Just a few days after the March attacks in the Brussels airport and metro, a group of European AFS volunteers from 15 different countries gathered in this city to help increase the impact of AFS in fighting Islamophobia and to promote interreligious dialogue in European communities. A deeper look into the discussions from the seminar, Islam as a religion in Europe and what AFS can do to further its peace-building mission is brought to us by Stasa Stojkov, a volunteer at AFS Serbia and a member of the European Pool of Trainers of the European Federation for Intercultural Learning. We invite AFSers interested in exploring the topic further to register for the Volunteer Summer Summit in August this year, where similar topics will be explored.
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It is the mission of AFS as an organization to foster intercultural dialogue in order to create a more just and peaceful world. Yes, this is a statement that probably all AFSers can identify with and agree upon. However, the understanding of what constitutes a peaceful world might differ. The same goes for the term responsibility. Reflecting upon the mission of AFS in the times in which the organization was founded, and applying it to the context we live in today, the group of participants and trainers of the “Islam in Europe – between assimilation and rejection” seminar organized by the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL – the umbrella organization for AFS in Europe), decided it was time for certain thoughts not to be assumed, but rather said more explicitly. The seminar took place in Brussels, in April 2016, and was supported by the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe within EFIL’s Annual Theme “Building Peaceful Societies”.
Islam as a religion has been present on the European grounds from a very early age. Already in the 7th century, the Umayyad Empire was established on the territories of what we today know as Spain and Portugal. Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire was present on the Balkan Peninsula and beyond from the 14th century, up until the establishment of the secular Republic of Turkey in early 20th century. In addition, Europe, its conquerors, travelers and representatives have also played their role in the regions where Islam was, and today still is, the predominant religion. Starting in the 11th century with the crusades, through colonialism and up until recent times and wars, such as the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Europe has marked its presence outside continent’s boundaries in a certainly significant and often negative manner.
In spite of all these interactions, in times of both peace and war, there is still a very strong line between us and them. Othering, or alienating, is a process of labeling someone as fundamentally different than you, and as a mechanism it can help spread discrimination in all forms. It is strongly present in the process of spreading Islamophobia, and the trainers and participants of the seminar recognized it as a repetitive pattern present in the media, politics and other aspects of their daily lives. The idea of us, Europeans, representing our values and things we fought for throughout the years in order to become this democratic continent we so proudly claim we are today. And them, the others, with their seemingly backwards mentality representing values such as traditional gender roles that are directly against what we as Europe stand for. With this chain of thoughts, the idea of living together becomes, in the best case scenario, merely, a life next to each other and not with each other. Othering, supported by our school books, media and art influences our perceptions of the society and world we live in. Without fostering critical thought, it is easy for people to fall into the claws of biased media and politicians wanting to create powerful headlines. This is where AFS steps in. This is where AFS helps us understand that what we see is only one of many perspectives and that what we perceive as threatening or old-fashioned is actually an enriching and wonderful element in other people’s lives. This is where AFS confronts prejudice.
The media coverage of Muslims is not only predominantly negative, but often presented in a way which is meant to cause fear. In a reality where the first thing you see in the very morning is a new attack, numbers of lost lives, information about troops entering or withdrawing from a certain area, it is easy to let the fear dominate our lives. However, that irrational fear, whether it is the fear of losing someone or something we cherish in our lives, only helps to support the image of the other being a threat. The word terrorist is immediately attached to the word Muslim, and vice versa. In the state of fear, the fact that there are around 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and that those belonging to the extremist groups constitute maybe 1% of them, never gets mentioned. When a person without a Muslim background commits an act of terrorism, they are seen as lunatics, not as terrorists. However, as soon as we can attach the word Muslim to a person suspected for such an act, all the other labels such as nationality, marital status, or profession get neglected.
Another word often mentioned in AFS is diversity. We believe we are diverse, we aim to be even more inclusive and we appreciate the differences each individual brings to the group. However, so often we forget that, in order to be truly diverse, we sometimes have to look beyond what is already there. We have to give a chance to someone who seems so different that it is difficult even to imagine we could have something in common. There, on the very edge of our comfort zone, we might take that step which will ensure a better world for all of us. As some voices are not strong enough to express how much they would appreciate being a part of a reality such as the AFS one, embracing them may sometimes not be enough. We should be more proactive in searching for, and including those who might seem different, and who might not have the opportunity to join AFS that easily.
One could discuss whether addressing Islamophobia explicitly is an AFS responsibility or not. However, bearing in mind that AFS is a non-political and non-religious organization, the group of this seminar attendees agreed that condemning all types of discrimination is the least we can do. Standing up for those who need us to speak up and including everyone who shares our vision regardless of race, sexual orientation, religion, nationality or any other label is our duty in order to truly fulfill that mission we’ve been proudly caring for more than 100 years.