It’s often said that anti-Semitism continues to exist in Poland even in the absence of a large Jewish community. The recent Polish film Aftermath, about a farmer who uncovers the terrible truth about his village’s treatment of its Jewish community during World War II, makes that point vividly and tragically.
The same can be said about Islamophobia. It too has taken root in countries in East-Central Europe where the Muslim populations are miniscule, like Poland and the Czech Republic. Anti-Islamic sentiment has also flourished in areas further south where the spread of the Ottoman Empire left sizable Muslim communities in Albania, former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Some of this Islamophobia is racism toward indigenous populations; some is xenophobia against immigrants.
“Islamophobia gets all mixed up with chauvinism toward indigenous communities: anti-Turkish, anti-Bosniak, anti-Tatar elements,” Taskin Tankut Soykan told me in a meeting in Warsaw in August 2013 when he was working for the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights as the adviser on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims.
“There are also racist elements mixed in with this,” Soykan continued. “And it’s all somehow linked to historic conflicts. Muslims in the region have been accused of helping the Ottomans during the invasion of the Balkans. They were treated as traitors. In Greece, anti-Turkish chauvinism is mixed with Islamophobia in a way to show how the Greeks were right when they were saying that Islam was a threat to their country and finally the West is recognizing their position. In the meantime, they also spread racism and xenophobia against immigrant communities, with neo-Nazi organizations physically attacking Pakistanis and Middle Eastern people. In Eastern Europe anti-Roma sentiment is also mixed in because many Roma people have Islamic background especially in Southeastern Europe. They are discriminated because they are Roma and because they are Muslims.”
There have been incidents of hate crimes in Poland against Muslims. But perhaps the oddest example of Islamophobia was a demonstration in Warsaw against the construction of an Islamic cultural center that would also include a mosque. Soykan was there to observe the event.
“It was a very strange thing to observe,” he told me. “There was a core group of maybe 100 or 150 people. Many of them were not in fact from Poland. A lot of them were well-dressed middle-class people. They weren’t skinheads. They were part of this loose network called Stop the Islamicization of Europe. Some Polish people attended this event. The real organizers were trying their best to show that they were not racist. They brought in not only Buddhists but also people of African descent so that you could see they were not racist. They were also displaying Israeli flags to show that they were not anti-Semitic. The posters that they were using were not specifically targeting Muslims. They always said that they were trying to target terrorists or radical extremists. On the other hand, they were saying that mosques were places where terrorists are recruited. They also said the Islam is not a religion, but an ideology.”
Despite the protest, the center was eventually built (it is pictured above).
In Bulgaria, meanwhile, the grand mufti sent a list to the OSCE of more than 100 incidents of hate crimes against Muslims. “None of them had been prosecuted,” Soykan reported. “Not even one investigation had been launched. We immediately decided to go to Sofia. We had meetings with civil society organizations from all communities: LGBT, Jewish, Roma, also refugees. All of them were telling us that hate crimes against Muslims were an issue in Bulgaria. But when we started talking to government officials from the ministry of justice and the prime minister’s office, they told us exactly the opposite, that there was no problem, that Bulgaria was a European Union member state, and that such things could not happen in a European country. They were very angry at the office of the grand mufti for sending information to an international organization. They were basically saying that the mufti was lying.”
Soykan met with the vice minister of interior. “I showed him pictures of graffiti, the destroyed gates of mosques, the vandalism of graveyards, and I could see that he was turning red,” he continued. “He was really disturbed. He said that he’d never seen these incidents before. He’d never been informed. But we knew that the European Court of Human Rights had made a number of decisions indicating that the Bulgarian authorities had violated their obligation to look into the motivation of the crimes when they happened. So, the vice minister of justice must have been aware of the situation.”
But out of this effort, the OSCE and Bulgaria agreed to establish a training of law enforcement officials on hate crimes. “Afterwards, we signed MOUs with several other countries, but Bulgaria was the first,” Soykan related. “The program is called Tackle, and now we are training many law enforcement officers. This project in fact is implemented with the police academy. We devise the curriculum and we train trainers, and these trainers start training other police officers.”
Because of the improved communication, Muslims in Bulgaria have begun meeting with the police and chief prosecutor on hate crimes. In addition, an OSCE training module for imams in Bulgaria on recognizing and reporting hate crimes has been adapted for use throughout Europe.
We began by talking about the diversity of the Muslim communities in East-Central Europe and then moved on to discuss media representations, cases at the European Court of Human Rights, and the future of Islam and Islamophobia in Europe.
You mentioned the diversity of the Muslim community here in Poland, and the differences between the indigenous Muslim community and the Muslims who are coming here from outside the country.
This is not just in Poland. In other countries too, there is a similar perception. But it is more visible here. Usually, the Tatars are identified as the indigenous Muslims of Poland. They are well integrated and are considered Polish Islam. They are indeed quite different from Muslims in other parts of Europe or in the Middle East in many respects.
For example a few years ago, there was a visit of a Saudi delegation to Poland to establish commercial relations between the two countries. Poland wanted to show that Islam is part of the culture of the country. They wanted to take the Saudi delegation to visit the Tatar mosque in Bialystok in the eastern part of the country. But when they saw this mosque, the delegation was surprised: the mosque didn’t look like a mosque. It didn’t have a proper minaret. It looked like a kind of church. Nonetheless the delegation wanted to continue.
When they approached the mosque, they saw the imam sitting at a table in the courtyard. They said hello. But when they came close, they realized that he was sitting there with a glass of vodka. This was a huge surprise for the Saudi delegation. They said, “This is not Islam.” But from the Polish side, it was their Islam!
I witnessed something similar when the Organization of Islamic Conference organized a conference on Muslim communities in Eastern Europe. The mufti of Poland was cohosting the event. He came to the opening ceremony with his wife. She was wearing a miniskirt. For many imams and sheiks, this was quite shocking. But for the Polish mufti, this was quite normal.
So, in this way you can also see how the image of Islam is constructed in Poland. Poles always want to distinguish “our Islam” from foreign Islam. If they want to say something negative about Islam, they say that it is external, that it looks different and is coming from the outside. In a way, they are normalizing and legitimatizing xenophobia against certain groups. Immigrant communities always fear that they are isolated because of their religion. Even if they share the same religion as the indigenous people, they feel that it’s not the same and that they can’t be part of the societies. If they want to show their Muslim identity, they feel alienated. That’s one of the reasons why, when they experience hate crimes, they don’t go to the police. They keep it to themselves.
At one point, when representatives of the minister of justice wanted to talk to the Muslim community about hate crimes, they came to me to help with outreach. I talked to the representatives of the mosque in Wilanow, who were so anxious that police officers wanted to pay a visit to the mosque. They thought that if the neighbors saw police officers surrounding the mosque, they would immediately think that the mosque was a dangerous place, that they were doing something bad and that’s why the police were there. For many other Muslims, for Tatars or Turks, this is not a big issue. But Muslims from the Middle East or Indonesia, who more strongly identify themselves with the religion, have this perception. But this is not only specific to Poland. In other countries, you would have similar problems.
For instance, in Moldova a couple years ago, there was a big issue around the registration of the Islamic community. According to the law on religion, in order to conduct religious ceremonies in communities, the religious community had to be registered. If they didn’t get registered, it was actually a crime. The Muslim community wanted to be registered, but the minister of interior refused their application because it was made by Muslims with immigrant backgrounds – Muslims from the outside — who were considered more extremist, even though they never committed any crime. After the refusal of their registration, they wanted to continue their usual community practices. But when they conducted Friday prayers, they were arrested and put in prison.
This couldn’t continue. So, the Moldovans who had converted and become Muslims were encouraged to apply for registration under a different organization, the Islamic League of Moldova. And their application was accepted. But there was a huge reaction from the Communist Party and from the Orthodox Church. They organized demonstrations in front of the main church, also in front of parliament. The government had to step back and reconsider the registration. In this way you can see how the conflict between “our” religion and the “outside” religion plays out. It doesn’t help to promote any kind of tolerance.
You can also see it in Western Europe in the rhetoric and discourse about how to create a European Islam. Of course, in many places in Eastern Europe, there are big indigenous Muslim populations – a Turkish minority in Greece and in Bulgaria, the community in Serbia in Sandjak, the Bosniak community in Bosnia, the Tatars in Ukraine, and all kinds of Muslim ethnic communities in Russia.
Islamophobia gets all mixed up with chauvinism toward indigenous communities: anti-Turkish, anti-Bosniak, anti-Tatar elements. There are also racist elements mixed in with this. And it’s all somehow linked to historic conflicts. Muslims in the region have been accused of helping the Ottomans during the invasion of the Balkans. They were treated as traitors. In Greece, anti-Turkish chauvinism is mixed with Islamophobia in a way to show how the Greeks were right when they were saying that Islam was a threat to their country and finally the West is recognizing their position. In the meantime, they also spread racism and xenophobia against immigrant communities, with neo-Nazi organizations physically attacking Pakistanis and Middle Eastern people. In Eastern Europe anti-Roma sentiment is also mixed in because many Roma people have Islamic background especially in Southeastern Europe. They are discriminated because they are Roma and because they are Muslims.
Have there been hate crime cases here in Poland motivated by Islamophobia?
Yes, there were some incidents. In Bialystok, this year, an Egyptian person was attacked with an axe. He was hospitalized. He had darker skin and looked like he might have been Muslim. You will see and hear this quite often. If you have darker skin and you come from the Middle East, people think that you are Muslim. There are incidents like this, but very few of them make headlines. You have to go to the Muslim community and you have to ask. Then they will tell you. But first you have to explain what a hate crime is. The understanding of hate crimes among Muslims is actually quite low. They think that only brutal attacks are hate crimes. They don’t see that if you are harassed on the bus because you are wearing headscarf it’s a hate crime. Or hateful graffiti. They wouldn’t report it. Even if you ask. You need to talk with them and explain to them what hate crimes are and give some examples, and then you’ll see that many incidents take place.
Usually they don’t take place in Warsaw. It’s mostly in rural areas. Warsaw is becoming a bit more multicultural. The people here are getting used to people with different backgrounds. But still there are some places in Warsaw, like Praga, that are dangerous and you wouldn’t go there if you’re wearing a headscarf. I can give you a list of these incidents. This late September, we will have an annual human rights meeting, and Muslim organizations will organize a side event to discuss hate crimes and provide a more detailed picture.
I read a brief description of an anti-mosque rally here in Warsaw that had strange organizing partners. One of the partners was a Buddhist organization. And they wee working with skinheads.
Yes, this was three years ago. I was there and observed this demonstration. It was a very strange thing to observe. There was a core group of maybe 100 or 150 people. Many of them were not in fact from Poland. A lot of them were well-dressed middle-class people. They weren’t skinheads. They were part of this loose network called Stop the Islamicization of Europe. Some Polish people attended this event. The real organizers were trying their best to show that they were not racist. They brought in not only Buddhists but also people of African descent so that you could see they were not racist. They were also displaying Israeli flags to show that they were not anti-Semitic. The posters that they were using were not specifically targeting Muslims. They always said that they were trying to target terrorists or radical extremists. On the other hand, they were saying that mosques were places where terrorists are recruited. They also said the Islam is not a religion, but an ideology.
And they were careful not to accept Polish skinheads. They gathered in front of the place where the mosque was going to be built and didn’t let the skinheads join them. The skinheads were there but as a separate group. The neo-Nazi skinheads joined in chanting the slogans of the organizers. They were supporting but separately. Also there was a separate group from the Church. So, on the right side were skinheads, and on the left side were bishops from the Church. And in the front was a small group of young anti-fascist Poles mostly from the Left, but very tiny, maybe 20-30 people at the most. Among them were no Muslims. Muslims didn’t dare go there.
Did they do any other actions?
They tried to crowd out the counter-demonstrators. They created a circle where you could only see the people protesting against the building of the mosque. But that was it. They didn’t attack anyone. They didn’t do any violent things. They also wanted to talk with the counter-demonstrators. They were trying to engage. You could see that those people were well educated in a way. They were not coming from the same class as the skinheads.
Did you have a chance to interact in a professional capacity?
No, I was only there to observe. I observed how the police behaving.
What has happened with the plan to build the mosque?
The plan is already there. But they haven’t started yet. And it’s not a mosque. They are trying to build a cultural center. It’s a cultural center where you can pray. There will be a library with a lot of books where you can read about Islam.
Is that something that the Muslim community here is designing? Is it their initiative?
No. It’s more supported by the Gulf States. Of course there are some people and organizations here linked with the initiative. But I wouldn’t say that all Muslims are engaged with this. If you ask them, most of them don’t know of it.
Also, a lot of Muslims go to their own ethnic-based mosques. These are not proper mosques. They’re small houses, but usually for Turks or other ethnic groups. The only multiethnic mosque here is in Wilanow. Muslims from everywhere go there: the people who identify primarily with religion.
You told me that the mufti of Bulgaria approached you about the situation there.
They wrote to us already three years ago. First they gave us a list of more than 100 incidents. They expressed a concern that these incidents were taking place and increasing. None of them had been prosecuted. Not even one investigation had been launched. We immediately decided to go to Sofia. We had meetings with civil society organizations from all communities: LGBT, Jewish, Roma, also refugees. All of them were telling us that hate crimes against Muslims were an issue in Bulgaria. But when we started talking to government officials from the ministry of justice and the prime minister’s office, they told us exactly the opposite, that there was no problem, that Bulgaria was a European Union member state, and that such things could not happen in a European country. They were very angry at the office of the grand mufti for sending information to an international organization. They were basically saying that the mufti was lying.
When I met with vice minister of interior, I showed him pictures of graffiti, the destroyed gates of mosques, the vandalism of graveyards, and I could see that he was turning red. He was really disturbed. He said that he’d never seen these incidents before. He’d never been informed. But we knew that the European Court of Human Rights had made a number of decisions indicating that the Bulgarian authorities had violated their obligation to look into the motivation of the crimes when they happened. So, the vice minister of justice must have been aware of the situation.
Bulgaria was already preparing a draft amendment for the appellate court in order to more effectively recognize hate crimes. The minister of interior expressed interest in getting our help for law enforcement trainings on hate crimes. When we started out the training program on hate crimes for law enforcement, Bulgaria was the first country where we implemented this project. Afterwards, we signed MOUs with several other countries, but Bulgaria was the first. The program is called Tackle, and now we are training many law enforcement officers. This project in fact is implemented with the police academy. We devise the curriculum and we train trainers, and these trainers start training other police officers.
In the meantime, we continued our engagement with civil society. We knew that knowledge of hate crimes in general was quite low, even among Muslims. So, we conducted trainings for imams coming from every mosque in Bulgaria. The muftiate tasked muftis to report on hate crimes to the center. We talked about hate crimes, how they are defined, what are the bias indicators, how you can report them, how to respond. After this training, the reports on hate crimes of the grand mufti of Bulgaria improved a lot. Even now, we show their reports as a good example to other groups that want to prepare an annual report. They made huge progress. Also, they issued brochures and leaflets, circulated them in mosques, even during Friday prayer. The imams preached to the community about what hate crime is, what they can do, why it is important to report.
But we could also see that this was not enough. Things did not stop there. Immediately after this, Ataka started talking in the media that the office of the grand mufti is again betraying Bulgaria by trying to show that the country is a haven for hate crimes. They claimed that Muslims were exaggerating these hate crimes and using it against Bulgaria. This was a kind of defamation campaign in the media. Muslims still want to do things, but this made them scared. They worried about politicizing the issue. They were afraid of more wild attacks.
Also, the election of the grand mufti is a big issue, as it is almost everywhere in southeastern Europe. There is one grand mufti elected by the community. But there is another person who claims that during socialist times he was elected or appointed as mufti, and he was not replaced in accordance with the law. Based on which political party is in the government, the legal mufti is changed. Sometimes the government recognizes the mufti from socialist times, sometimes the other mufti. The Bulgarian law on religion says that you can’t have more than one organization registered for the same community. For Muslim groups there must be only one. This sometimes leads to the blocking of the activities of the whole Muslim community. When this issue became politicized, the government froze all the financial activities of the grand mufti and even closed down the office. It didn’t even let Muslims in some places enter the mosques. Now the government recognizes that the elected mufti is the legitimate one, and now this institution can function. But the problem is not solved. Because the government can intervene whenever it wants.
Has the behavior of the police changed as a result of the trainings in Bulgaria?
It’s hard to see that. Maybe it’s too early. There are still no regular meetings, even ad hoc meetings, between the office of the grand mufti and the ministry of interior. On the other hand, meetings take place between the police and representatives of the Jewish community. But on hate crimes, there are no meetings.
There is a specialized institution – the Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination. It’s a national human rights institution in Bulgaria. In recent years, this institution did some activities to raise awareness of hate crimes in Bulgaria. They organized several events where governmental officials attended along with civil society organizations. When they first organized these events, they invited us, and I asked about other civil society organizations. They never mentioned the office of the Grand Mufti. This institution should have better relations and closer contacts with office of the Grand Mufti.
Have you done any work on the case involving the 13 imams in Bulgaria?
I haven’t done anything in particular, but I am observing the situation. This is an issue that disturbs the Muslim community. The office of the grand mufti is not happy. They don’t feel that the accusations are strong, and they are used as a justification to demonize Muslims in Bulgaria, to show that Muslims are a threat. There are a lot of questions about this investigation. The community is concerned that it will expand. If you are an imam and if you advocate for the rights of Muslims, you can be easily accused of being an extremist. After Ataka’s accusations in the media, a lot of imams were concerned that this investigation on terrorism could be expanded to include more people.
What do you think the role of media in this part of the world, from Poland down to Bulgaria, in representations of Muslims? Have you done any trainings for journalists?
Representations of Muslims in media are influenced by what is happening here and in international discussions. There are a lot of discussions in international news alerts about the “threat of Islam” and “Islamic terrorists.” This also has impact on media in Eastern Europe. And this sometimes goes to an absurd level. In Slovakia or Poland where there are no significant Muslim populations, they may still talk about “the invasion of Czech Republic by Muslims” or the “Islamicization of Poland.” Every incident, such as the discourse related to the construction of the mosque, becomes part of this this “project of conflict” or the “infiltration of Islamists” into the country. Any small incident that might be perpetrated by Muslims is represented as part of a global conspiracy that Muslims are trying to implement. Even a small dispute between a Muslim and non-Muslim in Poland can be part of this big discussion and presented as an example of how Muslims don’t fit into Polish society. Any bad or asocial behavior by a person of Muslim background is said to represent all Muslims. But the cases where Muslims are victims are not reported at all. Hate crimes against Muslims are very unlikely to be reported here in Poland.
The situation is different when you go further south. In countries like Bulgaria, there is a big historic Muslim minority. Bulgaria has the largest Muslim population in Europe in terms of the proportion of the population – almost 10 percent. This already makes some nationalist groups feel insecure. They use this as an alarm for the future of the nation. In the media, news of Muslims is usually associated with disputes between Bulgaria and Turkey. This is also related to what happened during the Communist regime. A lot of reports and opinions expressed in the media justify the forced name changes of Muslims. A lot of politicians express their opinion that this was the right decision because the Muslim population is getting too large.
Some politicians argue that they were never Muslims and were forced to become so.
They are referring mostly to Pomaks. Pomaks are Muslims who speak a language similar to Bulgarian. But the origin of the Pomaks is a very controversial issue.
In all these countries, the rights claims by Muslims in the media are always reflected as part of this conspiracy. If let’s say, LGBT people or Roma want certain rights recognized or want protection against hate crimes, you don’t see a big reaction. But if Muslim representatives say that they have no access to places of worship and are not protected against hate crimes, the media presents these claims as Muslims seeking certain privileges, that they want to be treated separately and build their own parallel society. Rights granted to other communities are not seen as privileges, just part of human rights.
Even when the media recognizes that there are some problems and these problems should be addressed to promote dialogue and mutual understanding, it’s not seen as the promotion of human rights for everyone. When Muslim NGOs and activists claim their rights, they are treated as radical groups. It’s strange because a radical Islamic group wouldn’t use the language of human rights. They would use more religious language. Only the most integrated Muslim NGOs would use human rights language. But if they claim that there’s not enough human rights protection in a European country, they’re treated as irrational: how can they say that there are such problems in a European country? And the media publishes only the voices of religious Muslims, who talk about religion and peace, and not the activists promoting the rights of Muslims.
What do you anticipate to be the future of Muslims communities here? One scenario could be a gradual improvement of human rights situation. Another scenario would be a worsening of conditions in part because of immigration and the rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia. A third scenario would be just tolerance of a separate community.
Islamophobia in Europe will go on. But it depends on the future of democracy and human rights on the whole continent and in East-Central Europe. There is now an ongoing crisis – and we should take this seriously because it’s not just an economic crisis. The political system is also in crisis. People don’t have much trust in political parties, especially the mainstream political parties. This creates a reaction. More and more people are lining up with extreme parties. Society is more polarized. The traditional methods of political participation have lost their legitimacy. We need a more participatory approach extending to all cultural, social, and economic layers of society. Muslim activists should take this challenge more seriously. They should not focus on identity politics. Rather, they should become more active in horizontal civil rights movements. Europe should see more Muslims active in strong human rights organizations, representative trade unions, and mass movements. This would help them to build coalitions that go beyond interfaith dialogue projects.
What you see in Bulgaria is a lot of frustration, a lot of demonstrations against the political system. People are trying to seek solutions outside the established political system. We don’t know where this will go. For example, when there have been huge demonstrations in Bulgaria against corruption, poverty, and other social problems – and these in fact continue – extreme nationalists use this situation to attack Muslims and Roma. The future of democracy and human rights depends on how the European political system will respond to this situation. It has to develop new mechanisms and standards. In Europe, there is a lot of pressure from the government side, from the majority side, to tackle these issues not through human rights but more through dialogue – and this worries me.
Even in Switzerland, after the referendum banning the construction of minarets, all the government officials were saying that the referendum was not a violation of freedom of religion. If Muslims want to pray, there are still places of worship because the prohibition only applies to new mosques. There are four mosques in Switzerland that the government claims are real, with minarets. But they are not real mosques. One of them is a fancy building not used for prayer. Another mosque is part of the Ahmadiyya community, which is not considered Islam by the majority of Muslims. So, in a way there are no real mosques with minarets, and still the government insists that there are four mosques with minarets and the prohibition does not violate freedom of religion.
There’s a lot of funding for Muslim and non-Muslim NGOs to do more inter-cultural dialogue. But what needs to be done is to establish a normative framework in which Muslims feel treated the same way as others. But there’s resistance to this. Even at the Court of European Human Rights, there are a lot of decisions about discrimination against Roma. But there’s not a single decision related to discrimination against Muslims.
Have there been any cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights?
That’s a problem. Muslim NGOs don’t do that. When I talked to Swiss Muslim NGOs after the referendum, I suggested that they bring the case to the European court. They were hesitant. They were afraid that the court could decide in favor of Muslims and create a bigger backlash. This shows that we need not just a discourse about how to understand each other, we need a new discourse of human rights, on how human rights standards can be applied to our current reality in order to accommodate religious and cultural diversity better. This hasn’t been done yet. If we don’t do this, the tensions will continue.
It’s not enough for me to know my religion and my background. This is also what we promote in guidelines for educators. It’s not enough that the educational system provides information about Islam. Teachers must also teach about Islamophobia. You can learn a lot about Islam and Muslims, but you need to know about Islamophobia. It’s like anti-Semitism. You don’t just need to read Torah or the history of Jews: you need to know the history of anti-Semitism. Of course it’s useful to read about the interactions between Muslims and Christians, but we need to learn the history of Islamophobia – and its contemporary manifestations. As long as this is not done, then you’re just dancing around the problem. You can’t combat anti-racism by promoting African culture – this sometimes just reinforces stereotypes. You have to show how racism developed. The same needs to be done for Islamophobia – how it developed, why it has reached this point, and how to counter it.
Islamophobia is also coming more from the side of government as part of their deradicalization programs, which is not helpful. These programs only show that there are some good Muslims and some bad Muslims, and that we need to fight discrimination against Muslims because otherwise they are radicalized. But this doesn’t make sense. Not all Muslims are using bombs because they are discriminated against. And the people who are discriminated against use existing remedies. So, there’s no such relationship. A lot of efforts to combat Islamophobia are connected to fighting extremism, and this is counter-productive. Fighting Islamophobia should be linked to fighting racism and xenophobia and, of course, promoting human rights.
Have you changed your perspective in any way as a result of this work, particularly after coming to Poland?
My position didn’t change so much. When I arrived here, the project set up by my predecessor was to do several resource guides about Muslims in this region. I said I would stop this project and change it fundamentally. The issue was not about Muslims. We should focus instead on Islamophobia. Muslims are so diverse, so there’s a huge chance of making mistakes and creating new stereotypes. We should avoid this. This was my position. In fact I didn’t know that there would be such strong resistance to this. People didn’t want to focus on Islamophobia. They said that when you focus on Islamophobia, people think you are accusing them of being racist and you can’t engage with them. Instead I should focus on explaining who Muslims are.
The resistance came from?
Usually from government officials, and they are of course represented in our organization. When we asked representatives of the ministries of education if they do anything about discrimination against Muslims in the schools, their response is that they have a course on Islam. But they would never tell us what kind of classroom activities they have to deconstruct stereotypes about Muslims. This in a way problematizes Muslims. It gives the message to the majority society that the problem is outside. Islamophobia is the problem of the majority society: it’s not a problem of Muslims. It’s like anti-Semitism, which is not a problem of Jews but of the majority society. I didn’t expect such resistance from circles that usually are considered human-rights-friendly and anti-racist. I thought organizations dealing with racism and xenophobia would be more active in fighting Islamophobia, but they were also quite reluctant.
In the beginning I was quite frustrated. I had quite good hopes. I thought it would be an easy job. We are in Europe where human rights are actively promoted. But I realized that this was a big challenge, and there was no support. A lot of organizations that I thought would be helpful were telling me, “Let’s not talk about Islamophobia in France. We can give you money and funding and support to do these activities in Ukraine or in Moldova or in Georgia.” This lack of motivation among European human rights organizations and experts to do this human rights work in their own countries is a big challenge. They are more focused on Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, but not their own countries.
So, at the beginning I was quite frustrated. But then we worked with Muslim community–based organizations, and they are becoming more and more active. They are pushing more and are aware of their rights. They know better how to talk with government officials and other human rights organizations. They are not talking about Islam; they are talking about human rights. They are not organizing any more cultural festivals. For instance, in France, the association against Islamophobia has organized a campaign in which they are climbing Mont Blanc with lots of interesting people to show that Islamophobia is a big problem. People respect them more and don’t see them only through the lens of religion.
We should stop seeing Muslims through the lens of religion. I even more strongly believe that this is the right approach. We need to deconstruct the approach that makes religion the most important aspect of identity and stop thinking that Muslims are all these things because of their religion.
Warsaw, August 27, 2013