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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

In Islamophobia Awareness Month, there is a huge need to expose all extremist wrath

Asia Bibi's case demonstrates the manipulative nature of the rhetoric justifying the targeting of Muslims

People shout slogans as they protest the release of Asia Bibi in Pakistan. Rahat Dar / EPA
People shout slogans as they protest the release of Asia Bibi in Pakistan. Rahat Dar / EPA

Asia Bibi was in her prime when she was sent to prison. As a result of being convicted for blasphemy in Pakistan, her children have spent a decade without their mother. At the end of this dark tunnel, it seems the Christian mother-of-five has been plunged into another: becoming a pawn in the war of others. I’m distraught for her, because her life is being weaponised by extremists on all sides.

Watching the hatred of largely male mobs on Pakistan’s streets – hatred which has led to at least two deaths – has been sobering viewing. Ms Bibi has become a lightning rod for extremist wrath that aims to ring-fence and persecute anyone who is different.

Following her acquittal and the furore over whether she should leave Pakistan, a number of countries have extended offers of asylum to her, and rightly so. Her lawyers have already fled in fear for their lives. As a British Muslim woman, I believe it is only right that there are multiple calls in the UK to offer her asylum there. There is no doubt that the offer is a compassionate and genuine one, because no one can fail to be moved by her suffering.

However, just as those mobs in Pakistan have sought to turn her into a religious hate figure, the far right in European countries are also guilty of appropriating her cause as a mask for their own Islamophobia. Among them is Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who, despite his well-publicised stance on migrants, declared he wanted “women and children whose lives are at risk to be able to have a secure future, in our country or in other western countries”.

Indeed, there is a danger of Ms Bibi’s deeply personal tragedy being used against her to turn her into a poster girl for Islamophobia. This is the stealth nature of the phenomenon today. It is simply a reflection and extension of the very extremism it claims to be fighting. It doesn’t announce its evil intent but it misdirects its audience instead.

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Shining a light onto this flow of disinformation is precisely the goal of this month’s Islamophobia Awareness Month in the UK. It was started in 2012 by a group of British organisations to highlight the verbal and physical attacks Muslims face and their – sometimes fatal – consequences. It also scrutinises the multiple spheres of civic life in which structural discrimination affects Muslims. Alongside these examples, it aims to showcase the positive contributions of Muslims to society.

More than 100 events are being organised around the UK to raise awareness, with subjects as varied as how Muslims are depicted on screen, workplace discrimination and gender-based Islamophobia. A study by the National Union of Students found one third of Muslim students at universities in Britain have experienced hate crime or abuse on campus. More than half had been subject to Islamophobic abuse online and one in three were afraid of being attacked – mostly women, who feared being targeted because they were wearing a hijab. It found Muslims were more likely to be targeted than adults of any other faith. A few years ago, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi said prejudice against Muslims had “passed the dinner table test” and become socially acceptable to air in public.

There is a huge need to expose the way a hatred of Muslims is entrenched and justified. The dialogue around Islamophobia is constantly evolving and manipulative: that it is about combating terrorism, it is about “saving” Muslim women, it’s a matter of national security, or that Muslims do not count as real citizens. These are the smoke and mirrors used to hide nothing but raw, unadulterated hatred. The not-so-subtle subtext is that Muslims are the biggest existential threat to everyone in the West. It is crafty and insidious framing.

There are plenty of dangerous things that are an existential problem for individual cultures and countries, as well as those that are dangerous for human beings generally. Which one is the most pressing threat, in real numbers – and for whom? Is it terrorism, domestic violence, being shot by the police, poverty, war or climate change? Time and again, the greatest threat to international security is framed as being Muslims. Those who disguise their Islamophobia as a supposed civilisational threat cast themselves as heroes for standing up to it, when they are the ones who have created the bogeyman in the first place.

It is sad to see how the tragedy of Asia Bibi has been co-opted for Islamophobic hate. But it serves as a useful anatomy of how hatred is fomented. When we look back at the wars of the last century and wonder how hatred took root, we can see clearly: this is how it happens.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World