COMMENTARY
 
West European perceptions of Islam
Weekly Pulse
April 14-20, 2006
The row over the publication of blasphemous illustrations of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in Danish and other European newspapers may have subsided, but the process of racializing and victimizing Muslims who reside in Western Europe has not.

Islamophobia remains a reality in a number of European countries, particularly Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. Rooted in recent history, its implications for the survival of millions of Muslim immigrants in particular and the question of European integration are manifold.

The predominant discourse in the European media at present reflects an increasing tide of animosity against Islam and Muslims living in Europe. A last year survey about Western perceptions about Islam and Muslims—which questioned more than 2,400 people in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the US—suggested that Muslims were rated lowest as compared to other religious groups.

The survey noted that the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims was “typically stereotypical and negative.” Nearly three-quarters of respondents believed that the Western media depicted Arab Muslims and Islam accurately only half the time, not often or never.

No surprise that European academics are also increasingly concerned about this phenomenon. Last month, a number of them got together in Florence to underline how the process of racial segregation of the Muslim people was actually occurring in individual European states with large Muslim minorities, and what could be done to integrate them into European culture.

The occasion was the 7th Mediterranean Social and Political Meeting of the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute in Italy. This was a gathering of well over 100 scholars, mostly European, whose academic expertise is on the Middle East, North Africa and Muslim communities in Europe. There were in total 11 workshops dealing with various issues concerning the respective regions.

My own paper dealt with the ongoing revitalization of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), which I presented at a workshop dealing with the regionalism and regionalization processes in the Middle East and North African regions. One of the workshops dealt with the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia in Islam in Western Europe. It was co-chaired by Stefano Allievi, a leading Italian academic and current head of the Robert Schuman Centre, and Martin Van Bruinessen, a Dutch scholar.

The workshop brought together 10 other leading scholars researching on Islam in Europe. Titled “Public Debates about Islam in Europe: Why and How ‘Immigrants’ became ‘Muslims,” the workshop focused on the current debates on Islam and Muslims in Europe, especially the problem of integration increasingly defined as one of (in)compatibility between Islamic and European values.

Muslims as the ‘Other’

In many countries of Europe, the relation between autochthonous population and immigrants has been marked by cultural conflicts, and it has been especially conflicts over Islamic symbols that had a high visibility.

The content of discussions on immigration has tended to shift towards the cultural and symbolic level. Political actors, the media, and public intellectuals have increasingly focused on supposedly Islamic specificities. Immigrants have increasingly come to be identified as Muslims first, both in the perception by the host societies ands in their self-perceptions.

The privileging of religious identity in the public debate has tended to marginalize other social aspects, and many questions are more and more frequently debated in religious terms. Immigration has become ‘Islamicised.” Reactive identities have become more salient and ‘act’ specifically as such in the cultural, religious and political fields. Muslims are cast in the role of the ultimate, and essentially different outsider.

The literature that sees the Muslims as different, the “other,” at times the enemy is spreading, together with the research that just makes Islam its subject of research and its fieldwork. Lately, however, at least at the level of the wider public, the first seems to be getting the better of the second.

Here is what some of the speakers said about the position of Muslims and perception of Islam in Western Europe: The Netherlands

Martin Van Bruinessen spoke about the roots of Muslim rage in the Netherlands, which until quite recently was known for its lenient asylum policies and acceptance of cultural diversity. The country first saw an assault on multiculturalism, followed by the public stigmatization of some specific ethnic groups and a call for anti-immigration measures. A refraining took place in which all immigration problems, petty crime, ‘black’ schools, honour-related violence, became identified with Islam, parts of a package that also included jihadist violence abroad a few cases of jihad recruitment at home, and of course the headscarf.

The brutal murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 was an iconic event that made Islam the theme that dominated all political debate and for many, turned it into the ultimate other in opposition to which virtue was defined. People of Muslim cultural background found that ‘indigenous’ Dutch society considered Islam as a major or even sole defining element of heir identities—obliging to reflect on their relation with Islam and their conception of what it means to be a Muslim.

Rudolph Peters from the University of Amsterdam discussed how Dutch public intellectuals represent the Quran to accentuate the otherness of Muslims. According to him many autochthonous intellectuals in Dutch public debate claim that religiosity as such is incompatible with the core values of rational modernity, which, supposedly, is the central element of contemporary indigenous Dutch cultural identity. This opposition, then, is reinforced at a deeper level when these public intellectuals try to characterize Islam. In doing so, they construct a caricature of Islam that tends to “explain” the alleged anti-modern, traditional thinking of Muslims.

The Quran and the way Muslims relate to it, according to Rudolph, is one of the central issues in this discourse. A widely held opinion is that the Quarn is a dangerous text inciting to violence, and that Muslims take its texts literally and unquestioningly carry out what these texts enjoin or allow. The film “Submission,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film “Submission,” which was directed by Von Gogh, is a case in point: its central message is that the Quran permits the chastising of wives and that this explains a higher incidence of wife beating among Muslims.

Rudolph’s colleague from the University of Amsterdam, Marcel Maussen made an interesting presentation about how quickly the Dutch public perceptions changed about the mosque. In Rotterdam, the first Turkish newly built mosque was welcomed in 2001 as “a kind of work of art,” as an illustration of the emancipation of Muslims in the Netherlands and a welcome attribute to a multicultural skyline. In 2002, however, the establishment of another new mosque led to public tumult. Representatives of Liveable Rotterdam protested against the establishment of what they labelled a 'bastion of a conservative Islam', a 'megalomaniac sugar cake' and an illustration of the lack of 'immigrant integration' in Dutch society. Denmark

Katrine Romhild Benkaaba, a Danish academician, talked about the process leading to a hostile politicization of Islam in Danish politics and media debates. According to him, since the late 1990’s, questions related to immigration and integration have received a significant political and public attention in Denmark. In this context, Islam has increasingly been associated with the negative stereotypic images of the “problematic foreigners.”

According to her, as opposed to the development in other European countries, where particular political responses to the practical problems related to Muslim faith practice have appeared, the “institutionalization” or “organization” of Islam has not become public issues in Denmark. Islam is considered in public matters solely as part of the “integration problem,” and the debates are focused on supposedly incompatible cultural values.

Katrine’s narration of developments leading to the publication of blasphemous illustrations was interesting, as it clearly established a pattern on the Danish media’s expose of Islam’s distorted picture. For example, Van Gogh’s murder was debated as if it had taken place in Denmark. The newspaper Jyllands Posten, which later published the blasphemous illustrations, then wrote in its editorial: “Human lives are in danger, the liberty of expression and completely fundamental European values are set under pressure in the wake of the immigration of Muslims.”

The film “Submission” was shown on national TV and there were repeated appeals to Danish Muslims to reassure the population of their non-sympathy with the murderer of Van Gogh. The July 2005 terrorist bombing of London further contributed to associating Islam with violence. It was in this backdrop that Jyllands Posten’s Editor published the blasphemous illustrations last September. Germany

Riem Spielhaus, a German professor, highlighted the identity-conflicts of intellectuals with a Muslim background in Germany. According to him, a number of highly acknowledged 'assimilated' intellectuals in Germany, who had never previously presented themselves as being religious, publicly have started referring to themselves as Muslims in the last few years. Their statements, in articles, interviews and essays in the most prestigious German media on current political debates reveal reflections about an ongoing change of identity.

The question that Riem attempted to answer in his presentation was as to how these migrants all of a sudden become Muslims. According to him, not only negative events on the global level but also the German discourse on migrants and changes in the concept of citizenship may have had an impact on their identity representation. The statements indicate that they perceive the integration process through naturalization contradicted by an ongoing stigmatization of Muslims. That leads to the conclusion, even by adopting German citizenship; foreigners with a Muslim background do not get recognition as full and equal citizen. The German discourse found a new way of “othering” while referring to them: foreign Turks became German, but German Muslims and that means; they are still defined as being alien.

The definition of the ‘Muslim community,’ according to Riem, appears to be derived on the basis of ethnic origin but used as a religious category. Those who compile statistics and mould public opinion define borders and characteristics of the newly constructed group. While they broaden borders to include all people of Muslim origin, they exaggerate the importance of the religious background intensely. The statements of the discussed intellectuals reflect this and can be interpreted as attempts to keep control over their own identity

Italy

Stefano Allievi’s paper began with the Italian case but concluded with predictions about what course Islam in Europe will take. According to him, the current conflict between Muslims and the rest in Europe, if there is at all one, is often about symbols rather than modes of behaviour and social practices. Stefano came hard on the protagonists of ‘clash of civilizations’ such as Italian-born author Oriana Fallachi. Each one of her books on Islam has sold a million copies in Italy alone.

Oriana, according to him, asks simple questions, such as: Who are we? Who are they? Which is our identity? And what is theirs? Formulating the right questions does not obviously mean give correct answers. And a simple set of answers is in her case a simplistic one: we are good, they are bad; we are the civilization, they are primeval; they want to attack us, we need to defend ourselves; Islam is an enemy, therefore every Muslim is an enemy; they have been our enemies in the past, therefore there is no reason why should they be peaceful now; and so on and so forth.

Stefano argued that that we face is great: the clash of civilizations—not only on a planetary scale, but also in our cities and neighbourhoods—may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is by dint of repeating it, recalling it, invoking it, that we produce it and we make it real. In a certain sense it is a hole that we are with our own hands, and in which we risk to fall. Furthermore the conflict is not only, and perhaps not mainly, between cultures and religions, or between people belonging to them, it is internal to cultures, religions, and communities.

According to him, Islam in Europe is changing. However, the process of making itself European, by becoming a European reality and an internal social order, it is also changing Europe. Stefano said: “The simple fact of being physically confronted with ‘the other’ changes us, as much as it changes the outsider an insider. We might have an idea of who has more power, and who will change more: in other words, of who will be the “winner.” But we probably have only a vague and pale idea of which kind of society will emerge from these processes.”