Why ‘Islamophobia’ is Less Thinly Veiled in Europe

Robert Marquand, Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 5, 2010

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It is Europe, not the United States, where the West and Islam exist in closest daily proximity. Some 20 million to 30 million Muslims live here, making up about 4 percent of the population compared with less than 1 percent in America. Mosques, once an urban phenomenon, are found in far corners of the Continent. Muslims are more visible on European streets, and most are not professionals, but work in retail, agriculture, food service, and labor.

In the US, the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero has brought some of the most visible instances of public Islam-bashing, mostly on the right side of the political spectrum–a departure from the line taken by President Bush after 9/11 not to equate Islam with terrorism.

But in Europe a pushback against immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, has been under way for much longer. A postwar Europe long priding itself on cosmopolitan tolerance is facing a population seen as different–at a time of concern about the economy, jobs, and when mainstream Europe isn’t quite sure about its security and its future.

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The past year has a brought a wide range of anti-Islamic measures. Switzerland passed a referendum to ban minarets on mosques. Belgium has prohibited the burqa, or full-length veil worn by Muslim women, and France is about to.

In June, voters in the Netherlands–whose second-largest city, Rotterdam, has a majority population of ethnic minorities–made the party of anti-Islam political figure Geert Wilders the third largest in Dutch politics. Mr. Wilders’s platform calls for banning the Koran and new mosques, taxing head scarves, and ending immigration from Muslim countries. Wilders is now in negotiations to join the ruling coalition. He is also scheduled to appear on Sept. 11 alongside former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a ground zero commemoration in New York.

Such politics has engendered Muslim antipathy in parts of both the right and the left. Over the past five years, “Islamophobia” has become more mainstream and more comfortably settled. Social politeness and taboos on talking about Islam are eroding at a time when Europeans aren’t exactly sure what they think about Islam.

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After 9/11, a small industry of literature, much of it produced in the US, predicted a coming “Eurabia”–a tsunami of Islam that will make Europe unrecognizable, where Muslim birthrates overwhelm older populations, mosques are as plentiful as McDonald’s restaurants, and Islamic sharia law supplants European constitutions.

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Justin Vaïsse, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, argues that actual data about Muslim birthrates in Europe (which are declining as Muslims assimilate and have smaller families) and immigration (500,000 a year) belie the dire projections of the Continent becoming Eurabia.

“The paradox of this genre is that it dwells on the heated controversies and tensions taking place in Europe while at the same time claiming that Europeans are in denial of their problems,” says Mr. Vaïsse, coauthor of “Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France.” “And the emphasis on the anecdotal tends to obscure the fact that, from the fight over minarets in Switzerland to the debate over head scarves in France, current tensions are part of a normal and democratic process of adjustment, not the first signs of an impending catastrophe.”

Often absent are views of Muslims themselves. Much of the discussion aimed at Islam takes place as if the Muslims weren’t in the room. Scant attention is paid to vast religious and cultural differences between groups. French Muslims tend to be from Arab and African states, British Muslims from South Asia, Dutch Muslims from Morocco and Indonesia, German Muslims from Turkey.

Muslims, interviewed at mosques, offices, and cafes in Paris and London, say they often don’t recognize common depictions of themselves. They resent the fact that Islam is a subject of derision and reject the stereotype of Muslims as being one uniform, slightly sinister group.

Tufyal Choudhury, a law lecturer at Durham University in England and the primary author of an 11-city study on Muslims in Europe, notes that Muslim concerns are not about spreading the faith, but housing, education, and neighborhood safety. Young second-generation Muslims have high expectations but often feel excluded. “Their parents had less expectations and less disappointment,” he says.

A recent French government study found that job applicants with Arab Muslim names had less than half the chance of getting an interview than applicants with French names.

One Muslim, Said from Cameroon, interviewed at a Paris mosque before prayers, points out that Europe is a place of liberty for Muslims, many of whom have escaped repressive states. Some come to escape orthodox Islam while still being devout. More Muslim women find Europe a harbor to challenge older “cultural” models of Islam that restrict their freedoms. Muslims agree that some younger adherents get radicalized. But others are eager to integrate. They want to be European, or French, or Dutch. In university settings and among some Muslim moderates, frank reappraisals of the Koran are under way, which includes a tougher look at its calls for militancy.

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