Following the events of 22 July in Norway – when Anders Behring Breivik, driven by a hatred of Islam, killed 77 people – there have been ample expressions of outrage, analysis and commentary, but little indication as to what must to be done to prevent Islamophobia spreading.
Before 22 July, the Soul of Europe, together with the Soest Forum of Religions and Cultures (a German Muslim archive institute), had begun planning how to interrupt, undermine and dismantle Islamophobia. Beginning in France, Germany, UK and Scandinavia, we are establishing a coalition across Europe of institutions and organisations which are already engaged with Muslim communities. Our aim is to deepen, broaden and strengthen the foundations of those bridges between Muslim and non-Muslims, particularly among the younger generations – above all in practical ways.
One way is to develop patterns of solidarity. For instance: when a religious building is vandalised, whether a mosque or a church or a synagogue, communities will come together to condemn these actions. For condemnation to be effective, more than words are needed. Much depends on the slow, patient building of relationships.
Another way is for local communities to speak up on behalf of others, not least when Muslim communities complain of intimidation and harassment by police. These interventions emerge from relationships that have been established over time. Local politicians and religious leaders – vicars, imams and rabbis – will have to watch their backs. These actions will be seen as divisive among their own constituencies and congregations.
As Marwan Muhammad, director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, told the Soul of Europe: “We are scapegoats and are blamed for all of Europe’s problems.” Muslim communities need to be invited in from the cold. There should be no “them” and “us”. We are all “us”. Umar Mirza set up the Dutch website We’re Here to Stay as “an attempt to create an alternative space … a way of providing a stage upon which the voices of young Muslims can be heard”. Dutch Muslims are not going anywhere. The Netherlands is their country, their home.
From among the many different European Muslim communities there are those who are saying: “Enough. We have had enough of discrimination, of being crudely stereotyped, of being scapegoats – of being victims.” These men and women are not “extremists”. In a debate on Britishness set up by the London-based Young Muslim Voices, a definition was agreed: a cosmopolitan country where people are respectful of different faiths and backgrounds.
Expressions of outrage are no longer enough. There needs to be a grassroots movement across Europe to stand up to those who peddle bogus religious justifications, resurrecting memories of the Crusades; to expose the racist ideology drawn from nazism, in which Muslims have now become the new Jews of Europe; and to tackle the myth of “Islamification” and those who claim to be defending western civilisation, Christian and secular, from conquest by Muslim immigration and the spread of sharia law.
Interreligious dialogue is just one of the links between different religions and religious communities. At a conference I recently attended, a speaker described interreligious dialogue as taking place on the top floor of a high-rise building while on the ground floor a fire was raging out of control. So it is time for those of us who cherish dialogue of every sort to join those who are trying to put the fire out.