By Kourosh Ziabari
As is the case with the aftermath of the majority of terrorist attacks unfolding across the globe, Muslims have been fiercely targeted following the November 2015 Paris attacks and suicide bombings in Brussels earlier in March. The involvement of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the bloody attacks encouraged the conservative, right-wing politicians to intensify measures restricting the civil liberties of Muslim citizens in the West, and also persuaded the mainstream media to team up for scrutinizing the “criminality” of the Muslims prompting violence and mayhem everywhere.
However, the media and the governments haven’t tightened the noose on Muslims because they’re mostly the Muslims who cause unrest and turmoil in the world, and there should be other reasons at work. The Federal Bureau of Investigation records, documenting every instance of terrorism activity on U.S. soil between 1980 and 2005, show that 94 percent of the terror attacks in this period were committed by non-Muslims, and Muslim terrorists were accountable for no more than 6% of violent attacks killing Americans. Moreover, a 2014 study by University of North Carolina revealed, since 9/11 attacks, Muslim-linked terrorism has claimed the lives of 37 Americans, while in the interim, more than 190,000 Americans were murdered by mass killers, gunmen and other criminals. According to Prof. Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, mass killings in the U.S. in 2013 alone led to 137 fatalities, more than three times the victims killed by Muslim-American terrorism in the United States since 9/11.
The fear of Muslims and what is alleged to be their inherent violence, and the subsequent discriminatory behavior against them originating from the concocted fear, is popularly referred to as Islamophobia.
Truth NGO talked to Mr. Yasser Louati of Collective Against Islamphobia in France (CCIF) to explore the alarming rise of Islamophobia in Europe and the United States and the incendiary rhetoric of politicians and government officials widening the social gaps between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West.
Yasser Louati is a French human rights and civil liberties activist. He is the spokesperson of CCIF and head of its international relations desk. His work focuses on Islamophobia, national security policies and social justice. Mr. Louati is frequently interviewed by international news networks and publications to discuss anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination in Europe, especially his home country of France. He has appeared as a guest and commentator on CNN, Al-Jazeera, Democracy Now and other popular outlets and programs.
We had an elaborate phone interview with Yasser Louati a couple of weeks ago and discussed a range of issues pertaining to violent extremism, Muslim integration in the Western societies, ascendancy of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential campaign and the future of Muslim citizens in the United States and Europe. The following the full transcript of this interview.
Q: After the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the bombings in Brussels in March this year, which the self-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for, accusations began to circulate across the social media and newspapers against Muslims that they were guilty of these atrocities and should have distanced themselves from ISIS. Well, with the chain of ISIS attacks on four Muslim countries unfolded this past holy Ramadan – namely Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, has the world come to the understanding that Muslims are themselves a major target of the ISIS terrorists, rather than being their partners in crime?
A: Well, we have to understand that the position of Muslims in France is still the position of foreigners; the foreigners that are suspicious and even dangerous. So, no matter what they say or do, it is never enough for the elites who need the enemy within to actually maintain a position of dominance.
Everybody knows that ISIL emerged because of a Western war against a Muslim country and the chaos that followed the invasion of Iraq. Nobody wants to take responsibility for that, and I’m talking to you a couple of days after the Chilcot Report and the fact that Tony Blair and George W. Bush are the first people who are responsible and who should be charged for the emergence of ISIL. And after the emergence of ISIL and the massacres they have perpetrated in Iraq and around the Muslim world, they have also attacked Western countries, and when they attack Western countries, Muslims also get killed there. And despite the fact, as you said rightly, that Muslims are themselves victims of ISIL and of global terrorism in Muslim countries and as well as in Western countries, they are still perceived to be somehow responsible. Well, when you hold Western countries or Muslim politicians responsible for the war in Iraq, how come nobody held responsible the whole Western world for what they have done in the Middle East and the catastrophes that have ensued? So, when you take for example, the fact that over a hundred Muslim scholars signed an open letter condemning either [Abubakr] Al-Baghdadi or his organization and global terrorism, or the fact that Muslims participated not only in saving lives but also in the counter-terrorism efforts, even though the efforts are still not enough, we should again pose the question of “Are Muslim citizens perceived as fully-fledged citizens or not?”
Q: Right! The recent ISIS attacks in European capitals and also the mass shooting in Orlando, which was attributed to an Afghan-American man allegedly brainwashed by ISIS, have prompted violence and a fresh wave of hate crimes against the Muslims, especially in such places as the UK, France, Germany and also the U.S. itself. Do you believe the political leaders, security and intelligence officials in these countries are determined to protect their Muslim minorities from such attacks and threats, and as you say, are Muslims in the West being viewed as fully-fledged citizens enjoying equal liberties and rights?
A: Well, if you look at the facts on the ground, the number of mosques that were ransacked either by the police during so-called counter-terrorism operations or ransacked by a bunch of white supremacists or even burnt to the ground – when you see the fact that anti-Muslim or Islamophobic attacks have skyrocketed after the January attacks in Paris and that it is still the case as we speak today, we can’t say that Muslims are being protected by the respective Western governments. No, they are not! And at the same time, it raises the question of, do governments still need Muslims to be somehow blamed and to allow some kind of groups to let off their anger towards minorities instead of directing their anger towards the very same governments that have failed to protect us all? Don’t forget that France has been a victim of two waves of terrorist attacks in 2015, and as we speak today, nobody got sacked, nobody resigned, nobody was even held responsible. And you even had a parliamentary vote that came about two days ago that said clearly, black and white, that the French intelligence failed miserably in its duty to protect French citizens. So, here we are today! You know, pointing fingers at Muslims, when they are paying three bills: the bill of being victims of global terrorism, the aftermath of the attacks and the violence by the government holding them responsible for its own failures against terrorism.
Q: Why do you think the Muslims are blamed for the wrongs they are not proved to have done? As we speak today, we have come to the understanding that ISIS emerged out of a power vacuum that surfaced in Iraq following the invasion of that country, and is now sustained by those states which continue to buy its oil or finance its operations. Moreover, when the ISIS terrorists attacked the second holiest mosque in the Islamic world, Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina on July 5, the global public realized they are clearly not getting along with the Muslims, either. Then, why are the Muslims still being held to account for the crimes committed by ISIS or other extremist groups here and there?
A: There is no straight answer to that but we can begin with a few examples. The fact that Muslims are still not seen as an integral part of Western societies, that they are the eternal foreigners despite being there for many generations, especially in the UK and France, the fact that every single time when you speak about Muslims, you don’t speak about them in terms of just regular themes and lines – well, you don’t ask them about the increase of apartment rents and gas prices; you only speak to them or allow them to speak when it comes to politics or security policies or international affairs, and they are always looked at through the lenses of international relations. So, they are sent back to a foreign origin and as they are constantly being problematized and spoken about in terms of security threats, lack of integration, non-admission or non-belonging to the so-called Western values, it is of course much easier to hold them responsible when a foreign threat targets our respective countries. And this is a fundamental problem. As long as Muslims are perceived as a threat, as foreigners, or as impossible to integrate or even get accepted, and as I said earlier fully-fledged citizens, sharing the same ideals, fears and values as the rest of Western people, it will be much easier to point fingers at them in times of crisis. And I will push even further my argument by saying that they are the necessary enemy in these Western countries facing major political problems, social problems and even an institutional crisis and identity crisis. So, you need a scapegoat for all your problems. Muslims in this case play the perfect role.
Q: So, do you think it’s a failure of the Muslims that they have not been able to successfully assimilate into the Western societies or is it a shortcoming of these governments that were unable to integrate their Muslim minorities, turn them into accepted, happy members of the society and engage them in social and political endeavors? There are some arguments that the Muslims are innately reclusive and not willing to integrate, and prefer to be detached from the society. Do you find the argument compelling?
A: I will cite to you facts and studies. The first study is by the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED). Last year, they published a study called “Trajectories and Origins” and it showed that efforts to integrate were only made by minorities, especially Muslims; that they jump through all the hoops, they go through all the struggles to integrate and, as you said, assimilate and get a firm place in society while in return, societies reject them by not accepting the idea that these Muslims, Blacks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, etc., are part of French identity, for example. And you have structural racism that goes back to the colonial administration, structural discrimination, structural exclusion, and structural political violence targeting minorities. You have other studies showing that if you are a Muslim person in France, you are four times less likely to get a job. Add to it discrimination in schools, discrimination in housing and perpetual casting aside these Muslim minorities. We cannot hold these minorities responsible when studies show that they want to integrate and push forward to be accepted; yet, the systems reject them. And you can take a look, for example, at our political system, at our media and how our elites are represented. They do not represent France as it is. They only represent a tiny minority of white Christian males dominating the elites. So, of course it is easier to blame minorities for systemic failures; yet, academic studies show you that it is clearly a failure of the French state to integrate these populations. And the fact that these people do not have their own economic system, their own political system or even their own education system, and that they still rely on the central French state system, shows that they belong more to this country than the elites themselves.
Q: Alright! I was reading your latest interview with Al-Jazeera and found that you have recorded the recent wave of hate crimes and assaults on Islamic communities, mosques and even the individual Muslims in France following the Paris and Brussels attacks. Would you please expand on those major events and incidents that troubled the Muslim community in France the most? I also read a report about a Muslim female student in Montereau-Fault-Yonne being barred from her school because of wearing long dresses. How does the situation for the Muslims in France look right now? Do you believe the future is more promising for them?
A: Well, again, it’s a multi-faceted answer. First, Muslims are under tremendous pressure; they have faced major backlash in terms of political violence from the government and the political elite and even the media, because in France we don’t have a separate media system; the media is part of the power structure. Muslims have been held responsible and constantly pressured to take the blame for whatever happens wrong in this country. The second thing is that, yes, the attacks against people have dramatically increased especially against women. Eighty percent of the victims of Islamophobia are females and the number one Islamophobic culprit is the government itself because that’s where all the discrimination takes place. They take place in public buildings and administrations. The other thing is that Muslims are going to be the central element of the upcoming presidential election which will be held in 2017. What’s happening in the U.S. with Donald Trump is going to similarly happen in France because all the candidates are positioning themselves not according to their political or socio-economic programs, but according to identity issues. And we can see it, for example, with former president Nicolas Sarkozy, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé and the various right-wing candidates who are all using “laïcité” – what we call laïcité is the secular law – to make it a central issue of their program. Forget that we have 3.5 million people unemployed in this country, that we have 6 million people living under the poverty line, that we have about €80 billion in tax evasions per year, that 25% of our youth is unemployed, that the government is highly unpopular, and so on and so forth. No! The major issue they are trying to develop for the upcoming election is Muslims. So, the upcoming months are going to be very, very brutal and nasty against Muslims. Now, you ask me about the future; it will all depend on Muslims first and the rest of the population. Don’t forget that the elites in France, even in many other countries, have been very, very effective in making the whole population believe that the interest of the elites is also their interest while it’s not, because the elites have a tremendous amount of power, have accumulated wealth, and have refused to share anything and have placed the pressure of the financial costs on the average French citizens. So, now it’s on Muslims to organize themselves and to reach out to the rest of French population and the same thing applies on the other hand, meaning that it’s incumbent upon the average French people to ask themselves, “where does their interest lie?” They despise the elites; that’s fine; they blame the European Union; that’s fine. But, what are they willing to do to protect their common interests, Muslims and non-Muslims, to not only live in peace but to live with at least a minimum level of dignity and comfort in this country?
Q: Interesting! So, a little bit of digression to one of the other European countries where important developments are taking place. You have probably monitored the British referendum on withdrawal from the European Union, the Brexit. With a very narrow margin, the British people voted to leave the EU, and a new government was inaugurated. How much do you think this communal decision of the British people was centered on their possible abhorrence of the immigrants, including the Muslims, and how much do you think Brexit was an immigration issue? People had different considerations including economic, social and political grievances against the establishment and EU, but one of the major themes of discussion in the run-up to the June 24 vote was immigration. Many Britons would say, “We want these immigrants to go back to their countries.” And we have seen a tremendous spike in the hate crimes against the minorities.
A: Well, people’s grievances against the European Union are perfectly legitimate. The European Union was supposed to be a social project for the European people. Now, it has become an oligarchic project catering to the rich and powerful and the wealthy not caring about the people. And when you look at the series of austerity measures being imposed on various southern European countries, take Greece for example, the fact is that when people vote, their decisions are overturned! This is the case in Greece for example and even in France. Don’t forget that in 2005, the French people voted against the European constitution. What happened? The government under Jacques Chirac didn’t care and still adopted the European constitution by playing wrong the institutions and you can make a search on how they managed to change the initial draft and pass it through the law by violating the people’s will. So, when people vote against the European Union, I cannot blame them and nobody should, because the European Union is not looking after the European people; they are looking after big businesses, not even small businesses which can be financial sectors and banks; that’s it! So, that’s one thing. The other thing is that the Brexit campaign was centered on immigration and even on deceiving the British people. You know about that figure of €350 million being paid to Europe, etc.; it turned out that UKIP and Nigel Farage lied to the British people. But what happened is that Brexit has empowered the most extreme parties in the UK and the once isolated fascist ideologies. It means they felt that they have won this referendum and dragged their country out of the European Union. It means this people have the larger belief that they are capable of deciding and imposing their decisions. And where there is a systemic failure, you don’t see many politicians from the Tories standing against this normalized racism, alright?
They don’t have the guts or even the honesty to say enough is enough! Well, if you look for example at the campaign during the London election, the same thing happened. It wasn’t about social projects and fiscal policies in London; it was a racist strategy targeting Sadiq Khan. So, we cannot normalize racism, accept it, make it become mainstream – and that applies to the UK and my country, France – and don’t be surprised. So, yes, there are grievances against the European Union, but the Brexit campaign was centered on immigration. But now the message is on all those minorities in the UK bond together, “are they going to stump on you?”
Q: Let’s also discuss Donald Trump’s rise in the U.S. political panorama. The 70-year-old business tycoon has been able to overpower all his seasoned party-mates, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich and clinch Republican nomination. He is undeniably favored by millions of Americans who believe he would be able to bring security back to America’s borders through his proposal to block any Muslim entry to the U.S. and build a wall separating the country from the neighboring Mexico. Does he have any chance for being elected to the White House? If so, will he fulfill his promise to impose a ban on the Muslims entering the U.S.?
A: Well, you know, we cannot put the blame on Trump himself. We have to first blame the institutions that have laid the ground for Trump to rise. That person did not rise out of nowhere. There was a fertile ground for him to emerge. So, first, the blame is on the Republican Party, because for them there were short-term political gains in the rise of Trump. Now there is no Frankenstein alive, autonomous and independent, and he’s now marching alone and they have no other choice but to follow him. They should have stopped him from the beginning if they were really true about protecting the U.S. constitution and equality among citizens, and looking after the common interests of all Americans. That wasn’t the case; they saw immediate gains, they saw him rise and they said, well, it is going to work. Then, we have the media! Don’t forget that Donald Trump is a highly profitable cash machine. This wouldn’t have been possible without the mainstream media constantly speaking about him and relaying his speeches without any strong counter-discourse. That’s for the second part. And the third part is that now that Donald Trump is rising, everything is possible in politics. Things that were impossible turned out to be possible once they happened. Nobody thought Americans would soon enough have a black president. Well, it happened! Nobody thought that Iraq would be destroyed, while it happened! So, once you tap on the shoulder of my friends and say “don’t worry, it won’t happen,” there are reasons to worry because in politics everything is possible.
Q: Well, in the recent months, especially in the wake of the escalation of ISIS operations across the globe, there has been a heated debate on the responsibilities of Muslims in helping to counter Islamophobia and presenting a reliable, objective portrayal of Islam, and to demonstrate that they really have nothing to do with ISIS and its criminal modus operandi. What do you think the Muslims in the West should do in order to protect themselves, actualize better lives for their families and ward off attacks on their mosques, their communities and their universal values?
A: Yes, I see your question. First, they shouldn’t do anything to please anybody but themselves and to be true to their beliefs. So, they shouldn’t do anything to say, “Well, look at us! We are the good guys and so you can be happy about us. So, please accept us!” It doesn’t work that way! That’s for start. Second, of course, Muslims have done, in my opinion, whatever could be done, but they’re not given proper communication channels or the communication means because scholars have spoken out loud for years against these terrorist groups. They have opened websites, etc., but where Muslims are failing I think is in understanding how Western societies truly function and how the political system works and how the media work. I find it quite surprising that we see Muslims buying palaces, hotels, huge buildings, soccer clubs and football clubs, but they don’t own major media. I’m quite surprised by it because they are the main providers of intellectual content for the wider public opinion. Then, at the local level and in their respective countries, they have to take back their religion and get their religious affairs back in order, back from foreign interference and also back from government interference. For example, in France, we have the so-called “laïcité,” that is supposed to prohibit the French government from interfering with religious affairs; yet, you have the government bringing in foreign Imams. They may be good and I think they are in terms of theology, Quran understanding, etc., but they don’t understand the social fabric. So, they have no added value for the community as a community. They only have an added value when it comes to theory. Now, Muslims need practice. And the same applies to many countries in the Western world. The other part is that they can’t look away while others are being targeted. Islamophobia should make Muslims feel more concerned about one another, because it is targeting everybody and it makes no difference between the Muslim who practices and the Muslim who doesn’t, between the Muslim from Tunisia and the Muslim from Senegal, because Muslims are being perceived by Islamophobes as a monolithic group. So, it’s on them to start acting as an organized community without excluding themselves, and I insist and hope this remains in the transcript, without excluding themselves from the rest of society. Their biggest challenge is not only to fight against Islamophobia as Muslims but to fight against Islamophobia as French citizens, because after Muslims, it’s going to be other minorities.
The elites today are targeting Muslims because it is easy politically; it is profitable with very, very low risks. You don’t risk that much by singling out Muslims. The problem with that is that you set a precedent and if you have a moral duty to protect yourself against injustice, you also have a moral duty to make sure that injustice stops at you and it does not reach other communities. We can think about the Roman people; we can think about black people; we can think about Armenians; we can think about any minority group that would be sooner or later in the line of fire of the dominant groups in Western countries.
Q: Just a quick follow-up: do you believe the leaders of the Muslim-majority countries, in the Arab world, Southwest Asia, Iran, Turley and elsewhere have been able to preclude the rise of Islamophobia in an effective manner? Unfortunately, one finds big divisions within the Islamic world and many Muslim states are pitted against each other, chasing each other politically and diplomatically and their leader make inflammatory remarks on matters that split them. Have these divisions contributed to the growth of Islamophobia globally?
A: Of course! If you are divided, you are weak. If you are weak, you’re going to be a target. Racists do not target minorities that are well-organized and who know how to protect themselves. But where Muslim leaders have failed Muslims in the West is by forgetting about them and this is something I don’t understand. When you see all these rich Muslims coming to the West, knowing very well that these Western countries are applying anti-Muslim laws, and then once every couple of weeks you see a rich Muslim complaining because his wife was expelled from a hotel because she was speaking Arabic or because she was wearing a headscarf; well, if you know this country is doing these things and you don’t speak out and you remain silent because to you it’s acceptable as long as other Muslims are being targeted, don’t be surprised! Again, that’s why I said Islamophobia should actually bring Muslims together and push them to work with one another, and I am not saying that Muslims should work together and first they have to agree on everything. That’s politically immature. Working together means working for a common interest, regardless of your immediate differences or disagreements, because you’re faced with much bigger threats. When your daughter is subject to physical violence, when your son is unable to get a job because Islamophobia has become normal, you should stop worrying about your own immediate advantages and worry about the greater danger facing you and others as well.
Q: Right! I think we also need to address this important issue finally. Have the human rights organizations worldwide, including the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and other responsible bodies that usually raise their voice in protest against violations of human rights, sufficiently highlighted and protested the rise of Islamophobia and worked to shield the civil liberties of Muslims as ordinary citizens protected by the law? Has there been any advocacy on their behalf to safeguard the rights of Muslims?
A: I regularly speak with members of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and I can tell you there are people who are motivated with a very sincere intention to tackle Islamophobia, but there is such tremendous political pressure to make Islamophobia acceptable and to crackdown on any initiative to make it a national cause, that it is very difficult for the authorities within those organizations to even fight against the trends within those organizations. Amnesty International published a very interesting report in, I think, 2012 or 2004 and they were criticizing the law banning the headscarf in schools, calling it Islamophobic. Human Rights Watch lately published a very strong report on the state of emergency in France that has been openly targeting Muslims. And they did not use diplomatic language; they said clearly that the French government is targeting French Muslims and holding them responsible for these terrorist attacks and treating them as suspects. These are efforts but they also need to continue because it is not enough. Why? Because Islamophobia has become so mainstream in Western counties that one report is not enough; two reports won’t be enough. We need to make Islamophobia national causes in Western countries, because what Muslims represent is the archetype of the scapegoat of Western countries’ crises. So, by tackling Islamophobia, we’re opening the door to tackle other social injustices.