According to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Europe is in the grip of “an anti-Islamic bias that is becoming institutionalized in the continent’s otherwise ordinary politics.” In the UK, a research report published earlier this year by the Institute of Race Relations argued that Islamophobia is hindering efforts to integrate Muslims into European societies.
The growing hostility towards Muslims in Europe is often linked to the fear of terrorism and associated concerns about the increasing involvement of young Muslims in radical political movements with connections to Al Qaeda. Yet Islamophobia has not emerged to any notable extent in the United States, despite the experience of the September 11 terrorist attacks, suggesting that other factors are also driving the phenomenon in Europe. In any case, Islamophobia had been observed in Europe for some years before the September 11 attacks, linked to concerns about the increased involvement of Muslims, especially of North African origin, in domestic European politics. Although there was undoubtedly a rise in anti-Islamic views and discrimination after September 11 and the London bombings of July 2005, these attacks only served to exacerbate a phenomenon which was already on the increase.
Islamophobia takes a range of forms in Europe, including the more traditional types of socio-economic discrimination and racist attack historically suffered by other ethnic or religious minorities. However, its distinctive feature – as documented by the New York Times article – is the extent to which it has infiltrated European mainstream politics and culture. In recent years many high-profile incidents from across Western Europe have exemplified this trend: the publication in Danish newspaper Jyllens Posten in 2005 of a cartoon portraying the Prophet Mohammad as a terrorist; the online release earlier this year by Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders of the movie Fitna, which directly links Islam with terrorism; the banning in French schools of the Islamic hijab, or headscarf, and the debates which are raging throughout Europe over the right to build mosques.
The growth of Islamophobia and its seep into mainstream politics have been attributed to the recent strategies of political parties on the Far Right. These have repackaged their traditional messages in a lighter form in order to capitalize on widespread concerns among many European populations about high levels of immigration to Europe and the impact of this on jobs, crime rates and the like. As these parties make political gains, as has been the case in the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and Austria for example, mainstream parties often adopt similar themes, reinforcing the anti-Islamic stance in national politics. The media also plays a big role: several studies have documented evidence of a bias against Muslims in newspaper reports in countries including Germany and the UK, and more generally there has been much sensationalist reporting about the threat of Islamic terrorism which fails to distinguish between radical Islam and Muslims in general.
Some writers have linked the development of Islamophobia in Europe to the relatively homogenous nature of European populations, the associated development of strong national cultures and identities and a tendency for integration of immigrants to be regarded as synonymous with assimilation. When immigrant cultures or religious beliefs are seen to clash with dominant national ideology, as has occurred in many European countries in the case of Islam, the people concerned are seen as a threat to national identity and become the target of discrimination and prejudice.
Socio-economic factors also play a significant role in contributing to Islamophobia and the factors that drive it. Compared with the U.S., where Muslims are on average better educated and higher earners than the native population, Europe’s Muslim populations are concentrated in low socio-economic groups, at least in part because of the structural discrimination they have experienced over time. This not only makes them an obvious target for racism among those who see them as direct competition for low-skilled jobs but also generates a pool of Muslim youths who are alienated from societies which offer them few rewards and are ready prey for Islamic fundamentalist movements.
A number of European countries, alerted by the threat to their social stability posed not only by Islamic extremism but by growing Islamophobia, are now taking steps to promote better dialogue with their Muslim communities and to enforce new anti-discrimination legislation. This is a positive development for Europe, yet such measures may only be able to skim the surface of a problem which appears deep-rooted in a multitude of cultural, political and socio-economic factors.
Al-Azmeh, A. & Fokas, E. (2006). Islam in Europe: Diversity, Identity and Influence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cesari, J. (2006). Muslims in Western Europe After 9/11: Why the term Islamophobia is more a predicament than an explanation. Submission to the Changing Landscape of Citizenship and Security. 6th PCRD of European Commission.
Fekete, L. (2008). Integration, Islamophobia and civil rights in Europe. London: Institute of Race Relations.
Feldman, N. (2008). The New Pariahs? New York Times Magazine, June 22, 2008.
Ford, G. (2007). In the wake of xenophobia: the new racism in Europe. UN Chronicle. September 2007.
Saeed, A. (2007). Media, Racism and Islamophobia: The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media. Sociology Compass 1, 2: 443–462.