Islamophobia makes democracies less safe for everyone

Islamophobic acts, like the public desecration of a copy of the Quran in the Hague earlier this week, have an effect not only on Muslims but the entire society in which they occur.

Protesters hold copies of the Koran as they demonstrate in front of the Consulate General of Sweden after Rasmus Paludan, leader of Danish far-right political party Hard Line, burned a copy of the Koran near the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, in Istanbul, Turkey,
Protesters hold copies of the Quran as they demonstrate in front of the Consulate General of Sweden after Rasmus Paludan, leader of Danish far-right political party Hard Line, burned a copy of the Quran near the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 22, 2023. [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Earlier this week in the Hague, in an act that made America’s right-wing politicians look like paragons of religious tolerance, Edwin Wagensveid, the Dutch leader of the far-fight Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) group, publicly desecrated a copy of Islam’s holy book and published a video of the hateful act on social media. This followed an incident over the weekend in which Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right party Stram Kurs (Hard Line), burned a Quran near the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm.

Signalling that the incidents in Sweden and the Netherlands are part of a coordinated campaign of hate speech, as he tore and crumpled a page from the Quran, Wagensveld said, “Soon, there will be registrations for similar actions in several cities”. “Time to answer disrespect from Islam with disrespect,” he added.

On cue, and as the provocateurs intended, protests erupted across the Muslim-majority world. Western leaders then responded by lecturing Muslims on the subtleties of free speech and “respect” for diverse opinions.

Beyond this familiar pattern of Islamophobic provocation-Muslim rage-Western condescension, do such acts of provocation targeting vulnerable minorities have any effect on the societies in which they occur? Should non-Muslims living in Western societies care if a holy book they don’t believe in is used in a hateful publicity stunt?

Yes, they should. Because the propagation of Islamophobia makes democracies less free and less safe – not only for Muslims, but for everyone.

I lead research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a Washington, DC-based non-partisan think tank that provides research and education about US Muslims and the policies that affect them.

Our researchers, in partnership with academic institutions and advisers, created the ISPU Islamophobia Index which measures the degree to which different groups in America endorse key anti-Muslim tropes.

In the past five years, we have measured the Islamophobia Index among Americans of different races, ages and faiths and no faith. We’ve also explored what predicts and protects against Islamophobic bias, and for which policies anti-Muslim bigotry manufactures public consent. The results paint a complex picture, but in the end expose a simple truth: Islamophobia threatens democracy.

We found that endorsement of anti-Muslim stereotypes is unsurprisingly linked to favouring state policies that target Muslims, such as mosque surveillance and the so-called “Muslim ban” – a Trump-era policy that barred travel to the US from several Muslim-majority countries. But believers in Islamophobic ideas aren’t just ready to take rights away from Muslims. Our research showed that they are also willing to give up their own: higher scores on the Islamophobia Index are a prediction of acquiescence to authoritarianism. People who endorse anti-Muslim tropes like “Muslims are partially responsible for acts of violence carried out by other Muslims” or “Muslims are less civilised than other people”, all else being equal, are more likely to approve of curtailing freedom of the press and suspension of checks and balances in the wake of a terrorist attack. In short, the propagation of Islamophobia undermines the very foundation of a free society; a dissenting and well-informed citizenry.

Moreover, Islamophobia begets other bigotries. We found that anti-semitism and anti-Black racism are among the leading predictors of Islamophobia.

Our research also demonstrated that Islamophobia doesn’t just make democracies less free and more bigoted. It makes them less safe – and not just in the ways many assume.

Yes, deviants claiming to act in the name of Islam do use Western anti-Muslim political rhetoric to recruit people to their violent cause. But that’s far from the greatest risk. We found that endorsing anti-Muslim ideas like “Muslims are more prone to violence than other people” or “Most Muslims are hostile toward the United States” ironically coincides with condoning the very acts those who hold these views pin on Muslims: deliberate attacks on and killing of civilians by a military, considered a war crime, and also by a small group or an individual, usually called “terrorism”. The rise in white supremacist violence in the United States as the number one terrorist threat to American lives in the Trump era should therefore be no surprise.

All this does not mean hate stunts like those we witnessed in Europe during the past week should be made illegal as some have demanded. As a believing Muslim who reads the Quran daily, and as a student of history, I know that the messenger of God endured far worse and that the book of God does not need our feeble protection – it was revealed as a protection for us. Moreover, we should not feed the image of these otherwise irrelevant provocateurs as “rebel free speech heroes” by censoring them. The worst punishment we can give them is to assign them the attention they deserve: none. Political speech aimed at fermenting Islamophobia should be viewed by the rest of society for what it is, not a defence of democracy, but an act which undermines it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.