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Expert fights western prejudice against Muslims

King’s College London law professor Maleiha Malik seeks to combat misperceptions and prejudices toward Muslims in the western world.

Malik, who focuses on the theory and practice of discrimination law, visited Duke Wednesday as part of the Our Shared Future initiative, an exchange program funded by the British Council, said event organizer Kelly Schwehm, who serves as program coordinator for the Middle East Studies Center. The purpose of Malik’s stay in America is to raise awareness about anti-Muslim prejudices in different western countries—specifically England and continental European nations—by broadening understanding about Muslim integration into society. By comparing the discrimination that Muslims in different nations experience, Malik hopes to address the misconception that Muslim communities are all alike.

“As with most forms of racism, anti-Muslim racism tends to play on the politics of fear,” Malik said. “This particular fear is that the Muslim presence in Europe and its outward display of religiosity—through its prayers, its headscarves, even its halal food—are converting the continent into ‘Eurabia,’ no longer the white shining beacon of Christianity that Europe is meant to represent.”

Malik called the fear irrational, pointing out that Muslims are a small minority in Europe. For example, in France, Muslims make up less than 10 percent of the population—the highest percentage of any European country. In addition, European Muslims tend to be both economically deprived and geographically dispersed.

The lecture focused on two key examples of anti-Muslim prejudice: the criminalization and regulation of wearing headscarves and the debates over Sharia law. According to Malik, the wearing of headscarves only became an issue when courts such as the European Court of Human Rights declared the headscarf an aggressive religious symbol.

Throughout the lecture, Malik was critical of the media, at one point calling the British press “catastrophically irresponsible” in how it has dealt with the anti-Muslim issue. She discussed an instance in which an archbishop who suggested that England would eventually have to recognize Sharia law was blasted in newspapers with headlines such as “Bash the Bishop!”

The general public, however, is more accepting of Muslim integration, Malik said, adding that this was grounds for optimism. She pointed to an example where anti-Sharia activist Tommy Robinson encouraged followers to tweet about how Islam is taking over England, and Twitter users displayed their opposition by co-opting his hashtag. One user sarcastically responded, “Apparently British high school students are being coerced to learn algebra. Yet another example of #creepingsharia!”

Another positive trend developed during the last Summer Olympics, Malik said. She noted the number of Muslim athletes, including women who wore headscarves during competition, as a symbol of how the two identities—national and religious—can be reconciled.

Jen’nan Read, associate professor of sociology and global health, will complete the second leg of the lecture series when she visits England in January to speak about anti-Muslim sentiment in America.

This exchange is unique in that it allows more collaboration and sharing between the visiting professors, she said.

Malik has already spoken at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Durham County Library, and has plans to speak at Durham Technical Community College.

“A lot of her talks will be for non-academic audiences,” Read said. “The idea is to get outside of our typical academic circles where we publish articles that laypeople will never read.”

Read praised the program for its learning opportunities, but cautioned that prejudices against Muslims will be difficult to combat in the upcoming years. One of the biggest challenges is that the only way to overcome a stereotype is by interacting with someone who does not fit the stereotype, which is difficult when the Muslim population is such a minority, she said.

“Out of [about 315] million Americans, there might be a few million who are Muslim—that’s a drop in the bucket,” Read said. “The likelihood of your average American knowing any Muslims is low, and that’s if they actually know the person is Muslim.”

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