In a few days time a cluster of far-right groups under the name the Stop the Islamisation of Europe alliance will hold rallies in London, Copenhagen and Marseilles to demand an end to what they call “the overt and covert expansion of Islam in Europe”. Although the events are likely to attract no more than a handful of protesters, their message resonates widely. On Saturday the rightwing People’s party, notorious for its virulent hostility to ethnic minorities and Muslims, emerged as the victor in the Swiss elections, taking 29% of the vote, the best electoral performance by a party in the country’s elections since 1919.
The far right is on the ascendancy in many parts of Europe. Beyond its explicit party political expressions, this assumes a more worrying form. What had been traditionally confined to the margins of dominant political discourse is progressively penetrating its mainstream, with parties of the centre absorbing much of the far right’s populist rhetoric. This underlies the complaint by Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the racist National Front, that Nicolas Sarkozy had “stolen his clothes”. Across the Channel, the Tory candidate for the London mayoralty, Boris Johnson, believes that “to any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia – fear of Islam – seems a natural reaction”.
We are witnessing a reversion to the type of cultural essentialism that dominated political and academic discourse until the mid-1900s. Its central theme, the purity and superiority of European culture, was dealt a powerful blow by the tradition of post-colonial studies and radical critique of Orientalism. The trend brought together progressive, leftist voices from Europe and the US with others from the south amid the dismantling of modern-day empires and the rise of developing world liberation movements.
The same discourse is reconstructing its terms today by substituting the classical east-west bipolarity at its core with one of “Islam” and “west”. The west’s rationality, tolerance, individualism and freedom are now contrasted with Islam’s superstition, fanaticism, fatalism and repressiveness. In the history books, this trend has manifested itself in the resurrection of the myth of the benevolent empire, championed by figures such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts.
September 11, the emergence of violent radical Islamic groups, and the war on terror have created fertile ground for the revival of this tradition. Its spirit permeates much of the language current in the political sphere and many sectors of the media. What had once been cause for disrepute now goes unquestioned and barely remarked upon. The vocabulary is various, from immigration, integration and citizenship to terrorism, radicalism, Islamism and an endless chain of -isms. But the referent is consistent: Islam and Muslims. It is a game of insinuations, of codes, in which meaning is readily conveyable without need for explicitness or directness.
Beyond all the noise about Europe’s “Muslim problem” lurks a growing unease about the changing texture of European society. Gone are the days of pure white, Christian Europe. Now Europe is multi-ethnic, multireligious and multicultural, a fact which many find hard to swallow. Muslims are part of this evolving reality, but the idea that the continent is being Islamised is a figment of the right’s imagination.
In a European population of some 540 million, Muslims number between 20 million and 25 million, or about 4%. The majority are underprivileged, and socially, economically and politically marginalised. Whatever the scaremongers say, Muslim armies are not at Europe’s gate preparing to conquer.
Obsession with the question of Britishness in the UK and with les valeurs de la République in France reflects a state of anxiety about identity. The collapse of empire, globalisation and flow of immigrants from the old colonies brought new peoples into Europe’s bosom. The Muslim other – the Saracen or Turk, in opposition to whom Europe defined its imaginary geographic and cultural borders – is now located within its frontiers, a sort of internal outsider. From the periphery of the empire in distant overseas colonies in Lahore or Algiers, it has moved to the periphery of capitals and industrial cities in London or Paris. The borders of identity and culture are overlapping, making it impossible to draw rigid boundaries between east and west, Europe and Islam, white and black.
At the heart of Europe’s “Muslim problem” is an impotence and perhaps unwillingness to extend the norm of tolerance to newcomers from the Muslim world. Tolerance is not an abstract concept but the child of a specific historical context. In Europe it was the product of the religious wars, which ended in France, for instance, with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Following the horrors of the Holocaust, the norm was widened to include Jews. And with the civil rights movement in the US, this was further extended to black people and other ethnic minorities – legally and theoretically, though not in practice. There is still resistance to the norm’s broadening to encompass Muslims, something evident in the controversy over the building of mosques in northern Europe, as well as in the “veil problem” in France, Germany and other countries.
Some quasi-liberals continuously ask how we can be tolerant with people who preach intolerance – by whom they mean, of course, Muslims. A better question could be: to what extent are those who profess tolerance really tolerant?
First Published in The Guardian, Wednesday 24 October 2007