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Islamophobia is not ‘freedom of speech’


This summer’s Quran burnings in Scandinavia were not anomalies but part of a disturbing trend. We are witnessing a sharp rise in Islamophobic hate, fuelled and funded by far-right political actors across the globe. Muslims are increasingly being targeted, harassed and discriminated against just for being Muslims in Europe, in the United States, and beyond.

As a social worker and government affairs coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), I know first hand how such hateful incidents can devastate communities and damage national cohesion and trust.

Some things can be done, and are being done, to put a stop to this new wave of Islamophobia.

In July, shortly after a Quran-burning stunt in Sweden led to protests across the Muslim world, for example, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) put forward a resolution to try and address the issue.

The resolution, among other things, called on countries to take steps to “prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred that constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

The proposal was eventually passed with 28 “yes” votes from all over the world. Yet, rather than showing solidarity with the global Muslim community, some powerful and influential states – including the US, United Kingdom, Germany and France – opposed the proposal saying its content conflicts with their positions on freedom of expression. Making matters worse, much of the international media’s coverage of this important resolution focussed on this so-called “free speech” debate rather than the real-life impact Islamophobia has on the wellbeing and everyday security of Muslims and what can be done to put an end to this global societal ill.

As Muslims in Europe and the United States are made to feel there is a target on their backs because of their religious identity, our elected officials have a responsibility to take action. As far-right agitators attack mosques and casually tear apart the Muslim holy book to provoke and intimidate law-abiding citizens under the guise of exercising their “free speech” rights, democratic governments cannot afford to sit idly by. The governments of the US, UK, Germany, France and all the others who voted “no” to the UN resolution need to urgently move beyond the politically loaded discussions on the so-called free speech – hate speech dichotomy and start addressing the root causes of anti-Muslim bias within their countries.

In any case, the free speech-related concerns over the HRC resolution are misplaced. The resolution does not call for limitations on free speech, or a blanket ban on criticism of Islam or Muslims. It simply urges member states to condemn acts of provocation and hate like Quran burnings, and to fill the gaps in their respective national legal and policy frameworks that allow bad faith actors to incite religious violence, hate and discrimination with impunity.

There is already a clear distinction recognised in law between criticism, lawful protest, and hate speech that the countries who opposed the HRC resolution seem to be ignoring. While criticism of and disagreement with all religions, including Islam, are rightfully protected in most free and democratic countries, hate speech – which vilifies and dehumanises human beings and could lead to violent acts against them – is never acceptable.

The countries who voted “no” to the HRC resolution this summer, including the US, missed an important opportunity to take a public stance against Islamophobia, but it is not too late to reverse course and take constructive action.

In the US, our representatives in Congress can easily help our fight against Islamophobia by  strengthening hate crime laws to encompass religiously motivated crimes and updating hate speech laws to address online hate speech and religious incitement. They can also establish new communication channels between the government and religious groups so that concerns and recommendations of communities under attack can be heard and acted on in a timely manner.  Additionally, congressional leaders can support awareness programmes about Islam and religious diversity to foster community understanding and cooperation on an international scale.

By acknowledging and addressing Islamophobia with such simple and straightforward policies and initiatives, the US can take vital steps towards creating an inclusive society that values the wellbeing and security of every single American, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion.

Some argue that since the most aggressive and inflammatory acts of Islamophobia, such as Quran burnings, seem to take place in Europe, there is no immediate need for the US to implement policies to combat anti-Muslim bias in American society. But such Islamophobic acts, even when they take place miles away in Europe, do not exist in a vacuum.

Today, we are witnessing far-right efforts to demonise, criminalise and further marginalise Muslims and other minority religious, ethnic and racial groups across the Western world. This dangerous brand of radical far-right activism is especially strong in the US, where politicians and school boards are successfully banning books that cover race, history, religion and other protected characteristics.

We have to recognise the ties between acts of hate against Muslims in Europe, such as Quran burnings, and the rise of the far right in the US. After all, the connections between the American far right and the anti-Islam provocateurs of Europe are well known and widely reported on.  Furthermore, we cannot ignore the ways in which European and American policies inform one another.

If Western nations are truly committed to upholding and protecting human rights at home and abroad, they should stop using unfounded concerns over “freedom of speech” as an excuse for inaction on Islamophobia. It was undoubtedly a mistake for the US and its leading European allies to vote against the HRC resolution against Islamophobia earlier this year. Yet they still can and should do what is right, stop hiding behind vague concerns over free speech protections, and do what is necessary to ensure everyone living within their borders, including their Muslim citizens, can live their lives free of abuse and hate funded and promoted by the far right.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.