THE decision made by the governments of Ma-laysia, Turkey, and Pakistan on the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly to jointly establish an English television channel to counter Islamophobia in the West is very timely.
I have written in this column on how the debate on Islam and Muslims in the West has been shaped and largely determined by the secular-liberal ideals of European enlightenment which cannot accommodate a non- Western religion such as Islam.
This skewed discourse on Islam in the West is being actively promoted by an Islamophobia industry that manufactures hatred of Muslims.
Pushing back against this narrative is not easy because Islamophobia did not suddenly come into being after the events of 9/11.
Like anti-Semitism and xenophobia, it has long and deep historical roots.
Its contemporary resurgence has been triggered by the significant influx of Muslims into the West in the late 20th century, the Iranian revolution, hijackings, hostage taking, and acts of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe.
A USA Today-Gallup Poll last year found that a substantial number of American minorities admit to having negative feelings or prejudices against people of the Muslim faith.
Similarly, statistics and attitudes documented by a number of research institutions all point to an alarming increase in Islamophobia in the West.
The European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, for example, had documented that there were increased and widespread acts of discrimination and racism against Muslims in 15 European Union member countries following 9/11.
In a follow-up report in 2008, the Runnymede Trust concluded that Islamophobia was a pervasive feature of British society and characterised media reporting on Muslims and Islam as biased and unfair.
It should be noted that those who speak out on the issue of Islamophobia often do so at great risk.
The network of Islamophobia industry is quick to smear and slander anyone that would challenge them, and counter their hateful messages with calls for equality, justice, and religious freedom.
The Islamophobia industry may be driven by a relatively small network of individuals and organisations but the extent of their reach and consequences of their programmes engender anti-Muslim hate within vulnerable groups of people who, once tuned in to such propaganda, join their ranks.
The prejudices they generate are not of little consequence.
They are no longer a fringe element that can be dismissed. They have managed and continue to attach Islamophobia permanently to the banner of right-wing populism that it is fast becoming structurally identical to anti-Semitism and other such institutionalised hatreds.
The anti-immigrant drumbeat about the impending demise of Europe’s religious and cultural identity in the face of Islamic threat has been aided by media coverage that lumps diverse identity, demographic, economic, and social conflict issues together under the umbrella of religion.
Rioting in French ghetto areas inhabited by North African Arabs is portrayed as Muslim rather than as protests against poverty and hopelessness.
Muslim boycotts in London protesting Danish cartoons that depicted Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban and conflicts over the hijab in France, Turkey and Denmark are seen exclusively as religious issues rather than also as issues of civil rights and freedoms, such as the women’s right to dress as they choose.
Because European Muslims are defined simply in terms of their faith, these problems and issues are incorrectly seen as ‘Muslim issues’ when in fact, given their nature and primary causes, they require social, not religious solutions or policies.
Extravagant fantasies about war and erosion of civil liberties of minority groups are amplified by the Islamophobia industry, then reproduced by powerful policymakers and world leaders whose decisions, if coloured by toxic misrepresentations, have the potential to change lives in catastrophic ways.
Muslims and Islam are not to be feared, any more than blacks, Jews, Catholics or any other group that faces systematic discrimination.
There is a great urgency to resist and counter those whose aim is to divide humanity into minority blocs, pitting them against one another and gambling with people’s freedom for the sake of politics or profit.
A common charge both with regard to Muslim-West relations and the integration of Muslims in both the United States and Europe is that Islam is incompatible with the realities of modernity and Western culture and values.
This narrow scope of a liberal political system that defines secularisation as the only and normative emancipatory power in the modern world marginalises Islam and Muslims in a world of Western modernity.
With the privatisation of religion under the secular framework of Western modernity, there is little or no accommodation for Islam, which is then subjected to the historical specificities of each respective nation’s Christian, secular experience.
The current attitudes towards Islam and Muslims determine the limits of multiculturalism in Europe and in the US and that a proper understanding of such phenomena as Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslim is needed now more than ever.
Setting up an English-speaking channel to counter Islamophobia is the first step in challenging biases and hatreds against Muslims that had been ingrained in the West for centuries.
The writer is director at Centre for Policy Research and International Studies Universiti Sains Malaysia