Monday

26th Feb 2024

Opinion

A New Yorker piece finally reveals why our NGO was mercilessly smeared

  • (Photo: Twitter)
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The morning of March 27th started like most for me. It was the first week of Ramadan and I had just begun working through some tasks in relation to our latest crowdfunding campaign, when I received an email notification that our organisation had been mentioned in an article. As a Muslim organisation, I naturally assumed it was negative, as most of our mentions have been over the last 4 years, but as I read the piece, it immediately became clear this was different.

The article in The New Yorker was entitled 'The dirty secrets of a smear campaign'. Much of it wasn't relevant to our organisation, but then I saw a section that piqued my interest. The section outlined how a Swiss PR agency called Alp had paid a freelance writer for a series of articles to disseminate the narrative that the Forum of Europe Muslim Youth and Student Organisations (FEMYSO) — my organisation — was a terrorist-recruiting branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

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At FEMYSO, an average day is made up of making sure we don't mix up dietary requirements at a training for volunteers on how policy is made in the EU parliament, or speaking to a member organisation about how they can involve young Muslims in their country in climate action. It is unordinary being the subject of a tale that sounds and feels like a spy novel.

For years we have been attacked, through articles and tweets that had the exact same narrative citing the same academics. Naturally we released public statements outlining the fact that these claims were defamatory and counterfactual. We reached out to these publications, asking for a correction or a right of reply — but none of these were granted.

Since the New Yorker article, one of these academics has seen colleagues sever ties due to his decisions to place financial incentives over academic rigour. Another researcher who was heavily cited (including by the ECR political group), "Tanya Klein", has been exposed as a fictional character created by Alp to disseminate the narrative.

We are an all-volunteer organisation that for 27 years has strongly promoted European values of peaceful coexistence in diverse societies, and intercultural and interfaith dialogue through training and campaigns on topics such as climate justice and mental health awareness. We aim to give young European Muslims the toolkit, education and access to avoid alienation and participate in our collective European story.

But all of this was rendered almost pointless by a mixture of defamation and disinformation.

The Impact of Defamation on Muslim Youth

These defamatory campaigns must not be seen as a victimless crime. There is a devastating impact of defamation on minority youth. As Muslim youth, we are a significant part of the European population, but are constantly vilified and questioned about our identity and allegiance. Any European with historic sensibility should be particularly sensitive to a European religious minority being identified, vilified and questioned about its allegiance.

I developed resilience, through years of being a Muslim woman in the public space, but my less experienced colleagues justifiably have not. The anonymous abuse, the weird messages on LinkedIn because you were in a group photo on Twitter, non-attendee 'academics' making spectacular terrorism-related claims about the workshop where you just learnt about the difference between the European Council and the Council of Europe. Each of these incidents is a form of intimidation seeking to distance young European Muslims from the public sphere and to alienate them from participatory society.

Whilst some institutional leaders have made it clear they will not be bullied out of engaging with Muslim youth, others have chosen to completely disassociate. My organisation is currently being silenced as part of a coordinated policy of exclusion from several policymaking fora, including anti-racism initiatives where no alternative voice exists.

The effects of defamation are real, and the subsequent exclusion is truly detrimental to European civil society, it leaves youth policy incomplete, our institutions unrepresentative, the civic space shrunk — but most damaging of all, it further alienates young European Muslims.

Moving Forward

I applaud those figures who chose to stand with Europe's Muslim youth, even amidst sustained calls for their disengagement. May history be kind to them for showing courage when there was no obvious political benefit. To those who were intimated and hesitated before replying to our emails or phone calls; despite how we have suffered, you're forgiven because how could you have possibly imagined that a limitlessly wealthy autocratic foreign government hired a morally bankrupt Swiss PR agency to create a non-existent academics who smeared a voluntary Muslim youth organisation over several years.

It is absurd, but unfortunately also true.

Let the exposure of these plans be the reason those who see European unity as a bad thing fail in their objective to divide us. Let us multiply our collaboration, so that one day, when Islamophobia has dissipated and Europe's Muslims are led by a generation of young people, comfortable in both their faith and their European identity, can help build a better Europe for us all.

Author bio

Hande Taner is the President of the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations (FEMYSO). FEMYSO is a pan-European network of 31 Member Organisations across 21 European countries and the recognized voice of Muslim Youth in Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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