Societies have an unfortunate tendency to isolate and treat the Other in ways that often lead to actions ranging from discrimination to human rights violations to deaths. Examples throughout history are all too numerous. To take the 20th and 21st centuries alone we can cite the Holocaust, the Rwandan and Armenian genocides, internment camps in Canada and the US in WWII and the current European angst over refugees.
The fear of the Other generally stems from ignorance and misunderstanding as well as concern that those who are different pose a threat to the status quo, ranging from a loss of employment and cultural dominance to an actual risk of violent acts.
While these fears may be entirely irrational and baseless – think the blood libel leveraged against Jews for centuries – some do have some grounding in real events. This is particularly true with the current rage of Islamophobia in Europe and North America. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 as well as the ongoing threat of more attacks in the West have many people legitimately frightened. While the anxiety over terrorism is wildly disproportionate to the actual threat level it is nonetheless an understandable response to a real issue. Terrorist attacks have taken place all over Europe, as well as in Canada and the US, over the past few years and all signs point to more on the horizon, especially as Western so-called Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters return to their homes.
This wave of terrorism (to use David Rapoport’s framework) is religious in nature and it is necessary to see Islamist violence within this context. The fact that those who espouse this violent ideology do not practice normative Islam is irrelevant to the vast majority who know little about Islam. The fact that Islamist extremist groups use Islamic texts and imagery to justify their violence only confirms in the minds of many that Islam is inherently linked to terrorism.
The range of actions that stem from Islamophobia vary from place to place. According to some sources anti-Islamic rhetoric leads to unprovoked attacks on visual manifestations of Islam – women wearing hijabs for instance. Whether or not one can link the rise in assaults to such rhetoric is difficult to say although statistics do seem to support the claim that attacks of this nature have increased in recent years.
There has also been a noticeable spike in the perceived acceptability of Islamophobia as expressed by political leaders. Donald Trump can get away with calling for a ban on Muslim immigration and threatening to kill the families of terrorists while Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has repeatedly called for the banishment of the Quran and the shuttering of mosques. In Canada, the previous Conservative government tried to bring in legislation known as the “barbaric practices” act, a thinly veiled attempt to make certain practices associated with Islam illegal. The growing strength of rightwing political parties in Europe – France, Hungary and the UK are but three examples – contains within it strong Islamophobic currents.
We in the West cherish our freedoms, none more so than the freedom of expression. It is rightfully legal to express opinions that are anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant (the two are not synonymous but there is a conflation in recent years) but one could argue that giving voice and importance to Islamophobic views is actually contributing to a decrease in our collective security. The link between Islamophobia and national security can be analysed in several ways.
a) Islamophobia creates societies where immigrant populations are made to feel as if they are not part of greater society. Once this takes root, those on the outside probably feel less tied to the welfare of their (adopted) society and thus see little need to protect it. This has significant implications for cooperation with security intelligence and law enforcement agencies as those affected are less likely to report individuals believed to be radicalising to violence, or, in the worst case scenario, planning terrorist acts. If populations do not believe that the greater society accepts them as legitimate members there is a greater chance that they will lose faith in that society’s institutions.
b) A feeling of exclusion may be a contributing factor to the decision to embrace violent ideologies. Groups like IS repeatedly remind Western Muslims that they do not belong in the West (hence the urging to perform hijrah to the Caliphate) and that the West does not want them. A sense of rejection could reinforce the rhetoric proclaimed by terrorist groups. It is not possible to say, however, that the relationship between prejudice and violent radicalisation is a linear one: radicalisation is a complex process that has defied categorisation despite hundreds of studies. Models over predict and under deliver. Nevertheless, telling someone that s/he does not belong is not conducive to productive citizenship.
c) The belief that whole Muslim communities are supportive of terrorism takes attention away from the actual threat. If populations see everyone in a shalwar kameez or a niqab as a potential terrorist, that could spur them to report every suspicion they have to the authorities. Even if the latter do not elect to investigate every alleged terrorist, the information has still to be processed, analysed and – usually – thrown away, all of which takes time and resources. In the meantime, real threats may not receive the necessary response. Security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are already inundated with real dangers and do not need to waste time on contrived threats.
Muslim communities themselves can deal with Islamophobia in positive and proactive ways even if they are understandably tired of constantly denouncing terrorism. They can continue to educate Western societies on normative Islam. Islam in the West is not a new phenomenon and yet ignorance of it is still high. They can go above and beyond what is expected in cooperating with authorities in identifying both those at risk of violent radicalisation as well as those bent on wreaking havoc. Finally, they can take those in their communities who advocate hatred and intolerance (Salafis as well as violent extremists) and make it clear that the views of the minority do not reflect the desire of the majority to adapt to life in the West.
Islamophobia is a type of ignorance and prejudice. History tells us that these two human weaknesses are always present in every society. We can, however, fight against our instincts to see the Other as threat. In the interests of national security we must.