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As Islamophobia Rises In The West, Religious Freedom Declines In Pakistan

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An unfortunate incident of burning of the Holy Quran had occurred in the Norwegian city of Kristiansand last Saturday (16th November) carried out by a little known group of far-right activists called “Stopp Islamiseringen av Norge” or translated as ”Stop Islamisation of Norway (SIAN)”.

A scuffle broke out after the leader of the SIAN rally, Lars Thorsen, attempted to burn a copy of the holy book despite warnings from local police officials. Social media was quick to praise the “Muslim hero” who disrupted the anti-Muslim rally leader from burning of the Holy Quran. Since there are no laws to stop such provocative protests due to laws protecting freedom of speech, they aren’t considered illegal in Norway.

The primary aim of such a provocative protest was to further marginalize the Norwegian Muslim minority. According to Statistics Norway, 166,861 Muslims are living in Norway. They, like many other Muslim communities in the West, are increasingly ostracized in an atmosphere of rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

People of Kristiansand including its Mayor Harald Furre were quick to condemn this hostile act carried out by hardly 5 far-right activists. A counter-protest saw hundreds of Norwegians on the streets, standing in solidarity with the Muslim community of Kristiansand and condemning the anti-Muslim protests that seek to disrupt communal harmony of their peaceful city.

In recent years, Islamophobia is on the rise in much of the Western world especially Europe due to rising public anxiety over the large influx of Muslim refugees e.g. Syrians, Afghans and Somalis in Germany, Sweden and Norway.

Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear, hatred and dislike of Islam, Muslims and the Islamic culture. It is sustained by negative stereotypes resulting in active discrimination, biases and hostilities targeting Muslim minorities. Its eventual outcome is an increase in marginalization and exclusion from social, political, and civic life.

Much of the Islamophobia in today’s Europe manifests itself through anti-immigrant and racist propaganda that is often promulgated through anti-Muslim sentiments and policies increasingly fostered by rising populist nationalists and the xenophobic far-right in the West. The recent burning incident is an example of how Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric gains political ground with the rise of far-right populists who fear a demographic demise of the “White” race, which they consider superior to migrants and communities of colour. They go on to accuse the latter communities of disrupting the civility and order of the Western democratic society.

The Pakistan Union Norway (PUN), a Pakistani Norwegian cultural organization, condemned the incident and released a statement saying: “Norwegians are peaceful people and Norway enjoyed a good reputation around the world as it respected the rights of other religions.”

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Norway is home to around 40,000 Norwegians of Pakistani origin, most of them originating from Kharian and other districts of Gujrat, Punjab province.

The impact of such rogue racist incidents on someone sitting halfway across the world in Muslim-majority Pakistan can be equally devastating.

As Muslim communities living in the West suffer, we in Pakistan see propaganda videos mobilizing traditional markers of Islamic piety (such as love for the Prophet PBUH). Many Pakistani – often Sunni – men are seen changing their Facebook profile display pictures to that of the “Muslim hero” (who challenged and stopped the burning of the Quran) and he ends up praised as a “warrior of Islam”.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, in his recent U.N. General Assembly speech in September, highlighted dangers from rising Islamophobia and tried to explain why Muslims are sensitive to perceived attacks on their holy figures.

“There are 1.3 billion Muslims in this world. Millions of Muslims are living in the US and European countries as minorities. Islamophobia since 9/11 has grown at an alarming pace. Human communities are supposed to live together with understanding amongst each other but Islamophobia is creating a division,” PM Khan said.

What PM Khan failed to address were the increasing cases of violence against religious minorities within Pakistan, especially Hindus, Christians and the Ahmadiyya community. Nothing highlights Pakistan’s own disastrous record more than the unjust six-year imprisonment of Fulbright scholar Junaid Hafeez and many others who have been jailed due to the blasphemy laws in the country.

In Pakistan, it is relatively easy to incite and radicalize Muslim youth, who have suffered years of Islamist indoctrination by military dictators, religious parties and American imperialism. We see Pakistani youth registering their protest by praising hardline Islamist views “to save Islam and Muslims” from the onslaught in the West, which has less to do with an attack on religion itself and coincidentally stems from the rising racist and anti-immigrant political rhetoric demonizing Muslims and immigrants of colour alike.

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Norwegians continue to welcome Muslim immigrants and refugees despite having elected a conservative majority government critical of immigration and asylum seekers, but in Pakistan, systemic persecution and societal prejudice targeting religious minorities continues to persist and has gained political ground over the past decades. Pakistan’s Christian and Ahmadiyya communities continue to face discrimination, terrorized by blasphemy laws and ordinance XX (anti-Ahmadiyya laws).

There are no such anti-Muslim laws enacted by the parliament of Norway or anywhere in the West. In most Western countries, Muslims and others often enjoy far greater religious freedom than in Pakistan.

How many Pakistanis have come out on the streets protesting against the desecration of Ahmadiyya places of worship by residents of Sialkot (2018), Chakwal (2016), anti-Christian riots in Gojra (2009) or anti-Hindu riots in Ghotki (2019) and countless others?

Anti-Muslim bigotry originating in the West subsequently empowers Islamists in Muslim-majority countries. This leads to violence against marginalized minorities in the latter countries, particularly Christians.

Rogue incidents of hostility in the West against Muslims shouldn’t define cultures where tolerance, freedom and rights are enshrined and continue to remain protected by law.

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