Mainstreaming Islamophobic Movements in International Institutions

Mainstreaming Islamophobic Movements in International Institutions

Ten years ago, many people would have doubted that the leader of the right-wing Lega Nord would one day become minister of interior and vice-premier minister. Similar, hardly anyone would have believed that the spin doctor of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party would become minister of interior. And it was hard to predict ten years ago that the Tea Party would succeed in dominating the America’s Grand Old Party and that the U.S. would have a president who is celebrated by white supremacist groups. This new environment reflects the increasing extent to which extremist groups have established themselves within international institutions.

The Islamophobic International: The ‘Counter Jihad Movement’

One recent example is the network of the self-designated ‘Counter Jihad Movement’ (CJM). According to the CJM, this political movement is made up of mixed and disparate people and organizations who agree that Western civilization is under attack by Islam. Counter jihadists believe that Islam is a supremacist religion. A secular and liberal society only is helping Muslims to mass immigrate to Europe and the Americas, and supporters of multiculturalism are believed to quash any criticism of Islam. Further, it is noted in the report that the counter jihad movement is a transnational network of cultural nationalist movements that drops the idea of traditional far right in order to unite and become a “occident-wide” brotherhood. Due to the alleged Islamic invasion, CJM supporters believe their mythical, usually Christian, Western culture and identity are facing extinction and global cooperation is needed for defense.

OSCE’s HDIM meetings

To be clear: Islamophobic organisations have been networking beyond the national level for a long time. According to research conducted by the British anti-racist NGO Hope Not Hate, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) served as one of the most important venues for the transatlantic counter-jihad movement. CJM first met in 2007 in Vienna, a meeting that was originally planned to take place in the Political Academy, the official think tank of the Conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). This was prevented at the last moment due to protests, so another venue was found. In addition to the meeting and networking spaces that were provided, the meeting offered a platform that legitimized CJM ideology in a formal conference atmosphere. In 2009 transatlantic Counter-Jihad activists first attended OSCE’s Human Dimension and Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The annual HDIM is Europe’s biggest human rights conference, submitting papers and hosting side events where NGO’s can present their work to an interested audience. The HDIM meetings subsequently served as meeting places in the years to come, in Warsaw and Vienna.

Who is behind the CJM?

According to the British anti-racist NGO Hope not Hate, the International Civil Liberties Alliance (ICLA) is one of the strongest supporters of the CJM in Europe. ICLA is an organization that presents itself as a human rights organization that upholds democracy, freedom and individual liberties, but it actually plays a central role in bringing together the leading figures of Islamophobic activism from across Europe. The annual DHIM meetings of the OSCE, which are held rotatively in Vienna and Warsaw have thus been used as a place for the international counter-jihad network since 2009 holding more informal private meetings to speak about their steps forward. Faces familiar to CJM activists are seen at the OSCE meetings. One of them is Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, who lost a case at the European Court of Human Rights to call the last prophet of Islam a pedophile this week.

Jean-Michel Clément, a long-time chairman of ICLA is also the founder of The Alliance to Stop Sharia. Another formal director, Ned May, is the founder of one of the most famous global anti-Islam blogs Gates of Vienna. OSCE events were used by the ICLA to argue that the term “Islamophobia” has to be banned because “Islam promotes violence against women and that Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology, that criminalizing ‘hate speech’ limits truth, for Mohammad cartoons to be displayed publicly, and many other topics under the ICLA’s obsession with Islam.”

In July 2012, the ICLA presented at the International Human Rights and Freedom of Speech Conference at the European Parliament to launch “the Brussels Process”. This ongoing initiative was a direct response to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’s “Istanbul Process” which sought to institute a blasphemy law. The Brussels Process focussed on the “threat” of sharia law, the need for “free speech” and the “threat of radical Islam” to Europe. The conference culminated with the signing of the Brussels declaration, and has formed the basis for ICLA’s work over the last few years, informing their input at OSCE conferences.

At the ‘Counter-Jihad” conferences, the CJM invites the Who’s-Who of what has been called the Organized Islamophobic Network, such as Jean-Michel Clément, ICLA chairman and founder of Alliance to Stop Sharia; Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, representing the anti-Muslim group Bürgerbewegung Pax Europa, who also leads ACT for America’s international chapter based in Austria; and Stephen Coughlin, a senior fellow at Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, which is according to the Southern Poverty Law Center a “conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States.”

By recording their talks at the HDIM meeting of the OSCE and disseminating them on their websites, the CJM purports to represent serious institutions whose ideas are listened to by the 57 state member institutions of the OSCE. But in fact, many member institutions haven’t taken them very seriously in the last few years, recognizing the CJM’s strategy to push for freedom of speech only to speak more viciously about the alleged threat that is posed by Islam to Western civilization, as many have told me.

New chessboard

But with the new strength that the far right is witnessing throughout North America and Europe, things seem to have changed. In an open letter to the Director of OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which organizes the HDIM, the Center for Security Policy released signatures of 28 organizations in 14 countries expressing concerns about the “OSCE’s attempts to shut down speech, especially on the threat of the totalitarian Islamic law known as Sharia.” More importantly, the letter said that “those concerns align virtually identically with the policies of the current governments of many OSCE Participating States, including inter alia the United States, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, and Italy.” The letter was copied to these seven countries missions, suggesting that they are backing the claims made by these most prominent Islamophobic movements, especially since these institutions did not reply to the letter with refutations of the claim that the fears of these organizations were identical with the policies of their governments.

This is especially troubling given the names of the signatories. Amongst others it included Christian Zeitz, who signed the letter in the name of an advisor to the Wiener Akademikerbund, an institution of academics previously excluded from the currently governing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) because of anti-Semitism, and people like Philip B. Haney, who signed as a founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As can be easily seen, the CJM seems to have gained momentum in the new international political circumstances. On a side event organized by the already mentioned Wiener Akademikerbund, which was chaired by Sabaditsch-Wolff, Katie Hopkins from the far-right Rebel Media was speaking alongside Dominik Tarczynski, an MP from the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). This not only shows the international dimension, but also the official political support the CJM has gained within the last year. Never before has an MP of any parliament joined the CJM to talk at one of their side events.

Farid Hafez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Bridge Initiative.