The murder of Marwa Al-Sherbini, a veiled (and pregnant) Egyptian woman, as she prepared to give evidence in a German courtroom against a man who publicly slandered her, has incensed the Muslim World and re-ignited the debate over whether Europe is a truly tolerant society or one on the cusp of xenophobic extremism. Muslims say the attitudes which prevailed in early 20th century European history and gave rise to the Holocaust are similar in nature to the climate of intimidation and violence Muslim communities must increasingly endure in contemporary Europe. Today, Muslims in Europe are seen as existing outside of a democratic culture. A resurgence of social Darwinism as applied to the libertarian theory – that democratic ideals are inherently superior to ideals of other cultures – has alienated Muslims and created a cultural backlash against them. A hostile view of Islam began in the 8th century when Muslims expanded into the Iberian Peninsula. Islam was rejected as a fundamental religion and seen as a direct challenge to Christianity; Muslims were seen as heretics and their prophet a diabolical fraud. In Dante Alighieri s Divine Comedy, considered the pinnacle of Western literature in the 13th century, the Prophet Muhammad and his cousin Ali are cast to the ninth circle of Hell – one created for schismatics and sowers of discord. In Giovanni Da Modena s 1415 painting The Last Judgment, which adorns a cathedral in Bologna, the prophet is depicted as a scantily-clad, turbaned, and bearded man writhing in agony as he is pulled into hell by demons. With Muslims increased migration to Europe, fear of an Eastern culture in the midst of Western ideals dominated the discourse.
Soumayya Ghannoushi, a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, believes: The medieval Christian view of Islam as a deviant, violent, licentious and heretical creed was secularized, stripped of its transcendental character and rearticulated within a modern essentialist philosophy that continues to define the terms of Western discourse on Islam, in its mainstream at least.
In 1997, the London-based Runnymede Charity published a report entitled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All. Updated in 2004, it found that Muslims were seen as the other and as lacking in values held by Western cultures. Islam was also seen as violent, aggressive, terrorism-promoting and inferior to Western ideals. More importantly, hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and their exclusion from mainstream society, the report found. In a final note of caution, the report also found that among Europeans anti-Muslim hostility is seen as natural or normal. Such findings help explain why cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad published in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2006 should not be seen as experiments in journalistic freedoms; the cartoons were not borne in a vacuum. The Jyllands-Posten cartoon depicting a bearded Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban is suspiciously similar to a 1940 s cartoon in the German Der Sturmer magazine which depicts a Jew as Satan. Muhammad, a Muslim, and the Der Sturmer Jew are bearded. Both wear religious head garments, and both are depicted as icons of evil in contemporary society. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Muslim communities in non-Islamic countries have come to fear the very pogroms which targeted the Jews in 1930s Europe. Given the racism many Muslims endure in Europe, the murder of an Egyptian woman because she wore a hijab should not be dismissed as the act of a lone man who many are now calling insane. Her murder comes amid increased media coverage of Muslims as outsiders unable to conform to Western ideologies, a growing anti-immigrant backlash in Europe, the resurgence of right-wing extremist groups even within the political establishments, and the decline in continental economic dividends. These must be seen as mutually inclusive. While many countries around the world have enacted anti-hate speech laws and legislature to combat anti-Semitism, there is still no international consensus that equates Islamophobia with racism. In its 2004 annual report, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) found that: Islamophobia continues to manifest itself in different guises. Muslim communities are the target of negative attitudes, and sometimes, violence and harassment. They suffer multiple forms of discrimination, including sometimes from certain public institutions. ECRI is worried about the current climate of hostility against persons who are or are believed to be Muslim.
There is, indeed, a cultural divide as ECRI points out: One of the new faces of racism today is ‘cultural’ racism. According to this notion of racism, cultures are pre-defined entities, largely seen as homogenous, unchangeable and, more importantly, incompatible with each other.
Between 1939 and 1945, six million Jews were brutally gassed, burned and slaughtered by an intolerant, racist Nazi ideology which considered them to be untermenschen – inferiors. This term is apt today to describe how some European extremist groups view Muslims. In Mein Kamp, Hitler said of the Jews: Gradually I began to hate them. For me this was the time of the greatest spiritual upheaval I have ever gone through. I have ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and have become an anti-Semite.
Jews around the world hold remembrance ceremonies of the Holocaust and say never again. Al-Sherbini s death must not be in vain. It must now be reiterated that Muslim and non-Muslim leaders carefully face the great cultural gap that divides them – and breach it. Muslim leaders must continue to emphasize the guiding principles of their faith – justice, tolerance, charity, compassion and equality – and speak out against honor killings, which are not uncommon among their communities in Europe. European leaders must immediately condemn Al-Sherbini s murder, hold her killer accountable, and acknowledge that Islamophobia is a growing threat. Otherwise, Europe is precariously close to repeating the horrors of the past. Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist and editor of Iraqi descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. This commentary was first published in the Huffington Post and was reprinted in Daily News Egypt with permission from the author. In July 2009, he leaves Al Jazeera s English-language website, where he has worked as a senior editor and contributor since 2004, to pursue a writing career and research a book on Iraq.