The term Islamophobia stands for the fear of and aggression toward Muslims and Islam which arises from racism and culminates in violent, discriminatory, and exclusionary behavior towards Muslims and those perceived as Muslim. These attitudes can be expressed through violent actions such as burning mosques and vandalizing properties, as well as abusive behavior towards Muslim women who wear headscarves. Islamophobia is identifiable through a range of perspectives, statements, behaviors, and gestures, and can be seen not only in isolated incidents but also in broader societal trends.
Western discourse has a long history of Islamophobia, dating back to the Middle Ages when negative stereotypes about Muslims were used to garner popular support for the Crusades. Such stereotypes also served to justify European colonial domination of the Muslim-majority world, portraying Muslims as violent and uncivilized. Studies indicate that the American media had a bias against Muslims even before 9/11, and Muslims have consistently been portrayed in a negative light, making them one of the most negatively depicted minority groups in the US.
After the 9/11 attacks, however, the organized mobilization against Islam and Muslims in liberal democracies intensified, giving rise to transnational anti-Islamic movements. These movements have both taken to the streets and spread their message online.
The fear has not been born in thin air, indeed, the actions of many key individuals, think tanks, media outlets, and political leaders are involved to promote false and inflammatory ideas about Islam and Muslims, contributing to the growth of the phenomenon.
Pakistan’s Efforts against Islamophobia:
Pakistan played a significant role in raising the issue of Islamophobia at the international level, which resulted in the adoption of the resolution declaring March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. The resolution can play a crucial role to combat discrimination and violence against persons on the basis of their religion or belief and to promote respect, understanding, and dialogue among different religions, beliefs, and cultures.
Pakistan’s efforts to combat Islamophobia began in 2019 when Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and raised the issue. During his speech, Khan emphasized the need to address the issue of marginalization, which often leads to radicalization. He pointed out that terrorism has nothing to do with any religion and that no religion preaches radicalism. Khan also criticized Western leaders who equated terrorism with Islam. Pakistan further raised the issue at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference in 2020. The Prime Minister wrote to all Muslim rulers, emphasizing the need to move a resolution on Islamophobia in the UN. Pakistan’s proposed resolution aimed to declare 15 March as the ‘International Day to Combat Islamophobia’. March 15 was chosen as Anti-Islamophobia Day because on this day in 2019, a right-wing extremist launched a terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand, resulting in the death of more than 50 Muslims.
On March 15, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the resolution, declaring this day as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. The resolution highlights the need for international cooperation to combat Islamophobia and calls for increased efforts to promote tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect.
UN Conference on Women in Islam:
On March 8, 2023, a conference titled “Women in Islam: Understanding the rights and Identity of women in the Islamic World” was held in New York. The event was presided over by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and is being hosted by Pakistan in its capacity as the chair of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers. The conference took place on the sidelines of the 67th Session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.
The main objective of the conference was to address the misperception and misconceptions regarding the rights of women in Islam. It also aimed to celebrate the experiences and successes of iconic Muslim women and establish an annual policy dialogue to address challenges and explore opportunities to advance the role of women in OIC countries. FM Bilawal Bhutto Zardari emphasized the importance of distinguishing between Islamic principles and law and patriarchal social practices in order to fully understand the rights of women in Islam. He stated that those who promote discrimination and tyranny would not like to make such a distinction between the two.
“This caricature is a result that the perception of our religion has largely been hijacked after 9/11 by extremists who do not represent our faith and I feel a special responsibility to counter this propaganda and perception.” “It offends me as a Muslim and a Pakistani to the core of my heart that the face of Islam unfortunately in much of western public perception are the likes of Osama Bin Laden and not of the likes of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto,” he added. He told the reporters, “Islamic rights enshrine women’s rights, that there is no space for groups such as those in Afghanistan or anywhere else to claim that Islam justifies their actions.”
Commemoration of the International Day to Combat Islamophobia:
This year on March 10, the United Nations held a special event in the General Assembly Hall to commemorate the first-ever International Day to Combat Islamophobia. The event aimed to address the rising hatred, discrimination, and violence against Muslims and promote tolerance, peace, and respect for human rights and religious diversity.
The International Day was established following the adoption of an Assembly resolution last year that proclaimed March 15 as the day to combat Islamophobia.
Pakistan, which initiated the move, co-convened the event. The Foreign Minister highlighted Islam as a religion of peace, tolerance, and pluralism. The UN Secretary-General highlighted the diversity among the nearly two billion Muslims worldwide and their frequent experiences of bigotry and prejudice solely because of their faith. The linkages between anti-Muslim hatred and gender inequality were also noted, with Muslim women facing triple discrimination due to their gender, ethnicity, and faith. The President of the UN General Assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, recognized that Islamophobia is deeply connected to xenophobia, which can result in discriminatory practices such as travel bans, hate speech, bullying, and targeting of others.
The rise of Islamophobia is a complex and troubling phenomenon, rooted in centuries-old prejudices and has been fuelled by the actions of extremist groups, as well as by the political interests of certain individuals and organizations. The negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media has also contributed to the growth of Islamophobia, with Muslims often being depicted in a negative light. However, efforts are being made to combat Islamophobia and promote greater understanding and acceptance of Islam and Muslim communities. Pakistan has considered it its prime responsibility to raise its voice against the unjust happening with Muslims merely on the basis of religion. It is due to the tireless efforts of Pakistan that 15 March has been successfully declared as the ‘International Day to Combat Islamophobia’. However, Islamophobia continues to be a challenge for the Muslim nation that still needs to be addressed and fought.
The author is a Scholar of International Relations at the International Islamic University Islamabad. Her areas of interest are theories of IR and US relations with other states. Currently working as Research Officer at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI).