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Ruqaya Izzidien

The Swiss man who said 'Allahu akbar'

Muslims in Switzerland have faced numerous attempts to silence their communities [Lightrocket]

Date of publication: 14 January, 2019

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Comment: Fined for saying 'Allahu akbar'? Freedom of speech, but not for Switzerland's Muslims, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
A Swiss man went public this month about an incident that took place last May, in which police fined him 210 francs ($213) for saying the phrase "Allahu akbar" in the town of Schaffhausen, northern Switzerland.

The fining of a person for saying an objectively harmless phrase is an affront to freedom of speech and religion, and exemplifies the mounting erasure of Muslim identities in Switzerland and in Europe as a whole.

The 22-year-old, who has only been identified as Orhan E., claims that he used the phrase to express amazement after bumping into a friend, who he was speaking to in Turkish - when an off-duty policewoman fined him for saying the phrase in a "loud and clear" manner, "causing a public nuisance". Orhan E. denies shouting the phrase and claims that when he tried to explain, armed backup was called and he was manhandled and threatened with jail.

Schaffhausen police and the town's security chief have defended the fine, saying the officer acted appropriately and that "at the time there was a possibility that people could become afraid or shocked".

But the misconception of the phrase "Allahu akbar" as being inherently linked to violence or terror is misplaced. Literally translating to "God is the greatest", it is uttered multiple times a day by observant Muslims.

In order for the phrase to be separated from its misplaced associations, its use in diverse, everyday situations should be encouraged, not outlawed.
The expectation is for Muslims to accommodate misplaced fears, to censor themselves, thereby accepting a level of culpability for crimes that they did not commit
Orhan E. later explained in an interview: "We use 'Allahu akbar' as a greeting and in almost every second sentence - when the weather is good, for example. We use it when we want to say we think something is positive."

We live in societies that value free speech above all else; if it is considered acceptable to applaud the death of migrant children, campaign against minarets using racist and grotesque imagery, and demonise people of colour for a political campaign, how is uttering a phrase considered crossing a red line?

Because the fine, and presumed offence caused by saying Allahu akbar, has nothing to do with any crime committed by Orhan E. If the police officer actually considered him a threat she would not issue him with a fine. But the expectation is for Muslims to accommodate misplaced fears, to censor themselves, thereby accepting a level of culpability for crimes that they did not commit.

The assumption is that Muslims are always the perpetrators of terrorism, never victims, despite the fact that Muslims are the religious group most targeted by terrorism, making up between 87 and 95 percent of casualties globally.

If Allahu akbar were shouted on the streets of Baghdad or Kabul, nobody would bat an eye, despite the higher level of terror attacks in each.

If we view terms such as jihad or Allahu akbar as inherently sinister or offensive, then we fall prey to the narratives of those who commit terror. Key to fighting violence and brutality is deconstructing the language used to create social divisions that pit "us" - the white, European public - against "them" - the Muslims who attack us.

Read more: The misinterpretation of 'Jihad'

Allahu akbar can be uttered in celebration - at graduations or weddings - in relief - having escaped harm - or, in joy - upon hearing or seeing something of wonder, such as unexpectedly bumping into a friend.

The vilification of Arabic or Islamic phrases is nothing new. In 2015, a Berkeley student was removed from an aircraft after being heard saying the phrase "inshallah" - meaning "God-willing" - and in 2016 a young couple was removed from a flight because the husband was sweating, and was accused of saying Allah - which he denied, but which should not result in being thrown off a flight in any case.
Europe's obsession with Muslim women and their autonomy is symptomatic of the continent's attitude to Islam
Meanwhile, the demand that European Muslims "integrate" persists. But for Muslims, integration demands homogenization and the erasure of ethnic, racial and religious markers key to an individual's identity as a Muslim.

The ideal integrated Muslim in the West must forsake their language, customs, and, significantly, their clothing - with the face veil banned to different extents in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, France, Italy and Switzerland.

The hijab is prohibited if you are a teacher in half of Germany's states, a judge in Denmark, a schoolchild in France. And until a woman was caught being forced to strip by police at a beach, forcing the action to be challenged in France's administrative court, wearing full-coverage swimsuits was banned on the French Riviera.

Europe's obsession with Muslim women and their autonomy is symptomatic of the continent's attitude to Islam and Muslims in that they is tolerated so long as they are invisible.

A referendum about citizenship in Switzerland in 2017 was marred by the far-right nationalist Swiss People's Party (SVP) which manipulated the debate to focus on Islam and national identity, repeatedly demonising Muslims to argue their case. The use of a widely shared poster showing a shadowy woman in a black niqab, which urged voters to reject uncontrolled citizenship was fundamental in reframing the vote around perceived "Islamification".

The number of recorded hate crimes in Switzerland reached a record high last year, with the highest numbers relating to hostility towards foreigners, black people and Muslims.

This latest incident exemplifies the fear of anything perceived to be overtly Muslim. It is fuelled by the exaggerated fear of an othered, homogenous Muslim mass, which is only represented by its most fringe fanatics, and which erases the racial and religious diversity of Muslims around the world.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Timesthe Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English.

Her debut novel The Watermelon Boys, published by Hoopoe Fiction is out now. 

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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