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Interview by TREND News Agency with Dr Anas Sheikh-Ali in Baku, Azerbaijan

Question: The Muslim world today has been faced with the problem of Islamophobia in Europe and the USA. In your opinion, which steps should the Muslim communities take to overcome the issue of Islamophobia?

I have spoken on this in Baku before several times as well as in other places. I will tell you briefly what I think Muslims need to do. A lot of Muslim and non-Muslim NGOs  have recognized the problem, this is recognized in some countries at the governmental and official levels. As far as what Muslims could do, I think the following is badly needed :

  1. We need more highly professional and well resourced NGOs with employee experts who are capable of tracking and listing Islamophobic incidents in every country. There are a large number of incidents that go unreported and therefore we need to have a sustained and systematic process to obtain the information and publicize it. We established an organization here in the UK in 2000 called FAIR- Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism.  FAIR is the first and probably the only Muslim NGO that has devoted its time and resources to deal with Islamophobia. There are a lot of incidents of Islamophobia that go unreported and for a  number of reasons. Either victims are scared to report to the police and other authorities, or they do not know how to do so, or because they believe that by reporting there is not going to be anything positive action or result. That is why many incidents (some of which are very serious) are never reported or documented. Therefore we need enormous awareness efforts and programmes to educate people on the need to report such incidents and how they can do this.  As I said earlier there are not many organizations now that devote their time and resources to do this. Even these few organizations struggle from lack of resources financial and human. That is why there is an urgent need to establish specialists organizations that are well resourced and employ the expertise needed to tackle the issue.
  2. The other area that I think Muslims should pay attention to is how to respond, whether orally or in writing. They need to be intelligent, professional, calm and dignified, without resorting to unnecessary emotions or anger or by breaking the law. Such reactions will increase Islamophobia. At the academic, intellectual, and media levels Muslims need to develop a discourse that is effective and intelligent.
  3. I also believe that if Islamophobia and all forms of racism and xenophobia are to be challenged in the long term, then the only way is through progressive education, especially focusing on early education. There is a need to remove the myths and stereotypes that have prevailed concerning Muslims at all levels of education. Having said that we must also admit that there exist a great deal of myths and stereotypes about the West in the Muslim World. These also must be addressed through the education systems in the Muslim World.  On both sides this is going to take time and many difficulties will need to be faced but it must be done.
  4. It is important also to work with non-Muslim partners. There are many non-Muslims who have not only spoken against Islamophobia but have also produced books and reports. I would like here to commend the work and efforts of ODIHR (The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights). They are doing excellent work in dealing with discrimination against Muslims and Islamophobia.

So, in short, the need for monitoring and reporting, the need for professional well resourced organizations, the need to develop a dignified and intelligent discourse, and the need to work with partners, are the priorities that I think at the moment Muslims should pay attention to in dealing with Islamophobia.

I’m glad that the OIC have established an “Islamophobia Observatory” to monitor Islamophobia. They have already produced two annual reports. I think this an important step and that all Muslim communities worldwide should feed into this report and strongly support this initiative.

Question: What is the main difference between Islamophobia in the USA and in Europe?

Let me say that there are differences between Islamophobia within Europe itself. For example, there is a great deal more tolerance on the issue of the headscarf in the United Kingdom than there is in Germany and France. The same tolerance is seen in the US as well. The issue of the headscarf in the UK has never been a problem at all. The niqab (the covering of the face) is. Therefore, we need to acknowledge and understand these differences within Europe. However, the general characteristics (as I have read in a recent report) of Islamophobia are actually shared between Europe and the US and I would add beyond as well.  However, in the USA I don’t think the Muslim community is the main target with regard to the issue of immigration. The main target there (again as I read in a report to be released soon) are the Latin Americans, while in Europe the issue of immigration mainly targets the Muslim community.

QuestionDuring the visit of the Pope to Jordan as well as the Holy land, some Western countries and religious organizations said that it is very difficult to build dialogue with the Islamic world because of the split inside the Muslim communities. In your opinion to what extent do these differences impact on the dialogue with the West?

A couple of years ago, a letter entitled “A Common Word” was signed by 138 senior Muslim academics, intellectuals, activists and theologians. It was addressed to the leaders of the Christian Church worldwide: Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical, Orthodox, etc. After its release there were additional signatories and the number now stands at 305. I myself had the honour of presenting it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, at Lambeth Palace. As a result of this a series of meetings of constructive dialogue between Muslim delegations and the Christian Churches took place. The first was at Yale University in the US, the second at Cambridge University in the UK and the third at the Vatican. I attended the Vatican meeting (the First Muslim-Catholic Forum) and believe it was very positive. I understand that there are many other meetings planned.

I need to stress that the Muslim delegations included people from different Muslim communities and schools of thought from different parts of the Muslim World as well as from the Muslim communities in the West.  Many other meetings and Forums are planned. Are these dialogues and Forums going to resolve all the problems and challenges? Of course not. Are they going to encounter difficulties? Yes.  Can progress be made? Yes, it can and progress has been made. I suggest that you visit the “A Common Word” website for detailed information: www.acommonword.com.

However, we need to keep in mind that there will always be some Muslims opposed to dialogue with the Christians and Christians opposed to a dialogue with the Muslims.

QuestionHow can Muslim countries help the USA to improve Barak Obama’s intention to open a new chapter in relations between the USA and the Muslim world.

Having followed the reactions from all sides, I think that the Muslim world (whether governments or NGOs) is ready and willing to work closely with President Barak Obama. I do not know what practical steps each will be taking but I have no doubt there is a desire and a will. However, what will be done depends to a very extent on what President Obama is going to do. What we have heard from him is positive and encouraging, in marked difference to what we used to hear from previous administrations. However, they remain words and good intentions. The Muslim world needs to see words and intentions translated into serious action. This will certainly generate positive responses.