Islamophobia is nothing new in Europe. The British historian Robert Bartlett revealed in his comprehensive volume The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (London, 1993) the culture of violence that was used by Europeans to first fight each other and in a second step conquer the world and annihilate or assimilate the internal ‘other’. Muslims and Jews belonged to the earliest figure of the (Oriental) internal ‘other’, when they were expelled from Spain and even earlier from Eastern parts of Europe. These minorities were not seen as equal or human and hence became the object of their aggression, humiliation, and exploitation. Together with the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave-trade and the expansion of European colonial powers in the rest of the world, the Orientalist image of the Muslim ‘other’ melted in the racial ‘other’ that was defined by language, religion, blood, and race. Edward Said’s magnum opus Orientalism is a lively witness to the old history of Islamophobia in Europe. While these images have never vanished completely, the image of the Muslim was by no means constantly one-sided. In times of necessity, Islam would become a vehicle for Enlightenment, when a positivist and rational framing of Islam was positioned vis-a-vis the irrationality of the Catholic Church’s dogmas. Not uncommonly, the figure of the good Muslim – even if only a minor exception – existed next to the figure of the bad Muslim, even if only to confirm the latter.
These images have never fully disappeared. They have rather existed in the sub-consciousness of European identities up till today. And they have been revitalized first and foremost after the end of the cold war, when the red enemy faded away and the green enemy of Islam became a new target within the paradigm of the clash of civilizations. Since 1993, a religious and cultural framing of political conflicts can be observed, starting from Ex-Yugoslavia, to Chechnya, to Sudan up until 9/11, which represents the culmination of the theoretical explanation of Samuel P. Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations. Again, the figure of the violent, anti-civilizational, aggressive Muslim was painted to legitimize one’s own aggressions in foreign countries. And in Europe, the Muslim became the new internal ‘other’, the enemy within, the ‘sleeper’, the ‘homegrown terrorist’.
In times of necessity, Islam would become a vehicle for Enlightenment, when a positivist and rational framing of Islam was positioned vis-a-vis the irrationality of the Catholic Church’s dogmas.
Who are we? The Re-Creation of Europe
The anthropologist Matti Bunzl argued already in 2005 that Islamophobia today has to be seen analytically different to Antisemitism around the turn of the 19th century. He locates the two phenomena in different projects of exclusion. While Antisemitism was invented in the late 19th century to police the ethnically pure nation-state, he argued, Islamophobia would nowadays be a formation of the present, marshaled to safeguard a supranational Europe. He went further and argued that Islamophobia threatens to become the defining condition of the new Europe. Citing a number of Islamophobic utterances as examples from leading politicians of Europe, he argued that Europe would define its identity by excluding the Muslims within Europe as well as creating a barrier by not accepting Turkey into the EU because it was a majority-Muslim country.
Ten years after Bunzl’s argument, this theory seems to have become more relevant. At the backdrop of the biggest refugee crisis since WWII, many right wing and centrist politicians can be observed, who use Islamophobia as a way to leverage policy-making in the West, to the detriment of human rights. The refugee crisis today is a crisis of people - of all religious and ethnic backgrounds - to flee from terror. At the same time, it reflects a crisis within Europe, which fights with itself how to define Europe in terms of openness and closeness to refugees knocking at the doors of Europe. And Islamophobia is playin a key role in this process.
Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia argued that Christian arrivals were less likely to stir fears among the local population. Weeks before this statement, a demonstration “against the Islamization of Europe” had taken place. Islamophobic groups like the “Bloc Against Islam” managed to collect 145,000 signatures on a petition against allowing Muslim immigrants into the Czech Republic. Instead of defending human rights, Czech President Milos Zeman responded that “refugees from a completely different cultural background would not be in a good position in the Czech Republic”. Politicians in the US – presidential candidate Donald Trump at the forefront – as well as in many European countries started connecting the issue of terrorism to the refugee issue. Officials of the US’s homeland security committee continue to admit concern over Syrian refugee placement efforts, fearing terrorists could enter the US. During the US-presidential election campaign, GOP-candidate Donald Trump called for surveillance of ‘certain mosques’ and a Syrian Refugee Database and in the end called for a stop of Muslims to enter the USA. These discourses help in recreating the boundaries of Europe, defining Europe as a Christian continent that has to be defended against the imagined aggressive non-adaptable values of Islam.
If Europe wants to stand to its self-proclaimed values of human rights and dignity of human kind, what is needed in these days is more courageous politicians and stakeholders, who speak out for exactly these values in favor of the people in need, refugees and Muslims.
Like in every racist world-view, conspiracy theories play a central role. As has the manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik already shown, Islamophobes are obsessed with the idea that Muslims would conquer Europe and turn it into ‘Eurabia’. Different discourse strategies are used to argue for that, with a central argumentative role of Jihad. Far-right politicians speak of the ‘demographic jihad’, meaning that Muslims will become a majority by means of numbers. They use the term of ‘Jihad by court’, meaning that Muslims use human rights and protection of freedom of religion to illegalize criticism towards Islam. And since the so called refugee crisis, Muslims comprise an ‘immigration Jihad’, so say central Islamophobic actors. The social democratic now president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, even argues that the influx of refugees into Europe was masterminded by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. According to him, the Brotherhood would finance the refugee wave to “gradually control Europe”. What happens is that the victims of war are turned into perpetrators of an alleged aggressive secret operation. This central feature of racism, that victims are turned into perpetrators, is currently a challenge to European societies.
The way forward
If Europe wants to stand to its self-proclaimed values of human rights and dignity of human kind, what is needed in these days is more courageous politicians and stakeholders, who speak out for exactly these values in favor of the people in need, refugees and Muslims. Many civil society actors including people like the Pope as well as Angela Merkel as one of few leading politicians in the European Union have done so. This course has to be strengthened for the sake of Europe. In days, where nation states are recreating new national borders and the idea of Europe seems to fade away, this moral compass is needed more than ever before.