Dawn, Shada Islam
SO it has come to this. Reading about Sherry Rehman’s decision to drop her attempt to amend Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, I had three quick thoughts.
First, hats off to a very brave woman. Second, shame on a government and country which cannot protect its minorities from human rights abuses, violence and extremism. Third, forget criticism from Pakistan and other Muslim countries of so-called ‘Islamophobia’ in Europe and America: people in glass houses should not throw stones at others.
Being part of a minority is not easy in any part of the world. History is replete with horrifying examples of persecution of minorities, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda. But I never expected the country I was born in to turn into this sad land of intolerance and ignorance.
Growing up in Pakistan all those years ago, I was taught that the constitution protected Muslims and that the white strip on the Pakistan flag represented Pakistan’s minorities. We lived in a vibrant, diverse multi-cultural community. Like many women my age, I was taught by Christian teachers, brought up by Hindu ayahs and learned ballet from exquisite Parsi ballet dancers. But times have changed, tolerance and accommodation, the concept of ‘live and let live’ have given way to persecution and discrimination.
Pakistan is not alone in treating its minorities as second-class citizens. Across the Muslim world today, being a Christian means at best being subject to hostility and discrimination and in the worst case, facing the death sentence. What I find particularly galling is that the countries — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan for example — which mete out the harshest treatment to their Christian communities are the most vocal when it comes to denouncing ‘Islamophobia’ in Europe and the US. Frankly, I am getting fed up with such accusations.
Having kept a very close eye on Europe’s 20 million-strong Muslim communities over the last 10 years, I can safely say: yes, it has been a challenging decade for European Muslims but most would agree that it is better to be a Muslim in Europe than a Christian (or a Hindu) in a Muslim country.
There is no doubt that the 9/11 terrorist attacks, followed by the publication of caricatures of the Prophet (PBUH) by several European newspapers, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, as well as subsequent real and suspected terrorist activity in Europe, have resulted in increased suspicion, surveillance and stigmatisation of Europe’s Muslim communities.
Most European governments have enacted tough new anti-terrorist legislation. Populist parties, using a simple anti-foreigner/anti-Islam rhetoric, have gained more influence and power in many EU countries. Mainstream politicians have adopted an equally strident anti-Islam and anti-Muslim narrative to win votes and improve their ratings in opinion polls.
The discussion on integration has been further muddied by rising European concerns about the arrival of refugees and asylum-seekers. In the process, journalistic ethics have suffered, with few journalists ready to challenge prejudice, clichés and misleading reports. Undoubtedly, Europe’s commitment to core values, including human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religion, has taken a blow.
In addition, Europe’s post 9/11 attitudes towards Islam are linked to security concerns and fears of radicalisation of the continent’s Muslims but also reflect uncertainty about European identity. Making matters worse, an uncertain economic climate in many European countries as well as the presence of weak leaders unable to ease public anxieties about globalisation and unemployment have made it easier for populist politicians to spread a simple albeit toxic xenophobic message: the West is headed for a clash with Islam and Muslims.
However, this is only part of the story. Despite the anxiety about the visible presence of Islam and Muslims in the public space, the last 10 years have also been marked by transition and change in the lives of European Muslims.
The spotlight on European Muslims has had a positive effect by helping Muslims and host communities confront difficult issues of integration and multiple identities which had been neglected and overlooked over decades.
Governments are slowly combining a security-focused prism with a more balanced approach which includes an integration agenda and Muslim outreach programmes. Government and business recruitment policies are being changed gradually to increase the employment of Muslims and minorities. Business leaders are demanding an increase in immigration, including from Muslim countries, to meet Europe’s skills shortage. The EU has adopted a new anti-discrimination directive in the new Lisbon Treaty which strengthens existing rules on combating racism.
Significantly, European Muslims are becoming more active in demanding equal rights as full-fledged citizens, organising themselves into pressure groups, and emerging as influential politicians, entrepreneurs and cultural and sports icons. Ten years after 9/11, the challenge for European governments and European Muslims is to hammer out a fresh narrative which looks at European Muslims as active and full-fledged citizens rather than as exotic foreigners.
Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments on the failure of multiculturalism in Europe, the continent today is a vibrant mix of people, cultures and religions. Integration and mainstreaming is taking place and there is slow but steady recognition that all Europeans, whatever their religion, ethnic origins and cultural background, share a common space.
More time and hard work will be needed before Europeans elect their own Barack Obama and readily embrace and celebrate diversity. But work on such a goal has begun.
My advice to Muslim governments is simple: stop ranting against the West, take a few lessons in citizenship and minority rights from Europe and America and start listening to all your citizens, not just the small number of extremists which carry guns.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.