What is the role of interfaith dialogue for creating diverse societies and organizations, like AFS? The seminar “Islam in Europe – between Assimilation and Rejection” organized by the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL) earlier this year addressed this challenging topic and inspired many AFSers to continue thinking and analyzing this topic. You can read more in our previous blog post, and today Jeroen Vandenbempt, an EVS (European Voluntary Service) volunteer in AFS Noway, ponders the origins and reasons for Islamophobia and challenges us to stand against it.
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You might have seen it on TV or heard it while listening to people talking on the bus: “Islam is the reason for all our problems. Muslims are terrorists, they don’t adapt to our culture, steal our jobs and take advantage of our social welfare system. They are all rapists”.
If by now you are nodding your head in agreement, we have a problem. If you disagree, but don’t know how to react, we have a problem as well. In this article, I will try to prove you that Islam isn’t a bad thing, and I will give you possibilities to reflect on how to combat islamophobia. But foremost, I want to start a debate on the role we as human beings, as AFSers, as an intercultural organization have in fighting islamophobia, racism and discrimination in general.
But what is the real reason people are scared, and is this fear justified? Fear always comes from somewhere, whether we realize it or not. With Islamophobia it is no different. One of the biggest reasons we are scared now, is terrorism. Extremists attacking us, attacking our values, hurting our society with the aim of influencing and changing it, is a scary thing. But it is not a “Muslim thing”. Most Islamic scholars and believers say violence is not acceptable within their faith. And there are just as well extremists in other religions and among non-believers (but there is, for example, no Christianophobia). The thing is that when a non-Muslim does something wrong, we just see a bad person, but when a Muslim extremist does the same thing, it is the whole Muslim community who is to blame. ‘The economist’ published an interesting chart about it.
Source: http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/03/daily-chart-15 (25 April 2016)
A painful example is the comparison between the bombings in Belgium, right before the seminar, and the attack of Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011. If we were to believe the media, the Belgian perpetrators were only Muslim (and nothing beside that) and they spoke for all Muslims. Breivik, on the other hand, was portrayed as a crazy extremist individual. No one asked Norwegians to defend themselves for the behavior of the individual, whereas Muslims are often questioned about the attacks, as if they had something to do with it.
“And what about the Muslims taking over our world?” Another myth! A survey in 2014 asked Belgians about the perception of the Muslim community in the country. Respondents thought on average that 29% of the population was Muslim, where the number in reality is only 6%.
Source: http://carrieonadventures.com/inspiration/graphics/worldreligions-detailed.png (25 April 2016)
Important for the chart: Islam in one country is not the same as it is in another, and looking at countries as “Muslim countries” (making them all to be the same) is not only wrong, it is dangerous as well. It is in this way we start creating stereotypes and prejudices.
Are there religions that are more prone to violence than others (for example Islam)? Violence in religion has always existed in order to convey opinions, change lifestyles or to battle oppressors. But it depends more on where and on the situation people are in than on the religion. And although some religions are portrayed as more peaceful than others, there is no actual evidence to support this.
What if fear turns into hate? It is a natural reaction for people to fight to protect what they believe is theirs. The “pyramid of hate” (source: Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe (CEJI) ) shows that the bigger or more outspoken your hate is, the worst it gets. But it all starts small.
As (volunteer) youth workers, we don’t have to address people operating in the two top layers. However, every time a participant in our programs discriminates, or even just tells a racist joke, we have to act. And even before that, we need to make them aware that people say such things that aren’t ok, and what effect it has on others.
So when was the last time you made a discriminatory comment or joke, without actually meaning anything with it? And when was the last time you stood up against such a comment? Or if you didn’t stand up to it, what stopped you? Should we in fact stand up to others?
A story of a member of the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations (FEMYSO)  might not answer the question, but will definitely make you think:
A Muslim woman, wearing a hijab (head scarf) while going to university, is asked, in front of about 400 students, by her professor to either uncover her head, or to leave. In the lecture hall, two fellow students stand up and challenge the professor. When the woman later goes to a meeting of FEMYSO, and talks about the event, the message she has, is that it felt great to know she was not alone in that moment. That if somebody tries to harm her, others will stand beside her. The feeling of togetherness was a good feeling. She didn’t feel patronized, or more humiliated because of people standing up for her. In order to create change, we need to stand together.
Important here is, that it wasn’t two people taking action for her, but with her. That “togetherness”, instead of “them and us”, also referred to as “othering” is very important. In order to tackle Islamophobia, we need to tackle all forms of phobia (related to minorities). In order to tackle discrimination of Muslims, we need to tackle all forms of discrimination. You can bring focus to one problem more than others in your work. But when you are talking about Islamophobia you need to see it in the bigger picture as well. That holistic view of the problem in all its forms is what will in the end make a better world.
So should we address Islamophobia as a singular thing? Or see interfaith dialogue as an independent concept? It seems hard to do so, as it is linked to migration, the refugee crisis and terrorism, and to gender issues and homophobia, and to general human rights, and so on and so forth.
Who is responsible for creating that change we desire? Is it something we as individuals should work on? Does AFS, as an organization that strives for peace through understanding and intercultural learning, have a role in it? And if so, what is that role? What is it, we as AFSers can bring to the table?
If we want to create change through AFS, we need to stand as one. And so I write this article in the hopes that you, readers, start thinking, that you start discussing. And if you think this is a topic that should be addressed, as a singular thing or as part of a bigger picture, you are the ones that need to make AFS take action. Because it is the members of AFS, that decide in the end.
I would be lying if I said that unlike other media and writers, I wasn’t trying to influence you. This piece is filled with bias and very much so my opinions. And though I used credible information, as much as possible, I am the one who decided what to mention and what not to mention. So, dear reader, please be aware of this fact, see through it and form your own opinion. Try to answer my questions yourself. Talk to others about this with an open mind. And in the end, take a stand, be the change you want to see, and let us make this world better, one person at a time.
Jeroen Vandenbempt is a Belgian (Flemish) AFS volunteer with a passion for diversity. He is active as trainer in AFS BFL, NOR and EFIL, as well as in WJNH (an organisation for LGBT youth in Flanders). He has participated in several seminars on diversity and minorities, the last being the EFIL study session on Islam in Europe. He is currently working at the AFS Norway office as an EVS volunteer with support of ‘Erasmus+’ of the European Union through ‘Aktiv Ungdom’.
 An international non-profit organization established in 1991, CEJI stands with individuals and organizations of all religions, cultures and backgrounds to promote a diverse and inclusive Europe. For more information: visit http://www.ceji.org/
 FEMYSO’s mission is to facilitate development, networking and cooperation between European Muslim youth and student organizations and to be their representative voice within all European institutions. For more information: visit http://www.femyso.org/