As part of Atlas Week, an annual series of events to foster discussion on contemporary global issues, Saint Louis University – Madrid welcomed Spanish-Egyptian activist Aurora Ali. The theme of this year’s Atlas Week was, “The House that Race(ism) Built,” bringing attention to the various forms in which racial inequality permeates structures of society around the world. Ali spoke about Islamophobia and Feminism, specifically in the Spanish context and how feminist ideas and theories can be used to serve specific agendas. Following her talk, SLU-Madrid professors Anne Dewey and Barah Mikaïl had the chance to ask Ali more about her personal experiences in the field and some of the different approaches to bringing change.
Aurora Ali, first of all, how do you define yourself?
I am a Spanish-Egyptian activist in the anti-Muslim racism field. I co-founded the Muslim Association for Human Rights in Spain in 2018 and I contribute annually to the European Islamophobia Report. In 2019, I started coordinating a project titled, “The effects of securitization in Muslim populations in Spain,” which will be published this year.
I am an activist, and my activism is usually shaped by experiences. It is my way to “heal” in a certain sense, and to humbly contribute to achieving civil and human rights for our communities.
At the same time, it is also a way for me to “unheal,” because most of the time you want to solve issues, but you end up seeing how deeply rooted they are. You need to be aware of this, and to be capable of processing things if you mean to really be contributing to helping things move forward.
How do you assess the situation in Spain when it comes to Islamophobia? In your talk, you mentioned that you preferred the term “anti-Muslim hatred/racism” to “Islamophobia.” Why?
Phobia means panic. By using words like “panic” or “fear,” we are diverting the issue into something too horrific, suggesting furthermore that what lies behind would be a regular, logical, natural behavior for human beings. I think that in general, we shouldn´t use the word “phobia” for any kind of racism because doing so ends up putting the responsibility for things on minorities. To quote the introduction written by Enes Bayrakli and Farid Hafez in the European Islamophobia Report 2015, “when talking about Islamophobia, we mean anti-Muslim racism. […] Islamophobia is about a dominant group of people aiming at seizing, stabilizing, and widening their power by means of defining a scapegoat – real or invented – and excluding this scapegoat from the resources/rights/definition of a constructed ‘we.’ Islamophobia operates by constructing a static, basic, “Muslim” identity that reflects negatively on all Muslims. At the same time, Islamophobic images are fluid and vary in different contexts, because Islamophobia tells us more about the Islamophobe than it tells us about the Muslims/Islam.”
What are the challenges of Islamophobia and feminisms in the Spanish context, especially brought to the concept of “femonationalism” that you mentioned in your talk?
It has taken a toll on how Muslim women organize and express themselves in public, especially in the virtual space. It seems that for every year of awareness that we have achieved, it didn’t take more than an ill-intentioned article or a TV appearance to dismantle our efforts. Unfortunately, those that try to impede Muslim women from defining or following their own path are many.
Muslim women do not have access to the same mainstream spaces as those that criticize them, but we must keep moving on, especially because this obstacle is only one among many others. But I have faith in the youth and their actions, as well as in the capacity that Muslim women have to reorganize themselves again and again. It is in our nature. It is part of what our holy Book, the Quran, mentions.
We also do have great politicians, such as lawyer Fatima Hamed from Ceuta. She does a great job of combatting the far-right day after day, never losing her sense of humor. So, all in all, we have reasons to remain optimistic.
Could you summarize the main similarities or give examples of similarities between (some mainstream) feminist discourse and right-wing or neo-Nazi rhetoric?
I would think basically of the following:
- The presumed inherent inequality between rights given to men and rights given to women by religious Islamic texts and validated by some Muslim majority countries legislations. Examples can be found from femonationalists, the right-wing Spanish Popular Party, as well as the far-right Vox party;
- Also, examples where a reference is made to the notion of the “mandatory hijab,” see once again what prevails with Femonationalists and the far-right;
- The same goes for those that claim that, “all Muslims are Islamist and may be terrorists,” both femonationalists and the far-right keep using this false claim;
- Another example is the claim that, “Muslim men have an inherent tendency to rape,” to “gang-rape” even. Once again, look at what femonationalists and both the mainstream and the far-right say about it.
You say that activism must be context-specific. What are some of the most important differences either between the context in different countries and/or in the context between “Western” secular states and Muslim theocracies?
One reference I recommend here is the poem ”Yo soy la otra,” by Fatima Tahiri. I believe that we need to do activism in our own contexts, and if we really want to help in other contexts, there are ways to do it responsibly. Otherwise, what we end up doing is erasing the existing local voices that know the field and are aware of the laws that apply and what they imply.
In every country we can find women that are fighting for their rights and all that this entails, including jail and forced disappearances, among other consequences. We do no favor to anybody if our criticism of the situation does not come along with our taking responsibility for what the situation is. We tend too often to let local activists face the consequences of our illegitimate and irresponsible activism.
In reality, deep down, this is a very colonial way of thinking, where we tend to believe that we have the right to keep on interfering in the natural and historical realities of “the others.” I always like to think here of Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi, may she rest in peace. She was a doctor and Minister of Health, who ended up being incarcerated and then thrown into exile before she could finally live the end of her life where she had always wished to, in Egypt where her roots were. Femonationalists tend to promote her ideas and mention her a lot, basically because she was an atheist and used to show how local activism can work efficiently. But Nawal El Saadawi did not belong to the current generation of femonationalists. She would have never campaigned against the Muslim women of Egypt or anywhere else. On the contrary, she dedicated her life to all of them. She dedicated her books and her words to them. So, here we can see the difference between legitimate and aware voices on the one hand, and pure orientalist and sexist propaganda on the other hand. The problem isn´t to be atheist and to hate patriarchy or religion, the problem is when your livelihood depends on actively attacking other women and reducing their fundamental rights.
Leading fair fights implies advocating for a real equality between “full citizens” and Muslim minorities. When I was in Egypt, one day I happened to be in Tahrir Square rallying for bread, freedom, and social justice, but also for the right to have a secular government. Most of us activists advocated for that. Then every time I start to write about my other homeland, Spain, I stop and ask myself: is this going to be exploited to further promote anti-Muslim or anti-Arab sentiment? Is my Egyptian identity privileged with freedom of expression? And then I stop.
There might be governments who care about the global public opinion, but Egypt is not one of them and I guess that the same goes for some other countries. The example of the three Al-Jazeera TV channel reporters that were detained in Cairo in 2013 – one of them Canadian, one Australian and one American-Egyptian – one year after Al-Jazeera was officially banned from the country, is very telling. Despite international protests, and despite the fact that these people were foreigners, they remained in jail.
Because at the end of the day, it is always easy to tell people how and when to revolt against patriarchy, poverty, and dictatorship when you are comfortably sitting in a country where you benefit from the rule of law and fair socioeconomic conditions.
Are civil society groups strong and efficient in Spain?
I hope and believe that this will become the case, but right now, we are not strong. There is no organization that can really make it without depending on the state. Muslim communities in general depend on state funding and this reduces their capacity to build strong, independent civil society coalitions.
Why do you think that so many groups are investing so much money to target Muslim women at this specific time in history?
One reason is islamodiversion, a word coined by French activist Yasser Louati. It consists, according to him, of “the use of Muslims as scapegoats, to divert the attention from other problems the country is experiencing.” I believe that this applies to any xenophobic rhetoric on migration, like what we have seen in the past two years in the case of unaccompanied foreign minors, most of them originating from Maghreb countries.
The other reason is that, in Spain, we have been witnessing a permanent state of electoral campaigns – local, regional, and national – these past few years. This situation usually makes parties feel that they have to appeal to a maximum of voters and to their emotions, something that comes naturally at the expense of minorities and/or a (dis)protected group.
What solutions and/or ways for acting are there? Is it more efficient to work from the bottom-up or top-down?
The best way to act is top-down, without a doubt. The top being institutions, politicians, and media. They are the ones who end up giving the green light to each act of discriminatory behavior.
If Islamophobia wasn´t institutional and structural, it would have never reached its current level. If we look at the annual reports from both national and foreign international organizations dedicated to human rights, we can find that many of the authors of abuses happen to be civil servants, public security forces, and local administrations. In this context, one step forward for the Spanish state would be to recognize the existence of anti-Muslim racism within legislation.
Of course, this does not mean that we should forget about the bottom-up approach. But as long as the above-mentioned structures do not accompany us and back us in our actions, we will keep stagnating, or even worse. Indeed, to quote what George Santayana wrote in his book Reason in Common Sense, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This interview was conducted by Anne Dewey, associate professor of English and Program Director of Women’s & Gender Studies, and Barah Mikaïl, associate professor of Political Science and director of the Observatory of Contemporary Crises, at Saint Louis University – Madrid.
To quote this article, please use the following reference: A. Ali (2121), “On Islamophobia and Feminisms in Spain ”. https://crisesobservatory.es/on-islamophobia-and-feminisms-in-spain-a-ali/
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