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Islamic Quest Against Discrimination PDF Print E-mail

Muhammad Mashuq Ally
University of Wales, Great Britain

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

First, I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to this conference. It has been a very important learning process, as well as an opportunity to meet old friends, and to reestablish acquaintances that I have encountered over the years at many different conferences of this kind.

We are at a very important period in human history. Many changes and developments are taking place across the world. There are new dynamics occurring, and this is challenging all of us constantly throughout our life. To focus on the topic of this particular session, I would like to say that I think that in Europe we are going through two phases of discrimination. There is discrimination in terms of racism, in which it has been felt that attitudes of persons and peoples toward one another have been dependent upon a superior/inferior syndrome. Many of the new communities, ethnic as well as religious, have been subjected to this. Consequently, there has been structural racism within European institutions, as well as institutional racism in Europe.

But, we are confronted with a new kind of discrimination... (tape ends)

...Racism is considered not only in the terms of attitudes of persons and peoples to one another, but in terms of structures and institutions that give reinforcement and perpetuate it. Structural racism refers to racism that is part of the operation and practice of the institutions of society, but is not part of its law or rules. This may include industries, banks, schools, churches, and other institutions, which give verbal assent to equality and justice, but whose performance is exclusive. Institutional racism refers to racism which is part of the policy, law, or rules of a nation or institutions in a society, deliberately designed to exclude certain groups on the basis of race.

There is a belief that human races have distinct characteristics that determine their cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior, and has the right to rule others. Assumptions are things taken for granted, or without proof. Two assumptions are coupled together in discrimination: the feeling by one person, or group, that both their morals and their culture are superior over another.

In contemporary Europe, there is a new form of discrimination: religious discrimination. The religious landscape of Europe has changed significantly since the Second World War. Christianity is not the only faith that the nations of Europe share. Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, and new religious movements, have substantial communities that are now entrenched in the European cultural milieu. Each of these faiths bring with them history, language, color, geography, customs, traditions, and experiences. Many of these are older than European civilizations.

This imposition of new communities, far from being considered an enrichment, is seen by some as a threat. To temper this threat, a third assumption has emerged: that it is the major responsibility of the state, and society at large, to educate, enlighten, and uplift the new religious communities. It followed logically, that those who believed themselves superior in morals and culture, should feel it their duty to educate and enlighten the inferior. The members of new religious communities were to be made like the civilized Europeans!

The more basic assumption here is that it is possible to teach and preach, yet remain unchanged by what one sees and hears around one from the new religious communities. We have nothing to learn from each other. Although religious communities have mechanisms to transcend and overcome racial, linguistic, ethnic, and theological differences, we should recognize that there still exists discrimination and segregation within and between all religious communities.

To overcome these cleavages, there is an essential need, within and between religious communities, to evolve a new ecumenism. The first principle in this new framework is to give value to diversity. It is interesting that we live in an age of contradictions. Although we claim that Europe is a group of liberal democracies, we seem to still feel that people should be united in the same vein. Diversity is still something that Europe has to cope with. At all levels of religious witness, this diversity should be recognized. In other words, there must be a greater appreciation of human diversity.

Obviously, this challenges the question of identity. For new identity is not merely renewed selfhood, with perhaps this or that power or virtue strengthened, as individualized secularism would have it. Nor is it merely a kind of participation in the universal dignity of humans, described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as some of the social versions of humanism would teach. The identity, which I speak of, should be received because it is embedded in the central beliefs and values of each faith, which give rise to unity and shared identity.

Consequently, I believe that the future of Europe lies in a new religious-cultural synthesis, whereby we respect the unique identities of religion, yet there should emerge a common identity, which enables us to live with peace, tolerance, and respect

To evolve this shared identity, all should be free to be themselves within the framework of their own religious cultural roots, but united in a common spiritual quest. However, we must all appreciate that religions and culture are not static, but dynamic. Whether we belong to a religion or not, there is enrichment and development with every encounter, no matter how unconscious. This brings about a challenge to faith and culture, as we draw on what we appreciate, or not, in others. Sometimes what we dislike in a religion merely reinforces our prejudices. On other occasions, there may be situations in which we notice things of value that we wish to make our own. In both cases, it affects our faith and cultural orientation.

Religion is the context of communication. We are all formed under the influence of our culture and religion. It is a way of life; it influences the way we act and think and feel; it influences those associations and sentiments that set off our spontaneous reactions to persons and words and things. But, cultures and religions do differ. All individuals within various religious cultures need to examine their self-understanding of their faith, and take a flight into the future.

For instance, the way of life of a Muslim in Pakistan will differ from the suburbanite Muslim in Bradford, Britain, as would the way of life of a Christian in Cardiff, Wales, differ from that of his Muslim neighbor. However, there must be a point at which both can find common ground to communicate. This common ground is normally rooted in a set of shared values and norms, though subject to their unique religious and cultural identity, yet shared because of a common human quest.

An example of this human partnership was most positively demonstrated when the new religious communities arrived in Europe some fifty years ago. It was not uncommon to find Christians offering to share space in their churches with Muslims, for them to celebrate their religious festivals. In another situation, to get the best out of their workers, the big manufacturing companies would provide Muslims with space to practice their daily worship.

But, despite these examples of respect, most religious communities encounter religious discrimination. An important factor contributing to this discrimination is race, as most of those who belong to the non-Christian religions have either black or brown skin. The second factor is the majority-minority syndrome, the power of the majority over the powerlessness of the minority. The discrimination which emanates from this is witnessed in the 1988 Education Reform Act, which gives priority to Christianity, although the education system in Britain claims to be egalitarian.

Though no religious community will deny the important and valuable role of Christianity in the formation of the British cultural heritage, it would seem important that pupils be taught that the plurality and changing religious landscape of Britain should also be valued, and that the educational system take advantage of the new opportunities available from the valuable religious cultural resources which now inhabit this island.

Regrettably, Muslims are also discriminated against in a number of other ways. There are over two thousand mosques within Europe that have been damaged by neo-Nazis, particularly in France, Germany, Holland, and, in some cases, Britain. In many cases, their mosques have been marked with swastikas. In some cases, pig heads have been left at the door of the mosque. At the same time, Muslims are discriminated against constantly in the workplace, where they are not allowed to practice their faith wherever they find themselves. Instead, what we find in Europe is an increasing ethnocentrism, which underpins racism and religious discrimination.

Of all the religious communities, it is the Muslims who feel that they are constantly under attack. In the media, they are presented as the new threat since the fall of communism. The age-old stereotypes are still being promoted. Yet, Islam and Muslims, like all other religious communities, have contributed considerably to world civilization. More importantly, they have contributed considerably to the social and economic well being of Europe.

Young Muslims find that there is increasing discrimination among employers. It was not long ago that I was involved in legal case in which an employer in Huddersfield, Britain, advised the job center not to recommend Muslims to his company because they are likened to the IRA (Irish Republican Army).

Another area of religious discrimination is that experienced by young Muslim women, who wish to reflect their religious identity through their dress code. Consistently they are discriminated against because they wear a headscarf. In France, this became a serious political and religious issue. The state banned the wearing of headscarves by Muslim pupils, because it reinforced religious separatism, although it had no objection to Christian pupils wearing the crucifix around their neck.

In a socially, racially, and religiously plural society, we must recognize that there is a need for us to change our attitude. All founders of the faith communities fought for the liberation of the self, and against oppression. Religious communities today have the task to fulfill the mission of their founders. The human quest of the religious mission must be directed toward equality and justice, and the challenge of religious discrimination.