by Syarif Hidayat

       Islam is the fastest growing religion in the West. Nevertheless, the West has many stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam that are due to: the media, Prejudice, and Ignorance. Islam is often looked upon as a “extremist”, “terrorist”, or “fundamental” religion. Many people hate Islam and do not want to acknowledge its true teachings.

In many cases, the media’s reports about Islam are incorrect due to ignorance. This is one of the reasons why the West often hates Islam.  In contrast to what many Westerners think of Islam, Islam is a peaceful religion, which does not promote any injustice or crime. Stereotypes about Islam are not new to Western culture. Problems can be traced back 1400 years. At that time, Islam and Christianity were involved in the Crusades in the 1100’s and in the Ottoman and Moorish control in Europe. Islam spread quickly to the West, and started to threaten the position of the Christian Church and the ruling class.

The Western elites, mainly the governments and the churches, then became highly involved in seeing that negative images were presented about Islam. As a result, not only were battles fought against Islam, but also a war of words was initiated to make sure that Islam would not have any converts or sympathizers in the West. These kinds of actions and feelings that the West had long ago still seem to be the case in the West today.

Today, the West, with little or no understanding of Islamic history, has identified a new enemy, “a new demon that has replaced the Red menace of the Cold war, i.e., radical Islam”. This “radical Islam”, a stereotype common to Western thought, portrays Muslims as fundamentalists or potential terrorists. Some of these ideas that the Western people have about Islam are due to the mass media of the West. Reporters who cover the Muslim world often know very little details about it. The media then develops a distorted image of Islam that Western culture adopts.

A major factor which contributes to Islamic stereotyping in the West is due to the media’s ignorance of selecting their words that describe Muslims. Some common names heard or seen in the news about Muslims are “extremist” or “terrorist”. These words are misleading and are mainly anti-Islamic. The media rarely uses more neutral terms such as “revivalist” or “progressives”. The Western media also creates the idea that Muslims are “returning” to Islam. This is not true in most cases, because many Muslims have never left Islam in the first place. Islam has always been a big part of their lives.

“Islamic Fundamentalism” Misinterpreted

A more accurate and just way to describe this idea is to say that there is a revival of Islam and it is becoming more and more influential to everyone. Adding to the fact that the media creates inaccurate ideas about Islam, the Western media is also very influential to its audiences in making negative Islamic stereotypes, such as the assertion that all Muslims are fundamentalists. The term “fundamentalist” is actually a term that is misinterpreted by the western media.

A fundamentalist, in fact, only represents a normal Muslim who follows his or her religion. Fundamentalism means an attitude, an effort, or a movement that an ideology, group, or religion tries to promote in its fundamental beliefs. The “fundamental” beliefs of a Muslim is to believe in only one God (Allah) and the Prophet Mohammed is His messenger (PBUH), to pray five times a day, give alms to the poor, fast the month of Ramadan, and make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

This means that all Muslims are fundamentalists if they believe in their own religion’s fundamentals. Although the media is uncomfortable with religious groups, it focuses heavily on “Islamic fundamentalism”. A majority of the media’s reports that talk about Islamic fundamentalism usually describes most Muslims as extremists. This shows how the media is ignorant, because Islam specifically prohibits any forms of extremism.

     The Prophet Muhammad PBUH said, “Those persons who go to extremes (in practicing their religion) were cursed (by God)”. The media most often portrays Muslim “fundamentalists” prostrating themselves before God in prayer. For example, in the October 4 issue of Time, Muslim soldiers were shown performing prayers with guns. The caption on the bottom of the picture said, “Guns and prayer go together in the fundamentalist battle”. The part that the reporters omitted or failed to state was that the Muslim soldiers were praying on a battlefield in Afghanistan.  Common sense of the situation meant that the soldiers had to remain armed at all times in case of an ambush at any time. This is a clear example of the media’s biased and inaccurate reporting.

Another Great Misconception

With regard to the soldiers, another great misconception that exists is the truth about Jihad or “holy war” in Islam. The ideas of war and violence have become related to the Islamic religion from the media. Jihad is so often apparent in the news because the media thinks it is Islam’s justification for war and violence.  Al Quran (Muslim Holy Book) says “Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. Allah (God) does not love aggression”.

Jihad literally means “The struggle in the path of God”, or “holy war”. However, the Western media often abuses the meaning of jihad by referring to it as a holy war where Muslims unreasonably kill non-believers. But the fact is, is that jihad can mean a numbers of things that a Muslim does for the sake of God.

Rarely has the Western media used this kind of a definition in their reports. The way the media represents jihad is wrong. The media often takes the word “jihad” out of context to propagate negative views on Islam. The association of Islam and violence is a common misconception that the general Western public has developed about Islam.  An example of this kind of misconception is that the Western media and some historians often say that Islam was a religion spread by the sword, meaning that Muslims went from one end of the world to the other forcing people to either convert or die. Islam spread by people learning about it and some by holy wars, but they did not force people to convert or die. Since majorities of the American public only get their information about Islam through the media, they believe this wrong idea.

The media’s reports about Arab or “Islamic” events, such as the Gulf War, are often misunderstood. The media usually fails to give background information about these Islamic events that it reports on. The media infrequently distinguishes between the religion Islam and the political affairs that occur in most Islamic countries. For instance, what Saddam Hussein, the former president of Iraq, did in the Gulf War was not Islamic and totally wrong (to attack other people for no reason).

But the media still makes reports about Islam and how Islam is made of war-crazed people. For example, to help put things into perspective, Hitler was a person of the Christian faith. This does not mean that all of his actions were consistent with the Christian beliefs. Likewise, Saddam Hussein is of the Islamic faith, but all of his actions do not necessarily represent Islam. So you can see that the media’s reports about “war-crazed Muslims” are incorrect. The notion of associating of Islam and Muslims with the terms Arabs and Middle East are in fact misleading. Arabs only account for 18% of the Muslim population across the world.

Far-right anti-Muslim network on rise globally

        The Guardian in a story bylined by Mark Townsend, reports the international network of counter-jihadist groups that inspired Anders Behring Breivik is growing in reach and influence, according to a report released on the eve of the Norwegian’s trial. Far-right organisations are becoming more cohesive as they forge alliances throughout Europe and the US, says the study, with 190 groups now identified as promoting an Islamophobic agenda. Breivik appeared on trial in Oslo after confessing to the murder of 77 people in Norway last July, killings that he justified as part of a “war” between the west and Islamists.

The report, by anti-racism group Hope Not Hate, states that since the 33-year-old’s killing spree, the counter-jihad movement – a network of foundations, bloggers, political activists and street gangs – has continued to proliferate. Campaigners cite the formation three months ago of the Stop Islamization of Nations (Sion) group, designed to promote an umbrella network of counter-jihad groups across Europe and the US, as evidence of a global evolution.

An inaugural Sion summit is planned in New York this year to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11. Speakers are set to include Paul Weston, chairman of the anti-Islamic British Freedom Party (BFP), which recently announced a pact with the English Defence League. In the manifesto that Breivik published online 90 minutes before his attacks, he cited blog postings by Weston which discussed a “European civil war” between the west and Islam. Researchers at Hope Not Hate name the UK as one of Europe’s most active countries in terms of counter-jihad extremism, with 22 anti-Islamic groups currently operating.

In Europe as a whole, 133 organisations were named in the report, including seven in Norway, and another 47 in the US, where a network of neo-conservative, evangelical and conservative organisations attempts to spread “negative perceptions of Islam, Muslim minorities and Islamic culture”. Nick Lowles, director of Hope Not Hate said: “Breivik acted alone but it was the ‘counter-Jihadist’ ideology that inspired him and gave him the reasoning to carry out these atrocious attacks. All eyes this week will be on what Breivik did last July, but we ignore those people who inspired him at our peril.”

Andreas Mammone, a historian at Kingston University in London and an expert on European fascism, said broader factors had helped the counter-jihad movement to consolidate support. “The economic crisis continues to promote nationalism alongside the need for a common enemy. A fear of radical Islam is being developed, the idea that it presents a threat to our freedom,” he said.

The report also identifies the counter-jihad network’s most influential figures, including EDL leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (known as Tommy Robinson), but also the more discreet London property tycoon Ann Marchini, whose details surfaced on a leaked list of EDL donors and who is understood to have attended counter-jihad conferences in Scandinavia, Brussels, Zurich and London. She attended a recent meeting where the EDL agreed its electoral pact with the BFP and is also understood to be involved with the UK wing of the Centre for Vigilant Freedom (CVF), and a well-funded US group renamed the International Civil Liberties Alliance (ICLA), which is based in Fairfax, Virginia, and co-ordinates individuals and groups in 20 countries.

The ICLA also runs the Counter-Jihad Europa website, which acts as a “clearing house for national initiatives to oppose the Islamisation of Europe”. Three months after Breivik’s attacks the ICLA organised a counter-jihad conference in London with the help of its European co-ordinator, Christopher Knowles, another EDL co-founder and director of the UK branch of the CVF, which is registered in Wakefield.

New anti-Islamic groups continue to emerge. Two weeks ago in Denmark, Yaxley-Lennon held the inaugural meeting of a Europe-wide network of defence leagues. Another new group, founded in Belgium last month, is Women Against Islamisation, a pan-European network whose launch was addressed by Jackie Cook, the wife of Nick Griffin, chairman of the British National party (BNP).

In Greece, polls suggest the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn could pass the 3% threshold required to enter parliament in elections next month. Another development concerns the hardening of links between European and US anti-Islamic organisations. US blogger Pamela Geller is a key figure driving closer transatlantic relations. Geller, who is president of Sion, was mentioned in Breivik’s manifesto and was a vociferous protester against the development of a mosque in Lower Manhattan in 2010.

The co-founder of Sion is Denmark’s Anders Gravers, organiser of Stop Islamisation of Europe. Gravers met Yaxley-Lennon in Denmark last month. Campaigners are concerned that US neo-conservative and evangelical groups will begin sharing resources with the leagues. Images of EDL demonstrations are already used at Tea Party movement fundraising events, while officials from groups such as the Christian Action Network have met EDL activists. Other US and UK links include the Virginia-based anti-Islamic blog, the Gates Of Vienna, which counted Breivik as a contributor. As attention turns to Norway, experts are keen to stress that the country was not unusual in terms of the extent of its counter-jihadist movement. Among the online forums linked to Breivik are the nationalist blog, on which Breivik posted more than 100 comments.

Breivik – an admirer of the EDL – was also an online supporter of the Norwegian Defence League, which retains close links with its English counterpart.

UK uni to study rise in anti-Islam extremists

        Peter Walker in an article titled “UK uni to study rise in anti-Islam extremists” published in the Guardian, writes a British university has established a dedicated centre to study the extremist far right, with a particular focus on the increase in violent anti-Islamic sentiment and the possibility of a lone, Anders Behring Breivik style attack. The Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies at Teesside University will be formally launched later this month at an event marking National Holocaust Memorial Day. Beginning with two academics,Professor Nigel Copsey and Dr Matthew Feldman, the centre will specialize in both the history of far-right radicalism in this country, and current trends and dangers.

The two main UK public fronts for far-right sentiment, the British National party and the street-based, anti-Islam English Defence League, are both in apparent decline. The BNP has lost almost all its council seats, and last autumn one of its two MEPs, Andrew Brons, publicly quit, saying the party had shed 90% of its membership. The leader of the EDL, meanwhile, was jailed this month for travelling to the US using someone else’s passport. Feldman, a historian by background, said organisations such as the EDL, which began in Luton in response to anti-armed forces demonstrations by hardline Islamist groups, tended to fizzle out: “You can only mobilise people to come out on a Saturday and shout slogans for a couple of years. Then people will say, I’ve been to five of these demonstrations, they’re getting smaller, my chance of getting arrested is getting bigger. Then you get fragmentation.”

However, he argued, this should not obscure a more gradual shift from race-based far-right activism towards “cultural nationalism”, notably against Islam. He said: “For the first time since, I believe, the National Front in the late 70s and early 80s, the far right is really going for popular support. It’s moving out into the mainstream, with some success.” A significant element to this, he added, was the internet, which allowed activists to organise without having to gather in pubs or meeting rooms. A good deal of the centre’s work will be devoted to assessing the risk of an attack fuelled by web-based ideologies, as happened in Norway in 2011 when Breivik slaughtered 77 people.

Feldman said he was keen not to create alarm: “I don’t want to overstate the risk of it, but there is a conjunction between what the far right has always done – what we call lone-wolf terrorism, with Breivik the perfect example – and what you have on the internet in terms of logistics and communication.” A particular danger, he said, was the rapid spread of terrorism manuals online, guiding people on techniques for making bombs or even weapons based on toxins such as ricin.

He said: “I don’t want to say to people that a WMD terrorist attack is around the corner, because I don’t necessarily think it is. And Britain is very good at interdicting this sort of stuff. But it’s a zero sum game – sooner or later, like a Breivik, someone will be under the radar. You can never entirely stop these things unless you want to live under a dictatorship.” The centre will also study violence by radical anti-fascist groups and the phenomenon Feldman termed “tit-for-tat extremism”. He said: “Think of how the EDL started. You had the Muslims Against Crusades, and then you had nationalists who later became the EDL fighting them. I’m sure anyone from Luton would tell you it’s more tense there since that happened.”

Constant attack on Muslims gives rise to extremists

       Rachel Woodlock  in her article titled “Constant attack on Muslims gives rise to extremists” published in Sydney Morning Herald, writes why would anyone join an extremist Muslim fringe group that hates democracy and wants to impose a myopic interpretation of Islamic law on everyone? What could possibly attract an educated young man living in a free society to join a movement that glorifies suicide bombers?

These are questions that worry all sorts, from German chancellors to Camden locals, and drive an industry of Islamophobia. Whether it’s US blogger Daniel Pipes musing that President Barack Obama might be murdered by Islamists for being an apostate, Infidel author Ayaan Hirsi Ali describing Muslim women’s clothing as gradations of “mental slavery”, or outspoken Christian spokesman Patrick Sookhdeo questioning moderate Muslim leaders’ calls for peace and co-existence as Islamically-prescribed deception, they foster the worry that where Muslims live, violence and even terrorism follow. Understandable, given the Islamophobia industry makes its coin generating fear of Islam and Muslims.

It is Sookhdeo’s Christian charity, the Barnabas Fund, that is spear-heading a new campaign to boycott halal meat in Australia. “Say no to the Islamification of our food,” the website urges, and a petition has found its way into various Australian churches warning that the availability of halal food in big supermarkets ”may be interpreted as an assertion of Islamic supremacy”. Sookhdeo, who is on a visit to lecture concerned Australians on such topics as ”the Islamisation of society”, argues that the problem is with Islam itself. In his 2007 book Global Jihad: The Future in the Face of Militant Islam, Sookhdeo warns that ”non-violent Islam is like a cone balanced on its point; it cannot exist in that state indefinitely but is bound to fall, i.e. to give rise to violent elements.”

For Sookhdeo and his alarmist confederates, original Islam is inherently violent and any alternative reading by peaceable Muslims is either ignorance or dissimulation. His call for Islamic reform as a way to rehabilitate Muslims is disingenuous, for how can any such reformer escape the sinister accusation they are merely engaged in what Sookhdeo describes as taqiyya – a last-resort permission to hide one’s religious identity in the face of persecution. There is no escape from this circular reasoning in which Muslims are urged to prove their loyalty to the nation-state, and upon presenting themselves as loyal are then accused of hiding their disloyalty.

It is precisely the futility some Muslims experience when faced with such fear mongering that contributes to what social psychologists tell us is a sense of ”blocked progress”. That is, while most Muslims can buttress themselves against prejudice, seeking support through various sources of well-being, a minority will seek maladapted solutions. Some turn to gangs and criminality; a small number will join militant religious groups that provide them with a sense of connection and identity.

As researchers in Britain, France and Australia have noted, “home-grown” members of militant groups do not generally possess a high degree of religiosity and knowledge of Islam before their radicalisation. Put another way, it is not religious Muslims we have to worry about, it is when ordinary Muslims feel trapped in limbo: they belong neither to their parents’ devout traditional cultures, nor to their Western host nations, which sends the message: Muslims don’t belong. This explains, in part, why such groups have been able to recruit Western-born and educated young men to their ranks. It is not poverty that spurs their attraction to fanatical counterculture groups, but their sense (rightly or wrongly) that the broader society specifically targets and blocks them from achieving normal goals.

The good news is that we can cut the oxygen that fuels the flames of their fanaticism by actively countering anti-Muslim paranoia. It has been argued that fundamentalist religious groups lose their ability to competitively peddle their wares in societies in which there is religious freedom and the state ensures social services are provided to all – this means facilitating the settlement and integration of Islam and Muslims in Australian society. It is precisely because Islam is not inherently violent, as is demonstrated by the productive and peaceful lives that the vast majority of Australia’s 340,000 Muslims pursue, that permitting them to build and maintain the infrastructure of their communities – mosques, schools and businesses – alongside other religious and secular groups, will provide protection against violent extremism. It is not that we should look to Europe in fear and anticipation, but that Europe should look to Australia’s model of proud commitment to multiculturalism and diversity.

Islamophobia on the rise in France

        According to the Observatory of Islamophobia in France, the total number of registered cases has gone up by 28 percent in just one year. The figures also show that the Internet has become the new battlefield. According to the Observatory, a rising number of hate mails are being circulated through internet, which describe Muslims as terrorists, extremists and a danger to other cultures. Last month, a Tilder Opinion poll revealed that over 70 percent of the French have a negative idea about Islam. More than one in four think the Hajj pilgrimage is compatible with life in France. But the figures drop sharply when it comes to questions over a Halal diet, the Muslim festival of Eid, and fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Only one in ten consider the headscarf in public areas as acceptable. Nearly a decade ago, France officially banned the headscarf in state run schools to preserve secularism. A move, which did more harm than good.While the headscarf ban was initiated by right wing politicians, it was a communist party MP who called for a ban on burqa which is worn by just 2000 women out of an estimated 4.5 million Muslims in the country. By and large, women have borne the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiments. And a future law could prevent women with headscarves from taking up any job in childcare. Many Muslims live in the poor suburbs of big French cities. There are fears that such laws will marginalize Muslims even further.

French police brutality, not burkas, cause tensions

       Myriam Francois-Cerrah in her article titled “French police brutality, not burkas, cause tensions” published in her blog, writes Until recently, the Parisian suburb of Trappes was famous for producing some of France’s brightest stars, including footballer Nicolas Anelka and comedian Jamel Debbouze. But this weekend, it gained notoriety as the site of the latest burka ban controversy. At the heart of the recent protests is a concern over systemic and institutionalised racism in France’s establishment and the unwillingness on the part of politicians and sections of the media, to confront it.

The disturbances began following the ID check of a woman wearing the face veil. What ensued remains unclear, with dramatically diverging testimonials from police and eyewitnesses. The police claim face-veil clad Hajjar, who was accompanied by her mother, husband and four month old baby resisted the check and that her husband reacted violently, assaulting an officer. Official sources present the resultant protests as opposition to the enforcement of the 2011 ban on face veils by ‘Islamic militant elements’.

For her part, Hajjar claims she and her husband, 21 year old Michael, were the victims of excessive force used by bigoted police officers. Eyewitnesses confirm Hajjar’s testimonial that she was violently dragged by her hair and pinned against a police car. Her husband intervened and was handcuffed. Both Hajjar and eyewitnesses deny police claims that the couple were violent towards police officers. According to Samba, a representative for the Association of residents of Trappes, a North African woman who attempted to intervene was told to “sod off, you dirty Arab”, by officers present.

A 2009 Amnesty International report highlighted how allegations of unlawful killings, beatings, racial abuse and excessive use of force by France’s police officers are rarely investigated effectively. Despite accusations of gross human rights violations, often against ethnic minorities, officers are seldom brought to justice. Just last year, 30 year old Wissam El Yamni fell into a coma and died in police custody following a forceful arrest. It has been a year, and no police officer has been put on trial or has even faced a judge. No explanations have yet been offered on why Wissam’s body showed bruises, red marks around his neck as well as fractures.

Also last year, residents of Aulnay sous-Bois accused the police of complicity in the death of 25 year old Christian Lambert during a stop and search. Although official reports claim he died of a heart attack, friends point to the excessive use of force by officers on the day which they felt was partly to blame. Allegations of police brutality are not uncommon in France’s poorest neighbourhoods where the police are often viewed as a violent instrument of state repression, subduing the poorest and most marginalised, with little accountability. Just days before this most recent incident, residents of Aulnay-sous-bois complained of the police’s heavy handed tactics during Bastille Day celebrations on July 14th, in which municipal employees claim to have been beaten by officers.

These incidents are indicative of the tense relationship between residents of certain neighbourhoods and some of the officers charged with policing the areas. Just days after the disturbances in Trappes, French Muslim website al-Kanz posted screenshots from an unofficial police Facebook forum, “Forum Police-Info”, in which officers expressed racism and violent intent including a call to “empty your munitions in Trappes” and “watch out for cameras and take no prisoners” as well as support for the Far Right. “Spent the night in Trappes, poor France, long live bleu Marine”, one post read, in reference to national front leader Marine Le Pen. The page has since been taken down, as has the profile of one of the officers who appeared to have been present in Trappes, but the feeling that officers are often racist and bigoted prevails.

Politicians and sections of the French media have framed the incident as reflecting tensions over the ban on face veils, however Hajjar states she has previously been stopped because of her face veil and no trouble resulted. Although the ban on face veils is perceived in some circles are another opportunity to stigmatise Muslims, recent events reflect far deeper anxieties over police brutality, an unwillingness among government officials to hear sections of the French citizenry and double standards in the treatment of ethnic minorities who already experience discrimination in many facets of French life, from employment to housing.

Valls’ statement confirms a widespread sentiment that French citizens who live in impoverished suburbs, be they Muslim or not, don’t matter and that violence against them occurs in all impunity. Despite the law banning face veils having been justified on the basis of protecting public order (although there is no evidence it previously threatened it), the law has led to increased discrimination against Muslim women, including acts of violence by vigilantes. With worrying acts of Islamophobia increasingly common in France, including at a legislative level where UMP MPs are now seeking to extend the ban of the headscarf from the public sector to the private sector, many French Muslims feel the authorities are deaf to their concerns.

Hajjar’s offence was no more serious than a minor traffic infraction – but the treatment which she, and others, allege followed is far more serious. In dismissing accounts of police brutality, the authorities are confirming the widely held perception of a system in which residents of poorer suburbs, minorities and Muslims in particular are less worthy of public protection and fair game for stigmatisation and violence. France has yet to have an equivalent to the Stephen Lawrence case, a watershed moment in which the entire police force is made to confront its racist elements.

In response to the events in Trappes, Valls insisted there is “only one law in this country”, a law burka-clad women could not be absolved from obeying. It is time for an independent inquiry which can help heal the chasm in French society by vindicating victims of police abuse and reassuring the residents of Trappes and elsewhere that indeed, there is only one law and that no one stands above it. Not even the police. (HSH)






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