International Day to Combat Islamophobia: Responses and Rationales

On 15 March 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously adopted the resolution brought forward by Pakistan to establish that day as the “International Day to Combat Islamophobia”. The choice of date was significant after 51 people were killed during a terror attack carried out at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 15 March 2019. Following confirmation of the adoption, the then Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulated the entire ummah via Twitter because the decision represented recognition of the “grave challenge confronting the world: of Islamophobia, respect for religious symbols & practices & of curtailing systematic hate speech & discrimination against Muslims”.

The adoption would have been interpreted by Khan and his supporters as an important win for their government, coming at a challenging time when a no-confidence vote was hanging over their heads. As stated in his tweet, the resolution had been brought to the UNGA by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), whose Council of Foreign Ministers would later gather for its 48th Session in Islamabad on 22 and 23 March. In the OIC’s “Islamabad Declaration”, they would welcome the adoption to establish this day to combat Islamophobia, which they characterised as “pervasive,” accompanied by “deliberate attempts… to undermine the Muslim world’s peaceful coexistence with other cultures and religions”. While he highlighted that the chance of the events helping Khan to overcome his then trials was “dubious,” Marvin G. Weinbaum did suggest that the summit “provided a welcome platform for Khan to demonstrate leadership of the Muslim ummah and statesmanship as prime minister”. Indeed, the ummah does require strong leadership and unity if it wants to effectively raise awareness of issues affecting Muslims and to achieve justice for its communities around the world.

Though the resolution was unanimously adopted by the UNGA, there was opposition to it in principle from India, France and the European Union (EU). India’s representative explained their reluctance by suggesting that the elevation of “one phobia to an international day may downplay the seriousness of phobias towards all other religions,” given the prevalence of phobias against all religions. The representative of France similarly believed that the establishment of this day would be unhelpful in tackling all kinds of discrimination and that there is no consensus on the definition of Islamophobia within international law.

Ultimately, religiously aggravated hate crimes against Muslims are often more common than those against people of other religions, including in the US, England and Wales. So approving a day to combat Islamophobia in this climate rightly fell towards the top of some agendas.

While it is true that all forms of phobias against any religion should be condemned, this response is an example of “whataboutism” because the representatives are justifying their disagreement with the resolution by effectively asking, “what about other religious phobias?”. But to support a day to combat Islamophobia will not detract from initiatives to combat other forms of discrimination. If they are truly motivated by combatting all forms of phobias, they could support the establishment of days to combat other forms rather than oppose this well-intentioned initiative. It is not as if establishing an awareness day is the only means to ridding the world of discrimination; rather, it represents a principled step toward the concerted effort of eradicating that form of discrimination. Ultimately, religiously aggravated hate crimes against Muslims are often more common than those against people of other religions, including in the US, England and Wales. So approving a day to combat Islamophobia in this climate rightly fell towards the top of some agendas.

However, it is important to note that a country’s record on Islamophobia goes beyond hate crime statistics to how its national institutions perceive Islam. The issue of the definition of Islamophobia is an important and complex one, as exemplified by the back-and-forth debates in the UK. But the lack of an accepted definition in international law is not reason enough to oppose the establishment of a day to combat Islamophobia. Islamophobia manifests in different ways in different contexts based on how “Muslimness” is perceived. For example, in the UK, The Runnymede Trust has emphasised the need to regard Islamophobia as “anti-Muslim racism”. Indeed, anti-Muslim sentiment is often motivated by race as well as religion, which is why Sikhs in the UK, for example, have been targeted in Islamophobic hate crimes, though the fact remains that, in these cases, the primary target is still Islam.

The belief that Muslims can always be identified by their race is, of course, a fallacy, given that Muslims can belong to any race. Indeed, a major tenet of Islam is its condemnation of racism. In other contexts, the race may be less commonly perceived as a defining factor in what makes a person a Muslim or not. But what remains consistent across these manifestations is a fear, suspicion or hatred towards Islam, Muslims and perceived Muslimness. This last part is thus especially key to formulating a definition in international law because it accounts for different perceptions towards Islam in different contexts that motivate a perpetrator to target a person. An example of a definition of Islamophobia that accounts for this is that proposed by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group constituted to present a working definition.

For some, the opposition from India and France to the resolution was unsurprising given the many accusations against the governments of both countries for complicity in Islamophobia. That is, while anti-Muslim hate crime in France is less common than anti-Christian and anti-Semitic hate crimes and less common than hate crimes against Dalits in India, these states are perceived as having an “Islamophobia problem” in and of themselves. To look at events of the past few years holistically suggests that Islamophobia has been normalised in India, to such an extent that Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch has warned of “early warning signs of genocide” in India.

The French government has also been subject to much criticism for introducing laws that it sees as combating “Islamic separatism”, which advocacy groups like CAGE have referred to as an example of a “systematic obstruction” policy that targets Muslims in France by closing mosques, closing businesses owned by Muslims and by seizing assets. Therefore, this vote at the UNGA represented an opportunity for India and France to alter these narratives by showing that they take Islamophobia very seriously and to set themselves on a path toward tackling Islamophobia and thus greater communal cohesion.

Islamophobia is undoubtedly a global problem resulting in the abuse and deaths of countless innocent people, motivating greater sympathy for non-Muslims in the exact same situation as their Muslim counterparts, defining our national and international policies and dividing our communities along religious and racial lines. These are reasons enough to perceive the International Day to Combat Islamophobia as not only a welcomed initiative but a vital one. However, this resolution must be accompanied by action, which requires the international community to show that they care enough about Muslims to reform their own perceptions as well as those of their institutions.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a Postgraduate Research Fellow at The Centre for Army Leadership and also at the London Institute of South Asia. She regularly writes articles on Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK and is currently undertaking a PhD on Islam in Pakistan.

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