The start of 2015 has been wrought with extremism: from the Charlie Hebdo attacks to an increasingly violent ISIS, Islam has began the year with an increasingly detrimental reputation for terrorism and chaos. However, in light of the recent tragedy in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where a Caucasian man murdered three Muslim university students, important questions arise as to the link between the increase in religious violence around the world and the vitriol directed at Muslims in Western civil society. Although it is important and necessary to condemn acts of religious extremism, we must separate those acts of violence from a fragile religious minority that are becoming increasingly persecuted as rampant Islamophobia is creating a positive feedback loop between prejudice, hate crimes, and Muslim terrorism.
While Muslim extremism is depicted as representative of all Muslims, attacks on non-Christian religious minorities are often emphasized as isolated acts of violence. As in the case of the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting and the 2011 Oslo slaughter, the North Carolina shooting has also been emphasized as an isolated act of violence not indicative of Western society or Americans as a whole. On the other hand, ever since 9/11 any attack by Muslim extremists are interpreted as yet another example of Muslim aggression within the Western media that views “Muslim” and “terrorist” as synonyms. Islamophobia in Western society is becoming increasingly potent, as Western political leadership and media have created a racist and bigoted global atmosphere by daily engaging in problematizing Islam and Muslims.
Take the example of the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks. Since the attacks, people of all ages and beliefs have stood together to condemn the terrorists’ actions in what has proved to be an unprecedented global response. The hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie” quickly erupted on Twitter, trending at a peak of 6,500 tweets per minute the day following the massacre. On the Sunday after the attacks, presidents, prime ministers, and an estimated one million individuals participated in a solidarity rally that spanned the streets of Paris, all in support of Charlie Hebdo. But this international response has focused on the dramatized terrorism versus free speech narrative, ignoring the systematic problems that have produced such acts. The global community is of course right to condemn the terrorists who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo shooting, as no argument can justify the killing of 12 individuals no matter how offensive a group may be. But it is important to remember the broader context of France’s political climate before the attack, and to consider how this is affecting the vast majority of ordinary non-terrorist Muslims.
There have been growing tensions in France between a significant portion of its population and already marginalized Muslim minorities. An act passed by the French Senate in 2010 prohibited the use of face-covering head gear like the burka. To date the law has been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights despite continuing to infringe on some of French Muslim citizens’ right to freely exercise their religion. Yet the 2010 ban on burkas is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to growing Islamophobia in France. Countless French mosques have been subject to vandalism and graffiti. And in 2008, 148 Muslim graves in France’s biggest WWI cemetery in Arras were desecrated with hateful slogans. Tensions have only worsened since the shootings. On the day following the incident, three training grenades were thrown at the Mosque de Sablone, and an explosion battered down a kebab shop in the small town of Villefranche-sur-Saône. The actions of the terrorists that took several lives that day should surely be condemned, but we must not lose ourselves to the very kind of blind hatred and bigotry that we condemn these acts for.
Even in countries like Australia, Germany, and the U.K., Islamophobia has played a major role in policy making decisions, ranging from labor restrictions to housing marginalization. Ultimately, when we propagate the rhetoric of Islamophobia, it only creates more opportunities for those who do associate with an extremist form of Islam to inflict their terrorism on the citizens of the world. Islamo
phobic government policies and even individual actions have radicalized Muslim youths across the world, which provides them with more incentive to join terrorist organizations and perform acts of violence, unfortunately perpetuating even more Islamophobia. What is most problematic about this cycle of violence is that we as the Western world are the largest catalysts of this cycle. Whether it be through the media or acts of violence like the most recent incident in North Carolina, the cycle will continue to perpetuate itself unless we separate our perspectives between a religion and the condemnable actions of a violent and radical minority.
The actions of the terrorists should be condemned to the highest degree, but we must not lose ourselves to the very kind of blind hatred and bigotry that we condemn these acts for. Moreover, if this growing Islamophobia in the United States is cultivated and allowed to take root in society, it creates exactly the type of atmosphere for which extremism and violence can thrive. We must recognize the nuances that surround these tragedies and continue to shed the “you’re either with us or against us” stance that had defined U.S. foreign policy for so long.