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World: Muslims In West Urged To Get Political To Improve Islam's Image

Islam is suffering from an image problem in the West, and Muslims there should become more politically active to help reverse that perception. That's the recommendation of Muslim scholars from around the world who gathered in Jordan this week.

Prague, 25 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A commentary in a respected British newspaper, "The Sunday Telegraph," compares Muslims to dogs and says they threaten Britain's way of life.

A top-selling Italian daily, "Corriere della Sera," publishes extracts of a book warning that Europe risks becoming a "colony of Islam."

To be sure, these opinions have been vigorously challenged by critics since their publication earlier this year.

But they're just the latest example of what some Muslims say is a hardening attitude to Islam in Europe, particularly since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States and this year's 11 March attacks in Madrid.
"The moment people understand that Muslims are peaceful neighbors who know how to use a fork and knife and know how to vote, then the image changes."

Islam's image problem was discussed by Muslim scholars from around the world at a conference in Jordan this week.

They said it's time Muslims in Western countries did more to counteract portrayals of Islam as a backward, violent religion.

"The most important problem that Islam is facing now in Western countries, and in Europe in particular, is that it's always distorted through the mass media and the actions of some Muslims. What happens in the media is that they start blaming Islam to an extent that some intellectuals now in the Western world are saying that Islam itself is a violent religion," Jarrar said.

Faruk Jarrar is assistant director of the Aal Al Bayt Foundation for Islamic Thought, the Amman-based semi-independent think tank that organized the conference.

"Muslims are living in the Western world, and in Europe especially, and in [large] numbers. And they are not very active in the main political stream of the countries they live in. We are urging them, because nothing in Islam is against that, to involve themselves in the political mainstream of the countries they live in, so that they could have a voice. And if they could have a voice in what's happening there, they could give a much better image of Islam," Jarrar said.

That recommendation is one heartily endorsed by Abdul Hadi Hoffman, the chairman of Berlin's new Muslim Academy, a religious study center on issues relating to Islam and society.

"I come from a German background myself, and I can tell you just by sitting at a high-ranking political dinner in Bonn in the 1990s -- just by [my] being there -- people asked questions and did not [just] blabber their kind of preconceived knowledge [about Islam]. So just being there already makes a difference. The moment people understand that Muslims are peaceful neighbors who know how to use a fork and knife and know how to vote, then the image changes," Hoffmann said.

But some worry anti-Islam attitudes are making many European Muslims feel increasingly like outsiders -- and less likely than ever to engage in mainstream politics.

Inayat Bunglawala is media secretary for Britain's Muslim Council, the U.K.'s biggest Muslim organization. He says Muslims' political participation in British politics is slowly increasing. There are now two Muslim members of parliament (MPs) in the 650-seat Parliament.

But that still leaves Britain's roughly 1.6 million Muslims politically underrepresented.

And Banglawala says many Muslims are disillusioned with politics after the British government remained undeterred by huge street protests ahead of the Iraq war.

He says this disillusionment carries a further risk.

"At the moment, there is a danger that by allowing themselves to be marginalized, they allow themselves to be dehumanized. We've seen some dreadful articles recently in the British press, one notable one comparing Muslims with dogs. This can only arise if you don't know actual Muslims. It happened to the Jewish community in the 1930s where we saw a similar victimization of the entire Jewish community in the right-wing press. But the Jewish community did get involved and made their mark and now they're fully integrated into the British mainstream. British Muslims should follow in their footsteps," Bunglawala said.