History of ‘othering’ in the West
Xenophobic attitudes have been a cornerstone of foreign policy in the West for hundreds of years. Some scholars have blamed this on simple ignorance fueling prejudice, while others harshly declare it is the implementation of antagonism and aversion to diversity. In 1981, Edward Said theorized the idea of “othering,” the process of portraying values and practices which do not fit into the dominant culture as a negative other or enemy. Religion has often been a source or justification for this othering, and Said uses the West’s portrayal of Islam as an example. However, Said explains that the images of Islam portrayed in media and news are far from the reality of the faith and the diverse number of individuals who practice it. This religious prejudice has existed throughout history, especially in institutions closely linked to the Catholic Church. However, the modern understanding of Islamophobia inflated in the nineties. Some scholars argue that this fear rose from the ashes of the “communist witch hunt” after the cold war. Moreover, these sentiments were cemented and solidified after the attack on the twin towers in New York City on September 11th 2001. This attack was the largest and most fatal act of violence against the USA from a foreign power in history, with 3,000 casualties. It was carried out by the political terrorist organization called Al Qaeda, whose main goal is to overthrow governments in the Middle East who do not enforce a specific political and social order. Although Al Qaeda does state its inspiration for their demands stem from the Islamic religion, their views are not consistent with the vast majority of practicing Muslims.
The same is true for all “Islamic extremist” terrorist groups and acts of terrorism all over the West. The Islamic religion is used as a justification for political agendas and acts of violence against the dominant western culture, but the true teachings of the religion so not endorse these violent acts. Despite this objective truth, western politicians have used and even actively contributed to the ignorance that exists in the West around Islam for their own political gains, and to push their foreign policy agenda. Many politicians have used the association of Islam with violence to gain the trust of their voter base and even colleagues to create xenophobic and explicitly Islamophobic policies. This report will explore the rise of these policies in 2017 and their entrenchment in institutions.
Policy problems and the institutionalization of fear
Since the beginning of 2017, there have been a number of policies which reflect growing Islamophobia in the West. The largest and most controversial was the travel ban implemented under President Trump this past January. The newly elected president of the United States of America attempted to halt refugee admissions and bar citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations including Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran from entering the USA. This aggressive othering and stereotyping of millions of people and diverse populations tore apart families and made many Muslim-Americans feel unsafe in their own home. Trump’s use of his executive power to implement this Islamophobic policy demonstrated the dangerous amount of power he could exercise, and his willingness to prioritize the favor of the majority over the safety and protection of minorities in America. Thankfully, the judicial branch in the US had the institutional strength to fight against this policy, with rulings in Hawaii and Maryland stating this executive order was discriminatory against Muslims. Although the Trump administration has appealed these decisions, the institutional fight against xenophobia continues in America.
The same cannot be said for the judicial branch of the European Union, who has used their institutional power to allow and facilitate Islamophobic practices. This past March the EU Supreme Court ruled on two cases concerning women who were let go from their place of employment because they refused to remove their hijab. The court ruled that the employer had the right to implement in-house secularization policies, including forbidding religious symbols or dress. Although the court referred to all religious symbols in their ruling, this would disproportionately affect Muslim women due to the nature of the hijab. Belgian columnist Warda el-Kaddouri to Al Jazeera made a poignant statement, “A ban on religious and political symbols feels to me as a disguised ban on the hijab. I cannot think of another symbol that will affect hundreds of thousands of people in Europe.” Ultimately, this ruling as set a dangerous precedent for employers to fall into Islamophobic tendencies, especially against Muslim women, under the guise of secularism and business agency.
In Canada, Islamophobia has escalated to violence, with the attack on a Quebecois mosque in January this year. This terrorist attack committed by a French Canadian student took the lives of six Muslim Canadian men. The man charged for the attacks was known to be a right-wing activist and was publically Islamophobic and a supporter of Donald Trump. This horrible attack revealed Canada’s vulnerability to be influenced by the hateful rhetoric that is permeating the West. In response, the Canadian parliament put forward a non-binding motion, condemning religious discrimination, especially islamophobia, and called for a study on the roots of these sentiments in Canada. This motion was a small act by parliament, which allowed them to show their support for Muslim Canadians without institutionalizing it. Sadly, the motion sparked intense debate not only in the House of Commons but all over Canada and the US. Members of the right-wing Conservative party of Canada claimed that the motion inhibited their free speech, and their ability to “critique” Islam. American political commentator Pamela Geller also tweeted “Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau, Smears all Canadians with Islamophobia Lie to Create a Sharia State,” which opened up a conversation questioning if the motion would implement Sharia law in Canada. This harsh backlash against a simple motion revealed the deeply embedded Islamophobia in Canada.
Moving forward and strengthening diversity
Islamophobia and religious discrimination has seen a dramatic rise in 2017, with its clear presence at the executive, judicial and legislative levels in many western countries. Its saturation in the most important institutions of the West are demonstrative of its presence woven in western culture for decades. If we allow these attitudes to continue, the cultural conflict is at risk of becoming a violent conflict, and the fabric of our society would be compromised. To combat xenophobia and Islamophobia western society must fight ignorance, through better education, more accurate media representation, and more transparent and accountable political representatives.
Formal education and school curriculum in North America are notoriously outdated and lacks diversity and intersectionality for increasingly diverse populations. To combat xenophobia, it is important to highlight the ways in which immigrants have contributed to the social, economic and cultural strength of each country’s society. If there is bureaucratic red tape preventing a government from adopting more diverse curriculum in the short term, this can easily be a long term goal. In the interim, having or learning about diverse cultural and religious celebrations and events in elementary and secondary schools can provide education in an engaging way. In addition, on university campuses, the administration should promote and foster events to educate students about the religion of Islam and its diverse members. For example, carving out a week to hold educational seminars on campus, demonstrating cultural practices such as prayer, and distributing free copies of holy texts such as the Quran. By being exposed to the peaceful, everyday practices of Muslim citizens in Western countries can help to disprove myths perpetrated by propaganda and the media about the Islamic religion.
The media has played a huge role in fear mongering and fostering xenophobia. Most recently, this can be seen when Fox News falsely tweeted information insinuating a Moroccan- Canadian was a suspect of the Quebec mosque shooting, when in reality he was a victim. Mainstream media is very quick to blame violence on the Muslim religion in an attempt to justify their xenophobic attitudes. However, by portraying false or slanted information not only does the media source lose credibility and integrity but it breeds ignorance and justifies illogical fears. With mass media growing online, news sources can access millions of people without implementing any checks or balances. Ultimately this had made it far too easy to spread propaganda to entire populations, especially children and youth. Media outlets can gather support through these online avenues, but then also affect policy and people in real life. This can be seen in the rally for the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leadership race, organized by The Rebel media outlet, where extreme Islamophobic comments were said by from CPC leadership candidates to crowds of people.
The sentiments of political leaders are integral to perpetuating xenophobia. The Islamophobic policies mentioned previously would not have been possible without the support of politicians. However, when one is in a position of political power there are factors, which can serve as an incentive for them to act contrary to what is best for their country. Particularly in democratic societies, power can be translated to your approval rate and the votes you get. In this way, as long as a politician is appealing to the majority population they will stay in power and have influence over institutions. This creates the problem of populism, which is the kiss of death for minority rights. The phenomenon of populism in the modern era seems to be coupled with Islamophobia, with politicians such as Trump supporting xenophobic attitudes to stay in power. To remedy this, civil society organizations must be formed and strengthened to create an open dialogue and think critically about the institutionalization of xenophobia. This must be done in partnership with educational initiatives to create an informed voter base and overcome the abuse of populism. These civil society organizations can also use the internet as an important tool to combat propaganda and false or slanted news. The implementation of these tools to strengthen our society gives hope for a strong and diverse future.
in International Development and Economic Policy