Some states have responded to horrific acts purportedly carried out in the name of Islam by adopting measures that disproportionately target Muslims, the leading UN expert on freedom of religion said today.
In a report to the UN Human Rights Council, Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, referred to widespread negative representations of Islam, fear of Muslims generally and security and counterterrorism policies.
He said these have served to perpetuate, validate and normalise discrimination, hostility and violence towards Muslim individuals and communities.
Islamophobia builds imaginary constructs around Muslims that are used to justify state-sponsored discrimination, hostility and violence against Muslims with stark consequences for the enjoyment of human rights including freedom of religion or belief
The UN expert said that following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US in 2001 and “other horrific acts of terrorism purportedly carried out in the name of Islam,” institutional suspicion of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim have escalated to “epidemic proportions”.
“In such climates of exclusion, fear, and distrust, Muslims report that they often feel stigma, shame, and a sense that they are ‘suspect communities’ that are being forced to bear collective responsibility for the actions of a small minority,” he said, without naming specific countries.
The report cites European surveys in 2018 and 2019 showing that 37 per cent of the population held unfavourable views of Muslims.
In 2017, some 30 per cent of Americans surveyed viewed Muslims in a negative light.
Shaheed said Islamophobic discrimination in both the public and private sphere often makes it difficult for Muslims to practice their religion.
Disproportionate restrictions on Muslims’ ability to manifest their beliefs, the securitisation of religious communities, limits on access to citizenship, socioeconomic exclusion and pervasive stigmatisation of Muslim communities are among the pressing concerns noted in the report.
In Muslim minority states, he added, Muslims are frequently targeted based on visible “Muslim” characteristics, such as their names, skin colour and clothing, including religious attire like headscarves.
Shaheed also said Islamophobic discrimination and hostility could often show where “Muslim women may face a ‘triple penalty’ as women, minority ethnic and Muslim.”
He noted: “Harmful stereotypes and tropes about Muslims and Islam are chronically reinforced by mainstream media, powerful politicians, influencers of popular culture and in academic discourse.”
The report emphasised that critiques of Islam should never be conflated with Islamophobia, adding that international human rights law protects individuals, not religions.
“The criticism of Islam’s ideas, leaders, symbols, or practices is not Islamophobic per se; unless it is accompanied by hatred or bias towards Muslims in general,” Shaheed said.
“I strongly encourage states to take all necessary measures to combat direct and indirect forms of discrimination against Muslims and prohibit any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to violence,” the UN expert added.