Conversation with Dr. Farid Hafez

Conversation conducted by: Harun Karčić

Scholars on race and racism today would argue that race is a product of racism rather than the departing point of racism. In other words, it has no ontological meaning in the first place. It is a construction imagined by the racists themselves. Racialization then becomes the fluid process of how various identity markers become race or in other words: how they are essentialized. Thus, Muslims are reduced to being Muslim, which then becomes the driving force of their thoughts and deeds. This process of dehumanization then takes the human aspect from the Muslim, as it happened and still happens with Jews or Blacks.

Farid Hafez

Farid Hafez is lecturer and researcher at the University of Salzburg, Department of Political Science and Sociology. He is also Senior Researcher at Georgetown University’s ‘The Bridge Initiative’. Currently, he also lectures at Istanbul Zaim University in Istanbul. In 2017, he was Fulbright visiting professor at University of California, Berkeley and in 2014, he was visiting scholar at Columbia University, New York. Since 2010, Hafez has been editor of the Islamophobia Studies Yearbook, and since 2015 co-editor of the annual European Islamophobia Report. He has received the Bruno Kreisky Award for the political book of the year, for his anthology Islamophobia in Austria (co-ed. with John Bunzl) and published more than 70 books and articles, including in high-ranking academic journals. Moreover, Hafez regularly publishes op-ed’s and is frequently interviewed by media outlets.

Dr. Hafez, first – is Islamophobia a precise term to use to denote anti-Muslim hostility, bearing in mind that ‘phobia’ is a clinical term used to describe a fear rather than the hatred of a particular religion and its adherents?

For me, questions of semantics – the literal meaning of words – are secondary. What is primarily of importance is our concepts of, our understanding, the definition of a word. That’s where the humanities start. All our speech depends on how we make sense of a phenomenon, how we can grasp the meaning of phenomena around us. Hence, the phobia as an irrational fear is definitely of importance in the racist thought of racist people. But this is only one aspect among many. In the scholarly body of literature, there is a strong tendency to think about Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism. This means to look at individual prejudices as well as to racism as a structural phenomenon, which is linked to asymmetric power hierarchies.

How can Islamophobia be a form of racism if Islam is not a race?

Scholars on race and racism today would argue that race is a product of racism rather than the departing point of racism. In other words, it has no ontological meaning in the first place. It is a construction imagined by the racists themselves. Racialization then becomes the fluid process of how various identity markers become race or in other words: how they are essentialized. Thus, Muslims are reduced to being Muslim, which then becomes the driving force of their thoughts and deeds. This process of dehumanization then takes the human aspect from the Muslim, as it happened and still happens with Jews or Blacks.

Is there difference in the way Islamophobia is manifested in Western Europe from the way its manifested in the Balkans where the autochthonous Muslim population has long since been associated with Ottoman Turks – the ‘occupiers’ in the eyes of many Balkan Christians?

In every region of this planet, Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism is manifested in different ways. But I think this has little to do with the actual status of Muslims themselves. What is ‘autochthonous’? Who defines that when a population settles down somewhere that they are accepted and part and parcel of long-time residents? As much as in Western Europe and North America, Muslims are considered to be invaders in the eyes of the Islamophobes, they are considered to be occupiers in the Balkans. What is quintessentially the same in both situations is that the invader and the occupier are both seen as illegitimately occupying a space that is exclusively belonging to the Non-Muslim. Hence, their rights as humans to share the world is denied based on the othering of their Muslimness. 

You have been the Editor of the European Islamophobia Report for many years now. How important is it to compile all Islamophobic attacks and cases of discrimination in a single annual publication?

Very much so, because before, many states and social actors would deny the very existence of Islamophobia. With this report, the more than 40 authors annually show that Islamophobia is a reality, be it in politics, media, justice, internet, labor market, education, etc. It is also important to get a long-time perspective on this phenomenon and the changes, we can observe throughout time. Often, human beings get used to certain phenomena. Documenting it helps thinking about these developments from a wider perspective. This year, we were able with the generous funds of the European Union to conduct another report, 39 scholars covering 33 countries. The EIR 2018 shows how Islamophobia has especially become crucial for white supremacist terrorists.

What are the consequences of terrorist attacks carried out in Europe on the continents’ Muslim communities and is there any general trend you can deduce when it comes to the number of Islamophobic attacks following a terrorist attack carried out by a Muslim?

The reports that are compiled by NGO’s in Europe clearly show that there is a correlation between Jihadist terror attacks and the rise of attacks on Muslims on the streets and Muslim institutions.

To what extent does Islamophobia lead to discrimination and would you say that discrimination and social exclusion are key factors leading young Muslims to become easy targets for radicalization? 

Islamophobia manifests itself through discrimination. Research clearly shows that the injustice felt by Muslims is a driving force for Muslims to take to the weapons. This injustice is often also far away, like in Afghanistan or elsewhere. So it is the political injustice on a global scale that is a driving force.

This is then a vicious circle? What steps can be taken to overcome it?

Theoretically it would be very simple: Ending injustice. Practically, this is another story. But it depends on which region of the world we are speaking about. A person living in Afghanistan will think completely different about this situation than somebody living in Europe. And if we speak about the young people, who went to Syria to join Daesh, then we should also raise the question as to why European societies failed to give these young people a perspective in their lives to achieve something. With European societies, I do mean everybody, from the local Muslim organizations to the state’s educational institutions and the state’s foreign policy agenda. They have to ask themselves critically, how they can help to reduce injustices.