Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans Köchler
Life Fellow, International Academy for Philosophy
Chair for Political Philosophy, University of Innsbruck, Austria
President of the International Progress Organization
Member of the International Advisory Board, “Youth for the Alliance of Civilizations” Initiative
Islamophobia and Politics in Multicultural Societies
Statement delivered at the International Conference
Beyond Religious Differences:
Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination based on religion or belief:
Consequences on young people and youth work responses
jointly organized by the
Islamic Conference Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation (ICYF-DC)
European Youth Forum
Council of Europe / Directorate of Youth and Sport
Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO)
Ministry of Youth and Sport of Azerbaijan
Baku, Azerbaijan, 5 November 2008
I.P.O. Online Publications
International Progress Organization, A-1010 Vienna, Kohlmarkt 4, Austria
© International Progress Organization, 2008
Scope and concept
The phenomenon described by the term “Islamophobia” is more than a simple – almost “innocent” (as some might wish to portray it) – “fear of Islam;” in many of its aspects and in various social and political constellations, it is actually anti-Islamism what we are confronted with. As a specific form of social intolerance, it can structurally be compared to other forms of xenophobia and outright racism, including anti-Semitism.
As irrational fear and rejection of “the other,” Islamophobia is more than just an expression of religious intolerance or ideological dogmatism vis-à-vis another world view and value system. As explicit negation of the equal rights of Muslims to express their religious and social identity, Islamophobia is intrinsically evil and in total contradiction to human dignity. Furthermore, in contemporary Europe, Islamophobia has become a channel to express traditional anti-Arab and anti-Turkish sentiments. The spread of Islamophobia worldwide – and in the West in particular – gives rise to questions about the universal enforcement of human rights and, subsequently, the credibility of governments and international organizations in the pursuit of this task.
Islamophobia as political factor: the state of affairs at the beginning of the 21st century
Recent developments have made obvious the enormous challenges posed by the spread of Islamophobia to societies that tend to perceive themselves as democratic and as committed to the basic standards of human rights:
– In the Western world, Islamophobia has gone far beyond its “traditional domain,” namely the sentiments related to Europe’s confrontation with the Muslim world several centuries ago and, more recently, the emotions stirred up as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
– As expression of an outright anti-Islamist agenda, Islamophobia has entered the political and social mainstream. Political parties are stirring up and using Islamophobic sentiments for electoral gain. Islamophobia has indeed become part of the “political game” as the success of parties with an outright anti-Muslim agenda has repeatedly demonstrated, most recently in Austria. This is further illustrated by the fanatic campaigns that have recently been conducted by certain political parties and civil society groups against the building of mosques – indeed against anything that is considered to be a symbol of Islam or expression of Muslim identity.
– For that reason, Islamophobia cannot anymore be dismissed as merely a phenomenon of fringe groups or the far right. Islamophobic positions are also adopted by some “liberal” ideologues and intellectuals and, through them, have entered the mass media and made, in the view of many, the hatred and rejection of Islam socially acceptable – or “politically correct.”
– The events of the year 2001 in the United States have triggered a new wave of Islamophobic sentiments that in turn have been instrumentalized for wars against Muslim countries – a confrontation that has even further alienated those countries from the West and aggravated anti-Islamic stereotypes.
– In spite of well-intentioned campaigns by some governments and groups of civil society, the increase of the Muslim population in Europe has been accompanied by an increase not only of anti-Islamic sentiments, but of violence against Muslims and Muslim institutions. Because of the ever more hostile “denial of reality” and rejection of Muslim rights by influential political groups, the demographic aspect raises questions as to the internal stability of Europe’s multicultural societies in the medium and long term.
Quid nunc, Europa?
Solemn declarations in favour of dialogue and mutual respect will not be enough in a situation which is characterized by a further alienation of the Western mainstream from the Muslims living in their midst. Regrettable as this may be, it is by now an established fact that important sectors of Western society have fallen back into the world view of a much earlier era. When it comes to the perception of Islam and how to relate to citizens with Islamic faith, the danger of the West’s descending into a new dark age of irrationalism is only too real. There exists indeed a real danger of both sides getting trapped in a vicious cycle of mutual misunderstanding.
What is needed is a new campaign of Enlightenment about non-Western civilizations, in particular non-secular world views such as that of Islam. The basic contradiction underlying Islamophobia is only too obvious in the context of Europe’s modern “political correctness” that, to some extent, is the legacy of the continent’s colonial past, characterized by ideological arrogance: the rejection of Islam in the name of rationality (λόγος) is, in many respects, intrinsically irrational – since it dogmatizes the Western claim to “modernity” and denies that quality to any non-Western civilization, first and foremost Islam, as if the West had the doctrinary and definitional privilege in matters of rational thought. In many discourses, secularism has indeed become a surrogate religion.
In view of this ideological dimension of the problem, Europe is facing a major educational challenge which has become even more serious due to the strong support, witnessed in some countries, of young people for political parties with an anti-Muslim agenda. (In last September’s parliamentary elections in Austria, almost 50% of the youngest voters supported the two right-wing parties that had gained notoriety, inter alia, with their incitement of xenophobic, especially anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim, sentiments and with a campaign of hatred juxtaposing Europe’s “Christian” values with the supposedly irrational world view of Islam which was presented as being incompatible with Christian “humanism.”) A special responsibility lies with the Christian churches to contain the hatred that has been spread “in the name” of Christianity. Church leaders must not allow the hijacking of their religion by extremist groups and for shortsighted electoral advantage. Religious education in elementary as well as secondary schools should pay special attention to this development. School textbooks will have to be amended in many respects. Furthermore, political education must sensitize the youth about the equal rights of all religious communities and must address the issue of ideological extremism of political parties that thrive on a xenophobic agenda.
Furthermore, all available political and legal means will have to be used to stem the tide of Islamophobia. Double standards in interpretation and legislation have to be abolished; when the challenge is to oppose extremism and intolerance in all its forms, Islamophobia must not be left out from legislative regulation. No freedom of expression can be claimed for an ideology of hatred and incitement that negates the very notions of religious freedom and equal rights, and undermines the multicultural foundations of Europe and the West, thus jeopardizing the stability of entire nations and endangering global peace. In view of the demographic realities, Europe will not have a bright future – i. e. a peaceful future – if it is not able to stem the tide of xenophobic, and in particular Islamophobic, sentiments.
Hans Köchler’s initiatives and writings on civilizational dialogue: