It is getting more difficult to fight Islamophobia in Europe: UN official Gün Kut

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It is becoming more difficult to fight Islamophobia in Europe, as mainstream political parties compete for votes with the far-right, Gün Kut, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) since 2010, has told the Hürriyet Daily News.

“As extreme right-wing views started to gather public support, some center-right parties started to embrace some of the rhetoric that is normally used by extreme right in order to prevent the fleeing of their fringe voters toward the extreme right. Meanwhile the center-left, which usually supports these anti-racist efforts, has become more silent in order not to lose fringe voters.

You have been working for at least two decades on international commissions to combat racism. Tell us your general observation about the evolution of this issue.

Discrimination on the basis of color, ethnicity, nationality and language exists everywhere, but it takes various forms and varies in intensity. The problem may be getting worse over time but there are also more and more solutions provided. So it is a mixed bag of results. Unless intense efforts are exerted on tackling the issues, things are going to get much worse. If there has been slight improvement it’s thanks to these international mechanisms.

Let’s talk about our region, Europe and the Middle East.

After the end of the Cold War there was a very strong support from governments to deal with these issues. There was a huge pressure for all Council of Europe member countries to establish or improve their legal infrastructure to deal with racism. So while on the one hand over the past 20 years we can observe the rise of extreme right movements in Europe, at the same time governments have made huge progress in establishing a well-designed legal infrastructure.

But as extreme right-wing views started to gather public support, some center-right parties started to embrace some of the rhetoric that is normally used by extreme right in order to prevent the fleeing of their fringe voters toward the extreme right. Meanwhile the center-left, which usually supports these anti-racist efforts, has become more silent in order not to lose fringe voters to the center-right. Eventually, this has carried some elements of the extreme right into political power. Once they are in power the political support for mechanisms that fight racism in Europe has weakened.

How do you think new developments like migration factor in?

When racist tendencies become a part of political projects they have a learning curve. These parties and movements tend not to make the mistakes they made before. So for example it is almost impossible to find official anti-Semitic statements from extreme right parties in Europe. They are very careful to avoid being labelled anti-Semitic. This is not because they are not anti-Semitic but because they have learned that this path will lead them to trouble. So they avoid it and instead they accuse all Muslims of being anti-Semitic. This is because whenever elements of Muslim communities, especially in Western Europe, protest Israel that protest may turn into an anti-Semitic event.

It is ironic that extreme right political parties and movements in Europe, which have anti-Semitic origins, now condemn Islam as an anti-Semitic political project. These movements also say they are keen on preserving women’s rights, but this is merely a political tactic because again it is through that issue that they can legitimately criticize Muslim groups, especially politically organized Islamic or Islamist group in Europe, over the place of women in Islam.

So it is a very difficult situation. These extreme right political parties base themselves on seemingly very legitimate grounds, which strengthens their position. That is why it is becoming more difficult to fight Islamophobia in Europe. That is why even more mainstream center parties have embraced this anti-Muslim rhetoric. As a result, Islamophobia has become one of the worst issues of discrimination in Europe. It has been further exacerbated by the fact that there has been a huge population movement toward Europe, which came almost immediately after the worst economic crisis Europe has ever experienced.

I don’t see an improvement coming in the future. This will remain a problem as there is less political will to combat racism.

But immigrants are there to stay, especially Muslims.

It will likely be a bleeding wound. Things will continue like this. Mechanisms and institutions are working but at the same time the situation is worsening. That is why these institutions have to work harder.

What about the situation of Turkish communities in Europe? To what degree are they subjected to discrimination?

Turks are not a homogeneous community. We can divide them into two groups. Those who are willing to integrate and those who are not willing to integrate. The first ones tend to be successful professionals who can face discrimination because they have different names, different looks. But they can manage the situation. The second face double or triple discrimination. Their main problem is unemployment, but if you don’t speak the local language how can you blame the other party for not giving you a job?

Integration is a two-way street, and in Europe there is a problem on both sides. For the second group, the results are lower levels of education, school dropouts, persistent unemployment and petty crime. The net result is marginalization. Prejudices develop and it becomes a vicious circle.

How do you see Turkey’s situation?

Turkey was never one of the European states where racism became a part of mainstream political life, in the sense that racism did not bring votes in Turkey. Because of Turkey’s historical and social background, Turks are almost – not fully but almost – color blind.

But this does not mean there is no discrimination. Discrimination comes in many shapes and forms. Racial prejudice is skin deep in Turkey. It’s not necessarily visible but it can emerge at unexpected moments.

Over the last 20 years Turkey has made a lot of effort to improve its institutions and its legal infrastructure, and for example for the first time ever we have seen people having to answer to judges at court for saying things like “dogs and Armenians cannot enter.” So there are serious problems but things are not at the same level or context as in Western Europe. There is improvement but there is lots of room for improvement.

What about the fact that Turkey has been hosting many migrants, including 3.5 million Syrians.

Whenever there are huge population movements like this, there are problems on both sides: There are difficulties faced by the people who have left everything behind and also difficulties faced by the local community. Turkey is coping much better than many other places in the world. Despite all the problems of discrimination, bordering racism at times in the media and in political rhetoric, the overall management of the situation is still exemplary in Europe. But this should not lead us to think we have nothing to do. If you think there are no problems, then problems can develop into crises.

When it comes to international mechanisms, to what degree has Turkey been cooperative?

Turkey has always been very cooperative. It has been defensive at times but supportive of international institutions. Turkey was among the three states to propose the establishment of the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). From the start Turkey was very keen on helping the ECRI and increasing its powers, and over the last two years Turkey has made huge financial contributions to the ECRI.

Who is Gün Kut?

Dr. Gün Kut studied Political Science at Boğaziçi University (Istanbul) and received his BA degree in 1981. He pursued graduate studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton and later started teaching at Boğaziçi University on international relations and the history of diplomacy in 1987.

Kut’s areas of research interest include water issues in the Middle East and regional issues in Turkish foreign policy.

Nominated by Turkey, he served as a member of the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) between 1996 and 2017. He was also appointed as a member of the Management Board and the Executive Board of the European Union Monitoring Center (EUMC), representing the Council of Europe (2004-2007).

In 2010 Kut was elected to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and he was reelected last June.

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