Islamophobia is “more widespread in Western Europe than any social prejudice since the anti-Semitism of the 1930s”, says a leading expert on the Far Right in Europe.
According to Professor Cas Mudde, a Dutch academic at DePauw University and the younger brother of prominent right-wing activist Tim Mudde, Islamophobic views have largely replaced racist ones on the Far Right. But anti-Muslim rhetoric is not just limited to the extreme fringe, says Professor Mudde; Mainstream European commentators and politicians also frequently denounce Muslim practices.
“The problem is that the vast majority of Muslims in Europe are born and raised there. By excluding them discursively, but also increasingly in government policies, such as putting limitations on building mosques, which you don’t have on churches and synagogues, or by banning the burqa, you marginalise and exclude a large part of the population which is growing.”
Mudde argues that Islamophobic ideas have become acceptable because a near majority of European citizens now consider Muslims to be alien to Western culture:
“Democratic societies are based on loyalty and solidarity. If Muslims are excluded and isolated, why should they feel solidarity with other populations? It’s important because there are increasingly cities in Europe with Muslim majorities.”
In addition, the demonization of the Islamic faith in popular culture has also led to a rise in Islamophobic hate crimes. Strong evidence of this came in a 2009 study of anti-Muslim prejudice by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. They questioned 23,500 people from ethnic minority groups in all 27 EU Member States about their experience of prejudice.
The report found an extremely high level of intolerance: One in three Muslim respondents had been discriminated against in the previous 12 months, and 11 percent had experienced a racist, or anti-Islamic, crime.
Despite the high figures, most discrimination against Muslims goes unrecorded. Some 79 percent of Muslim respondents in the study had not reported their experiences; with 59 percent believing that “nothing would happen, or change by reporting it”, while 38 percent said that “it happens all the time”, and “cannot be stopped”.
Dr Robert Lambert, the co-director of the UK’s European Muslim Research Centre, has researched hate crimes against Muslims in the Tower Hamlets area of London.
“I was a policeman in the area in the 1980s and 1990s, when the large Bangladeshi community was terrorised by Far Right groups like the National Front and Combat 18. It was a largely poor, new immigrant community and very intimidated. Violence and racism became regular and routine,” he said. “Then, eventually the threat receded because the local community stood up against it robustly.”
However, Lambert’s recent interviews with Muslims in Tower Hamlets now indicate that hate crimes have returned.
“Some of the victims from the 80s and 90s thought it was all over, but they say they are victims a second time over. First, it was their ethnic identity and now they are targeted for their Muslim identity.”
The website Islamophobia Watch also lists thousands of acts of violence and prejudice, many of them carried out by members of the English Defence League (EDL) – an anti-Muslim street protest group formed in 2009. Last week, for example, EDL thugs in east London were jailed for smashing their way into a mosque in Redbridge and attacking the imam. The attack took place near Dagenham, where the EDL has staged anti-Muslim demonstrations outside another proposed mosque.
The EDL has also been trying to spread its malign influence overseas. An investigation by the left-leaning British newspaper The Observer established that the movement’s leaders have regular contact with anti-jihad groups in the Tea Party organisation, and invited Rabbi Nachum Shifren, a Tea Party activist, to speak about Sharia law and funding, in London.
The EDL has also elicited support from the notorious Pamela Geller, who was influential in the protests against plans to build an Islamic cultural centre near Ground Zero. Geller, darling of the Tea Party’s growing anti-Islamic wing, advocates an alliance with the EDL.
She said on her blog: “I share the EDL’s goals… We need to encourage rational, reasonable groups that oppose the Islamisation of the west.”
The focus on Islamophobia distances the EDL from the racist outpourings of the discredited British National Party. It also moves the movement closer to the mainstream, where many right-wing commentators and politicians make anti-Islamic statements.
“Islamophobia pre-dated the main radical right parties and many of their arguments come from mainstream parties and journalists,” said Mudde. “In Britain, not many people read the National Front’s magazines, but millions read the Daily Mail, whose columnists like Melanie Phillips are Islamophobic. Her columns are way more influential than the EDL, or the BNP. They are often quoted on the EDL site and serve to legitimise some of the Far Right’s views.”
Melanie Phillips is one of Britain’s most strident right-wing commentators. She has written that Britain is “sleepwalking into Islamisation”, and “doesn’t grasp that it is facing a pincer attack from both terrorism and cultural infiltration and usurpation”.
Europe’s Far Right also like to quote the hard-line views of major politicians, including British PM David Cameron, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, all of whom have branded multi-culturalism “a failure”.
Cameron was the first European leader to criticise “divided communities”. In February this year, he called for an end to “passive tolerance”, and told members of all faiths that they must integrate. His remarks were immediately picked up by Europe’s Far Right.
French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, for instance, said that Cameron supported her party’s ideals.
“I sense an evolution at European level, even in classic governments. I can only congratulate him,” she said.
Elsewhere, Cameron’s speech was perceived as inflammatory, especially as it came on the same day as a large demonstration by the EDL.
“Whatever the intention, the timing of this speech has played into the hands of those who wish to sow seeds of division and hatred,” Nick Lowles, director of anti-extremist group Hope Not Hate told The Guardian.
We should not be too surprised to find right-wing, and Islamophobic, rhetoric among Europe’s leaders. Most of the continent has been lurching to the right of the spectrum for some time.
In 2001, 12 European states were under right-wing, or Conservative ruling parties and 14 states were governed by left-wing, or liberal parties. But by 2011, only five European states were ruled by left, or centre-left, politicians, with right-wing, or Conservatives, ruling 21 states.
There has also been a concomitant rise in the percentage of votes won by Far Right parties in some European countries. In the Netherlands, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) won 15.5 percent of the national vote in the 2010 elections (up from 5.9 percent in 2006). That gave them 24 seats out of 150 in the House of Representatives. The PVV also won 17 percent and four seats out of 25 in the European Parliament.
The Islamophobic Geert Wilders leads the PVV. Wilders has called for a ban on the Koran and new mosques, a tax on head scarves, and an end to immigration from Muslim countries.
In Norway the Progress Party, which was supported by mass murderer Anders Breivik, won 22.9 percent of the vote in the 2009 elections (up from 1.9 percent in 1977). And in Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party (UDC) won 28.9 percent in the 2007 elections (up from 11.1 percent in 1971).
Other parties with a significant stake in national politics include the Lega Nord (Northern League) in Italy (10.2 percent at the 2009 European elections), the Jobbik party in Hungary (14.7 percent at the 2009 European elections), the National Front in France, the Flemish Interest Party in Belgium, the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats and the True Finns.
The rise in paranoia about Muslims has also seen legal restrictions placed on Islamic practice. Five German states have banned female Muslim teachers from wearing the headscarf, but still allow teachers to wear Christian symbols.
In April, France introduced a law against covering the face in public. Women in niqabs are now banned from walking down the street, or going to the shops. French politicians said they were acting to protect the “gender equality” and “dignity” of women. But Muslim groups reported an increase in discrimination and verbal and physical violence against women in veils.
Belgium introduced a niqab ban this summer, punishable by seven days in prison. In Italy, the far-right Northern League has revived a 1975 law against face-covering to fine women in certain areas of the North. And Silvio Berlusconi’s party is now preparing an anti-niqab law. Denmark is preparing legislation to limit the wearing of niqabs; politicians in Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland are pushing for outright bans.
“The niqab ban allows the use of lofty liberal-democratic arguments to express prejudice,” said Mudde. “The right-wing politician can argue ‘I’m not saying it’s barbaric and a threat to the way I want to live, but I’m defending the right of women’. But those arguments depend on the motivations of those wearing it. If they are forced, that’s a bad thing, but if it’s their choice, the liberal will say it’s not right to limit freedom of expression.”
“The dominant discourse is that it’s not their choice, but many Muslim women say they want to be judged for whom they are, not their appearance. They argue that European women are completely sexualised. We end up with a slippery argument, with both sides saying ‘my culture is better than yours’.”
Ironically, the labelling of heterogeneous groups of people from Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, or Morocco, and many other countries, “Muslims” has created a stronger group identity.
Professor Terri Givens, from the Government Department at The University of Texas, said: “In the 1990s I didn’t hear much talk about Muslims, or veils, when I was researching racism in Europe. People from Turkey, or Pakistan, would refer to themselves as Pakistani or Turkish before they thought of themselves as Muslims.”
“But since 9/11, London’s 7/7 and the Madrid train bombing, the level of Islamophobic rhetoric has increased and we increasingly see a defensive reaction in these communities. Being Muslim is adopted as a political identity in response to Islamophobia. The response from Muslim women has been to wear the hijab more often.”
Muslim grievances against demonization also rarely find political voice.
“Islamophobia is a serious problem in Europe,” said Professor Givens. “Studies in both France and Germany show well-educated Muslims are far less likely to be employed than white people, but the ability of Muslims to get engaged politically in order to fight discrimination is limited.”
“The Netherlands is one of the best at getting Muslims on local and municipal councils, but in most European countries there are very few mechanisms they feel they can trust.”