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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 September, 2003, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
Islamophobia: Ask the experts
Fuad Nahdi, publisher of Muslim magazine Q News, and Nihad Awad, Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, answered your questions in a LIVE interactive forum.



Muslims living in the West were confronted with massive challenges to their faith in the wake of the 11 September attacks on the US.

Many Muslim residents in the US, UK and other Western countries began to rail against a culture of Islamophobia - fear and hostility towards Islam.

Are Westerners right to be afraid of Islam or does it reveal a misunderstanding on their part?

A large number of Muslims also blame media coverage and US and UK foreign policy for shaping public attitudes to their religion.

Do you think a culture of Islamophobia exists in the West? Who or what is to blame for creating it? How can it be reconciled?


Transcript


Mike Wooldridge:

Hello I'm Mike Wooldridge and welcome to the first of our forums on Islam and the West. Today we're discussing Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Many Muslims say the war against the terror has become a war against Islam. Are they right? Two years on, has there been any progress in the West's understanding of Islam?

To answer your questions we have two guests; Fuad Nahdi, editor of the Muslim magazine Q News is with me in the studio and Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic relations joins us from us Washington.

We also have on the line from Lahore in Pakistan, our first caller, Mariya, S. Mariya what point do you want to make?


Mariya S:

The one thing is that I think that the media is like very biased in protecting the Muslim seniors, they always see the hijab as a sign of oppression and when I went to London to study I always had many people asking me are you forced to wear hijab in Pakistan because this is an Islamic extremist country. And I just feel that the media has played a very negative role in projecting Islam. I don't feel that the hijab is all about oppression, it says some very good things and I believe in it.


Mike Wooldridge:

Okay, let me bring in straightaway Fuad Nahdi. You can see this from both perspectives - you're in the media yourself - do you believe that there is generally a distorted portrayal of Islam?


Fuad Nahdi:

Yes and no. What is amazing is the reluctance to dig deeper than just go for stereotypes and I think it's the nature of the media that it works by its own logic. So in that way there is an inbuilt, you can say, logic on how to report on Islam.

It's surprising that in the last few years, particularly after 9/11, people should have considered this as an opportunity to go deeper into the discussion about Islam and I've watched and participated in several kind of programmes and things. But it's amazing because there's really nothing, if you look back over the last two years, that has really tried to come to grips with really understanding what Islam is, except to go and work on old prejudices or even old positive images. So there has been a solidifying of what is existing, there's not been a dynamic kind of revolution. And I think it's an opportunity that we have squandered.


Mike Wooldridge:

So you're sympathetic towards our caller Mariya? What about you Nihad Awad, would you agree with what Mariya was saying there and that there is that stereotyping still today?


Nihad Awad:

Yes indeed. I think the hijab, or the headscarf, which is a religiously mandated head cover for a woman in Islam has been seen as a sign of oppression by those who discriminate against Muslim women in the West and in particular in the United States. We have dealt with numerous cases of discrimination against Muslim women. They have discriminated against those ladies who choose to cover their heads more than those who chose not to cover their heads in job discrimination, in employment, in many ways.


Mike Wooldridge:

You're council's actually reported increasing discrimination hasn't it?


Nihad Awad:

Exactly - 64% increase in cases compared to previous years, we're talking about the year 2002. But at the same time, as Fuad said, there is more understanding towards Muslim women and Islam in the West although there have been an increase in discrimination cases and hate crimes. We just feel that the general public understands more about Islam because of the Muslim interaction both ways. But as the lady said, there seems to be a bias from the media towards Islamic issues and the way the news is covered.


Mike Wooldridge:

Mariya, do you think that this is something that's getting worse or it's something that's always been the case?


Mariya S:

Well after September 11 this thing has really got bad - people have a very negative view about Islam. They think that - especially the females in Islam - they are not educated, they're not independent and that's not the case especially in Pakistan. There are so many females studying abroad who are so independent and they're working independently.

But overall, especially western people think that the Muslim females are not at all educated and I think it is getting worse especially when you go for a job and you are wearing a hijab they would always take you as someone who's like very fundamentalist.


Mike Wooldridge:

How would you suggest in Pakistan things might be improved? Who do you think should bear most responsibility for that?


Mariya S:

I think the media has to play a very positive role in this. Whenever we see Pakistani programmes that are shown in western countries, they always show the negative side or the fundamentalist side of Pakistan. There are females, like me, who have gone abroad and they have gone back to their country to work and to be independent and that side of Islam or that side of Pakistan should be shown by the media in the western countries to tell them that Islam is not about oppression - that the females are not oppressed and they're not forced to sit home and just don't do anything.


Mike Wooldridge:

Right well Mariya S, thank you very much indeed for your point. In fact we've had quite a number of e-mails, as you might expect, on this issue of the media and Islam in general making a similar point, blaming the media for what those who've been in touch with us call anti-Muslim feelings in the West and elsewhere, saying that the media have a role in this distorted portrayal of one of the world's major religions.

We've had an e-mail and let me put this to both of our guests from Wobhee in Stirling, here in the United Kingdom, which says: "I think we Muslims are partly to blame when we see a biased media, what have we ourselves done to counter this?"

Now what would you say Nihad Awad, first of all, in response to that? Could Muslims themselves be doing more to counter this portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media?


Nihad Awad:

I think Muslims are at an advantage being in the West, not only as immigrants but even born and raised in the West. Muslims have a lot to contribute to the image of Islam by (a) working in the media, Fuad is one example, (b) to write and interact with the media - writing, participating in talk shows like this. When we see a negative portrayal of Muslims in the media most likely - and this is our experience in the United States at least - that it is due to ignorance and sometimes lack of sensitivity because of the lack of information. When mainstream Muslims participate to correct the negative portrayal of Islam in the media then we replace the negative image that is there.


Mike Wooldridge:

Could you point to any evidence that it has any positive effect?


Nihad Awad:

Definitely. For example, there are Muslim events, like for example the fasting of the month of Ramadan. We urge Muslim communities nationwide to interact with the media, writing news releases, inviting the media to come and witness the daily life of Muslims, invite them into their houses.


Mike Wooldridge:

Do they do so?


Nihad Awad:

In fact they did and we noticed a sharp increase in positive reporting about the month of Ramadan in the United States. We empower Muslim individuals and communities by showing them the tools - how to understand the media culture, how to work with it. We found out that over the past five, six years a relationship has been developed between media reporters and community leaders in cities and towns and that contributed to the betterment of the coverage at least of one issue - the month of Ramadan - when it comes like other major holidays in the United States.


Mike Wooldridge:

Fuad Nahdi, would you agree with Wobhee who e-mailed us there, challenging Muslims to do more themselves to counter this portrayal of Islam?


Fuad Nahdi:

Yes I think one of the outcomes of the recent events has been a lot of interest within Muslim communities to participate more in actively engaging in the media. So you get them now knowing to write in when something negative happens on Channel 4, BBC, or things like that. But like they said if democracy really changes anything they would have banned it - the process of taking it further than just complaints is impossible. I mean the Press Complaints Council and things like that are very complicated for the community and they don't have the resources to do that.

What I'm worried about is why do we put on this reactionary nature, one of the best solutions, which we think might be taken is for more young British Muslim people to go into the media themselves and be engaged in the media profession itself.


Mike Wooldridge:

Presumably something you're very much trying to encourage with your kind of publication.


Fuad Nahdi:

Yes. We have to get them into the media. The problem is generally being mostly an immigrant community they go for the more secure profession of doctors, dentists and others and when they can't do this they open a restaurant and like I say when they can't succeed at that they become minicab drivers and if they fail in everything else, then they send them to the media. This is not the right attitude for us as a community, to get engaged in that.

But another interesting thing happening in Britain is recent statistics show that there are more than 1.7 million Muslims in a small island. I think one of the big things is the media does play a role in distorting reality to a certain extent but it cannot do as much now because Muslim are part and parcel of this society. There are very few people who will go through life in Britain without coming across a Muslim who will challenge things if there's any negative stereotype which is not true.


Mike Wooldridge:

Let me put this to both of you - an e-mail from Singapore, from Kerry Tan, who says: "Is Islamophobia the result of a lack of understanding of the religion, its believers and the motives behind their radicalism? In a sense is it not like the West's attitude towards Communism during the Cold War?" Nihad?


Nihad Awad:

Well I think two parts. First I think there is a religious and cultural misunderstanding. In fact it's an historical accumulation of lack of knowledge about Islam and lack of interaction between Muslim societies and the West. I browsed through your website just last night and I saw the comments. It seems that most of those who have better understanding of Islam are the ones who either work with Muslims, have lived in Muslim countries or have read authentic Muslim books about Islam and Muslims. Therefore I think the cultural gap and the lack of information and lack of exchange between Muslims and non-Muslims contributes to the unjustified fear that people may have about Islam and Muslims.

Second, I would say there are some sad events in the world, including September 11th, that contribute to a negative portrayal of Islam and we cannot just squarely put the blame on the West. There are individual Muslims who are misguided, who wrongly interpreted Islam in a way that serves maybe their political and extremist attitudes and in a way they hurt the image of Islam - the Muslim religion, Muslims and non-Muslims were caught in the crossfire of extremism on both sides - individual Muslims who committed acts of murder against innocent people and extreme policies and reactions to Muslim societies that fuelled anger and frustration against the West.


Mike Wooldridge:

Let's bring in our next caller, it's Owen Carter in Perth, Australia:


Owen Carter:

Good evening. I'd like to say that I agree there is Islamophobia in the West because it's pretty natural to fear the unknown. Unfortunately the only thing most of us know about Islam is Islamic terrorism, which scares the hell out of most of us. This ignorance would probably be exemplified by the aspect - common association of Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden, was pretty obvious to most educated people that there was hardly any association whatsoever.

But I also I noticed a rather good example of ignorance within the sort of nation of Islam directed towards the West. I remember one of the justifications al-Qaeda used for September 11 was the persecution of Muslims in Bosnia and somehow associated it with the US rather than with the Serbs.


Mike Wooldridge:

So you're saying then there's a problem on both sides - there is an Islamophobia but there's also a kind of Westernophobia as well then?


Owen Carter:

Well yes, it seems like al-Qaeda statements represent an extremely ignorant view of the West. I remember Norway being blamed along with the United Kingdom and Australia for the invasion of Iraq when they were vocally against it. Perhaps al-Qaeda was confusing them with Denmark or Poland I'm not sure. And Amrozi? claimed that the US or perhaps Israel was using a mini-nuclear device in the Bali bombing - they just seem to me like really good examples of ignorance of the West.


Mike Wooldridge:

Okay, Owen Carter thanks very much indeed for your point. We've had e-mails too on this same general point. One from Chris in Dubai: "Isn't there a paranoia or phobia of the West in the Islamic states? Anti-Western feeling is the highest I can remember in the Middle East. Conspiracy theories and blame shifting are all too common, equally Western governments must be seen to be even handed - a tricky issue with Israel." And Adam Brooks in Bangkok in Thailand writes: "Isn't the reverse also true that there is a degree of Westernophobia in the Middle East? We are viewed with mistrust and labelled white imperialists." Fuad Nahdi, would you agree that there's a problem on both sides here and if so, is it an equal problem or not?


Fuad Nahdi:

Oh yes there is a problem on both sides but it's not equal because when we talk about Westernophobia, I mean I can talk as a British Muslim, that one of the things about 9/11 which is profound I would say, has been to sort of literally get the worms out of the wood basically. I mean prior to this it was not respectable for someone to just stand up and say I'm an Islamophobe but that seemed to have related to that kind of extremism.Even in this country the reaction has been amongst some of our young people who are angry, confused and basically frustrated about what is going around, they have gone down the line of Westernophobia.

I'm not particularly happy about the term Islamophobia sometimes because the emphasis is, or the connotation is, that it is an irrational fear of something. I don't think that Islamophobia's is totally based on irrational fear, they are a lot of historical things and stuff like that. One fascinating thing which a friend pointed to me was this recent Hutton inquiry going on that Dr David Kelly belonged to the Baha'i faith. It's very interesting how the media has downplayed that role. We can only speculate if he was a Muslim what kind of headlines we would be getting and this is something as a British Muslim that I find fascinating.


Mike Wooldridge:

A little different in the last day or so though don't you think with a representative of the faith actually coming before the Inquiry - that's been more in the public domain again?


Fuad Nahdi:

But I'm just saying that to use our imagination, that if he was a Muslim then I think this fact would have been much more highlighted and the story would have taken on a different angle altogether. I'm sure about that.

The other thing, it seems that other minority faithsI, like Hinduism or Buddhism seems to be much more easy to embrace because of the historical factors. But with Islam there's something always - like a legacy of our history and things like that. And the other thing is for most people if we as Muslims try to listen to the sort of host communities there are some genuine concerns about Islam which we have - it's a challenge for us to come to terms with and to try and allay these fears.


Mike Wooldridge:

And that actually brings me on to an e-mail that I'd like to put to you, if I may, Nihad Awad in Washington. This from Neill in the Netherlands who says: "I do think Islamophobia exists, however it has little to do with Islam itself but the fundamentalist teaching of Islam by certain sections. Do you believe that there is a problem with fundamentalism in Islam?"


Nihad Awad:

I think there is more talk about Islamic fundamentalism than more talk about the fundamentals of Islam. If people, as Neill probably said or indicated in his e-mail, the problem is not within Islam, it's not with Islam, because the teachings of Islam are universal or appealing, human and they are there to satisfy, help, comfort and bring peace within oneself and within society and between societies among themselves.

However, there are extremist interpretations that the Koran itself warned against and the Koran described the Muslims that they are a nation of moderation. The prophet himself warned against extremism and he always turned towards the easy ways if he wants to choose between two he will choose the easy one.

Of course, there is a background behind what we see today in the world, in the hotspots, where political conflicts are. There is injustice and nobody can deny that and I believe that Western policies have to be re-examined, reviewed, evaluated and in my piece I said that individual people in the West should take part in the foreign policies of their countries, foreign policy should not be foreign to them, they have to be involved. Unlike people maybe living in the Muslim world and in the Middle East I see that most of them are educated about the West, although there is Westernphobia within those who don't understand the West, that's where our council and organisations labour to understand and explain the Western way of thinking, the system - how it works - and encourage even people in the Muslim world to communicate with the West through a peaceful and diplomatic way.

So I think Islamophobia can be dealt with. Islamic fundamentalism is a term that was invented in the West, it does not apply to Islamic teachings. However, I should not ignore the fact that there are some people who go out of line in the interpretation and carrying out of the Islamic principals and teachings towards non-Muslims but this is the exception, it is not the norm.


Mike Wooldridge:

Let me bring in our next caller who is Hyder Ali Pirwany calling from Okehampton, Devon, England. What point would you like to make?


Hyder Ali Pirwany:

How do you do, nice to speak to you. Actually we've not much time left on the programme so I'll just make a few points. That I do agree with everything which has been said so far in the programme, which is very constructive. I feel that it's for political and historical reasons that there is a lot of ignorance about Islam in the West, mainly by the historians. And I feel that the word terror always seems to be equated with Muslims and not with any other religion. And also after the 9/11 tragedy Americans were puzzled as to why there is so much anger against America and that again illustrates the lack of knowledge about some of the extreme repercussions which the Western policies or past Western policies in the Middle East have had.


Mike Wooldridge:

What do you think can be done to change things?


Hyder Ali Pirwany:

Well I think well the education really, for example, in schools the people know more about Judaism than even Christianity and Islam. For example, I'll give you one little point. For example, the prophet Abraham and the Old Testament are common to Islam, to Judaism and to Christians. Now there should be an emphasis on things that bind the three major religions rather than what separates them. I mean the Ten Commandments separate - the Ten Commandments are really a belief of all religions.


Mike Wooldridge:

I just want to stop you there for a moment and ask Fuad Nahdi for his response to what you're saying there, I mean you watch very closely what is happening within Islam and no doubt also in education in this country, would you agree with that point?


Fuad Nahdi:

Yes I think education is a key component of bridging or creating what we call here a pluralistic society. But it's a complicated thing, it's not as easy as it is. The fact is somehow almost a blessing that we do live in a secular society in which people of faith are supposed in an ideal situation to be equal and have equal access to education, to schooling and stuff. But that is not true and is one of the most blatant ways of discriminating against Muslims in this country that for a long time they've been planning to get Muslim schools.


Mike Wooldridge:

But there are some now aren't there?


Fuad Nahdi:

Yes there are about three or four Muslim schools, compared to over two and a half thousand Christian schools and over I think 400 Jewish schools. But the important thing is education is not only for this minority which might be going to the religious schools. I myself decided I'm not going to send my child to a religious school because I think he is going to live in a society which is going to be a mixture of all kinds of things. The challenge is to try and educate not only ourselves about our faiths but also to learn about other people. The emphasis is if we know more about our neighbour perhaps we also then will have the opportunity to know more about ourselves.


Mike Wooldridge:

An e-mail from Switzerland, it's from David Bergin, who says he has lived in an Islamic country, he doesn't say which one, "Where I was not allowed to practise my faith, where the press and mosques preached anti-Christian and Western ideas. I ask do Islamic countries ever question their own ideals, laws and customs?" Now we've touched on this to some extent already but what would you say, Nihad Awad, would you say there is enough questioning within Muslim countries generally? I mean the example of where some questioning is going on would be, I suppose, Malaysia today, Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister, is often challenging Muslims to embrace modernity much more. But do you feel that there is sufficient questioning going on?


Nihad Awad:

It depends on where you are and definitely the social and local culture plays a lot of roles in that and we have to make sure that people are not confused Islamic culture. Islam, as I said, is a universal religion, system of values, way of life, that challenges the mind and urges people to think progressively about life and the world and the future. Islam is not a backward or religion of the past, it's a very progressive religion, liberating theology, urges people to interact very positively within themselves and with people around. So science and technology is an important component of Islamic thinking and I think Muslims are urged, as Mahathir said, to use technology and science to advance their cause and there is no contradiction between science and religion.

If I also make one more comment in reference to the earlier caller, Mr Hyder, where he said that certain media in the West equates Islam and terror. In fact just an hour ago I was listening to a radio show here in Washington DC reporting on a Christian individual who killed an abortion doctor in the United States, in the state of Florida, and he was sentenced to death. I heard this individual talking before being executed tonight saying that he acted on a religious basis and he believes that he was expecting great rewards in heaven today after he is executed.

In the press in the United States we have not seen any reference that this act by this individual is Christian or he was never referred to as Christian terrorist. Of course he should not be but you can see that there is sensitivity towards the Christian religion in the United States because they understand and differentiate between good Christian teachings and individual acts of terror against society. Unfortunately that understanding is not granted to Islamic religion, to the Islamic faith. And I would caution against the use and mixing between Islam and terrorism between religious terminology and acts of terror that are not representative of the faith. So I would say that more sensitivity is needed among the Western media when approaching Muslim issues and differentiating between the acts of violence and the teachings of Islam.


Mike Wooldridge:

We keep coming back to the media, don't we, and I just want to bring in one more caller. Sean Hamonn from Brussels in Belgium. What point would you like to make, I think it bears on this same issue of the media and Islam?


Sean Hamonn:

Yes, good afternoon gentlemen. I think personally it's our personal responsibility to make sure that we're well informed and there is ignorance on both sides of the fence, both from people on the Islamic side of the fence and on the Western side of the fence is a major problem.

The fear which can be generated through one sided media campaigns is harnessed by governments and organisations themselves and they use that fear to draft people to do extreme things on both sides, much like the USA waging war or suicide bombers. The 45-minute chemical attack threats, which was mentioned by the Blair government and Bush referring to the axis of evil are very typical examples of this, where they instil fear into the listening public and in that way through fear are able to manipulate the public to do whatever they want to do.


Mike Wooldridge:

Would you say it's the same issue whether it's government media or independent media? Would you castigate them all the same and say they're feeding off one another?


Sean Hamonn:

I think it's very much one and the same thing - very often one and the same thing. The media, especially in certain countries, has got to be orientated towards the government thinking or else it'll just be closed down. And then also in the Western world we will have typically Western biased media, even if we do our best to be objective about any issue that's raised. There's a natural bias which we are always going to have and we always have to make sure that we're well enough informed to always look at things from the other side of the fence and get another perspective of any issues.


Mike Wooldridge:

Thank you very much indeed Fuad Nahdi a final comment from you. I suppose Q News exists to try and correct many of the things we were just hearing about there and have heard over the last half hour really?


Fuad Nahdi:

Yes, but I think we can get into the danger of simplifying things. I mean when we talk about the Muslim world and the Western world, we mean like monolithic items - they're not, they're many items within the Muslim world or the Muslim entity. And when we talk about the West, the West is also another complicated kind of putting together kind of things. The media has a role but I think its role is - if there is no smoke there'll be no media fire, I mean if there is no fire in a way there'd be no media smoke, there must be something happening. What I think is needed is much more areas of responsibility and accountability, I think this is what we notice recently has been lacking in all media.

We find that most programmes these days - covering Islam or Muslims has been one place here, like the BBC, for instance, is one last place of making a name for yourself because it can really do any programme and and it can get away with it because the Muslims don't have the kind of clout and power that other minority groups would have to make changes or do things like that. But increasingly people - the more sensitive and the more organised and mobilised British Muslims are I think they can cause an effect in terms of how the events are covered and how Islam is measured.


Mike Wooldridge:

You could say that present events have shown up the BBC's accountability though couldn't you?


Fuad Nahdi:

Yes but look how it would cost and what level that it had to come down to a situation. We wish that we could do the same - bring to accountability some of the journalists who have misrepresented us or our faith over the last decade or so.


Mike Wooldridge:

And you're prepared obviously for that accountability yourself in Q News?


Fuad Nahdi:

Yes, we tried all ideas for all parties to understand that we live together and we share a lot and basically the responsibility of us as media people is to facilitate dialogue and harmony within different communities.


Mike Wooldridge:

And Nihad Awad a final thought from you as you see things there in Washington where in a way so many of these issues present their greatest challenge don't they? We had our last caller there saying essentially we have the media and governments feeding off one another and he feels very dangerously - is it really all as bleak as that?


Nihad Awad:

I liked one of the caller's comments when he said it's an individual responsibility. When individuals take personal responsibility to correct the misperception about the others, investigate, interact. And also on the part of the media to have more inclusive voices of the Muslim community to help shape the image of Islam in the true sense. And finally I think the media has a lot to do with politics and it can be neutral in conflict and should not reflect policies of their government. It should help be neutral and look at societies and religions and issues in a neutral eye. If we continue to do that I think we will help shape a better world, a better perception, and that would reflect on the relations among people.


Mike Wooldridge:

Well that's all we have time for today I'm afraid. I'd like to thank you all for joining us and also thanks to our two guests Fuad Nahdi and Nihad Awad. If you'd like to take part in more forums on Islam and the West then visit our website at www.bbcnews.com/islam. Next week we'll be discussing Islam and democracy and asking whether US foreign policy amounts to a form of imperialism in the Muslim world. Thank you and goodbye.




SEE ALSO:
Islamophobia 'explosion' in UK
24 May 02  |  UK News
Pledge to wipe out Islamophobia
29 Sep 01  |  Politics


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