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Islamophobia, a foreseeable consequence of ultra-liberalism?

Islamophobia does not result from a specific strategy to create the ideal scapegoat, but Muslims came in opportunely to fulfil this function within ultra-liberal European societies.

Odalisque with slave - painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Public domain.

It has long been a common feature of contemporary discourses on Islamophobia[1] – by Muslims and non-Muslims alike – to trace the upsurge of modern Islamophobia back to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fading away of the old fashioned “communist enemy” in 1989. According to this narrative, 9/11 is some sort of moment of truth that manifested – or paved the way to the manifestation of – pre-existing discourses and attitudes against Muslims and/or Islam that were otherwise kept just below the surface of political correctness.

Of course, no one can deny that European societies, similarly to many other societies in the world, have always needed some sort of archenemy, an ultimate Other, to forge their own identities. It is always easier to define what one is not rather than what one is. This Other has always been fluctuating over the centuries, depending on the geopolitical and even the “geo-theological” context[2], though Muslims and Islam have permanently been in the background of Europe’s self-identity constructions since the seventh century.

However relevant and valuable or even comfortable the identity politics argument is to explain the rise and pervasiveness of Islamophobia in Europe in the past three decades, it still falls short of articulating it within the broader picture of Europe’s drastic economic, political and social changes since World War II.

Although the analogies between Europe’s situation since the beginning of the financial and economic crisis in 2008 and the great crisis of the twenties-thirties have their limitations, some key similarities can nevertheless be drawn: the predation of the entire economy by a few to the detriment of the immense majority of people; the increasing support of the wealthy and powerful for ultra-conservative and far right parties or movements throughout Europe, with the view to protect the social order in general and their privileges in particular; the scapegoating of specific minorities (Jews previously, Muslims but also Roma, LGBTQs…) - with the potential dire consequences that we know all too well from history: a world war that killed millions of people and the Holocaust.

European societies came out deeply traumatised from these horrific events. Interestingly, the leading political, social and intellectual elites of the time understood the profound interconnection between the unbridled financial capitalism that had reigned after World War I, the relentless nationalism that had been mobilised as a diversion from the increasing social inequalities in Europe, and the failure of European democracies to protect the weakest.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, based on the impressive coalition building work that had been undertaken by the various resistance movements during the Nazi occupation of Europe, they laid down the cornerstones of western Europe’s successful democratic model in three interrelated areas.

The first is the legal framework with the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, enshrining the principle of equality between all human beings and the protection of the inalienable rights of individuals. This and subsequent legal initiatives such as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms were to top the hierarchy of legal norms in European countries over the next decades, imposing themselves even above national constitutions. They were meant to be the ultimate protection for minorities against the tyranny of the majority within democratic societies. A last joker card before disaster.

The second area is the political project. European democracies had not lived up to their founding principles and were still at risk of being undermined by vicious nationalism. The only way forward to overcome such flaws was to imagine a broader political project, uniting a number of countries sharing common interests. It started modestly with the coal and steel agreements between the 6 founding members of the European Economic Community that was later to evolve into the European Union.

The third area was the economic and social project: increasing inequalities in redistribution of power and wealth between different social classes, with the wealthy becoming wealthier and the poor, poorer, could not generate social peace and sustainability in European (capitalist) societies. Hence, ensued the development of redistributive societies fostering social justice, of strong social systems caring for the needs of individuals throughout their life, all articulated around Keynesian principles such as full employment (literally, targeting 0 unemployed individuals), as well as massive public investments in infrastructures, education and health.

Social democracies like Sweden or Denmark were able to redistribute so well until the eighties that the salary gap was no more than 1 to 6 within companies (compared to the 1 to 1000 that is no longer an exception in some global companies) and the total unemployment rate (all categories included) was never higher than 2%.

It was during the sixties and the seventies that the highest numbers of migrants with a Muslim background were called into Europe to work in different – often the hardest – industry sectors. There were various reasons for this, such as the then booming economy needing a labour force, but also the unwillingness of many capital holders to invest in their companies to renew ageing tools and machinery. Instead, they favoured the importation of cheap labour and the consequent maximisation of their profit in the short term – with the support of conservative parties and governments who did not foresee the need for any accompanying measures to foster the smooth integration of these new communities within European majority populations – that is, if they wished any integration to happen in the first place.

Interestingly, direct witnesses of this period, both from the majority and minority communities, often report that there were no major conflicts in the workplace. Racism and communication difficulties existed, but workers – from all backgrounds – were keenly aware that they were all there to earn a decent living, build a better life for themselves and their children here or abroad and enjoy a peaceful existence. Their common identity as workers, forged in part through trade unionism, but also through the solidarities generated by years along the same production lines or digging the coalmines, functioned as powerful incorporation mechanisms.

In retrospect, we can better understand the huge gap between the principles and ideals laid down during the Resistance and implemented in the late forties and fifties on the one hand, and our current situation on the other. The shift started under the leadership of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan, who managed to imprint a huge ideological U-turn, in Europe in particular. We progressively moved away from social redistributive democracies aiming at full employment to ultra-liberal democracies, geared towards controlling inflation, to preserve private capital, decreasing taxes on the incomes of the wealthiest, cutting down public spending through liberalisation of services, increasing the return on investment for shareholders, compressing salaries of workers and employees, etc.

It took thirty years to dismantle most of the social, legal and political acquis of WWII and this tidal wave has not yet exhausted its negative potential. Despite this, the push towards more equality could still be felt until the end of the nineties in western Europe, and even supported further in countries like the UK.

A paradox within the European chorus of ultra-liberalism? Probably not as much as it might seem. Indeed, equality and non-discrimination – except maybe in the immediate aftermath of WWII – have never been supported per se by European governments as a virtuous cause for the global well-being of individuals living in their respective countries.

On the contrary, they were always more or less explicitly tied up to increased business flexibility and efficiency, levelling up the field to enhance an unrestrained free market economy, and the need for governments to put the highest possible number of people in employment to ensure cuts in public spending. That is partly why ultra-liberal policies can accommodate themselves to – even benefit from – the promotion of gender, ethnic or religious diversity and non-discrimination, while being fiercely opposed to any advancement of social equality and justice. “Diverse but all equally unequal” could be the catch phrase of this approach.

It is against this broader background, as some sort of collateral damage, that Islamophobia has become an issue in most European democracies. Indeed, it is a common feature of dominating narratives protecting the vested interests of a few to divert the legitimate anger of populations against their exploiters.

It was therefore crucial in the eighties to depart from public debates on redistribution of power and wealth, class oppression, etc. toward debates on values. It is no wonder that Samuel Huntington published his book on the clash of civilisations in 1993. The competitive advantage of values on the political market is that everyone has some sort of values and, more importantly, opinions about one’s values and the values of others. Not everyone has a job, a vested interest in keeping the society going as it stands, but everyone has opinions about values – and they are a great mobilising factor in the sense that they are ingrained in our identities. Finally, they offer an endless topic for discussion and (political) opposition as they are in constant flux and (re)composition and can be constantly called upon to delineate who is inside or outside the rim of social, cultural and hence economic acceptability.

Since the late eighties, Muslims – and in particular Muslim (or perceived as such) migrants and European born Muslim youth – have been seen as embodying the Other outside the rim of “our” values.

Muslims appeared to have the disadvantage (or the advantage, depending on the point of view) of ticking a number of boxes: holding different (and supposedly inferior) values, a conflicting history with European societies, a colonial past, different cultures, different ethnicities, different sets of ethics – sometimes de facto contradicting liberal democratic values.

The issue of gender equality is a good example. Obviously, a number of traditions developed in some Muslim countries are in direct opposition to the very notion of gender equality – and should not be accepted under the guise of cultural relativism. However, violence against women (1 in 3 European women faces violence in her life), lack of representation in top jobs and politics and the gender pay gap in countries like France (20% in 2012), should all be unheard of in a continent so proud of upholding the principle of gender equality as one of its core values.

Such dissonances between reality and principles demonstrate that many political discourses about gender equality as a defining principle of European democracies are actually only cultivated to serve as a powerful means of exclusion by mobilising negatively a powerful ideal.

More importantly, further elements need to be considered beyond the values debate: Islamophobia cannot be abstracted from a class analysis, knowing that one of the key features of ultra-liberalism has been to delegitimize all types of class analyses because they inherently question power and wealth redistribution within society.

If there are no social classes any more, then power and wealth redistribution between them disappears as a political issue. All that remains is the potential of every individual to achieve success by amassing wealth, or to fail by not taking up his/her responsibilities, while the whole structure of capitalist exploitation is left unchallenged.

Muslims are by and large at the bottom of the social ladder in Europe. It is only recently that a growing (but still marginal) percentage of Muslims have been achieving socially and economically, but most have been among the working poor or facing massive unemployment over the past three decades, since full employment policies were dropped in favour of “combating unemployment”. In a number of European countries, irregular migration from Northern Africa has constituted a huge pool of workers in the informal economy, subject to extremely low paid jobs and all-round exploitation by ruthless employers using them to organise social dumping against majority population workers.

Both working poor Muslims and irregular migrants with a Muslim background have been instrumentalised by employers and decision makers to generate a competition against majority white (poor) workers. They have been drawn into the war of the poor against the poor, of the poor White against the poor Black – to use broad categories – which is a core feature of ultra-liberal societies for the reasons spelled out above. In such a context, Muslims have become an easy target for the anger of the majority population that has been losing out and downgraded at an increasing pace over the last twenty years.

Modern Islamophobia is not just an ex-nihilo phenomenon whose function would be similar to anti-communism until the end of the eighties as a key element of European identity politics. Although this dimension is definitely present, it cannot be reduced to this single aspect[3]. It needs to be understood not only as a collateral damage, but as fulfilling a set of specific functions in the ultra-liberal structure that have been implemented since the end of the seventies in Europe and the US.

Islamophobia does not result from a specific strategy to create the ideal scapegoat, but Muslims came in opportunely to fulfil this function within European societies – which does not preclude later deliberate strategies targeting Muslims and/or Islam in specific political contexts (e.g. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands).

One of the consequences of this approach is that it binds the struggle against Islamophobia to the broader struggle for full equality, including social equality and justice within redistributive democratic societies. Islamophobia being by no means a stand-alone phenomenon, but a structural/functional aspect of ultra-liberal societies, the current financial and economic crisis becomes a golden opportunity to develop progressive alliances and coalitions concerned by the well-being of all through effective redistribution of power and wealth within European societies – rather than keeping the fight against Islamophobia as an issue of concern for Muslims only or as a fringe concern for anti-racists and human rights activists.

The fight against Islamophobia should be encompassed in the joint effort to reconstruct a common popular anger – not against the poor from other ethnic or religious backgrounds – but against the exploiters of the 99%. Understood like this, the fight against Islamophobia concerns 99% of the population and should be mainstreamed in the political agenda of all progressive movements and parties.

Fighting social and economic inequalities while at the same time supporting or enacting policies that concretely exclude or discriminate Muslims is an intellectual, political and strategic non-sense in the struggle for equality. It reveals a crucial gap in the political analysis of modern forms of capitalist exploitation by many European left leaning movements and parties. Failing to tackle Islamophobia upfront is one more nail in the coffin of the social revolution many of us are striving to achieve.

The views expressed in this article are prospective and those of the author alone. They do not necessary reflect the views of ENAR – the European Network Against Racism. The author has benefited from the advice of Georgina Siklossy and Julie Pascoët during the drafting of this paper. Incoherencies are the sole responsibility of the author.

[1] I will not discuss here the various meanings and issues entailed by the term “Islamophobia”. I use this word in the framework of this article to cover both the fear of Islam and Muslims by non-Muslims, but also the specific subset of racism that constructs Muslims as members of an all-encompassing global community characterised by an inferior culture, set of values, civilisation compared to today’s so-called European/western culture, set of values, civilisation. All the terms used here are generalising on purpose. For detailed and enriching academic discussions of the term and its implications, see S. Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil (eds.), Thinking Through Islamophobia, London, Hurst, 2010 and Maleiha Malik (ed.), Anti-Muslim Prejudice in the West: Past and Present, London, Routledge, 2010.

[2] See M. Privot and C. Baylocq, Tareq Oubrou, Profession Imâm, (Spiritualités vivantes), Paris, Albin Michel, 2009.

[3] For an in-depth analysis of this aspect from the perspective of the critical theories of racism, see here

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