Islamophobia in Europe: Racism repackaged?



Arwa Al-Rikabi

Published — Friday 25 May 2012

Last update 26 May 2012 10:08 pm

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“Islam and Muslims are incompatible with rationality”…Who do you think said this? It sounds like something Geert Wilders (leader of Party of Freedom-Netherlands) or Nick Griffin (chairman of British National Party) would say, but it is the French Orientalist Ernest Renan who declared this in the Sorbonne University more than a century ago. This old animosity and ignorance of Islam closely resembles the rising trend of views and sentiments expressed in the Europe of today.
A 2012 Amnesty International report titled “Choice and Prejudice: Discrimination Against Muslims in Europe”, for instance, states that: “Discrimination against Muslims in Europe is fueled by stereotyped and negative views… Regrettably, some political parties’ messages and the portrayal of Muslims in some sections of the media reinforce these views.”
The report focuses on several areas of discrimination, namely: Employment, education, and the establishment of places of worship. Marco Perolini (Amnesty’s expert on discrimination) comments on this noting that: “Muslim women are being denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear traditional forms of dress, such as the head scarf. Men can be dismissed for wearing beards associated with Islam… Rather than countering these prejudices, political parties and public officials are all too often pandering to them in their quest for votes.” The report accuses political parties of "pandering" to prejudices in a quest for votes and says that anti-discrimination laws are not "appropriately implemented in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.”
Opinion polls seem to confirm all the above. For example, in 2010 the French Institute of Public Opinion conducted a comparative survey on Islam in France and Germany. In France, 68 percent of those polled thought Muslims are not integrated in society mainly because they refuse to do so. Similarly, in Germany 75 percent believed the same. Just as crucially, 42 percent of French and 40 percent of Germans consider the presence of Muslim communities a “threat” to their national identities. This survey also showed that half of Germans are opposed to the construction of mosques even when there is a demand from believers. According to a UK report in 2010, almost 70 percent of the English think that Islam encourages repression of women. As for Spain, the Observatory on Racism and Xenophobia (fear of foreigners) reported that in 2010, 37 percent of Spaniards believed that it is acceptable to expel a student from school because she wears the headscarf; the same percentage stated that protests against building Muslim places of worship should be supported.
It isn’t difficult to understand these negative views if we examine the political and media discourse in a several European countries. In the UK, for instance, Islamophobic rhetoric riddles the media with compunction. Famous columnists, such as Polly Toynbee wrote: “I am Islamophobic, and proud of it”, while Rod Liddle declared: “Islamophobia?...Count me in”. In 2008, The Independent published an article wondering whether Liddle or Toynbee could so proudly declare the same about Anti-Semitism; not a chance of course. However it is a testament to British society that these condemning voices exist. Peter Osborne once wrote in The Independent lamenting the treatment of Muslims: “We do not treat Muslims (our fellow citizens) with tolerance, decency, and fairness we so often like to boast is the British way.” Still, these voices are hardly loud enough since misinforming Anti-Islam discourse continues to prevail and affect Europeans. This type of propaganda is tacitly sanctioned and nourished by many media outlets as well as political and public figures such as Tony Blair. The former prime minister of the UK sees the battle between Islam and the West as “existential” writing in his autobiography (The Journey) about the need to: “Take the time, spend the treasure, shed the blood, believing that not do so is only to postpone the day of reckoning, when the expenditure of time, treasure, and blood will be much greater”.

Imaginary Islamophobia?
In a last year study by Lancaster University, the researchers analyzed over 200,000 media articles on Islam and Muslims in the British press from the years 1998-2009. The study highlighted media bias regarding Islam, reiterating key findings from several other studies. The report summary states that: “More common than the expressly negative representations of Muslims was a more subtle set of implicitly negative representations, with Muslims often being “collectivized” and written about predominantly in contexts to do with conflict, terrorism, and extremism… Overall references to extremist Muslims were much higher than to moderate ones. For every one moderate Muslim mentioned, 21 examples of extremist Muslims are mentioned. It is also interesting to note that so-called “moderate Muslims” often get praised in a way which implies they are good because they aren’t fully Muslim”. Another study, by Cardiff University, found that 4 out of 5 most common discourses used about Muslims in the British press associate Islam/Muslims with threats/problems, or in opposition to dominant British values.
Such studies that monitor anti-Islam slants in British and other European media abound, and it’s safe to say: The prejudice is very much real. It is ironic though that a Home Office funded UK study in 2006 found that white youths in British schools are more likely to believe they are superior to those from other races. Compared to Muslim youth, the white students were found to be more intolerant and more of a barrier to integration.

Politics Regressing?
The anti-Islam rhetoric isn’t exclusive to the media but is rather gaining more power in European politics as well. As Lisa Bjurwald (prominent Stockholm-based journalist) wrote in the UK Huffington Post: “Instead of being a notorious neo-Nazi, the previously unknown Behring Breivik adheres to an ideology represented in parliaments, even governments.”
Islamophobia and scaremongering are both becoming mainstream in European politics, which is demonstrated by the significant gains by far-right parties in Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland in recent years. The same views that would be appalling if they targeted Jews (and indeed they did, not so long ago) are largely acceptable now when aimed at Muslims, and some Europeans find this alarming. Paul Hockenos (Berlin-based consultant) writes in Foreign Policy: “Breivik's ‘thought universe’ bears all the staples of a political ideology that accurately reflects a potent Islamophobic discourse that has taken hold across the continent and beyond since the 9/11 attacks. Breivik's monstrous crimes must serve as a shrill wake-up call for Europeans — and not just Europeans — to acknowledge the very real potential for violence inherent in this movement and take action to stem it, at its source.”
According to a report released by the British group (Hope Not Hate) on the eve of Breivik's trial, far-right organizations are forging new alliances throughout Europe and the United States. The report documents 190 groups promoting an Islamophobic agenda. Hockenos describes these groups (that include political parties represented in various European parliaments): "Anti-Muslim racism — a cultural hierarchy that instead of using skin color imputes immutable characteristics to cultures (Western civilization at the top, retrograde Islam its nemesis) — defines these groups' ideology of hate. Muslims are not biologically inferior, it is argued, but rather culturally incompatible…as opposed to the old-school right with its pungent anti-Semitism, this new counter-jihad movement is pro-Israel and ostensibly liberal, and is thus capable of attracting a far broader constituency.”
It seems like the lessons the continent have learned through the French revolution and the two World Wars, among other points in history, are eluding its people. In the quest launched by some Europeans to supposedly combat “fundamentalism”, irrationality, and oppression, they risk becoming all the above … Again.

This is the second part of the article on Islamophobia.

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