Focus: Islamophobia and Contemporary ‘Europe’

Focus: Islamophobia and Contemporary ‘Europe’

Nasar Meer (Strathclyde University) and Christina Spaeti (Freiburg University)

One of the earliest references to ‘Europe’ comes from a Greek myth about Zeus and the Phoenician princess Europa, and how he abducted her to Crete where she became queen. This queen and her journey are sometimes characterised as a ‘true illustration of what we collectively recognise as the origins of European culture’.

Recalling this myth is useful. First, it is a reminder that the very idea of Europe has its origin on the shores of the Mediterranean some distance from today’s northern political and economic centres. Second, it indicates that Europe has been forged by porous boundaries both inside and beyond its present frontiers. At the cultural level this has implications for an idea of Europe that goes well beyond the EU to encompass questions of identity too.

As the other pieces on Europe and Islamophobia in this issue of Discover Society show, such questions are posed at a time when the figure of the Muslim has increasingly become a means of distinguishing between what is European and what is not European. ‘In relation to Muslims and Islam’, it has been said, ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity become not imperatives but questions.

Estimations on the number of Muslims in Europe range between fifteen and twenty million.  When we include historically established Muslims, of the Balkans, Mediterranean and indeed of the former Eastern bloc (e.g., Tartars in Poland), Muslims are more numerous than Catholics in the traditionally Protestant north of Europe, and more numerous than Protestants in the traditionally Catholic south. Yet according to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (former president of France and head of the Convention on the Future of Europe which drafted the Lisbon Treaty), they have ‘a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life’.

Edward Said was probably right when he said that for Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma’, and pertinent here is the late Pim Fortuyn’s insistence on the need to defend, from Muslims, Europe’s ‘Judeo-Christian humanistic culture’.  Or as his most natural heir Geert Wilders has it, as long as Europe is unwilling to defend ‘the ideas of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem’, it will ‘lose everything: our cultural identity, our democracy, our rule of law, our liberties, our freedom’. Others have deployed similar arguments, and done so in a way that claims to speak up for minorities too.  Hence, Jean Marie Le Pen is now the defender of European Jewry, arguing that ‘the Jews understand who is truly responsible for antisemitism’. Right wing commentators in Britain, too, want us to believe that antisemitism began with Muslims. Such is the anxiety that protests against Israeli policies have raised, the Spectator’s Douglas Murray recently described those people who marched in national rallies against the war in Gaza as ‘[t]housands of anti-Semites [sic]’.  Activists with a track record of working collaboratively to tackle antisemitism invariably have no truck with somebody who has demanded that ‘conditions for Muslims must be made harder across the board’.

It is worrying that challenging antisemitism is deemed fertile ground for self-proclaimed Islamophobes. As Farid Hafez points out in his contribution to this issue of Discover Society, a shift occurred within Europe’s far right in the course of the 2000s in so far as the most radical right-wing populist parties now try to present themselves as defenders of Jews against Muslims and Islam – enemies of Europe’s Judeo-Christian culture. See, for example, statements made by the Austrian Freedom party on the prospect of Turkey’s accession to the EU, the Flemish Interest/Flemish Block’s statement that ‘Islam is now the no. 1 enemy not only of Europe but of the world’, as well as the La Front National’s literature on the ‘Islamization of France’.  What might otherwise be named as racist discourse seems an acceptable part of the political mainstream when cast as a defense of Western values and freedom of speech.

In the present climate, this translates into roughly two-thirds of respondents in Western Europe (ranging from 59 per cent in Belgium to 70 per cent in Denmark) perceiving greater cooperation with the Muslim world as a threat. Indeed the most recent tranche of survey data from the Pew Global Attitudes survey reported that 62 per cent of people surveyed in Italy, 56 per cent in Poland, 42 per cent in Spain, and 24 per cent in France and Germany, respectively, hold ‘unfavourable views’ of Muslims.  It is in this context that the charter of Cities Against Islamization has risen to warn that the fast demographic increase of the Islamic population in the West threatens to result in an Islamic majority in Western European cities in a few decades.’ This is the language of ‘Eurabia’ and it associates the Muslim presence with a number of detriments to European culture and social harmony.

Sometimes sourced to the interventions of the controversial polemicist Bat Ye’or, the notion of ‘Eurabia’ describes a numerical and cultural domination of Europe by Muslims and Islam. It is a reading that has not gone undisputed on the grounds that they both radically over estimate base figures and then extrapolate implausible levels of population growth. The demography panic has nonetheless achieved a degree of traction that bears the chilling hallmarks of recent European history. Moreover, Islamophobia is not only expressed in perceived threats or agitation against the alleged demographic increase of Muslim populations, but also in terms of the racial state, which increasingly targets Muslims as Muslims in the ways shown in Nisha Kapoor’s contribution to this issue of Discover Society.

Why Islamophobia and not ‘Muslimophobia’ (or something else)?
It is easy to become very good at ‘making a fetish out of words, and it appears that this is no less the case with Islamophobia. The origins of the term Islamophobia have been variously traced to an essay by two French Orientalists, a neologism of the 1970s, an early 1990s American periodical, and, indeed, to a British political sociologist.  As Brian Klug succinctly reminds us however, neither its etymology nor its provenance determines its meaning; only its use in the language does, but social sciences need to be concerned with concepts rather than just terms, and this is what distinguishes scholarship from journalism.

A concept of Islamophobia achieved public policy prominence with the Runnymede Trust’s Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia (CBMI) Islamophobia: a Challenge for Us All. The report conceived of eight argumentative positions to encapsulate its meaning, and through which the members of the commission sought to draw attention to their assessment that ‘anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new item in the vocabulary is needed’. This, of course, was before global events had elevated the issue to a prominence previously only hinted at, and which resulted in a second sitting of the commission that heard testimonies from leading Muslim spokespeople of how ‘there is not a day that we do not have to face comments so ignorant that even Enoch Powell would not have made them’.

What the commission did not anticipate was how the term would be criticised from several quarters for, amongst other things, allegedly reinforcing ‘a monolithic concept of Islam, Islamic cultures, Muslims and Islamism, involving ethnic, cultural, linguistic, historical and doctrinal differences while affording vocal Muslims a ready concept of victimology (Ozannae 2006: 28). To others the term has neglected the active and aggressive part of discrimination by conceiving discrimination as a collection of pathological beliefs, inferred through the language of ‘-phobias’; with the additional complaint that the term does not adequately account for the nature of the prejudice directed at Muslims. Erdenir for example, championed the idea of ‘Muslimophobia’ over ‘Islamophobia’, because ‘the former targets Muslims as citizens or residents of European countries rather than Islam as a religion’ (Erdenir 2010: 29).

This more general complaint need not be specific to Islamophobia.  As Bleich observes, ‘with parallel concepts such as homophobia or xenophobia, Islamophobia connotes a broader set of negative attitudes and emotions directed at individuals or groups because of their perceived membership in a defined category’. This argument against Islamophobia seems politically selective given that there are no uncontested relationships between the object and subject in any complaint of discrimination. In this respect part of naming discrimination is a social awareness activity, and this has been the case for all concepts that seek to highlight what groups perceive as unfair treatment, including sexism, homophobia and antisemitism, amongst others. As Tariq Modood argues in his contribution, such groups are never just projections of the majority group, but have their own agency. Thus, the study of Islamophobia should form part of a broader analytical agenda which also considers struggles for recognition.

What on first inspection appears different for Islam is that it is concerned with a world religion and so is of a different order to other minority social and political identities. Much ink has been spilled over the years showing why this is a profoundly problematic assumption that relies on a false distinction between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ social identity and status.  To use literatures other than one’s own, this can be summarised in the statement that in the concept of Islamophobia, ‘the involvement of ‘Islam’…does not relegate discussion to a theological register or matters of belief or doctrine. Religion is ‘raced’, Muslims are racialized… what is primarily and fundamentally at stake in this is not a matter of the protection of belief per se, but rather of unequal power, legal protection and institutional clout, in the context of entrenched social inequalities’ (Vakil, 2010: 276).

What is remarkable, however, is how little there is by way of an understanding of the relationships between Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination, not least antisemitism. In his contribution, Brian Klug offers an analytical frame which allow for defining analogies and differences between antisemitism and Islamophobia. Whereas in form there are analogies between the two concepts, they differ, at least in some ways, in content. The general logic of the two concepts is that both ‘the’ Jew and ‘the’ Muslim share the logic of ‘the Other’ e.g., the notion of ‘Eurabia’ bears similarities to essential features of the antisemitic tract ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ even while there are major differences in so far as Jews were usually imagined as a hidden power while Muslims are imagined as visibly violent.

The seriousness with which we tackle antisemitism happens in the shadow of the history of National Socialism and, even though it might, our collective memory of this period does not have the same effect on tackling Islamophobia.  Hence in his New York Times best seller America Alone, Mark Steyn could confidently predict – and fine endorsement from liberal commentators – that, ‘Mohammed is (a) the most popular baby boy’s name in much of the Western world; (b) the most common name for terrorists and murderers; (c) the name of the revered Prophet of the West’s fastest-growing religion. It’s at the intersection of these statistics – religion, demographic, terrorist – that a dark future awaits’.

When talking about Islamophobia we need to be able to grasp the ways in which discrimination against Muslim minorities picks out people on the basis of supposedly discernible characteristics. The latter may involve the attribution to those individuals an alleged group tendency, or it may emphasize those features that are used to stigmatize or to reflect pejorative or negative assumptions based on his or her real or perceived membership of the group. We therefore maintain that instead of trying to neatly separate things that are intertwined; we should understand Islamophobia as another form of racialization or race making.

Ozannae, W. I. (2006) ‘Review of confronting Islamophobia on educational practice’, Comparative Education, 42 (2): 283–97.
Erdeni, B. (2010) ‘Islamophobia qua racial discrimination’, in A. Triandyfillydou (ed.), Muslims in 21st Century Europe Structural and Cultural Perspectives, London: Routledge, pp. 27-44.
Vakil, A. (2010) ‘Who’s afraid of Islamophobia?’, in: S. Sayyid and AK Vakil (eds), Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives (London: C. Hurst 2010). P. 276.


Nasar Meer is a Reader in Comparative Social Policy and Citizenship at Strathclyde University, and Royal Society of Edinburgh Research Fellow (2014-2019).  He is currently working on a four volume Routledge collection on Islam and Modernity. Christina Späti is Associate Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Fribourg. Her research focuses on anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and Orientalism, language politics in multilingual states, and 1968 in Western Europe.

Image Credit:  The Abduction of Europa by Jean François de Troy, 1716, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Fund. National Gallery of Art, Washington