"Europe has a problem with religion"

Researcher Linda Hyokki – herself a convert to Islam – discusses the causes of discrimination, ways of combatting Islamophobia, the divisive topic of veiling and how to debunk the common narrative. Interview by Marian Brehmer

By Marian Brehmer

Islamophobia has been defined as an "exaggerated fear, hatred and hostility toward Islam and Muslims". How did you decide on a focus for your doctoral research into Islamophobia?

Linda Hyokki: As an academic I noticed that there is a lack of research on Islamophobia in Finland. Islam is generally considered as a religion of immigrants. When the refugee influx in 2015 prompted a new wave of anti-Islamic rhetoric in Finland, I thought it would be interesting to investigate the topic of Finnish people who had grown up in a non-religious environment, but had ultimately chosen the religion of Islam for themselves.

What do you think causes Islamophobia?

Hyokki: It has a lot to do with the phenomenon known as the "racialisation of Muslims". Muslims are treated as if Islam were a race. In this way, anti-Muslim prejudice becomes racism. It employs the same terminology that is used in biological racism, which is why researchers often talk about "anti-Muslim racism". Islamophobia is not just about stereotypes or prejudices, it is an institutionalised form of discrimination. Moreover, it should be stressed that Islamophobia is not merely a phenomenon that emerged after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Muslims had been subject to discrimination long before 9/11. We only need to dip into European Orientalism to see that anti-Islamic sentiment has a long history.

How are converts to Islam viewed in Finland?

Hyokki: Even if you are Finnish born and bred, once you convert to Islam, you become the ʹracial otherʹ because you are no longer accepted into the "original culture". Right-wing politicians have juxtaposed Muslims with a supposed Nordic race. When the former presidential candidate Laura Huhtasaari from the populist Finns Party spoke out against the face veil, she indicated that Muslim women do not have freedom of choice and otherised them.

Her comment "I as a Nordic woman have the freedom to decide whether I wear trousers or skirts" means for me that she is trying to exclude the Muslim women living in Finland from a spatial, cultural "us". The irony is that linguistically speaking, Finland isnʹt even part of the Nordic countries where Indo-Germanic languages are dominant; Finnish and the Sami language – which is spoken by the indigenous people of Finland, the Sami – are both Uralic languages.

Muslim woman in Germany (photo: Georg Wendt/dpa)
Double standards surrounding Western individualism: "society seems unable to cope with a handful of veiled women. At the end of the day, all we are talking about is how people dress. Take another example: the right to polygamy in Islam is regarded as highly controversial. But talk about the modern lifestyle concept of ʹpolyamoryʹ and people seem more inclined to accept it. The moment you do something for religious reasons it becomes a problem," says Hyokki

What kinds of discrimination have you observed towards converts to Islam?

Hyokki: During my fieldwork I interviewed both men and women, in an attempt to record their experiences. One girl told me how her mother called a helpline for victims of religion when she learnt that her daughter had turned Muslim, fearing that she had been brainwashed. Another story tells of a girl who graduated from high school as the best student in her year. As tradition goes, she would have been the one to deliver that yearʹs graduation speech. But because she was a Muslim the headmaster wouldnʹt allow her to speak, arguing that the institution didnʹt want a girl with a headscarf to speak for the school. I also spoke to Muslim converts working in the healthcare field who have experienced bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Where does such discrimination come from?

Hyokki: In Finland, just like in many other European countries, the prevailing image is that Islam as a foreign religion is incompatible with a European lifestyle. Finnish converts, however, didnʹt appear to feel conflicted. As a Fin-turned-Muslim I can live my life without compromising my culture. Owing to the unfortunate cases of people joining radical groups like Islamic State, Muslim converts are generalised as having been brainwashed. Their rationality and ability to make sound decisions about their lives is therefore questioned. I find that hugely patronising.

The fact is that many different paths lead to Islam. Some people may choose Islam because they need a stable framework for their lives, others might be more interested in the spiritual aspects of Islam such as Sufism. It is not black and white. In comparison with ʹnativeʹ Muslims who are born in European societies, we as converts are still privileged due to our "whiteness". I can always take off my headscarf – then I will just be another white girl in the crowd. Islamophobia also encompasses aspects of gender and ethnicity, thus Muslim women of colour will always face harassment, whether they wear a headscarf or not.How do people cope with this kind of discrimination?

Hyokki: During my research I noticed that many of my interviewees were very resilient. I started off with the idea that Islamophobia has a hugely negative impact on convertsʹ lives and that they were suffering. But some like to regard it as a test by God – a lesson in patience. They would ask: what ways are there of dealing with discriminatory behaviour other than aggression? Can I beat people with arguments? Instead of buying into the passive victim role, I have found that Muslims in Finland are ready to speak up about the injustices they face.

How do you regard the discussions on headscarves and veiling that are now so prevalent in many European countries?

Hyokki: Iʹll fight for the right of anybody to wear what they want. For me, the whole debate smacks of double standards: on the one hand, individualism is always propagated as the cultural norm: "Be yourself!" On the other hand, society seems unable to cope with a handful of veiled women. During the last century it was the punks.

At the end of the day, all we are talking about is how people dress. Associate it with religion and it suddenly becomes a problem. Take another example: the right to polygamy in Islam is regarded as highly controversial. But talk about the modern lifestyle concept of "polyamory" and people seem more inclined to accept it. The moment you do something for religious reasons it becomes a problem. Europe has a problem with religion.

Critics of Islam often argue that Muslims reject any kind of critique of Islam as Islamophobia. What do you say to that?

Hyokki: There is a fine line here. When you criticise something, you need to be in a dialogue. You are in a discussion where you respect the other. But when you use defamatory language or you dehumanise the other, that is not criticism anymore. Everyone is welcome to criticise and question something. But criticism should also come with an openness to receive answers or explanations from the other side, while possibly accepting the other side, or even revising your opinion in the end.

What are some ways of countering Islamophobia?

Hyokki: Countering Islamophobia is a two-way street. Muslim communities can do something about it, but non-Muslim communities have to do something. There is a difference here. As a Muslim I donʹt need to go to the street and ask people “Would you like to hear about Islam?” Sure, anyone who is curious can come up and ask me. But the truth is that there will always be some people who are not interested and donʹt want to learn. They will always say that we as Muslims are not doing enough.

In terms of education in schools, Islamophobia needs to be taken seriously as a form of racism and needs to be integrated into the syllabus. We need to teach students that there is a link between Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination such as anti-Semitism, Eurocentrism and racism. At a legal level many European states have not yet recognised Islamophobia as something against which legal action needs to be taken. Official recognition would make it easier for police to handle cases of hate crimes, for instance.

How do you think your research can contribute to combatting Islamophobia?

Hyokki: I see my role as an academic in disturbing the common narrative. I try to combine my academic endeavours with social activism. I try to give back to the Muslim community and see myself as  a critical researcher. I am accountable to the people I conduct research on. I want to present the nuances that exist. Although I currently live in Turkey, I am in touch with the Muslim Student Network in Finland. I try to speak up wherever possible, at conferences, discussions and podia. My dream is for my country to be an inclusive place for everyone. Citizenship and belonging should not be determined by your religion, ethnicity or gender.

Interview conducted by Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2018

Linda Hyokki is a research associate at the Centre for Islam and Global Affairs and a PhD candidate at the Alliance of Civilisations Institute.