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Do we have an antidote to Islamophobia?

The world’s greatest persuaders must do some concerted and necessary persuading

Gulf News

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States opens the question of relations between the West and Islamophobia. French philosopher René Descartes had installed reason as the basis of western thought. A century later, revolutionary cultists transformed churches throughout France into Temples of Reason. To be sure, French culture remains saturated with the spirit of the Age of Reason.

But sometimes, reason can be very unreasonable. This summer, for example, a ban on the wearing of burkinis — swimsuits worn by Muslim women that, in compliance with orthodox Islamic strictures, cover their entire body except the face, hands and feet — triggered heated debates and controversies. Photographs of armed French policemen forcing a woman on a beach to remove some of her clothing fuelled social media outrage.

France’s top administrative court then ruled the specific ban on burkinis, imposed elsewhere in the country as well, violated basic freedoms. However, it was not a full-throttled human rights endorsement as the court also ruled that bans are in general permissible, given a proven risk to public order and safety. Not surprisingly, two Corsican resorts continued to maintain the prohibition.

Is such reasoning, including the higher court’s, at all reasonable? If the wearing of a crucifix inspires fascistic thugs to violence, do we ban crucifixes or, more reasonably, do we protect human rights by protecting the right of Christians to their own symbols?

It’s interesting how French conservatives are suddenly so protective of a woman’s right to show off her body. “France does not lock away a woman’s body,” exclaimed right-wing leader Marine Le Pen. “This is the soul of France that is in question.” Nice to know Left and Right agree on something.

Cannes Mayor David Lisnard, also a conservative, took it further, proclaiming that burkinis are a “symbol of extremism”, which includes the imputed oppression of women at every level of their lives. Again, the outrage is thunderous across the political spectrum, as when Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls averred that the burkini symbolises Islam’s “enslavement of women”. Another question is: When women are expected by men to wear next to nothing on a beach, is that not also a form of sexist objectification?

Of course, none of this was much of an issue before the advent of recent waves of terrorism conducted by fanatic Muslims and the massive migrations from Middle Eastern countries. Three years after 9/11, France passed a law forbidding all religious emblems in schools and colleges, a nod, it might seem, to the zealously secularist spirit of the French Revolution. In 2010, France became the first European country to ban full-face veils in public. This legislation was fuelled by the specious argument that such a ban would keep criminals from hiding their faces. I suppose the more recent ban on burkinis makes it impossible for criminals to hide their shoulder blades.

I have dwelt a bit on France’s sartorial obsessions in order to underscore the larger and in fact the real issue, which is Islamophobia and how insidiously it rears its head. Is French identity, culture and security so shallow and fragile to be in danger because of a piece of cloth? Or is the issue more of embracing and accepting a different culture even in a country were civil liberties are sacred.

Historically, the animus may be unprecedented. For many years, Islam and Christianity were at war but, even in 12th century Europe, non-Muslims could still publicly admire a larger-than-life adversary like Saladin. Today, all such waters are poisoned. Civilisations will not progress with minds closed. Banning Burkinis is not going to bring safety and security to the West, but it will for sure provide fertile grounds for extremism on both sides of the bank.

Clash of civilisations in not an ultimate fate that the world cannot avoid. What effective weapons do we have to combat Islamophobia? To be sure, the public service efforts of groups like the Council on Islamic-American Relations are helpful. (They have a website focused on Islamophobia.) Ecumenical outreach by similar groups hosting Christian and Jewish spokespersons is likewise salutary.

Yet, one worries about a core demographic that such institutional outreach may never reach, much less persuade. I’m not talking about the relatively small number of people whose hostility is intractable; who hate Muslims (and others) and always will. I’m talking about a greyer mass of men and women who are persuadable, whose instincts can be changed by what they see and hear.

I trust, for example, that the attitudes of at least some, even those who may still vote for Donald Trump, were affected by the compelling messages of Khizr and Gazala Khan [Pakistani-American parents of United States Army captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in 2004 during the Iraq War.] Perhaps there were those who were actually surprised to learn that Muslims have fought and died as members of the US military. Another message may have positive impact as well: The message that Muslim communities in the US provide indispensable help interdicting potential domestic terrorism.

That leads to a final question: Who is best positioned to deliver such messages. Satirist Bill Maher (himself an Islamophobic) recently made an interesting comment. “[T]he people who lead on social issues aren’t in Washington ... they’re in Hollywood,” he said.

There’s much truth in that. I cannot assess the extent to which moviemakers and television executives once conspired, if they formally conspired at all, to change the public perception of African-Americans, Hispanics etc. The cumulative effect of their programming was decisive in any event.

Islamophobia is another front where the world’s greatest persuaders may hopefully do some concerted and necessary persuading. Extremism is a two-way street. Fanatics have their own reading of religious scripts. Likewise, others have their own reading of life. Both try to impose their views and by force.

Dr Habib Al Mulla is a Dubai-based attorney, specialising in arbitration. He created the concept of financial free zones in the UAE and was the architect of the legal framework establishing the Dubai International Financial Centre.

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