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Expert warns about more terror attacks against Muslims in Europe if politicians don’t tackle Islamophobia

Researcher Enes Bayrakli thinks “Islamophobia is a threat to the democratic foundations of Europe”. © Salam Plan

Islamophobia is the new normal, also among politicians of any ideology, co-editor of the European Islamophobia Report, Enes Bayrakli, says. He warns this -which he considers “anti-Muslim racism” threatens the very foundations of democracy in Europe, with possible new terror attacks but also from within the institutions.

Saddened by the terror attacks of New Zealand, he thinks they could have been prevented with security measures against far-right extremists and terrorists instead of focusing only -or mainly- on radicals favouring Daesh [ISIS in its Arabic transcription]. At the same time, he warns about hate speech contributing to an atmosphere that encourages more violence from all sides.

Salam Plan has talked to this researcher of the international SETA think tank during his visit to Madrid where he presented the results of the report at Casa Árabe (Arab House), an institution which is part of the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Spain. He gives some hints to prevent Islamophobia from rising more and calls up on everybody to tackle the problem.

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How do you feel some days after the New Zealand attacks happened? Do you think the international community has reacted as expected, as it should have done?

I feel saddened by this very tragic event, of course because of the lives which have been lost, some of them children. But at the same time, I feel saddened that this could have been prevented, if the necessary precautions had been taken before.

Why do I say this? Because this has happened before, with Anders Breivik in Norway, and this should have been a wake-up call for everybody of how far the far-right terrorism advanced, not only in Europe, but internationally. We see the results of this in the United States, the attack against a synagogue carried out by a far-right terrorist. And there were other attacks also against Muslims in Canada[, UK]

“The security apparatus in Europe has to take this issue seriously, tackle the far-right radicalisation. This way we will prevent not only future attacks by the far-right but also future attacks by Daesh, because they are feeding each other”

If the necessary precautions had been taken against the far-right rise and the far-right radicalization had been taken seriously, I think this could have been prevented. Because, consider: if you are a radical Muslim and you are searching on the internet or watching the videos of Daesh [Arabic name for ISIS], you will be in trouble quite easily: the intelligence services will detect you. But this is not the case with the far-right. They operate more freely, and I think that’s why these attacks are happening. That doesn’t mean that you can prevent everything, because there will be some lone wolves all the time.

I hope the future attacks will be prevented, because the atmosphere is quite ripe for these attacks. Unfortunately, this might happen anywhere in Europe nowadays. I think the security apparatus in Europe has to take this issue seriously, tackle the far-right radicalisation. This way we will prevent not only future attacks by the far-right but also future attacks by Daesh, because they are feeding each other. After this attack [in New Zealand], Daesh called for fresh attacks against the West or the Christians. This is a vicious circle and innocent people are getting killed.

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You talk about security measures, but what about the discourse to help prevent this? You just mentioned Daesh itself called for revenge, but Daesh itself attacks Muslims.

Yes, the majority of the victims of Daesh are Muslims. After these attacks [in New Zealand] there were some calls, especially in Turkey [, where I am based]: some people would say we should call this “Christian terrorism”.

I objected this, and many people objected this, because this doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity. You can justify violence with anything. There are some radical Buddhists, and some radical Orthodox… that doesn’t mean we blame all the Christians. That is why we need to be really careful about the rhetoric, because the rhetoric makes this kind of attacks possible.

People would think ‘Islamophobia is only hate speech, what’s the problem? I don’t like Muslims’. But it’s not just the rhetoric. Rhetoric, with time, turns into action and creates violence. The rhetoric has to change and there is a need for a political acknowledgement of the problem.

“The problems with Islamophobia and the far-right need to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, mainstream politicians are adopting the far-right ideas and their narratives”

First Islamophobia has to be acknowledged as a problem; many of the European countries are refusing the fact that there is a problem with Islamophobia. Even the European Union has now a coordinator on anti-Muslim hatred, but not anti-Muslim racism or Islamophobia.

Also, the problem with the far-right needs to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, mainstream politicians are adopting the far-right ideas and their narratives, and they are reluctant to challenge the far-right directly.

In your report you mention that Islamophobia does not only affect far-right politicians, but the whole range of them. How come?

Mainstream politicians are now under a lot of pressure in Europe. They cannot find a solution to the far-right; the only solution they see is what happened in Austria. The Christian democratic party ÖVP were a mainstream, reasonable party with a long tradition, but when the far-right started rising, they chose a young leader, [Sebastian] Kurz. He has muted his party more to the far-right. That was his solution to the problem, and he has become now a kind of the far-right leader. And that’s replicating itself in other European countries.

Now the three secret services in Austria are in the hands of the far-right [Government ally, Heinz- Christian] Strache.

For a certain amount of time the politicians were silent about the problem and at a certain point, they realized it’s unstoppable. (…) Islamophobia we find it also in the left party, in the Christian democrats… it has become a new form of racism that is acceptable to people.

“Islamophobia has become a new form of racism that is acceptable to people. We have far-right Islamophobia, but we also have Liberalist Islamophobia and Leftist Islamophobia”

May you give some examples?

Some people in the Green Party [in Germany] are calling for the headscarf ban. Or the former candidate of CDU, Friedrich Merz, said “We cannot allow Muslim children to get indoctrinated in Q’ran schools”.

Of course, we have far-right Islamophobia, but we also have Liberalist Islamophobia and Leftist Islamophobia.

Many feminists are in favour of banning the headscarf by saying ‘we are empowering the Muslim women’. Ok, there might be some Muslim women, youngsters, who may be forced by their families, but the overwhelming majority of them are choosing it by their own will. In France they are not allowed to study at the universities. Is this empowering women?

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In Spain now there is much of a debate going on whether the conservative Popular Party and liberal Ciudadanos should establish a cordon-sanitaire against far-right Vox in the next general election.

I think they should [establish a cordon sanitaire]. The cordon sanitaire [in Europe] was there, but it has disappeared. Look at the Austrian example. In the year 2000 [far-right leader] Jörg Haider became part of the [governing] coalition with his party. There was a big outcry in Europe, there was a diplomatic embargo against Austria.

” The ‘cordon sanitaire’ in Europe was there, but it has disappeared. Islamophobia is a threat to the democratic foundations of Europe”

Today, his party is again part of the coalition in a much stronger way. Nobody says a thing. The cordon sanitaire has disappeared. Why? Because of the Islamophobic narrative and discourse. If this is the problem of Muslims, I think everybody needs to rethink about it. If you let the far-right become normalized, it will just ruin the European Union. So, who is going to lose from this? Muslims? Not only. Islamophobia is a threat to the democratic foundations of Europe. We see the results. I hope New Zealand is a wake-up call for measures to be taken (…).

We need courageous leaders and civil society activists to tackle this problem. But many people think Islamophobia is a Muslims problem, it’s not our problem. Well, I don’t think so. If you allow this fire burn here, it will affect others (…).

Common people might have a prejudice against Islam and Muslims and common people in Turkey also have prejudices against Germans or Christians. This has to be tackled, of course, (but) that’s normal. The problem starts when this starts to become a policy and made into law, based on these notions of segregating people. We are talking more of a political problem.

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In your report you call for Islamophobia to be approached in the laws, just like the UN and OSCE ask. But from what you are telling me, it doesn’t seem this could become real any time soon.

No, I don’t think so. There is a strong opposition. Islamophobes say Islamophobia is a combat term developed by Islamists to reject any kind of criticism against Islam. Of course, we can critize Muslims and Islam, but the important thing is how we do this.

Why do you think it is so important that Islamophobia is put on paper, what would it help?

It would mean that the problem is acknowledged, it would help to record Islamophobic hate crime into a separate category. We would have statistics of what is going on the streets in terms of hate speech and attacks against Muslims and then we can talk about the problem. But if you don’t acknowledge the problem politically, then you are not willing to tackle the problem (…) and no actions are taken against this.

“Of course, we can critize Muslims and Islam. Common people might have a prejudice against Islam and in Turkey also against Christians. This has to be tackled, but the problem starts when this becomes a policy and turns into law”

According to a European survey promoted by the European Union and mentioned in your report, 12% of Muslims have reported discrimination to the authorities. Do you think that number is according to reality?

I think that’s only the tip of the iceberg. In Germany, we have 900 cases reported to the police. Many Muslims are not really reporting these cases to the police in Europe. First, many are not aware of the reporting mechanisms. Second, they might be socially isolated or very close to the people who are attacking them: the employer, teacher… Also, they are not really trusting the authorities due to fear that they will not be taken seriously, which happens.

In that survey it also came out 76% of Muslims feel attached to the country they live in. Well, I guess it’s because in many cases -may be most of them- it is because it is their own country, isn’t it? And there is always this idea of talking about Muslims as strangers or foreigners.

This is the main notion you hear: Muslims are living in ghettos, they’re not integrated, they’re not part of the society… well, look at the numbers. We are talking about 3rd and 4th generations living in Europe, they’re already European Muslims.

Which country would you say is the more Islamophobic European country?

It is really difficult to assess, we need to establish criteria. We’re just at the beginning of the process of uncovering the problem. I can tell the situation in France is quite bad for Muslims, in terms of political representation, which is quite low compared with the population. They’re not represented.

The rhetoric in Hungary and the Czech Republic is really radical against Muslims and there are almost no Muslims there, it’s like 0.001% of the population. But if you look at the rhetoric of the leaders of those countries it is as if next day the Muslims will take over Hungary or the Czech Republic.

You are presenting the third annual report on European Islamophobia and in June you will present the next one. Have you noticed a rise in these years?

What we’re seeing is that there are more violent attacks against Muslims. There is a case in Czech Republic, where a far-right person has tried to fake a terror attack against Czechs, he cut down trees on train lines twice and then he wrote fake letters in Arabic in order to fake a Daesh attack. He was arrested but was given a really minor sentence in the Court, because he had to take medicines for his high blood-pressure problem and that might affect his ability to think. That does also show the legal aspect of this issue.

“There are worrying signs that the far-right is increasing its activity to carry out attacks. The far-right is organized, there are training camps in Russia and Ukraine. There might be more terror attacks against Muslims in Europe”

There are worrying signs that the far-right is increasing its activity to carry out attacks. And that’s why I say, and I warn that there might be more (terror) attacks against Muslims in Europe and precautions must be taken.

So Muslims cannot feel safe in Europe?

The don’t already after what happened in New Zealand. It might happen everywhere.

It already happened in Europe as well but in a lower scale when it comes to the number of victims. In the UK there were two terror attacks against mosques…

Atmosphere is ripe, the infrastructure is there, far-right is organized, there are training camps in Russia and Ukraine… It’s just a matter of time.

That’s scary.

It is scary, yes.

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