Until 9/11, Islam was only an immigrant cultural component, not much different from other immigrant religions or minorities, for Western society in general, that most of its members knowing very little about it. Terms such as "Islamophobia" were not popular in the media and political circles. But the collapse of two giant towers in the middle of the United States of America within minutes, as a result, of an organized and precise act of terrorism, was enough to bring down an entire historical stage of human relations between Islam and the West, which will need to be restored much longer than it took to build the two towers again; This is if we really assume that the world "seriously" wants to restore this relationship and that the efforts being made to achieve this goal are sufficient and correct.
Until 1970s, Academic studies focused on the issue of the economic integration of Muslim immigrants in Europe, and then the matter received effective and significant political and cultural dimensions. However, the events of 9/11 and the media and political campaign that followed, which led to linking terrorism with Islam after the extremist radical al-Qaeda organization adopted these attacks and uncovered a widening gap between Western culture and followers of the Islamic religion from immigrants or their children who were born and lived in the West. Islamophobia has expanded, and this has resulted in two parties “lying in wait” for each other, each of whom is driven by fear to reject and exclude the other. One party considers the other a terrorist, or at best, a terrorist undertaking, while the other meets this with confinement and isolation within narrow societies, or by extremism and being drawn towards extremist movements.
In this case, the role of politics cannot be ignored. Although it was not responsible for creating this “lying in wait” state, it practically employed the “management of terror” theory from the first moment, which pushes the frightened person into fanaticism towards his own culture and enmity towards those who differ from him, making him a "pawn" in the hands of the leaders, they move it as they please. “Fear of Islam” allowed the justification of strict measures imposed on some citizens claiming that they posed a danger to society, as happened when the United States of America established what was known as "national law" after 9/11 events, and imposed restrictions on numerous Muslims from all over the world, depriving them of educational, work, and medical opportunities in the US.
These government measures, as well as the accompanying targeted media campaigns led by most media outlets at the time, which promoted stereotypes linking Islam to terrorism and overgeneralized their judgements of Muslims in all parts of the world, have exacerbated Islamophobia in the West. In fact, these campaigns did not have the same goals for everyone. Some of their parties focused on political exploitation to advance the goals of the western extreme right-wing, whether ethnically/nationally or religiously. While other parties followed a rising trend that was fueled by the anxiety of Western societies and the disruption of their sense of safety following the events of the World Trade Towers and the subsequent terrorist attacks that shook several European cities and capitals.
A statistic prepared by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time proved that more than 1,452 cases of assault and hate speech against Muslims were recorded during the first few days after the two attacks. Then it decreased significantly in the following year, but it did not exist in the West before 2001, according to what the American-Egyptian researcher Tawfik Hamid confirms that “Islamophobia did not exist in this form, and the evidence is that there were no restrictions on the entry of millions of peaceful people as immigrants during the second half of the twentieth century, and the spread of thousands of Islamic mosques and libraries in Western countries is further evidence of the absence of inherent hatred against Muslims in those countries.”
What I want to say, and I agree with the researcher, is that Muslims living in the West bear part of the responsibility for the spread of the fear of Islam phenomenon, as many of them were unable to separate religious and political, and their loyalty remained to groups claiming to represent and protect them, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Salafi groups, jihadist and non-jihadi, that have begun to promote the “Islamization of Europe”, taking advantage of the laws of those countries that granted them an environment of freedom that enabled them to establish economic, educational, cultural and religious institutions, to seize the pulpits of Muslim communities and to speak on their behalf, and to form their political, religious and cultural awareness through a planned ideological discourse.
This ideological discourse prevented the integration of many Muslims into the societies in which they reside, and led many members of the communities to live in semi-psychological and cultural seclusion from the environments that incubate them, consequently, the condemnation of these communities contradicts the values of modernity, liberalism and Western secularism was established in the West. In addition, leaders of these communities took advantage of the discrimination that some were subjected to demonstrate the sincerity of their claims of the West's hostility to Islam.
Little by little, Islamophobia in France, Britain, America and other countries turned into a pressure card in the electoral political campaigns by the far-right parties, especially during the first decade of this century, and then was clearly revived during the American election campaigns in the middle of the last decade, which largely explains the resurgence of this phenomenon after 2016 when Trump took power in America and in conjunction with the growth of armed terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and their ability to recruit numerous young European Muslims, who suffer from a crisis of identity and belonging, and are often marginalized as a minority, at a time when the evolution in social networks has enabled them to learn about events in places far from their places of residence. These networks reconnected them to the issues of their countries of origin through a cybernetic inciting discourse, whose controllers no longer need the pulpits in mosques, thus expose themselves to persecution, to recruit the minds of these young people to serve their interests.
On the other hand, many reports, for example, discuss the activity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. The group and some governments and countries that support it, have exploited the flexibility of laws and freedom of expression in the West, and established Islamic centers that they reap profits from it, at a time when those countries portrayed themselves as defenders of Muslim causes, to push the gap deeper and these immigrants towards more alienation and refusal to integrate into the societies of the countries in which they live and are subject to their systems.
Of course, Europe did not stand by and watch the group's activity, so it took a number of measures aimed at tightening control over its activities, affiliated entities, and institutions, but none of the countries reached a complete ban on the group. In addition, these measures were individual, not within the scope of a joint European move. A study issued by TRENDS titled “The Danger of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe: Infiltration Strategy, Funding Tools and Countermeasures”, came to my attention, as it emphasizes the need to cracking down and drying up the group’s sources of funding, as a step to curtail its danger.
Despite the importance of this, I believe that other measures can be taken to prevent this extremist polarization, as violence is nothing but a reflection of the imbalance in the relationship between the Islamic and Western cultures, and then quickly grows on the grounds of some Muslims' reluctance to commit to the citizenship of those countries, and to retreat within their ethnic/religious components that they belong to, thus, allowing extremists from both sides to exploit their situation.
Therefore, it must first be acknowledged that integration does not mean assimilation and blending into the culture of the other or his personality, but rather it is a continuous cultural and human exchange between the components of all civilizations, the main basis of which is providing the best of human beings for the sake of coexistence and building a stable and secure life based on respect. Western Muslims are concerned today, before others, with this proposition, as the stage we have reached necessitates continual effort to show Islam in its true core, away from the state of inclusion and closure that will only make the scene obscurer, and because of which the Muslims of the West will turn into their own worst enemies, when they allow others to build their own misconceptions about Islam, which media and political parties are working to shape and endorse according to the whims and interests of their financiers, perceptions that are often not compatible with the interests of Muslims in Western countries.
Although I am aware of the difficulty for the world to abandon its political concepts and terms such as the concept of “minority” and “majority”, I still believe that human interaction will always prove that it is capable of overcoming differences. In many visits to the West, I have noticed that the number of citizens who are hostile to Islam is very small, hence, establishing friendly relations with them is not difficult: when you live in a country, respect its people and laws, and reach the stage of actual citizenship, then building human relations is easier and more beneficial for all.
It is not difficult to reconcile Islam and Western values, as most of these values reflect, with the testimony of Muslims themselves, the spirit and essence of Islam, especially in regards to human rights and freedom, the consolidation of the principle of equality before the law and justice for everyone, the call for acceptance of the other, dialogue with kindness, giving priority to peace and compassion, rejection of violence and exclusion, and criminalization of everything that offends human dignity. Therefore, what is necessarily required is the reform of religious discourse by reliable institutions in the face of extremist ideology. For example, Al-Azhar Mosque as an institution, which I have previously urged to have an active and permanent presence as an authority in Europe and the Americas. Permanent Al-Azhar missions in these countries will ensure the renunciation of violence and extremism which these countries have suffered from for years. Basically, we are calling for following the example of the original Christian authority, the Pope’s authority, as I realized the importance of Al-Azhar’s role and influence.
Additionally, such cooperation presents two important issues on the way to Al-Azhar becoming a global Islamic authority:
The first issue is funding and financial support of the Al-Azhar institution so that it has its own independent and self-sufficient budget. Until today, the Egyptian government alone is bearing the expenses of Al-Azhar. But in a simple comparison with the many options the Vatican has at its disposal and its dependence on these options to increase its religious and spiritual authority in the world, it is clear that the Islamic world has a duty to support this institution that represents true Islam the best. This will support the intellectual and religious roles of Al-Azhar's, and thus strengthen its presence as a moderate authority, one that seeks to unify Muslims on the truth, and reconstruct Islamic awareness based on a religion that cares for the human, their well-being, growth, and development.
The second issue, it is related to making Al-Azhar an absolutely independent, sovereign religious institution, free from Arab and Islamic political pressures and fluctuations. Then it can discuss the idea of having an independent diplomatic representation, so that it can appoint an ambassador in each country. His role is to serve as a reference for the Muslim community and to respond accurately and reliably to inquiries about Islam or the religious situation of Muslims in those countries. In this regard, the papal embassies provide an encouraging example.
Achieving this also requires that Al-Azhar establish more sharia schools around the world so they will serve as a beacon that educates Muslims everywhere, and prepare them for spreading recognition of diversity based on the spirit of Islam. This is an urgent requirement, especially in light of the waves of extremism and misinterpretations of the provisions of the Quran and the honorable prophetic hadiths, which misrepresent our true religion brought by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and form the basis for the emergence of terrorist organizations that claim to represent true Islam. In addition, it helps counter movements that exploit the emotions of Muslims and spread an ideology that creates a spirit of sedition in order to achieve their goals.
Given the current era is referred to as that of major blocs, a unified, moderate presence of Muslims could be a powerful force on the political, economic, and humanitarian front. It is impossible to achieve this without an authority that is trusted and accepted, and takes on the burden of defending Islamic and Arab causes based on tolerance, justice, and peace, rather than violence which creates more enemies and distorts the true image of religion. In my opinion, a thousand years of presence and efficacy is sufficient credit to establish Al-Azhar as the desired authority.
For this to happen, I believe that all Islamic institutions, no matter their orientations, must agree first to adopt Al-Azhar's approach and visions with regards to contemporary issues in Islamic thought, including the relationship with the West, democracy, and the fight against terrorism. Arab and Islamic governments are also required to demonstrate their support for this approach and their commitment to its philosophy, which will enhance the legitimacy of the Al-Azhar institution as a global representative of contemporary Islamic ideology. Thus, Al-Azhar will be a reliable partner to those in Western societies who want to solve the problems of Islamophobia and other issues related to the Islamic component in Western societies, away from Policies of exclusion, restriction, violence and political exploitation.
Achieving this rapprochement requires civilized dialogue between religions and cultures everywhere and on every occasion, discarding racism, ethnic discrimination, and regionalism while preserving the diversity of identities within a human framework that seeks lasting peace. This is reflected in the 2019 "Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together", signed by His Holiness Pope Francis, and Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi. Therefore, it can be viewed as a significant step in initiating this civilized dialogue, and a reference document that can be used in the future to normalize the relationship between East and West.
Finally, I do not think that there is a better weapon that can be deployed in the face of Islamophobia, new orientalists, and extremist ideologues, than showing the truth of our religion to others. This will not happen if Muslims in the West remain distant from the societies they live in, and resistant to accepting difference and diversity while clinging to the illusion of possessing the absolute truth in a way that always leads humanity to endless struggles.