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Racial inequality still rife across Western world

The UN day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has been on the global calendar for 35 years, but experts say there's a long way to go before it becomes redundant. Not least due to a rise in Islamophobia.

The back of an Imam's head with book in front of him

Promoting inter-racial understanding is easier said than done

When the twin towers came crashing to the ground on September 11th 2001, little could have prepared Muslim communities across the Western world for the fallout that was to land in their laps. In the immediate aftermath there was a rapid increase in attacks against members of Muslim communities, a rise in vandalism of mosques and a general sense of marginalisation.

And many Muslims would say that feeling of having been pushed away from mainstream society has never gone away. A study on discrimination against Muslims conducted by the Fundamental Rights Agency last year revealed that one in three participants had been at the receiving end of discriminatory behavior in the previous 12 months.

It is such statistics which have ushered the term Islamophobia into the English language, but for all its usage, there is some disagreement about what it actually means, whether it refers to anti-religious or anti-racial sentiment. Are Muslims being discriminated against on race grounds?

Sarah Isal, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust racial equality think tank says yes.

women at a Turkish market in Berlin

Race or religion, what comes first?

"Islamophobia in the way we mean it is about the very real discrimination faced by a particular group because of the perception of belonging to a particular religion," she said. "So in that sense it is used as a proxy for racism."

Moreover, she told Deutsche Welle, that although Islamic groups are now facing heightened levels of discrimination, they have been the target of racial prejudice for a long time.

Changing identity

What is new however, is that while once upon a time Muslims in the West might have referred to themselves as Asian, and viewed themselves as part of a wider ethnic minority group, they now describe themselves as Muslim.

And in keeping with that pattern of identification, there have been great efforts in recent years to make the Muslim community easily accessible to those outside it. But Islamophobia expert Dr. Chris Allen told Deutsche Welle that such initiatives are not necessarily the best way to promote tolerance.

"People have said if we increase understanding about Islam then people will become more aware and the prejudice will disappear," he said. "But I think that is a naïve approach."

The inside of a mosque

A lot of mosques across Europe have held open days

Allen believes that non-mosque-goers don't need to know about Friday prayers, but should understand acceptance as a social phenomenon and learn that discrimination and anti-Muslim sentiment do not have a place in the modern world.

"Let's talk about the problem and not about Islam as the problem," he said. "To address Islamophobia, we don't need to talk on an inter-faith basis, but we need to get Muslims to be seen as 'normal'."

To do that he says it is crucial to look at areas of common ground among all ethnic and religious groups and for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike to stop apportioning and accepting unrealistic blame.

"If someone commits a terrorist attack, let's not apologize because they might have some commonality with someone else elsewhere."

What's 'normal' anyway?

But pushing the notion of 'normal' and making people open their eyes to what they don't want to see is never going to be easy, not in Europe and not across the Atlantic.

Bill Hackwell, an organiser with the US anti-racism A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition told Deutsche Welle that racial discrimination is alive and kicking throughout America, and that the situation has been going from bad to worse, exacerbated by the global recession.

"There has been an attempt to scapegoat the economic crisis on the back of immigrant workers who make up a large part of the workforce," he told Deutsche Welle.

Hurricane Katrina victims on the streets of New Orleans

Relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina victims were dubbed racist

People have lost the standard of living they had become accustomed to and this hardship has led to an increase in reactionary groups that whip up anti-immigrant feelings.

But while Hackwell acknowledges this trend as a very real problem, he says xenophobic attitudes are as much about events in the past as anxiety over the future. Even though civil rights were finally won in the states in 1964, the victory was the result of a struggle and not sudden public enlightenment. And that struggle, Hackwell says, is still going on today.

He cites lynchings and unfounded detentions in the south and explosive unemployment and incarceration rates for African Americans as proof of the racial inequality that still rumbles and rages inside the belly of the world's largest democratic power.

"The US likes to talk about democracy, but nothing could be further from the truth if you are a person of colour," he said. "An African American male has more chance of ending up in prison than at college."

Obama the savior?

President Obama at a blackboard

Can Obama teach his people tolerance?

So has Obama done anything to change that? "Nothing," says Hackwell.

"Just because we now have an African-American president, which in and of itself was a tremendous feat, that is only one person and that doesn't change the very basic direction of the system and the system is very racist. The US is a very racist country."

But looking in to America from the other side of the water, Obama's election is seen as a definite step forward and something for European societies to aspire. Because as it stands there's not a one among them which is anywhere near offering the job of head of state or government to a member of an ethnic minority.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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