The Success of Islamophobia


by Markha Valenta

The success of Islamophobia in western Europe is both striking and disconcerting. How, after fifty years of the institutionalised nurture of human rights and anti-racism could an ideology of vicious discrimination gain such ground?

Time and again, the Islamophobes seize the initiative and run with it: more often than not in the name of ‘freedom’. The Dutch Geert Wilders looks set to join a coalition government; the anti-Islam Sweden Democrats have successfully cleared the 5% hurdle to enter Parliament; the German banker Sarrazin is being hailed for his ‘courage in a land of cowards’ by the likes of Peter Sloterdijk; the French Marie Le Pen enjoys even greater success than her father; the Danish People´s Party continues fighting any visible presence of Islam in Denmark; the Swiss have constitutionally prohibited new minarets; and so on and so forth. Many interpret this as the return, with a vengeance, of European racism and fascism. European human rights, in this reading, are revealed as another impotent utopia – or alternatively as ethnocentric (liberal) self-deception. While the European human rights regime may slow the spreading politics of fear, exclusion and indignity, it cannot halt them. 

The birth of a new bigotry

Certainly, racism has never left Europe and has always dogged immigrants of colour – binding them to lower jobs, education, housing and dignity – in the very midst of western Europe´s socio-economic welfare and racialist war guilt. Yet that welfare and war guilt has meant that there have been strict restrictions on the public expression of racism and on the development of formal, officially racialist governance. At the same time, continental racism has been deeply fractured by divisions of language, history, political and national culture. So while there has been racialism and while there is discrimination, this has had to maintain itself through largely informal, unregulated channels, whose effect at moments could be highly systematic (as in housing and labour segregation) but did not have the ratified imprimatur of either the state or ‘the people’, much less of ‘Europe.’ Today, however, we see that the rules of western European racism are shifting. On the one hand, they are becoming less racialist; on the other hand they are seeking to become official.

A certain privileging of culture has played an essential part. While racism is against the law, culturalism is not. This makes all the difference. To begin with, such culturalism is sustained by European ideologies originally developed precisely to make Europe work as a multinational and metanational territory. The original promise of the European Union to its nation-states was that in exchange for giving up elements of state sovereignty, they would be assured of retaining their ‘national integrity’. State and nation would be selectively severed, so that Europe´s grand experiment in transnational economics, jurisprudence, politics and human rights would entail no such grand experiment at the level of culture or nation. These would be preserved intact and untouched, free to continue as little territorial capsules. European states could profit from global economic intercourse, while remaining culturally immaculate.

This ideal of carefully screened-off cultural bubbles envisioned for the future has been complemented by an enabling historical myopia, as the same ideal has been read back into the past. While the Holocaust has increasingly been taken as the foundational trauma for the whole of western Europe – a shared inheritance enabling an overarching moral project – colonialism has been approached from the opposite perspective. Notwithstanding that at one point 85% of the world was under European control – affecting the economics, ideologies, politics, consumption, and cultures of all Europe and all non-Europe along the way – colonialism nonetheless has been seen as a matter of purely national significance, to be dealt with individually as each nation and state might occasionally see fit. One major misleading effect is that non-western immigrants are now largely imagined to be encountering Europe for the first time and to be bringing with them a purely alien culture untouched by decades and centuries under European control and influence. It is as if Europe had never gone out into the world in any significant cultural fashion, but only economically and militarily, while its own cultures were somehow left magically untouched.

This sustains the notion of immigration as a quasi-apocalyptic cultural encounter without precedent that threatens to tear apart the continent and its people. So while the Holocaust unites Europe and sustains its projection of itself into the world via a universalist project for human rights, the narrative of colonialism is divided along national lines and remains irrelevant both to official moral sensibility and to the European project at large. Colonialism is thereby  ‘historicized’ in the worst sense of the word – as something so far away in space and time that it can sustain a widespread conceit that those arriving from distant shores bring with them cultures and worlds far removed both from our European history and from our ‘present’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The result, however, does not set the stage for a revival of old Europe´s racism and fascism, as these continue to be largely discredited and constrained in their public manifestation. Rather it has left the door wide open to the import by continental European populists of a form of cultural politics developed outside continental Europe. The ideology sustaining European Islamophobic politics today draws both its logic and its strategies largely from Anglo-American-style identity politics. This is a politics of righteous moral indignation that demands recognition and state protection for socio-cultural groups unjustly marginalised and minoritised. Such politics strategically deploys a repertoire of anger, authenticity, truth-speaking and public presence. Critically, the minority whose identity is today being asserted politically by European populists is the very same national culture that is simultaneously described as that of ‘the majority’. This majority culture, it is argued, has been unjustly neglected and sidelined by the cosmopolitan and political elite at the very moment that it is under threat from a (much larger) global Islamic culture. The need to reassert the dominance of the national culture is premised on the basis of that culture´s global minority status. In this way, populist Islamophobia is a nationalist identity politics that both imagines and seeks to make of each European country a self-created world Bantustan.

Correspondingly the key concepts Islamophobes deploy are not of domestic European origin but come largely from those working within the framework of American post-Cold War ambitions to dominance in the Middle East, including Samuel Huntington (clash of civilizations), Bernard Lewis (Muslim backwardness; Muslim rage; Muslim failure to modernize), Bat Ye´or (Eurabia; dhimmitude), Malise Ruthven (Islamofascism), and a coalition of Washington neoconservatives and Israeli right-wing nationalists such as Benjamin Netanyahu who in the early 1990s quite successfully developed the argument that Islamic terrorism forms the preeminent threat to Western democracy, that there is a need for a Cold War against Islam, and that Islamists are totalitarian and fascistic. 

How this bigotry paradigm plays out…

Some of Europe’s Islamophobes are explicitly racist, such as the French Southern League or the Italian Northern League. More generally, there are marked racist elements to be found among the tracts and rhetoric of anti-Islam movements farther to the north and east. Here, immigrants are caricatured and scapegoated, whole ethnic groups are implied to have criminal personalities and to be anything but normal, moral and hard-working. Wilders, for example, speaks of Moroccan ‘street-terrorists’ while his party proposes replacing civil servants with street militias; the Sweden Democrats commissioned an advertisement showing a woman in a burqa harassing an elderly pensioner; the Danish president of the International Free Press Society, Lars Hedegaard, asserts that Muslim men routinely allow their daughters to be raped by family members, while the Scandinavian internet is awash in tales of ‘Islamic rape gangs’; and the head of Germany´s new Freedom Party, René Stadtkewitz argues that it is impossible to integrate (Turkish and Arab) Muslims into German society without doing fundamental damage to its Judeo-Christian culture.

Notwithstanding this aggressive racist effect, those who read this Islamophobia as first and foremost driven by European racism or resurgent fascism are largely wrong. The critical innovation of these movements, particularly in northern Europe, is that they have managed – for their supporters – to delink Islamophobia from racism so that today it is quite possible to argue that one is both anti-Islam and anti-racist. When the Dutch anti-Islam populist Pim Fortuyn was accused of racism, he vehemently denied it. He was nothing like Jörg Haider or Le Pen, he said, adding, rather credibly, how much he liked to bed Moroccan boys. The provocation, with its explicit (homo)sexuality was meant to shock. But it also, indirectly, implied something else: that for Fortuyn sex defused differences of religion and culture – as long as he was on top. If Muslims would only let themselves be taken, everything would be alright.

For the professional Dutch provocateur Theo van Gogh (who once accused a Jewish woman professor of having wet dreams of Mengele), the medium of connection was film. While easily the crudest of the Dutch Islamophobes – calling Muslims “goat-fuckers” and “pimps for Allah” – he was also the first Dutchman to make a film with Moroccan youth offenders and the first to make a film about the violent prejudices plaguing inter-religious/inter-ethnic love (Najib and Julia, 2002). Himself clearly prejudiced and ignorant, and like Fortuyn perversely capable of embedding this ignorance in a highly successful anti-Islam ideology, van Gogh was concerned with neither race nor ethnicity as such, but rather the divide he perceived between a (secular) culture of sexual liberation, social equality, dissent and ideological irreverence versus one of (religious) dogmatism, hierarchy, absolutism and asceticism. It was their agreement on this precise framework that cemented the alliance between van Gogh and the anti-Islam Somali-Dutch Ayaan Hirsi Ali, leading to their joint production of the film Submission.

Nor are Fortuyn and van Gogh alone: in many countries, particularly in Northern Europe, the increasing success of Islamophobes in recent years has depended on their actively repudiating racism and reinventing themselves as anti-racists. Stadkewitz’s Freedom Party explicitly requires potential members to sign a form stating that they are not members of Nazi organisations; the Sweden Democrats have cleaned out their Nazi members as well; and Geert Wilders is quite forceful in repudiating any suggestions of racial discrimination. Each emphasises that they are not racist, very much like Stephen Gash, co-founder of Stop Islamisation of Europe, who has taken as his tag-line:  “racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the highest form of common sense.” This stance simultaneously assuages the potential discomfort of squeamish voters, defangs the moral authority of those who accuse them of racism and simultaneously enables highly significant strategic alliances with that host of aggressive Islam-critics who are themselves ethnic minorities and immigrants, such as Bassam Tibi, Magdi Allam, Ibn Warraq, Seyran Ates, Fadela Amara, Arzu Toker, and Nyamko Sabuni, among others.

In this way Islamophobia is constituted into a form of discrimination that in the political sense, has no name. That is, socio-rhetorical aggression against Islam cannot be “recognized” by either our formal or our common laws. Across Europe there is legislation against hate speech, against racism and anti-Semitism, against the defamation of whole groups, minorities, and (if inconsistently) religions. The precise formulation varies from country to country, but overall we can say that there is a significant apparatus for challenging discrimination in many different forms. The paradox that greets us then, is that time and again, across much of Europe, when this apparatus is brought to bear on Islamophobia, it has in practice made the perpetrators more popular rather than less. At that moment, such legislation is suddenly accused of inflicting an unacceptable limitation on one’s freedom of speech – a misuse of anti-hate legislation that silences all criticism. Muslims, in other words, are not recognised as valid candidates for state protection in the public domain. A liberalist reading of public speech is here allied to the ur-promise of the Europe Union that Europe´s nations and cultures have every right to expect their national cultures to maintain themselves unchanged into the future. 

What is to be done?

Thinking strategically, there are three possible solutions to this dilemma. The first would be the successful development of Islamic political parties across Europe who are able to contest anti-Islamic ones, in the name of their countries´ respective national identities, traditions and democratic ambitions. This would mean the development of Muslim politicians able to beat the anti-Islamists at their own game, by speaking more persuasively in the name of their (European) nation and state. While we are slowly seeing the entry of Muslims into the European political domain, today this is still far from constituting a significant political force let alone a continental movement in any sense of the word.

The second solution would be to remove all anti-hate speech legislation and fully liberalise the public domain, as many seem to wish. Currently, Islamophobes are able to take advantage of a playing field largely tilted in their favour. They may with great freedom caricature and express public criticism of Muslims, Islam and the Muslim world, while Muslim are highly constrained both in their access to the public and political domains and in their freedom to express anti-western, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, or anti-national criticisms in these public domains. Despite the popularity of calls for ‘freedom of speech’ across Europe today, politicians and courts have been highly unwilling to abandon existing hate-speech legislation and fully liberalise the public domain for everyone. Just the other day, the Dutch Arab European League was fined for racism on the basis of a cartoon it placed on its website (following the Danish cartoon affair) expressing cynicism about the actual numbers of Jews killed during the Second World War. The case of the British historian David Irving who was jailed in Austria for denying the Holocaust is of course well-known. In country after country, politicians argue for the right to eject imams who are critical of the West in their preaching, and in some countries this has in fact happened. While many national law enforcers are becoming increasingly hesitant to prosecute those who make hateful anti-Islamic or anti-immigrant remarks, out of a fear of simply increasing their support and influence, prosecutors continue to fiercely enforce other forms of anti-racism, particularly with regard to the Holocaust.

For the majority of Muslims – and not just a small select group of ‘good’ anti-Muslim, feminist or otherwise ‘liberal’ Muslims – to be fully included in the European public sphere however, one of three things has to happen. One possibility is that Muslims are actively ‘enfolded’ into the framework of the European Union’s primal trauma to the point that the equivalence of not just Jew and Black and homosexual is recognized, but also that of Jew and Muslim. Alternatively, the essential ‘Jewish’ referent of the Holocaust is maintained but the Holocaust itself is de-emphasized as Europe’s preeminent moral compass, by virtue of being out-of-date and unable to accommodate the changing demography of Europe – to be replaced by a moral framework not bound to its specificities. Or, finally, the Holocaust is retained as the moral compass of Europe, while maintaining the pre-eminence of the Jewish referent, but these are then explicitly linked to the moral failure and violence of European colonialism. This would enable making visible the entanglements between anti-Semitic, racialist and culturalist ambitions to dominance in European history and a comprehensive project for a moral future for Europe in the world (and the world in Europe) where “never again” refers as much to the inheritances of colonialism as to those of the Holocaust.

Such scenarios, in all their unlikelihood, foreground first and foremost how difficult it is for Europe to embrace Muslims as a natural part of the national social and moral landscape. This resistance is expressed most clearly in the resistance not of European populists to Islam and Muslims but of European progressives. This is not to deny that many established political parties and cultural elites have been aghast at the spreading success of the Islamophobes. In response, across different countries, we see generally one of two strategies: appeasement (in which some of the rhetoric is taken over, its rough edges softened) or cold exclusion by the establishment. Neither of these, however, have worked over time. Notwithstanding the appeasing and cooperative noises made by established Dutch political parties, Wilders continues to gain at their expense, to the point that today he could very well win the most votes if an election were held. In Sweden, meanwhile, the failure to include the Sweden Democrats in debates or to air (some of) their television ads, did little to impede their growing success, just as was the case with the Belgian Vlaams Belang some years ago. Similarly, the swift punishment meted out to Sarrazin by Germany’s banking and political elite only made his book climb higher in the bestseller charts, while increasing his political credit.

Whatever the strategy, the truly significant fact is how rare it is for a national politician in western Europe to speak up on behalf of (believing, practising) Muslims as members of our national community, as one of us, as ‘my constituents’ and as ‘my people.’ How rare it is for a national politician to claim Muslims as one of his or her own. The fundamental paradox is that while the established and progressive elite of continental Europe are fiercely against rhetorical and institutionalized discrimination – to the point that many consider this a deep violation of their most vital personal and national values – many are at the same time highly unwilling to stop considering Islam and immigrants as backward in one fashion or another. All too few have faith that religious Muslims can guide their own integration and acculturation into Europe – so strong is the conviction that it must be a European at the helm, holding the candle for the benighted and the poor, the huddled masses seeking access to its society.

The Islamophobe is increasingly unfettered in his portrayal of Islam as alien and other, barring an exception here and there (who is directly accused of ‘mollycoddling the Muslims’). In the end, it is as difficult for the political and cultural establishments of western European countries to fully accept the Muslim as ‘one of us’ as it is for the populist Islamophobes who threaten to knock that elite off its throne. Elite and populist alike agree on the Muslims´ otherness; they just differ on the question of what to do about it. And as long as they agree on this – through their actions even more than their words – we have nowhere to go but down. 

Piece originally published at Open Democracy | 


About the Author:

Markha Valenta holds appointments in the departments of history at the University of Amsterdam and of culture studies at the University of Tilburg. Her current work concerns the politics of religious diversity in relation to global urbanism, multiculturalism and secular democracy. Her openDemocracy column is Inter Alia.