Accessibility links

Breaking News

Tolerance Conference Provides Forum For Muslims To Air Grievances

A recent conference on religious tolerance sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) served as an opportunity for Muslims to air their grievances about life in the West. Participants spoke of what they perceive as a lack of respect for Muslims in Western Europe and the United States in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Participants also shared the opinion that Western countries are at least partly responsible for the radicalization of their Muslim immigrant communities.

Brussels, 15 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The West was caught napping by the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, by the ascent of Al-Qaeda and by the groundswell of militant Islam around the world.

That was one of the conclusions to emerge from the OSCE workshop in Brussels this week. But perhaps its most important verdict was that Western countries lack a viable strategy for managing relations with Muslim communities within their own borders.

Ayhan Kaya, a professor at the Bilgi University in Istanbul, says the 9/11 attacks have become an unfortunate "catchword" for the complicated tangle of issues that faces emigre Muslims and their mostly Western European hosts. He said there are two ways of interpreting the rise of radical Islam: as a threat or as a symptom of deeper tensions, and that most Western governments opt for the former.

Kaya said studies of Turkish immigrants in Germany suggest radical Islam is a result mostly of what he calls "structural problems" -- poverty, disenfranchisement, and xenophobia -- than the cause of tensions with the host country.

"We have actually concluded that the Islamic resurgence becomes a [problem] in those countries in which Muslims are not given the right to represent themselves in legitimate political institutions, such as the parliament," Kaya said.
"When people escape their predicament and they come to the United States or Western Europe seeking a better life for their families, they are now faced with discrimination, intolerance, lack of respect." -- conference participant Maha Hussein

Another expert, Professor Khaled Fouam Allam of Trieste University in Italy, said Europe has yet to answer the basic question of how to manage relations with its Muslim citizens.

He said he believes the answer to that question will have far-reaching consequences and could determine how Europe will treat its 15 million-20 million Muslims, carry out its relations with the Islamic world, and accept or reject Turkey as a European Union member.

Kaya's criticism focused on France and Germany. Both he and Allam drew distinctions between conditions in these countries and in countries like the United States and Britain, which operate on an "Anglo-Saxon" model. This, experts said, allows for less stringent controls and recognizes Muslims' right to communal representation.

Maha Hussein, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Iraqi extraction who works as a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, said most Muslims in the world suffer from a double handicap.

"They are in countries that are depriving them of political rights, depriving them of economic opportunities and as the world is moving forward, Muslim countries and Arab countries are actually either stagnating or moving backwards," Hussein said. "So when people escape their predicament and they come to the United States or Western Europe seeking a better life for their families, they are now faced with discrimination, intolerance, lack of respect."

Hussein said she was particularly appalled at the treatment of Arabs and Muslims by Western European countries.

"It is shocking for an Arab and a Muslim to go to Western Europe and realize that the image of Arabs and Muslims is actually 'garbage.'" Hussein said. "We are people who are raised with a lot of pride and it is a very shocking experience when one gets out there."

Hussein said she believes Europe's more rigid traditions do not allow immigrants to exist "as they are." She singled out for criticism the recent French decision to ban religious headwear from schools, as well as some governments' interference in the running of mosques, especially in leadership decisions and those affecting choice of language. This, Hussein said, demonstrates a "selective" application of democratic standards.

Another U.S. representative, Kareem Shora, a lawyer of Arab extraction, criticized the U.S. administration for singling out the country's Muslim community in its struggle against terrorism.