Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue - “a Big Litmus Test for

2012-08-25 15:26:00


     Dr. Nazila Isgandarova

Journal of Turkish Weekly

Saturday, 25 August 2012


Dr. Nicolas Berger, the head of Amnesty International’s (AI) European Institutions Office, told Deutsche Welle in July that the fundamental regarding the problem of refugees and asylum-seekers has not changed. In recent years, AI has also issued several statements, which criticize the EU for failing to provide a better situation to handle of North African refugees, who struggle to reach Europe by boat. The statements sounded as though the EU was losing its unquestioned and envied place among the defenders of human rights.

Dr. Berger expressed in his article Human Rights: The Basis of Harmony that anti-Semitism in increasing in EU. Both European Jews and European Muslims are subject to discrimination and are often indiscriminately associated with extremist views and violent ideologies or the situation in Middle East.  Roma people and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations are also among the discriminated groups. However, Islamophobia in Europe is becoming worse with “a more recent phenomenon coinciding with the large-scale arrival of Muslim immigrants in most western European countries over the last 50 years.”

It is true that Europe experienced the flow of Muslim immigrants since WWII and since then, the number of Muslims increased due to family unifications and high birth rates. The first generation of Muslims who came from the rural areas of the Muslim countries was not well educated. They worked in the labour market of EU as cheap, unskilled or semi-skilled workers. In 1970s, the economic recession forced the governments bring restrictions to the admission of the cheap labour forces from the Muslim countries. In 1980 and 1990s, the refugees from Afganistan, Iran, Lebanon, Somalia, former Republic of Yugoslavia and Iraq arrived the northern Europe. In 1990s until now, Malta, Spain, Italy and Greece were the main European countries to receive refugees from the Muslim countries, especially from North Africa.  The history and pattern of Muslim immigration into Europe is diverse and reflect a wide range of cultures and countries of origin.

The presence of Muslim population in EU increases fear of fundamentalist extremists who are represented by the right-wing parties and conservative governments. The fear is based on an assumption that Islamic values are against the Western values. Many EU politicians strongly believe that Muslims are incompatible with secular nation-state and with civil society since they identify themselves with Shariah (divinely ordained Law}, rather than with the nation-state and its rule of law. The majority of EU population, too, believes that Islam is often equal to extremism, fanaticism, terrorism, and anti-Western tendencies.

       However, unwanted attitude toward Muslims is not solely based on the recent terrorist acts in the world. The biggest fear in Europe is the fact that Islam is considered Europe's fastest growing religion. This contributes to increasing factors of xenophobia in EU. Anti-Semitism grows together with slowing economy and high rates of unemployment, political and demographic concerns.  The fundamentalist right-wing parties manipulate the public concerns in this context and develop more anti-immigrant sentiment in the society. For instance, in past elections, Germany’s Republikaner Party and France’s Front National’s used of the slogan, “Eliminate unemployment! Eliminate immigration!” and the popular right-wing French phrase, “France: love it or leave it!” This is especially problematic in small nations in Europe, like Flemish, where both the politicians and the mainstream society, attempt to protect their cultural heritage and language and hence became associated with a more defensive attitude toward other cultures, especially Muslims.

Despite the growing anti-Muslim attitude, EU still remains one of the desired countries to live. Muslims and other minorities in Europe believe that most European countries are civic nations that celebrate the value of cultural diversity and allow citizens with different cultures to live together in harmony. Muslims also have a strong historical experience of peaceful existence of minorities in Muslim societies. Islamic civilization like today’s Europe, was culturally friendly and reflected indigenous forms of cultures and harmonized them. As a global civilization with functional and familiar at the local level, Islamic civilization fostered multiple and indigenous identities of nations. The Qur’an and Sunnah (the Prophet Muhammad’s practices) inspire the dialogue and forbid extremism. The Prophet Muhammad specifically stated, “Do not go to the extreme in your religion.” Extreme ideas are not violent in themselves but they lead to violent acts. The Qur’an also encourages humans to live in harmony and diversity because it is a part of His creation of the difference of languages and colors (Sura Al-Rum, verse 22).

Muslims have not forgotten history or their religious tradition. They carry these features with themselves to Europe. They are protective in terms of their religious and ethnic identities, however, are engaging with the mainstream society by fostering their European identity. 

Although, increasing mutual understanding among diverse groups in society seems as “a big litmus test for the EU,” as Dr. Berger mentions, many prominent political and religious figures attempted to eliminate the negative attitude to Muslims before. The world figures like Pope John Paul II, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Prince Charles of Great Britain, and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, on one level, and many others have preached the dialogue and contributed to the mutual understanding between Muslims and the West.

The European governments and political parties are expected now as well to support the attempt of Muslims to eliminate xenophobia and differences and encourage Muslims to claim their own place in Europe.

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