FPIF talks to Massoud Shadjareh and Arzu Merali about anti-Islamic sentiment

Interview with the Islamic Human Rights Commission by John Feffer for FPIF.  Feffer talks to Massoud Shadjareh and Arzu Merali of the IHRC about anti-Islamic sentiment in the United Kingdom.

Massoud Shadjareh is the chair and Arzu Merali the director of research of the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London, which was established in 1997. They talked with FPIF in December about Islamophobia in the United Kingdom, the rise of the far right, and the Prevent Terrorism initiative of the British government.

John Feffer: Can you give some background to the formation of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC)?

Massoud Shadjareh: We set up the organization 13 years ago, in 1997. A number of us were involved in human rights projects. We felt we should come together, even at that time, because we recognized that 80 percent of the oppressed around the world were Muslim, but the perception in the international community is that Muslims are perpetrators not victims. Of course, many of the oppressors of Muslims are also Muslims, but 80 percent of the victims are Muslims. We felt that this was an irregularity in facts and perceptions that had to be addressed or it would lead to greater Islamophobia. Many of us experienced this in former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia, so that experience was fresh in our mind. All of us are committed to the principle “never again,” and it seemed that this principle was being compromised. This was a radical thing to say at the time, and some said it was extremist. But a couple years later, government ministers were saying the same thing.

There was a debate at the time. Should it be just the Human Rights Commission or should the word “Islam” be embedded in the name of the organization? All of us were committed to the idea that we should support everyone on the basis of need rather than on religion or ethnicity. But eventually those who wanted the word “Islam” included won the argument. Although personally I wasn’t one of those, now I believe it was the right choice. The purpose of the organization was not just to provide support but to destroy the perception that Muslim is a negative thing, a word always associated with forced marriage and that sort of thing. So, if you have an organization committed to “justice for all” with the name Islam connected to it, that’s a positive thing.

An overwhelming majority of Muslim organizations had a theological basis or an ethnic base, sometimes mixture of two. But because of the reason we came together, we were very diverse. We were Malay, Bosnian, Iranian, Indian, not just Pakistani or Arab. Even now, our members identify themselves as Salafi, Sufi, Shi’a, converts. What bonds us together, rather than an ethnic or theological reason, is that we are promoting a universal concept of justice.

Bosnia had a tremendous impact on Muslims in Europe. Here was a culturally Muslim community that was not a very practicing community. It was very European in appearance. And then comes ethnic cleansing and onslaught, and there was no response from the rest of Europe to stop it. As Bill Clinton wrote in his book, the United States held back because Europe didn’t want a Muslim state. The fact that “never again” could happen again had a tremendous impact on the Muslim community. When one of the intellectual writers, Shabbir Aktar, wrote that if there would be new gas chambers in Europe, we know who would be in them – this was in 1989 at the time of the Rushdie affair – he was attacked as being extremist. None of us expected things to get this bad in such a short time. Although we were identified as alarmists at the beginning, even we alarmists weren’t really imagining that things would get this bad.

Arzu Merali: When we came together, we were quite middle class. Those of us from the working class didn’t realize how bad things were until people started reporting to us. During the anti-racism struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, we were aware of the anti-Islam discourse in the media. But the lived reality of most Muslims wasn’t accessible to us. So we did some basic research. In 1999, 35 percent of respondents reported that they experienced anti-Islamic sentiment. In 2000, the number was 45 percent. It was higher for younger people and for women. Four years later, after 9/11 but before 7/7, we were receiving a lot of reports of police harassment and indefinite detentions (which was subsequently ruled illegal in 2005). We did a more sophisticated survey in 2004 and Islamophobia went up to 80 percent. Also, all the variables disappeared. Men experienced the same level of anti-Islamic sentiment as women. There were no differences because of age or ethnicity. The only difference was for English converts, who reported a slightly more significant number, at 88%. That was a disaster. And nothing has really gotten better since then.

John Feffer: Can you talk about anti-Islamic sentiment after 9/11?

Massoud Shadjareh: When 9/11 happened, we saw a huge number of attacks in Britain even though 9/11 didn’t happen in Britain. When 7/7 happened, there was a huge number of attacks against Muslims in Britain, and the demonization and attacks were as far afield as New Zealand, where six mosques burned down, Compare that to Bosnia, where Muslims were attacked in name of Christianity, where some of the rape camps were in churches and were run by clergy and even some parts of the Orthodox Church announced that it was a religious duty to help Serbs implement those policies. And yet not a single church burned down in the Muslim world. Why could people in the Muslim world differentiate between those who misused a concept and the rest of the faith while well-educated Westernized societies were not able to do that? That opened up our eyes about how what happened in the 1920s and 1930s happened. That culture is still rife in the West…

Read the rest of the interview on the IPF website here.