By Dr Paul Hedges
September 21, 2017
A RECENT survey in the United Kingdom by
the group, Hope not Hate, shows in its headline figures a growing tolerance of
immigration but a growing fear of Islam. Overall, 42 per cent of those polled
said recent attacks had increased their suspicion about Islam and Muslims. Only
10 per cent said they felt “similar” to Muslims, suggesting a widespread
perception that Muslims are culturally different.
Another recent survey across Europe by
Bertelsmann Stiftung suggests that despite integrating much better than often
thought, Muslims still face problems being accepted by the wider society. This
was seen in another pan-European survey earlier in the year by Chatham House
which suggested that many opposed Islamic immigration rather than immigration
These findings will no doubt be welcomed by
extremist and terror groups who, it has been argued, wish to see a divide in
Europe between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations. While perhaps not a
strategic aim of all groups, it will certainly provide fertile ground for
recruitment if Muslims perceive themselves as unwelcome or rejected by Western
A particular case in point, shown by a
number of studies over the years, is that people with Islamic-sounding names
find it harder to get jobs. When the same CV is presented to employers with an
English or Arabic sounding name, the candidate with the former is several times
more likely to get called in for an interview. Structural anti-Islamic bias
clearly operates, even in people who may not regard themselves as racist or
If Muslims find their best efforts at
acceptance being pushed back, then frustration will be a likely, and natural,
outcome. Muslims generally neither understand nor appreciate the militant
Salafi-inspired doctrines that seek to justify violence and divide communities,
but they could appeal to frustrated youths.
The clear message is that Islam, or any religious
affiliation, is no bar to integration; though some Muslims, like members of
other immigrant groups, do not seek to integrate into society. Rather, the
issue can lie within the framework of the receiving society. Importantly, this
is not to accuse Western societies per se of being racist or Islamophobic. The
distinction between personal and structural forms of discrimination is useful.
Prejudice against the unknown and acceptance of the known is a common feature
of human psychology.
But, it points to the need for proactive
efforts by governments, civil society actors, and religious (and
inter-religious) organisations to raise awareness and understanding. For many
Western societies, Islam remains largely an unknown “other”. Cultural and
linguistic differences as well as the development of immigrant “ghettos” have
meant that, in many cases, an awareness or knowledge of Muslims has not
Indeed, a number of studies have shown that
in Western countries people often vastly overestimate the numbers of Muslims
present in society; this can lead to fears of “invasion” or loss of cultural
identity — the figures have certainly been abused and manipulated by those with
anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agendas.
To overcome such misperceptions, will and
determination, not to mention expertise, is needed among organisations that can
help develop positive attitudes to integration and understanding. However, this
is easier said than done. Many politicians have jumped on populist bandwagons
that contribute to Islamophobia for their own ends rather than work for the
public good. Furthermore, much of the media is openly hostile to immigrants and
Among religious and other groups there are
also many conflicting agendas demanding priority. There may well be a need for
education within such groups on the issue as well. Immigrant groups also need
to push forward with integration and can play a wider role in promoting their
place in host societies.
A critical issue would be exactly what
message needs to be sent and how, which may well vary from country to country.
This will involve education and awareness-raising in ways that will not
alienate the target audience or patronise them.
In today’s social media age many members of
the important demographic will need to be reached with catchy, short, and
well-produced multimedia productions. As such both the message and the
dissemination of that message will be hard. In concise terms, the question may
be how to create a message that goes viral.
The Basic Message Can Be Readily Conveyed
By A Few Key Points.
First, neither Islam nor reciting the Quran
are routes into violence and terrorism — we know this from the pathways of
current and former terrorists, foreign fighters, etc.
Second, Muslims are and must be
integrating: they are learning host languages, going to universities, playing
sports such as football and trying to get jobs.
Third, the host society is often suspicious
of these people because of their background, so ensure that you are not turning
people away because of foreign sounding names — everybody needs to play his
Fourth, stigmatising Muslims and
disadvantaging them socially, culturally and politically is what feeds the
recruitment of terror groups, so again reaching out your hand is the most
powerful tool against those who want to divide us.
A fact-based analysis makes it clear that
Muslims are generally trying to integrate and that Islam is not itself a factor
causing division or violence, notwithstanding some violent and divisive
ideologies from some parts of the militant-inspired community. The structures
of European societies do, though, need to be more open to accepting new
communities and change. Meanwhile, Muslim and other immigrants can be more
proactive in integrating and playing a role in host societies.
However, the challenge remains how to
spread and promote a more positive understanding of Islam and the contribution
Muslims can make to society.
Dr Paul Hedges is associate professor in Interreligious Studies for the
Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme, S.
Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological