International Symposium on “ISLAMOPHOBIA IN EUROPE: PAST AND PRESENT” organized by IRCICA and Yıldız Technical University, Istanbul, 13-14 January 2017

International Symposium on  “ISLAMOPHOBIA IN EUROPE: PAST AND PRESENT” organized by IRCICA and Yıldız Technical University, Istanbul, 13-14 January 2017

Islamophobia in Europe has a long tradition and history. Many of the first German leaflets in the 16th century, the early forms of newspapers, dealt with the Ottoman advance in Southeast Europe and propagated a major Islamic threat for Christianity and Europe. This propaganda helped the German Emperor to collect a “Türkensteuer” (Turks tax) from all principalities within the Empire, which was the first common tax in German history. Many of the European nations define their historical role as “antemurale christianitatis” (Bulwark of Christianity) against the Islamic threat. At the beginning of the 20th century, British Foreign Minister Edward Grey described “Panislamism” in a speech in the House of Commons as the “biggest threat for the civilized world” which provoked a Panislamism debate. Many of the Ottoman intellectuals felt the necessity to take part in this debate and to defend the “East” and the Ottoman Empire against the accusation of an Islamic threat. In the second half of the 20th century a large number of Muslim workers, mainly from Turkey and Northern Africa, emigrated to Germany and other western European countries. The existence of Muslims in Europe provoked the establishment of anti-Muslim organizations and parties, which propagated that Europe is under threat of an Islamic occupation. Finally, political instability in the Middle East and the intervention of Western powers in the region provoked the establishment of terrorist organizations defining themselves as “Islamist”. The refuge of millions of Muslims from the conflict ridden regions in the Middle East to Europe and the refugee crisis caused the revival of an Islam debate and the Islamophobia reached its peaks again in Europe.

Against this background, the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) of the OIC, and Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies (BALKAR) of Yıldız Technical University, Istanbul, jointly organized an international symposium on “Islamophobia in Europe: Past and Present” on 13-14 January, 2017. The event brought together prominent scholars as well as young and promising academicians who dealt with various aspects of Islamophobia in the West. The participants of the congress, 16 scholars in total, came from several countries including Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Greece, Turkey and India.

The conference started on 13 January 2017 with welcome addresses delivered by Assoc. Prof. Halit Eren, Director General of IRCICA and Prof. Bahri Şahin, Rector of Yıldız Technical University. The event proceeded with five panels and the participants dealt in their presentations with a wide range of concepts and issues pertaining to Islamophobia, including fear, fear mongering, terrorism, Eurocentrism, neo-colonialism, neo-Orientalism, patriotism, racism, xenophobia, immigration, refugees, multiculturalism and textbook revision. Some participants also examined the roots and current situation of Islamophobia in certain countries such as Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Greece. 
The aim of this international symposium was threefold: to examine the extent to which Islamophobia has been a subject of academic research; to bring together experts of the topic; and to encourage young academicians to carry out research on the subject.

The symposium examined Islamophobia from the angle of the image of Islam and Islamic empires / states in Europe (press, historiography, school education, textbooks, literature, art etc.); Muslim communities and minority groups in Europe and their religious organizations, the minority policies of European countries, status of Islam in Europe; instruments of anti-Muslim propaganda, publications, nationalist or racist political organizations and parties and their propaganda against Islam and Muslims; attacks and repression against Muslim communities and minorities in Europe in the past and present; activities and responses in the Islamic world against the Islamophobia in the West.

While it is impossible to summarize the underlying conclusions made by 16 scholars presenting their preliminary findings/responses to the issue of Islamophobia in Europe, the very diversity of approaches to studying the issue highlights a larger set of opportunities to continue the study of this latest manifestation of “Fortress Europe” even further. In panel one, the terminology and content of Islamophobia in Europe was explored and it was shown how, in distinctive regions of Europe, Muslims presumably were exposed to various forms of Islamophobia. In this respect, it was suggested throughout that there may be more useful ways to understanding the events labeled too often without much thought as “Islamophobia.”

Seen as but an extension of a more traditional reference to “fear-mongering” that did have in various periods an “orientalist” veneer to them, Islamophobia no longer seemed entirely unique to the period since “9/11” and indeed, Europe. More, as explored by individual case studies that took participants from the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, the Arabic-speaking world and the Balkans, Islamophobia also fails to be easily identifiable. Often, the only way to appreciate just what may be considered Islamophobic about the relationships peoples in Europe sustained over the past 20 years was to actually move outside the common points of reference conventional studies on European xenophobia focus. The resulting complexity of how Muslims of various backgrounds actually experienced individual or collective prejudice could only be fully appreciated in comparison.

In other words, the conference has offered participants and the audience a strong argument for both expanding the study further and doing so with a specific comparative and inter-disciplinary focus. Without the kinds of questions raised in close ethnographic, as well as theoretical, legal and social historical perspectives, to say nothing of the economic factors behind relative manifestations of “Islamophobia,” the relationship Europeans have with each other (non-Muslims and Muslims) remains obscure. The experiences are so disparate, the forms in which Islamophobia are expressed, felt, experienced, and resisted, so distinctive, any single conclusion proves impossible.

Indeed, the greatest success of this conference was its useful challenging of established categories, making an attempt to frame relations between Europeans (be they immigrants, third-generation Muslims and/or non-Muslims) in strictly those terms associated with hostility. Perhaps, in subsequent efforts to study Islamophobia, it is possible to discover new forms of engagement that are not set, with evolving relations between various actors--individuals, communities, institutions, economic interests--that complicate beyond recognition what it is we mean by Islamophobia. In the end, the conference proved a counter-intuitive challenge to normative approaches to understanding the lives of Muslims in Europe and the impact they have had on all Europeans and the state institutions that shape their lives.

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