Can Europe Make It?

Anti-Muslim hatred from the margins to the mainstream

Whatever local Muslim communities do to remind society that these extremists don’t represent them, there are media commentators, as well as right-wing politicians, constantly fostering a narrative of collective responsibility.

Joe Mulhall
18 February 2016
The Ottoman army besieging Vienna (1529), Hüner-nāme, Topkapi-Serail-Museum, Hazine

The Ottoman army besieging Vienna (1529), Hüner-nāme, Topkapi-Serail-Museum, Hazine . Wikicommons/ Nakkaş Osman. Some rights reserved.2015 was the year that anti-Muslim sentiment officially moved from the margins to the mainstream of political discourse in Europe.

It was a year of perfect storms. Ideas and rhetoric traditionally confined to blogs, websites and street protests of the so-called ‘counter-jihad movement’ (CJM) were echoed by European prime ministers and presidents.

There has been worrying data emerging on attitudes to Europe’s Muslims for some time. A Pew Research Center study of seven EU countries in 2014 found that at least half of those surveyed in Italy, Greece and Poland had a negative opinion of the Muslims who lived in their country, while public opinion remained divided in Spain.

The news out of Britain and Germany was more positive, with a majority having positive views of Muslims. The most favourable ratings were registered in France (72%), which among the seven nations surveyed has the highest percentage of Muslims in the national population.

A year later, in spring 2015, YouGov conducted a poll across several countries in Europe and found worsening results. By now, 40% of French people held negative views of Muslims, the same level as in the UK. The most negative attitudes were held by the Danish and Finns, while the least negative feelings, at 36%, were held in Germany and Sweden.

However, 2015 kicked off with the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office and a Jewish supermarket in Paris, which left 12 people dead. These attacks were followed soon after by an armed assault on a ‘free speech’ event in Denmark and Muhammad cartoon exhibition in Texas. 

Sadly, whatever local Muslim communities do to remind society that these extremists don’t represent them, there are media and social media commentators, as well as right-wing politicians, constantly fostering a narrative of collective responsibility.

However, it was the refugee crisis that has brought many of these strands together in a deadly cocktail of anxiety and fear. The huge numbers of refugees entering Europe are viewed, by some, as posing an economic threat; for others their arrival has been perceived as a cultural threat.

The result of all this is that last year saw the counter-jihad narrative move increasingly into the mainstream. Suddenly, talk of a ‘Muslim invasion’ and a ‘threat to western civilisation’ moved from the social media echo chambers and blogs of anti-Muslim political activists into the parliamentary chambers of Europe.

This phenomenon is most pronounced in eastern and central Europe, where high-profile figures are openly expressing anti-Muslim beliefs. One such example is the former Romanian President Traian Basescu, who vehemently opposes settling any Muslim refugees, claiming: “as recent history has showed us, most Muslims are terrorists”. 

Meanwhile the Polish government has used the Paris attacks to refuse Muslim refugees and the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has said that: “mass migration of Muslim immigrants who would start to build mosques will not to be tolerated”, and called for the “restriction of the freedom of Muslims in Europe”. 

The Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has worryingly started to use counter-jihad conspiracy theories to explain the migrant crisis stating that: “you cannot get around imagining that some kind of master plan is behind this.” He has also drawn historical parallels between the current arrival of Muslim immigrants into Europe and the invasion of the Ottomans which is a central pillar of current ‘counter-jihad’ rhetoric. (The Gates of Vienna blog, a central forum of the CJM, is named after the 1529 siege of the city by Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.) 

As such it is no surprise that Orban’s utterances have made him a figure of adulation within the CJM and his name has been exulted over and chanted by hundreds at anti-Islam Pegida rallies in Germany.

This already worrying trend of mainstreaming anti-Muslim sentiment was then compounded by the horrific Paris attacks in November last year, which once again brought the very real danger of Jihadi violence into stark relief.

In the wake of the attacks Miloš Zeman, the President of the Czech Republic, spoke at an anti-Muslim demonstration organised by the Bloc Against Islam group in Prague at which thousands of Czech protestors – many wearing racist badges – were joined by a contingent from Pegida in Germany and Stephen Lennon, founder and former leader of the English Defence League and now leader of PegidaUK.

In Britain, while David Cameron has shamefully talked of “swarms” of migrants, our politicians have on the whole avoided such extreme sentiments. However, the mainstream press has shown no such reticence. A case in point is Katie Hopkins’ now infamous piece in The Sun that described immigrants as ‘vagrants’ and ‘cockroaches’. Then in November the Daily Mail depicted immigrants as rats swarming across the border in a cartoon with striking parallels to the dehumanising propaganda of the 1930s. These are just two examples of an increasingly hostile mainstream press. 

Similar troubling trends are visible across the Atlantic with Fox News providing a platform for a number of prominent ‘counter-jihad’ activists, including Robert Spencer, who has previously been banned from entering the UK because of his extremist views. Most worrying of course was Donald Trump’s calls to ban all Muslim immigration from America.

No longer does one have to stand in a fenced-off car park at an English Defence League demonstration to hear of a conspiratorial plot to ‘flood’ Europe or America with Muslims. Now exactly the same ideas are being articulated by the prime ministers of some member states of the European Union or prospective Republican presidential candidates.

Whether it was politicians or the press, 2015 was the year that anti-Muslim rhetoric entered the mainstream. Fuelled especially by the migrant crisis and then the horrifying Paris attacks, prejudiced rhetoric traditionally confined to the far right or the counter-jihad movement has found a voice in ‘respectable’ circles.

Whether this will result in a more widespread and pervasive anti-Muslim feeling in society, only time will tell – in Britain at least some polling encouragingly suggests it may not – but it seems that at the very least 2016 will see a continuation of the worrying shift of anti-Muslim sentiment from the margins to the mainstream.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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