We live in a time of Islamophobia. In February, two violent attacks on Muslims in Europe, one in Hanau in Germany, the other in London, took place within 24 hours of each other. Though the circumstances were different — the attacker in Hanau left a “manifesto” full of far-right conspiracy theories, while the motivations of the London attacker were less certain — the target was the same: Muslims.
The two events add to a growing list of violent attacks on Muslims across Europe. In 2018 alone, France saw an increase of 52 per cent of Islamophobic incidents; in Austria there was a rise of approximately 74 per cent, with 540 cases. The culmination of a decade of steadily increasing attacks on Muslims, such figures express a widespread antipathy to Islam. Forty-four per cent of Germans, for example, see “a fundamental contradiction between Islam and German culture and values.” The figure for the same in Finland is a remarkable 62 per cent; in Italy, it’s 53 per cent. To be a Muslim in Europe is to be mistrusted, visible and vulnerable.
Across the continent, Islamophobic organisations and individuals have been able to advance their agenda. Islamophobic street movements and political parties have become more popular. And their ideas have been incorporated into — and in some instances fed by — the machinery of the modern state, which surveils and supervises Muslims, casting them as threats to the life of the nation.
From the street to the state, Islamophobia is baked into European political life.
This has been nearly 20 years in the making. The “war on terror” — which singled out Muslims and Islam as a civilisational threat to “the West” — created the conditions for widespread Islamophobia. Internationally, it caused instability and increased violence, with the rise of Daesh in part a consequence. Domestically, in both Europe and the United States, new counterterrorism policies overwhelmingly targeted Muslims.
Countering violent extremism
In Britain, for example, you are 150 times more likely to be stopped and searched under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act — a draconian piece of legislation that allows people to be stopped at ports without “reasonable suspicion” — if you are of Pakistani heritage than if you are white. And then there are policies that in the name of “countering violent extremism” focus on the supposed threats of radicalisation and extremism. In places across Europe, including in the European Union, such policies expand policing and counterterrorism to target the expression of political ideologies and religious identities. In practice, Muslims are treated as legitimate objects of suspicion. In this setting of suspicion, a network of organisations and individuals preaching about the “threat” of Islam has flourished. Known as the “counter-jihad movement,” it exists as a spectrum across Europe and America of “street-fighting forces at one end and cultural conservatives and neoconservative writers at the other,” according to Liz Fekete, the director of the Institute of Race Relations. In Europe, groups like Stop Islamisation of Denmark and the English Defense League have been central to fostering violence against Muslims.
In America, the relative absence of grass-roots, street-based groups is more than made up for by the institutional heft of the movement — its five key organisations include Middle East Forum and the Centre for Security Policy — and its proximity to power and influence. The movement is funded by what the Centre for American Progress calls the “Islamophobia network,” with links to senior figures in the American political establishment.
The movement has successfully popularised the association of Muslims with an external “terrorist threat,” of which President Trump’s so-called Muslim ban is a prime expression.
What’s more, far-right parties built around Islamophobia and the politics of counter-jihad have become electorally successful. Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the Sweden Democrats and the Alternative for Germany have in the past few years become major parties with substantial support. And their ideas have bled into the rhetoric and policies of centre-right parties across Europe.
Successive centre-right political leaders have repeatedly warned against “Islamist terrorism” and the incompatibility with European values of “Islamist separatism”. The banning of forms of Muslim veiling in various public spaces — from the hijab ban in French schools and restrictions for teachers in some parts of Germany to an outright ban of the face-covering niqab in public spaces in Denmark, Belgium and France — shows how anti-Muslim sentiment has moved comprehensively from society’s fringes to the heart of government.
The way such an atmosphere gives rise to violence is complicated. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 77 people in 2011, described his massacre as an effort to ward off “Eurabia” — the theory, popularised by Bat Ye’or and fervently taken up by the counter-jihad movement, that Europe will be colonised by the “Arab world.” Likewise, the attacker in Hanau fixated on crime committed by nonwhite immigrants and possessed what the German authorities have called “a deeply racist mindset.” Both drew from the groundswell of Islamophobic rhetoric that has accompanied policies that single out Muslims for special scrutiny. But both operated alone, and neither maintained links to any organisation or party. Their actions were their own.
The line from policy to act, rhetoric to violence, is very hard to draw. And the process by which Islamophobia spreads across European society is complex, multicausal, endlessly ramifying.
But that doesn’t mean it comes from nowhere.
— Narzanin Massoumi is a noted British academic at the University of Exeter.
New York Times