Fighting Islamophobia in the West

Interview with Bashy Quraishy


Islamophobia is one of the most troubling issues of today's world which obstruct the development of inter-religious relationships based on dialogue and understanding and it is being questioned again and again, particularly after the ban of the minarat in Switzerland. In this respect, has asked Bashy Quraishy, an influent activist in Europe, about how and why did the concept of Islamophobia developed and what should be done in order to impede such a  minacious process.

Was there any difference in how the media and NGOs in Europe reacted to the Cartoon Crisis; in particular was there a difference in the perception of whether this was a matter of freedom of expression or an issue of respect of what is sacred- where there any debates on this matter?

First of all, these caricatures did not happen all of a sudden; they were a long time coming. The political atmosphere, political debates, media debates and the man on the street for many many years have been developing a very anti-Islamic rhetoric. The newspaper which published the cartoons is well-known for its anti-Islamic stunts. It was not just anyone who did this; rather, it was a newspaper that is very anti-Islamic and whose editor, in my eyes, is a total nutcase. There was a writer, a school teacher, who writes school books for children; he wanted to write a very insulting book about the prophet. He asked people to draw cartoons. Many cartoonists refused. He claimed that the cartoonists refused because they were afraid. This is untrue, because the Muslims did not know anything about the situation - so how could such an artist be afraid of people who didn't know what was going on? The newspapers claim that this author contacted the newspaper and the newspaper commissioned forty different cartoonists to draw a caricature of Prophet Muhammad. It was not the cartoonists who came to the newspaper, but the other way round. It was like a very well-planned provocation. The other thing that really bothered me was that on the day the caricature was printed, under the caricatures there was a caption stating that Muslims were living in a democratic society and they must learn to be insulted, humiliated and degraded. If the idea of the caricature was to integrate Muslims, as was claimed, is this the way to integrate people? To degrade them and insult them? That is your starting point? That in my eyes was a well planned provocation.

The newspaper refutes itself. They claimed that they did not insult anyone.

Yet, they use this word "insult". Now, the second thing is that in the first six months the Muslim community did everything possible to have a dialogue both with the newspaper and the government, but they refused. The Muslim ambassador wanted to meet the Prime Minister, but he refused; all the time the argument being used was that "We have freedom of speech in Denmark". This is the biggest lie that you can ever hear, because we do not have freedom of speech in Denmark or in any other European country. In Denmark, if I call you racist, you can take me to court and I can be imprisoned. You cannot insult the queen; there is a law in Denmark against hate speech. In the presence of all these laws, in the presence of all these distinctions, how can it be claimed that we have absolute freedom of speech? And freedom of speech is restricted in the constitution; it states "freedom of speech under responsibility" - responsibility to the society, to the group about which you are writing. So I don't understand this argument that the government used. When all the avenues of dialogue and contact failed, some imams went to Egypt and met with the Arab League. But it was not the Muslims in Denmark or in Europe who did this; it was outside forces. So I think that all chances of dialogue were wasted; not by the Muslim community, but by those who were intending to insult them.

While you were talking about how this newspaper refused to publish caricatures about Jesus, I recalled a documentary, which was very one-sided, about the case of Charles-Hebdo.  In France. As you know, they republished the caricatures; their main argument was that "we do not publish caricatures only about Prophet Muhammad, we do the same for Jesus, etc." How do you perceive this case?

I am not a religious person, but I am very much against making fun, be it with cartoons or caricatures, of people who are holy to others. Now, my starting point, what I always ask, is what is the motive? What is the reason for you making a picture of the Prophet as a dog? I can understand that if you write an article which says "I do not agree with what the Qur'an says", that you have every right to say this. But if you say that the Qur'an is a fascist book, this is not a criticism, this is defamation, an insult. What good does it do? I wrote an article in Politiken which  is the second largest newspaper and I said to the editors if these cartoons had helped to integrate Muslims in Denmark, then they should publish more cartoons. If it has helped to make those very religious forces among the Muslims more tolerant, then produce more cartoons. Or, if it has established bridges between Danish people and Muslims, then more cartoons. But ask yourself, have they achieved this? No, it is the opposite. If the purpose was to raise awareness among the Muslims that this is a free country, and we want you to be part of it, then you went about it in the wrong way. I simply do not believe that any individual has the right to insult a whole community. I don't believe in that. And you may not believe it, but if I say something against Danish politicians or administration they jump on my neck and say "How dare you say that"? What then has happened to my freedom of speech? Freedom of speech today in Europe is only for the white Christians, not for anyone else. That in my eyes is wrong. Freedom of speech should be for everybody or for nobody. That is a misuse of freedom of speech. A very respected former foreign minister said "O.K., these people have freedom of speech; they have a right to express their opinions. But they don't have to."

So in this context, in your opinion, what is the most significant problem in Europe? Is it the misuse of freedom of expression or prejudice?

Arrogance. Speaking as a politician, I think that as most European countries had colonies they still really believe that they are superior to others. They sincerely believe that they are superior to others. As long as they have this mindset, this colonial hangover, the situation is not going to get better. The problem does not lie with the community; it lies with those who have power. In the end it is the European politicians and the media who have power. I have no power.  As long as this balance of power is unequal they can say whatever they like and this is what they do. There are grave consequences. I hope that the European politicians are aware of what they are doing and that they are aware that the misuse of freedom of speech is very wrong; I always give the example of being invited to a dinner. I go to the house and ring the bell, but there is nobody at home. I'm knocking but nobody comes. I can hear them, I can hear the music and smell the food, but they aren't opening the door. What kind of invitation is that?

What do you think of the recent developments in Switzerland? It seems like the right of democracy is also being abused by the democracy itself.

I call this the dictatorship of the majority. Look, people in Europe in forget that the fundamental of democracy is that everyone has equal rights. Cultural rights, social economical rights and religious rights. People must respect those rights; if you do not respect the rights of the minority, what kind of democracy is this? In any real democracy such laws could never be passed. The second thing is that the politicians today are so scared of losing elections that they do not look more than four years ahead. That is why in Switzerland all the main stream parties kept quiet, not saying anything to the right wing party - it was the right wing party that started the complaint. The main stream party did not start it, but they let it happen. This is political expedience and also there is this arrogance that we can say what we like and the minorities have to accept it. As long as we have this mindset this will continue. In a few years they will also pass a law that there should be no mosques. What would we do? They country has the votes in the parliament and they can do that.

What should Muslims do? What lessons should we learn?

The first lesson is that the Muslims communities and countries are useless when it comes to creating a reaction. They talk a lot, but they don't act. I'll give you an example. The Saudi princes have more money in Swiss banks than anybody else. If the Saudi government were to say, ok have your referendum, but we are going to move this money to Turkey, within five minutes they would have stopped. We do not know how to fight for our rights. As long as Muslims are standing in separate corners and not helping each other this situation will continue and people know that. So the first thing is there should be awareness that this is not one issue; it will continue. If we don't do anything it will be a big problem for our community. The second thing is that the Muslim countries outside Europe must support the people who are living in Europe and America. They need the support that other communities have. If you do something to an Indian, India will come down like a hammer. You cannot dare to say anything against an Indian. They will come after you. The third thing is we need to somehow start a movement in Europe, not based on religion, but based on rights. Every time something happens in one country then all the Muslim communities in Europe have to stand up and say "This is not acceptable" and do something active. There are many things one can do. Not just demonstrations. We can hold boycotts and many other things if we want to. If you demonstrate that 20,000,000 Muslims are very concerned by this development we will have a greater chance. And they should vote. They should somehow raise awareness among Muslims about the vote; don't vote for those parties who don't support you. Vote for those who support you. In some countries the Muslims have started to form their own political parties. This might be right or it might be wrong, but I think that political engagement is very important. In Europe you can't throw stones, you have to throw votes. We have to do that. Another thing Muslims should do is to discuss issues in the media. There are many educated young people. I see very few Pakistanis, Moroccans or Iranians who write; media involvement is very important for us to put forward our own point of view. Today you can make a website, go on facebook; it doesn't cost anything; start writing, and name and shame those people who are doing things. Many European politicians don't like to be named and shamed.

What do Muslims lack in this respect? Your answer leads us to think that Muslims lack awareness.

First there is a lack of awareness and a willingness to cooperate. Also it is imperative that the youth understand that they live here and that it is their continent; therefore it is very important that they demand these rights. Nobody is going to give them these rights. They have to fight for those rights so that they can have them. That means struggle and political activism. That is why I say there should be think tanks and media centers. This is very important in many big cities. There should be media centers where young people can give one or two hours a week. There are many young people who can help, who can take part in the debate, who can go to the television and radio, newspapers. Visible involvement is necessary.

Apart from all these negative developments there is also a trend, for ezample  in Denmark a number of people being curious about Islam and people converting to Islam. How can we explain this, while there is still this great fear of Islam?

There are two reasons why they are getting involved. The first is that when people notice that a religion is getting attacked, then they are interested. What is the problem, why is everyone attacking this religion? Is there more we should know? Once they start studying they make up their own minds. The second thing today is that many of the people who convert today are young people. In Europe the lifestyle is such that they have a lot of freedom and sometimes they don't know what to do with this freedom. They need structure in their lives. When they are confronted with Islam, they find that it is a very structured religion and this appeals to them. That is why Islam is very popular among young people.

Will this increase in interest in Islam influence this process?

In the very long term. The number of conversions is not that great. Also converts either become very religious or they become very private. What we need is activists. People who will talk about the spirit of Islam, what Islam means to them so that people realize that it is not just prayer and fasting, but also an economic system, a justice system; there are many things in Islam that people don't know about. While it is a positive thing that young people are converting, we should not wait for that to take effect.

Is there an organization to bring these people together? To help them?

They are talking about making an organization for converts from different countries, but the problem is that the situation as to how people accept Islam is so different in different countries. It would be better to make an organization of Muslim NGOs. Or Muslim activists who can do something practical.

I want to turn to the concept of Islamophobia. You state that this concept dates far back in time. Was the word Islamophobia used at that time?

Islamophobia is a new word.  The Runnymead trust in the UK made a report in which they talked about Islamophobia. But the concept of anti-Islamic propaganda is very old. I call it the demonization of Islam. This started right from the beginning of Islam. Both by the Church, which was afraid of losing power and by the kings, who were losing taxpayers, and by political movements as well...I'm not oblivious to the fact that this is a natural reaction; however, this reaction was carried out in a very distasteful way and it was not done so that one side produced an argument and the other side produced an argument and these arguments would fight it out. They acted directly against the Prophet, presenting him as a demon, as a sex hungry man and other such nonsense to discredit him and thus discredit Islam.

You use the word Anti-Islamic hatred. I would also like to ask, there are some critics who state that using the term Islamophobia legitimizes the concept itself. Thus, if we focus too much on the concept of Islamophobia would this create nervousness and more conflicts?

Yes. But when you have a headache and you go to the doctor, what do you tell him? You say you have a headache. You don't say you have a pain in your leg. No matter what you call it, hatred against Islam is a fact. I don't think that Muslims should be afraid of peaceful confrontation. Confrontation often results in a better understanding. Keeping quiet is worse in my opinion. I think that discussion about anti-Islamic feelings, anti Islamic rhetoric and 9/11 also creates an awareness in the Europeans of the presence of Muslims in Europe and in that respect it is ok. I hope that this is done in a positive way, not in a negative way. A Chinese politician said, it doesn't matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the  mouse. Catching the mouse in this context means that people live in peace; no one is insulting anyone, no one feels superior to others. This applies to us too; Muslims should not say bad things about European culture; we shouldn't say they are immoral, naked, porno...blah blah blah. As long as I am allowed to live in a peaceful respectful manner, I have no problem with what you are doing. I am not a crusader; I am not a cultural ambassador. They can do what they want as long as they don't force me to do the same. But I want the same rights, the same respect. I carry out the same duties, why shouldn't I have the same rights? This is what I want. For me this is the whole idea of democracy.

You also mention that disparaging Islam was calling it Islamism or Muhammadism; that is, showing it not as a religion, but as an ideology. Why do people avoid facing the fact that is a religion but try to show it as an ideology.

Among the Muslims there are people who say that Islam is not a religion, but a way of life. A way of life can be many things. To some people it is a religion. I personally believe that it is a religion like Christianity and Judaism, and it is a private affair between you and your God. I don't run around with my Islam on my shoulder. For me what is important is, whether it is a private affair or a public affair, it must be respected. If I treat you right, then I should be respected, whether I am a Muslim or not a Muslim. But if I am disrespectful to you and I mistreat you, then I am not doing that because I am a Muslim, but because I am a bad person. But in Europe it's the opposite. If you do something good, you're a European. If you do something bad, you're a Muslim. I think this comparison should stop.

Your recent book is called "Danish identity seen through brown eyes." There is a reference to rascism or ethnicism here...

The title of the book is self explanatory. I have tried to look at Danish society from a non-White perspective. I didn't want to use the phrase "non-White" because it seems discriminatory, so I said "brown eyes"; it's a political concept. When looking at Danish society from the eyes of those people who are not white and Christian and who have come from outside, having lived in Denmark for many years, I was surprised that the longer people lived in Denmark the less comfortable they felt. Usually, in other societies, it is the other way round. The longer you live somewhere the more comfortable you are; you have more friends and acquaintances and you learn the culture and society; but the people I interviewed, most of them were very successful, had inter-racial marriages, good jobs families, money, everything. All of them said the more they knew about Danish society the less they felt that they were part of it. It's a curse to know too much. It is really bad to be aware. That is why I called it "Danish identity seen from Brown Eyes" because identity to me is personal. I have twenty different identities, which I use as I need them. But which one I use when should be up to me, not dictated by the society; however, in Denmark and many European countries they define who you are, without asking you. I think this is a very big mistake.

So the argument that we are living in a more globalized world in which there are no boundaries is not true at all?

There are invisible boundaries. Boundaries are always there in every society. I am sure that someone living in Turkey for forty years, for example, will slowly learn the language, get to know the people, have friends and become part of the society. It's very eastern; if you go to Iran, Morocco and Pakistan you see many different ethnic groups living together for centuries. In Europe they weren't used to living with black people; they were used to living with each other. So when black people came to Europe all of a sudden they had to say "Who are these people? Yesterday they were our servants; they were our colonized people. Today they want to sit at the same table with us."

That is the problem. As long as the Europeans do not treat the minorities with equality and respect they will have the same problem.

How does this influence your activities in the media and in the NGOS. What is their reaction towards you?

They hate me; they hope that I will disappear.

Is there no support from Danish people?

No, there is a lot of support in Europe and Denmark. People are not the problem. I have never said being European is bad. You can always talk with people. When you smile, when you shake hands; if I am on the bus and there is an old man or woman behind me, I always make way for them. But the problem is the politicians and the media. I have a lot of support. Absolutely. Some say good things, some say bad things But I'm not worried about that; I believe that what I am doing is right. I'm not hurting anybody; I'm not violent, I don't have a knife in my pocket. Isn't this what the European wants? That I should integrate and speak the language? I came to Denmark already speaking six languages and a university degree. They should be thankful that I want to contribute and that I have spent twenty-five years working voluntarily. What else could they want?

Who is Bashy Quraishy?

Bashy Quraishy was born in India, but grew up in Pakistan. He has studied Engineering in Germany and USA, and later studied International Marketing in London. Quraishy is the member of a number of Commissions, and Working Groups involved with human rights, ethnic equality issues and anti-discrimination work, both in Denmark and abroad. On the Danish level, Quraishy is the Chief Editor of MidiaWatch, which is a quarterly magazine on media and minorities, Chair of media monitoring organisation, Fair Play and member of the Danish Human Rights Institute's Council. On the international level, Quraishy is the President of ENAR - Brussels which is the largest EU network against racism with over 600 member organisations, member of the "Board of Trustees" of the Dutch Foundation " More colour in the media" and board member of international foundation" Education for life" based in Israel.

Quraishy contributes regularly to the Danish and European press with essays, cronicals and TV debates as well as holding lectures on various issues concerning ethnic minorities in the western world, multiculturalism, globalization, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, racism and resistance and integration's dilemma in Europe.

Quraishy is the author of 6 books on Ethnic Minorities in EU, Racism, ethnic equality, Pakistani community in Denmark and Western media's coverage of Islam. His seventh book has just been printed and is called "Danish identity- seen through brown eyes".



There are no comments to this article. Click here to write the first comment.