Participants of an international panel discussion held in İstanbul over the weekend agreed that Islamophobia is a new form of racism and should be denounced the same way that anti-Semitism is, while arguing that the term "phobia" does not accurately represent the true nature of the perception of Muslims. Participants of the panel "Islamophobia from the Eyes of Young Journalists" claimed that hatred, rather than fear, accurately characterizes the attitude of Western media's coverage of Islam and the perception of Muslims.
The two-day event organized by the Ministry of Youth and Sports and hosted by Maltepe University started on Saturday with opening speeches by Youth and Sports Minister Suat Kılıç and the deputy undersecretary of the Prime Ministry, Dr. İbrahim Kalın, who is also known for his academic studies on Islamic history. A large group of young journalists as well as journalism students attended the event, which was also sponsored by the Media Association (Medya Derneği) of Turkey.
Minister Kılıç said the event aims to explore Islamophobia, which should be considered a global problem today and not only that of Muslims.
"It is not right to handle Islamophobia as an issue of Muslims. This is a global issue. As long as it is not debated as a global problem, there will be no result. By bringing together Turkish and foreign journalists, we are trying to show that this is a global problem," Kılıç said.
The minister stated that by organizing such an event, they are not only denouncing negative attributions to Islam but are also contributing to the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) project.
Kılıç also announced that his ministry will organize a boat cruise this summer that will be joined by 800 youths from different cultures, religions and ethnicities. As part of this trip, named "We are all in the same boat," the minister said the youths will visit counties in the Mediterranean basin and give the message that all humans are in the same boat and voice their opposition to Islamophobia.
"Islam is justice, law and tolerance. How can Islam promote violence or terrorism when it is a belief system which even encourages the protection of the rights of an ant?" he asked.
For his part, Kalın, in his historical account of Islamophobia, said that although this term is relatively new, having been introduced in Britain in 1997, the phenomenon dates back to the seventh century. "We must consider Islamophobia as a problem of racism," said Kalın, adding that it is a "new form of racism." However, Kalın claimed that Europeans are having a hard time admitting that it is racism, referring to a warning against racism by the president of the International Crisis Group (ICC).
According to Kalın, Islamophobia should be rejected as a crime against humanity, just as many condemn anti-Semitism. He added that the government has been working on projects to have Islamophobia be recognized as a crime against humanity and called for the development of awareness on the issue.
Last September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Turkey recognizes anti-Semitism as a crime, while not a single Western country recognizes Islamophobia as such.
Erdoğan's remarks came following the release of a controversial 14-minute trailer for "Innocence of Muslims," an obscure film that mocks the Prophet Muhammad, which sparked violent riots across various Muslim nations.
Erdoğan said the government will immediately start working on legislation against blasphemous and offensive remarks. "Turkey could be a leading example for the rest of the world on this," he noted.
Kalın also said that as a culture and civilization, Islam has been perceived as a threat throughout history. Directing attention to Muslim stereotypes in Hollywood movies, he said it is always sexuality and violence that stand out when it comes to the portrayal of Muslims in movies. Kalın stated that many stories were fabricated to claim that it was the appeal of lust rather than reason that led people to believe in Islam.
Kalın underlined that at a time where we live in an age of instant communication, certain inaccurate images of Islam have unconsciously replaced true facts. "We are facing an imagination of Islam that substitutes reality," Kalın went on to add.
Speaking on one of the parallel panel sessions, Dr. Bülent Keneş, the editor-in-chief of Today's Zaman, pointed out that Islamophobia dates back to even before Sept. 11, 2001, adding that Islamophobic attacks should be considered a crime. Talking about the defensive position that Muslims have had to adopt as a result of the negative rhetoric in Western media, Keneş said Islamophobia gained momentum in the last two decades. According to him, the "hatred" in Western media is a "conscious choice."
He said the media have a large responsibility when it comes to eliminating hatred against Muslims, adding: "Publications in English, which has become the lingua franca of our day, have a large responsibility to this effect as they are accessible to a global audience."
Similarly, Mehdi Hasan from The Huffington Post UK said that "British media is nowadays institutionally Islamophobic," providing examples of headlines from the British media. He also said that Islamophobia predates Sept. 11. Disagreeing with him, Jerome Taylor, the religious affairs correspondent of The Independent, said that the media is "predominantly" Islamophobic.
Reporter Fatima Manji from Channel 4 News said that there are two types of Islamophobia in Western media, defining the first as a racist strand and the second as an Orientalist one. However, the common denominator is viewing Islam as a savage and backwards other, according to her. Manji argued that the Orientalists try to create a form of Muslims that is "acceptable" in a liberal society.
Dr. Ömer Taşpınar from the Brookings Institution emphasized the two types of problems when it comes to the coverage of Muslims in the media. According to him, one stems from laziness in journalism which turns into an unconscious discourse while the other is due to malicious intent.
"We live in a world where the debate on Islam is characterized by Sept. 11," said Taşpınar as he added that Westerners associate terrorist acts with radical Islam. According to him, the media is the setting where such polarization takes place but when it comes to hearing moderate messages from Muslims, the media is ineffective as "what sells in the media is the stereotype." Emphasizing that perceptions of Islam have become a reality, Taşpınar added that Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations theory has turned into a "self-fulfilling prophecy."
According to Taşpınar, everyone should be skeptical about any remark that starts with "Islam is…" to avoid an essentialist statement but should instead look at different interpretations of Islam.
Journalist Hilal Kaplan said the media play a big role in making people fear Islam.
"The media work to foment hatred against Muslims. I learned about a survey which revealed that 98 percent of news reports in Britain between 2000 and 2008 described Muslims as 'militant,' 'extremist,' 'radical' or 'terrorist.' When we think of people who have never met any Muslims in their lifetime and settle for only what they see, we can understand the spread of Islamophobia," she said. (Cihan/Today's Zaman)