously rich potentates who have been in power for a generation and are relentlessly working to keep their families in power and riches, a negative image of the Muslim is an expected jerk reaction. It appears to the uninformed that there is something wrong with the minds and culture of these people and their values. Islam then surfaces as a plausible facile explanation.
At a deeper level, however, it should be recalled that the Western heritage of the enlightenment is deeply antithetical to religious dogma and of the encroachment of religion upon every- day life. The average Westerner, especially in Europe, does not think of God and religious dogma in everyday matters. His civic values, even though at harmony with the religious ones, are the product of the enlightenment; they attained their acceptance by the thought of Western Philosophers, intellectuals and scientists, rather than by the Church and its priests. And the choice of what he thinks and acts every day is purely personal. The specter of political Islam as an all-dominating dogma runs counter these accumulated traditions which have forged Western values culturally and politically. This antithetical attitude is also reinforced by the deep rejection of Islam by Christianity. The struggle for authenticity and verity between Islam and Christianity filled medieval history and has marked the relationship between these two close religions; the struggle between twins is vicious because it is about marking their differences.

The Muslim immigrant and the self-image of the Western man:

It is often said that ignorance of the other is the best explanation of prejudice. This is certainly true regarding Islamophobia. The Western historical imagination of the East articulated in part by the Orientalists is a construct devoid of empirical relevance; it is an escape into a world of myth, carnal pleasures and a reconstruction of the East according to the Orientalists and their sponsors. The Muslim in this myth is lecherous, small, amoral and avaricious, a true Hollywoodian caricature. The burden of enlightening this world falls upon the West, whose imperialist domination becomes a civilizing mission. And this dominating attitude has seeped into the average Westerner in his conception of the others, the Muslims and other third world peoples. It has also shaped the average Westerner’s exalted self-image as the inheritor of the achievements of Western civilization. A case in point is provided by Sr. Berlosconi in his occasional ventures into erudite thought when he boasted of the superiority of his Christian values.
Faced with the immigrant, the westerner experiences all these hidden strands in play. But who is the immigrant?
There are in fact three prototypes of immigrants: the highly educated and skilled who integrate into his host culture without notice or difficulty. He might not fully assimilate but his integration into the local scene, regardless of his large numbers, make him irrelevant to the case. There is the second, the non-skilled laborer, the economic immigrant, who has no chance in his underdeveloped native economy. He is likely a peasant, with scant primary education, if at all. Typically, he does not speak well the language when he is first-generation and thus is cut off from the new culture and lives with others like him in a ghetto continuing the sociology of the old village. When his children grow, they either move out of the ghetto and assimilate, or they stay there developing a second-generation pathology in becoming disaffected social marginals. Often, they associate with the subculture and its variousderives”. The third type of immigrant is an Islamist, a political activist, who seeks refuge from the repressive regimes in his native land. He holds ideas that are different from the mainstream and he justifies all means to attain his political goals. His system of belief is based on a selective interpretation of Islam outside the temporal context in which he lives. In the new milieu, the Islamist recruits the disaffected and those who find in militant Islam an identity that proffers self-respect. It is among this very small part of the community where alienation procures extremism and cultural singularity. This type refuses the new culture and refuses to integrate, he stays imprisoned behind the walls of his unquestionable beliefs and his experience of being apart from the Muslim community. He walks the streets with flowing robes and beards, and if female, with integral covers and burkas, unknown until recently in many Muslim countries.
The second and third types are what the average European sees as “the other”. And it is the third type that he associates with Islam and fears the violence of his ideas. These two types express as much the failure of immigration policies in Europe as they express the cultural backwardness of such immigrants and their meager economic circumstances. It would be fair to remark that the reaction of the average uninformed European to these types is not dissimilar than that of the urbane educated Muslim. The difference is simply the ignorance of the indigenous culture and the resultant prejudice and Islamophobia.

What can be done?

Muslims constitute 1.6 billion people, 23% of humanity and Islam is the world's fastest-growing religion. There is a great deal of diversity among Muslims and their understanding of Islam is not uniform. The West has to educate itself on Islam and acquire a better understanding of Muslims; that is demanded by peaceful coexistence. It is imperative that the West teaches the average child a picture of Islam and an image of Muslims rooted in acceptance and free of the Orientalists` distorting prism.
Equally important, is to deal with Muslims, especially those residents in the West, outside security concerns. In this respect, President Obama’s speech in Indonesia and Egypt sounded the right tune.
This paper has shown that breaking up the ghettoization of young Muslims (France, UK, Germany, Holland) and dealing with the disaffected youth in immigrant communities is the most effective means of isolating the political Islamists and warding off their danger. Europe does not have immigration policies and tends to consider the immigrant as a transient element, a guest worker. That is a recipe for disaster. A proper policy should insist, as a matter of public interest, on integration culturally and economically. That is not the same as assimilation, for there are merits and enrichment that comes with pluralist cultures.
One of the most emotive problems to Muslims and Arabs is the Palestinian question. This conflict has festered for a long time and poisoned the attitude of many towards the West. There is a sense of grievance experienced by Muslim s when they see the daily injustice and brutality inflicted on the Palestinians. The West has generally supported Israel and the US in particular has become a partisan in this conflict. Israel and Zionist supporters have had a long hand in fostering Islamophobia in serving Israeli interests. The injustice and double standards of this conflict have provided the most potent argument for Jihadi Islamists to recruit disaffected and impressionistic Muslims into their ranks. Solving this conflict in a just and humane way will dry up this support and rob the extremists of their justification of Jihad. It has become an international public good to force a just solution to this conflict.

For Muslim Countries:
- There is a common acceptance that reforming the public educational curricula in most Muslim countries is a pre-requisite to modernization. The new curricula should emphasize humanist values and free the young student from ignorance of the others. It should emphasize critical thinking of everything, including received traditions. It should root respect for facts and empirical evidence and open the horizons of the young.
- Equally important is to bring religious learning into current times. Learning religion as a script drill and textual interpretation should give way to learning theology, philosophy and comparative religion in addition to received traditions. Religion can neither exist nor thrive separate from man`s sensibility and his relative circumstances.
- The modernization and economic development of the Muslim countries is a condition for avoiding conflict of civilizations and intolerance. However, cultural and sociological transformation is dependent on economic transformation and prosperity. The culture of failure and poverty breeds extremism and alienation. Just as the world launched a joint effort for development in the millennium plan of the UN, it should launch a similar joint effort for the development and modernization of the Muslim countries who want that.
- Democracy remains scarce in the Arab world. It is common to see the same rulers for a generation. Without reforming the political systems and opening the doors of their societies, Governments are a hindrance to their people. These repressive regimes have allowed no room for dissent thereby turning activists into extremists. The Arab world is marching behind the rest of the world in its political systems. The public and its civil society have tolerated repressive and security-minded regimes for a long time. It is the responsibility of the intellectuals, universities and civil society organizations to face the challenge of transforming their governance.

(Geneva, Decmber,10, 2010)