When we look for the causes of recent terrorism carried out by extremists claiming to act in the cause of Islam, whether it is the attack in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo editorial board or horrendous massacres in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, the role of deep historical structures cannot be ignored. These same structures also help explain why the West’s global war on terrorism targets primarily Muslim-majority countries. In 1095 Pope Urban II launched the first Crusade by lamenting: “You have heard what we cannot recount without deep sorrow how, with great hurt and dire sufferings our Christian brothers, members in Christ, are scourged, oppressed, and injured in Jerusalem, in Antioch, and in the other cities of the East….Holy men do not possess those cities; nay, base and bastard Turks hold sway over our brothers.” Today’s rising religious fanaticism cannot be understood without taking into account “a thousand years of history.”
If we zero in on a single act of terror such as in Paris on “1/11,” more immediate causes appear. One favored by right-wing movements is that Muslim immigration into Europe has been on a scale larger than Europe’s capacity to absorb. Another suggested by some mainstream political parties is that efforts at the social and economic integration of Muslims have proved a failure and a “defeat” as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy said of multiculturalism in 2011. For Europe’s leaders, partnership with Muslim communities is urgent if Islamist extremists are to be defanged and a broader religiously-defined confrontation avoided.
Frequently identified as a spoiler in efforts at cooperation are what have been variously described as populist, far right, anti-immigrant, radical, xenophobic, or racist political parties and movements. Traditional parties believe these may pose a threat to the status quo that perhaps exceeds that of lone-wolf terrorists.
It is this perception of the danger of the “far right” that I wish to assess in the context of heated debates over Islam in Europe. The misrepresentation and alienation of immigration-skeptic groups stigmatizes and scapegoats tens of millions of European voters. They are held as a cause of religious tension by Europe’s political establishment—la casta, a corrupt political class which rules over the European Union in its own interests as Pablo Iglesias, head of Spain’s defiant Podemos movement has derogatorily labelled it. As political opposition shrinks following the forging of grand political coalitions, I argue, both Muslims and “nativists”—nationalists protective of traditional identities—become socially marginalized and politically alienated. While deep structures and shallow stereotypes of Muslims form the cultural context in which extremism develops, it is Europe’s entrenched elites which have been imposing counterproductive and unpopular policies adversely affecting Muslims and nativists alike that contribute to interethnic tensions.
I begin by reviewing perceptions of Muslims in Europe, whether by imaginative writers of fiction or historians conducting time-series analyses. Then I consider which items in an analytical toolbox are most useful to understanding Muslims’ contested status in European societies. Next I document examples of Islamophobic narratives by prominent elite members to illustrate that a serious problem exists which needs fixing. I give special attention to the pivotal case of Germany whose postwar liberalism is now under attack. I conclude by highlighting the need for real political contestation and opposition in Europe, a deliberative democracy with a soul, which can fashion an organic body politic for Muslims and nativists alike.
Socially Constructing Difference
On the cover of the Charlie Hebdo issue published the day that two disaffected brothers trained in terrorist camps massacred its editorial and artistic team and made Je suis Charlie a worldwide slogan is a cartoon of controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq. His much anticipated new novel, Soumission (Submission) was released the same day the terrorism took place.
The novel imagines a France in 2022 in which mounting interethnic conflict, which politicians and the media prefer to ignore, forms the backdrop for the presidential election. Socialist and conservative parties have little new to offer and the runoff is between Marine Le Pen of the right-wing Front National and Mohammed Ben Abbes as of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. Enough voters have over the years been frightened by the Front National’s extremism that the Muslim candidate is elected president. Sharia law is introduced, profoundly affecting the educational sector. The main protagonist, until then a listless professor at the Sorbonne, converts to Islam lured by the prospect that Saudi Arabian munificence will make the university one of the richest in the world. As alluring to him is the requirement he marry several Muslim student virgins. Other parts of Europe are attracted by the new French model and a European-based caliphate is in the making.
The Charlie Hebdo caricature depicts a characteristically haggard Houellebecq making a New Year’s prediction: “In 2022 I’ll be observing Ramadan.” There is nothing Islamophobic about this front-page cartoon except in giving prominence to a writer previously accused of disparaging Islam. Islam is “the stupidest of all religions,” he once said. In previous novels like Platform published in 2002, Houellebecq courted legal charges by having one character rage “You know what I call Muslims? The scum of the Sahara.” Charges of inciting racial hatred were dismissed by a French court.
The publication of Soumission on the day of the Charlie Hebdo carnage reminded his avid readers that Platform had depicted an Islamist terrorist attack on a Western-style nightclub in southeast Asia; the novel was published a few months before the 2002 bombing by Islamist extremists of a pub in Bali which killed 202 people. There is no tangible connection between Houellebecq, the publication of Soumission, and the terrorist attack on the irreligious Charlie Hebdo magazine. Worth noting, however, is that President François Hollande had earlier expressed his intention to read the novel “because it spurs debate.” He added: “Literature, that’s freedom, so I’ll read it without prematurely commenting on it.”
For specialists on Islamophobia the word submission has become code for Christian civilization’s supposed acquiescence to the rise of Islam. It was the title of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh’s 2004 documentary exposing abuse of Muslim women which provoked a Dutch-Moroccan to murder him for his unfair portrayal of Islam. The neologism dhimmitude, often translated as submission or servitude and associated with the work of Bat Ye’or (pseudonym of British writer Gisèle Littman) specifically refers to non-Muslims appeasing and surrendering to Muslims. So a provocative French writer is not needed to inflame the broader debate about Islam’s place in Europe. Anti-Muslim marches in Germany organized by the Pegida movement (discussed below) have recently alarmed mainstream politicians more than Houellebecq.
A historical background is critical to understanding the sources of today’s religious tensions. Maud Mandel’s illuminating recent book, Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict, describes the different roles that these two “religious” groups—neither particularly emphasized its religious identity—were expected to play in France. For Mandel the terms Jew and Muslim obscured more than they revealed because these expansive religious categories suggested homogeneity and communal identities where extensive heterogeneity existed. But the two socially constructed categories had legal and cultural consequences for those subsumed by them. Thus when an insurrection against French rule broke out in Algeria in 1954, Algerian Muslims were turned into what Mandel termed the symbol of the enemy within while France acknowledged the French citizenship of Jewish Algerians in this way enfolding them into the European family. In her 2014 book Constructing Muslims in France, Jennifer Fredette inquired why we question whether Muslims can become French. For her the answer lay in longstanding reductive elite discourse about Muslims emphasizing that they were defined by their faith.
The killings of Jewish hostages by an Islamic extremist at a kosher bakery in Paris two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre can be explained then not as a random anti-Semitic act but as an episode fitting long-established narratives about Jews and Muslims in France. Socially constructed identities are integral to propagating the image of a divided society. They also educe the trust deficit between outsider groups like Muslims and political elites.
Distinctions With and Without Differences
Imagining and exaggerating differences between groups when few may really exist creates problems. This applies to analytic distinctions as well, some which have significance and others not. For example, evoking fear of Muslims is different from inciting racial or religious hatred of them. Fear and hate are not even different sides of the same coin. That is why employing the term Islamophobia, which means literally a fear of Islam but has become a synonym for hatred of Muslims, is troubling. Greek historian Thucydides regarded distrust and suspicion of groups posing distant threats as connected to fear and it is this conceptualization that most accurately captures critical views of Europe’s Muslims.
A distinction which may have no difference is whether Islamophobia applies only in the case of distrust of Islam as a religion. Or, as it is generally used, should it subsume doubts about Muslims’ diverse cultural and customary practices? Determining whether anti-Muslim attitudes constitute a form of cultural racism, religious discrimination, or general social bias takes our eyes off the ball, I believe, which is the injury inflicted on a perceived outgroup.
Another salient scholastic, even legalistic, debate revolves around the borders separating freedom of speech from speech inciting racial or religious hatred. Freedom of speech usually trumps a negative freedom such as freedom from hate speech. But some European countries—France, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria—do have specific laws against anti-Semitic hate speech. Fetishizing freedom of speech can do harm because it does not address the pressing problems facing many immigrants: life in ghettoized communities, few available jobs, limited social benefits, no opportunities for the young. It follows that liberal platitudes will fall on deaf ears.
A further distinction which, in the post-bipolar world, has become blurred is that between domestic and foreign politics. Is it useful to separate the two? Increasingly, politicians play two-level games in which policies have intended consequences at home and abroad. For example, on immigration policy liberal parties may view hospitality towards Muslim immigrants as good for the domestic economy and a demonstration of humanitarianism internationally. Right-wing movements may identify Muslims as both the internal and external enemy. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) leader Nigel Farage argued they occurred because “a fifth column” of people living in Western societies “hate us.” The fusion of the domestic and the international is part of a broader phenomenon characterizing postmodernity. In her 1992 book Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, Fatima Mernissi wrote: “Our fin-de-siècle era resembles the apocalypse. Boundaries and standards seem to be disappearing. Interior space is scarcely distinguishable from exterior.”
One last distinction that appears scholastic but which has significant political implications is that between people disagreeing with a liberal immigration policy and xenophobes. The two have often been fused and anyone criticizing open-door immigration policy, when there is one, may unfairly be denounced as xenophobic or racist.
In many European countries from the UK to Hungary and from Sweden to Greece, far right parties have been recording electoral successes. But not all are really so far right. Few of them call for deporting immigrants, though most want limits placed on future immigration numbers. They typically focus their attacks on irregular or illegal immigration such as produced by human smuggling. They distinguish between immigration and integration policies, usually wishing to restrict liberal immigration regimes while supporting more robust integration measures targeting existing immigrants.
Few of these far right parties oppose admitting refugees from war-torn countries like Iraq and Syria. Many endorse generous welcoming of war refugees while opposing unrestricted economic migration. The Sweden Democrats’ program calls for a humanitarian asylum policy. By contrast, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, inveighs that economic migration is bad and will only bring trouble. Paradoxically for their views the Sweden Democrats are ostracized in their country but Orban heads Hungary’s government.
Nuanced, not simplistic, approaches to immigration are why such parties are attracting new supporters. Because they contest establishment parties’ ownership of the values of tolerance and inclusion they are denounced as xenophobic, racist, intolerant, and illiberal. In sum, the “far” right is a political construction stigmatizing “fringe” parties.
High-brow Cultures of Fear
European transnationalism is an idea asserting that liberal values will spread across the ever-expanding European Union. But there are grounds for arguing that it is illiberal European transnationalism which is proliferating across the EU. The 2006 Danish cartoon crisis in which the prophet Muhammad was portrayed as a bomb-carrying terrorist and the tragic recent Charlie Hebdo sequel pushed freedom of satirical drawing to new limits. But they also brought into question what liberal values signify.
Houellebecq is not the first author to be accused of feeding far right paranoia about Muslims. Another notable narrator of fear was Italian essayist Oriana Fallaci. She was convinced of the fundamental incompatibility between Western and Islamic civilizations and was struck by the temerity of the post-Christian West in defending itself against Muslim extremism. In The Force of Reason published in 2006 she referred to French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut’s critique of the West’s “penitential narcissism” and self-abasement as the psychological stepping stone for remaking Europe into Eurabia, a term popularized by Bat Ye’or. Fallaci too faced legal problems; a European Arrest Warrant was issued charging her with xenophobia—sufficient grounds for extraditing her from one EU state to another. She died before having her day in court.
Thilo Sarrazin’s 2010 book, translated as “Germany does away with itself,” brought Islamophobic rhetoric to Germany’s inner elite circles and threatening to disrupt the casta. Longtime member of the Board of Deutsche Bundesbank and a Social Democrat, his damning assessment of how Muslims had become the country’s albatross triggered a national debate challenging Germany’s postwar consensus on constitutional, as opposed to nationalist, patriotism.
Sarrazin advanced three contentious ideas. First, ethnic Germans are having too few children, Muslim immigrants too many. As a result Muslims will make up a majority by the turn of the next century. Next, human intelligence is inherited rather than nurtured. Muslims are less intelligent than ethnic Germans. It follows that the population of Germany is being dumbed down. Finally, Germany needs more immigrants but admitting more Muslims will only worsen conditions. Sarrazin alleged that Arabs and Turks make no constructive contribution to Germany except in the vegetable trade. In contrast, he claimed that immigrants from non-Islamic countries show no statistical difference to the German population.
If Houellebecq in 2015 has given us an idea of what France will look like under a Muslim president, Catholic writer Jacques Neirynck in 2005 offered a vision of what a victory by Islamophobes would make of a country. Le Siège de Bruxelles describes a Belgium which has been taken over by the radical right. Concentration camps have been built for those Muslims and Jews who have not yet been deported. The siege and bombardment of Brussels’ Muslim ghetto has eerie similarities to Sarajevo in the mid-1990s. There is no place in this fascist state for political moderates. Narratives of fear, therefore, problematize Islam’s status in contrasting ways.
In Germany, anti-immigration parties like Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) have gained significant support, especially during the past year. Indeed, a Pegida rally in Dresden the week of the Charlie Hebdo attacks saw over 20,000 people attending. Is Germany finally getting a radical right-wing party? Is its postwar norm of tolerance now under attack? What dangers do Germany, and Europe as a whole, face should the political firewall isolating the far right in the country be breached?
Founded in October 2014 in the east German city of Dresden, Pegida is an umbrella group for the German right attracting mainstream conservatives as well as racist hooligans. Its program rejects extremism—neo-Nazis are not welcome—and its members insist they are patriots, not racists or xenophobes. Pegida inveighs against “preachers of hate, regardless of what religion” and against “radicalism, regardless of whether it is religiously or politically motivated.” Nonetheless it is the threat of the Islamization that unites and mobilizes its supporters.
At a recent rally a Pegida organizer announced that political repression had returned to Germany: how would anyone react if they are called racists or Nazis by all the mainstream political parties and the media for legitimate criticism of asylum policies and the non-existent immigration policy? The movement claims it welcomes war refugees and those fleeing religious or political persecution but its credibility was in tatters after a photo of its leader made up to look like Hitler was published. He resigned immediately.
In her New Year’s speech Chancellor Angela Merkel charged Pegida leaders with harboring “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.” Former Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt asserted that Pegida appeals to hollow prejudices, xenophobia and intolerance. Large counter-rallies have been organized against it. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung expressed the hope that Houellebecq’s Soumission would not encourage Pegida demonstrators while other German newspapers worried that the terror attack in Paris would validate Pegida’s fears about Islamization. For Merkel, Pegida is dangerous not due to xenophobia, but because of the threat it presents to the balance of power among mainstream centrist parties.
Doing Away with Identity Politics, Bringing Deliberative Democracy Back In
Of the Paris attacks Salman Rushdie unequivocally stated: “religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.” A Muslim very unlike him, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, seemed partly to share Rushdie’s view. He observed that in Paris, Islamic extremists had insulted Islam and the Prophet more grievously than those who published satirical cartoons mocking Islam. Both statements are sobering observations about religious fanaticism. But we should not allow political elites to emerge out of this tragedy blameless.
Some time ago the EU was accused of suffering from a democracy deficit. The 1992 Maastricht and 2009 Lisbon Treaties reforms were designed to redress this deficit. But EU practices changed little and in 2015 the Economist Intelligence Unit highlighted the crisis of democracy caused by “a gaping hole at the heart of European politics where big ideas should be.”
Europe’s elites face challenges from “far” right parties and from terrorists acting in the name of Islam. They have obstinately clung to timeworn and dubious financial, labor, and immigration policies. While stigmatizing supporters of populist movements as xenophobes and extremists, they have used a new device to stifle opposition—forging grand governing coalitions to marginalize remaining parties. As Yascha Mounk noted in a recent New Yorker article, the two largest parliamentary parties in coalition with each other now rule in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, and several other states.
If Houellebecq offers a prediction for France’s 2022 election, Mounk has one for the election before that. In 2017 an informal coalition between socialists and conservatives will be cemented in order to keep Front National’s Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace. He views democratic politics as an increasingly Manichean struggle between a monolithic establishment and a coterie of extremists comprising the opposition. In Soumission Houellebecq more bluntly exposes how democratic alternating in France between center-left and center-right parties, something Western countries are extremely proud of, in practice represents power sharing between two rival gangs. It is why both lose in his imagined 2022 election.
It is in elites' own interests to practice responsible and representative governance. Well-intentioned but hopelessly klutzy, they must give Europe a soul which unites its citizens and denizens instead of grasping for a one-size-fits-all transnational identity. Discouraged and disaffected Muslims and nativists alike should be integrated into an authentic grassroots grand coalition outside which lone wolves will face extinction.