Conference: International Conference on Islamophobia: Law and Media, İstanbul
The International Conference on Islamophobia: Law and Media, co-organized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Turkey’s General Directorate of Press, Media and Information (BYEGM), was held in İstanbul in September last year following a previous decision made during the 9th Islamic Conference of Information Ministers (ICIM) in Libreville, Gabon, back in April 2012. The opening speeches of the conference were delivered by BYEGM Director Murat Karakaya, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç. The following sessions of the conference included illuminating and instructive -- and sometimes provocative -- discussions on Islamophobia, especially in relation to freedom of expression and fundamental human rights issues across different disciplines and from different contexts.
One noticeable tendency among the majority of speakers and presenters was an attempt to locate Islamophobia within the more comprehensive and universal terminology of social discrimination. In this sense, Islamophobia was no longer formulated within Islamspecific terms, but diagnosed as a widespread social problem of citizenship in contemporary democracies. Thus it was frequently underlined that Muslims are no longer immigrants, but citizens of the countries in which they live.
All three opening speeches elaborated on Islamophobia by making considerable reference to issues of racism, discrimination and anti-Semitism in the Western European contexts. As the issues Islamophobia involves are intertwined with violations of human rights in general and questions on the future of egalitarian citizenship regimes in particular, it provides a perfect departure point for a concise critique of contemporary (Western) democracies. And this was basically
IT WAS FREQUENTLY UNDERLINED THAT MUSLIMS ARE NO LONGER IMMIGRANTS, BUT CITIZENS OF THE COUNTRIES IN WHICH THEY LIVE
what the speakers sought to accomplish during their speeches. For instance, Karakaya stressed the problems of Turks in Germany in terms of violation of cultural rights, especially in relation to circumcision and funeral services. Meanwhile, İhsanoğlu elaborated on the emergence of Islamophobia by skillfully questioning the links between interests of political parties and their electoral priorities in the Western contexts. He also examined how Islamophobia is internalized, naturalized, normalized and finally institutionalized under constitutional frameworks in many European countries by specifically referring to the minaret ban in Switzerland, in addition to further comments on the caricature crises in Denmark and Norway. This approach runs the risk of portraying Islamophobia as a problem particular to Western contexts. One could go further and ask whether Islamophobia is often imagined as a problem of non-Islamic contexts (as if a truly genuine Western context is possible). These analyses necessarily define Islamophobia as a problem of “somewhere there.” They suggest a supposed exteriority of Islamophobia to the Muslim world. It is implied here that Islamophobia is experienced only in the West and -- more importantly -- that it is only possible in the West.
Islamophobia no doubt deserves to be elaborated upon within the wider framework of violation of fundamental human rights, and criticizing the issue from the perspective of both previous and
contemporary Western experiences is indeed helpful. However, while seeking legitimate criticism of social discrimination against Muslims and mobilizing political action against it, politicians and bureaucrats may end up coining Islamophobia yet as another cliché within the jargon of “clash of civilizations” discourse (or, similarly, the “cooperation of civilizations” discourse).
Can’t we think about Islamophobia in Turkey, Egypt or Syria in addition to many countries with Muslim majority populations? It seems political anxieties against particular interpretations of Islam are much widespread. Even in predominantly Muslim countries, the states are not welcoming of different interpretations and practices of Islam. From this perspective, one can even argue that, perhaps especially in the case of Turkey, Islamophobia has often been utilized to not only impose one particular school of Islam, but also to protect the interests of the ruling elites (be they Kemalist or otherwise).
In this vein Arınç’s comment that Islamophobia should be regarded within the wider legal framework of hate crimes both in Turkey and abroad was probably the most solid and substantial reference to Islamophobia in a Muslim context during the entire conference. Similarly, during the later discussion sessions of the conference, Fatma Benli, who is presented as among the 500 most influential Muslim persons in the world, also mentioned relevant reflections of the issues of Islamophobia in Islamic contexts. Part of her speech was based on her own personal experience as a covered woman in Turkey. However it was her critical engagement with issues of wider social discrimination in egalitarian democracies that echoed in the conference hall. Her speech not only followed a firm balance between providing examples from Islamic and non-Islamic contexts, but also emphasized the diversity of Islamic contexts. Thus, she managed to re-identify Islamophobia vis-à-vis the continuous attempts to homogenize Muslims as a particular group of people in both predominantly Muslim and not-so-Muslim corners of the world for different political purposes. In a similar fashion, her rejection of defining any group of people by their religion (i.e., Muslims) or their appearance (i.e., covered women) clearly portrayed her tendency to recognize the often-ignored diversities and particularities amongst followers of the Islamic faith.
However, Benli’s approach to the adoption of Turkish babies by gay couples in Western Europe as a matter of Islamophobia took the issue to a different level. It begged the question of whether the situation is specifically an outcome of hate and prejudices against Islam or something else. Can all social practices that happen to be against Islamic traditions necessarily be regarded as an outcome of Islamophobia?
What is needed here is greater rigor in the separation of “Islamophobia as hate crime” and “Islamophobia as non-recognition of religious and cultural values and practices.” The confusion of these two is not peculiar to Benli. While there is overall consensus on the definition of the former, the latter is anything but settled. It is this very aspect of Islamophobia discourse that is inherently related to the dynamics of living in super-diverse societies where one’s individual and collective priorities might be disturbing for others.
At the bottom line the discussion portrayed here is all about the source of legitimacy of civil and political struggles. Does the lexicon of democracy define this legitimacy or is it defined by the lexicon of the Abrahamic religions? Taking the latter as a serious possibility, why then should Islamophobia still be identified through Western liberal values (not Islamic ones) before an international audience, unless the goal is to make use of the narratives of victimization in the West as a source of global Muslim identity?
International Conference on Islamophobia: Law and Media WHO: OIC and BYEGM WHERE: İstanbul
WHEN: Sept. 12-13, 2013
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç addresses the conference.