Challenging the Muslim myth
Among all the factors driving anxiety about immigration and identity in Europe, the place of Islam in secular, liberal societies plays an important part
While populist parties are capitalising on the fear of Islam in the name of defending western values, progressive forces need to develop a strong discourse on Muslim diversity, fight more forcefully against discrimination and promote social interaction between groups of all or no faiths.
The politics of identity reflects and encompasses a struggle that goes on at many levels. In the 21stcentury, individuals, political parties and entire countries are all searching for the answer to the question of who they are and what they stand for. As a globalised economy and challenges that transcend borders have eroded people’s sense of self and certainty, populist parties in Europe and elsewhere have gained ground by offering them a way to restore it.
Defining who you are includes defining what you are not, and for European rightwing populist groups and their supporters, the overwhelming answer to that question is ‘Muslim’. Islam is viewed as a threat, incompatible with their values and those of the countries in which they live. Immigration is presented as an attack on western culture, and Muslim communities as the perpetrators. Mainstream political parties, on both the right and left, are viewed as co-conspirators.
The presentation of Islam as a threat creates a powerful ‘us versus them’ narrative, which must be challenged by the progressive mainstream. This means recognising the diversity among Muslims and moving beyond traditional models of integration and multiculturalism, to a broader approach to social cohesion.
Islam as part of the European story
The view of Islam as a threat is not new, and neither is it wholly irrational, given the history of Europe and its neighbours. For centuries, Christians and Muslims have fought each other for supremacy and this antagonism forms a key part of the history of the continent, with both sides harbouring painful memories. For Europeans worried about the creep of Islam, there is the memory of the invasions in the eighth century, followed by centuries of battle to take back control of the Iberian peninsula. Muslim populations who feel marginalised and mistreated may recall the painful colonisation of their countries and its cultural impositions.
Since the 1950s however, the Muslim population in many European countries has grown through family reunification and high fertility rates into a significant domestic minority. It is this phenomenon which is new, and provides the starting point for more recent unease. Together in 2010, Muslims formed six per cent of the European population, with 13 million in the EU.Worldwide, Islam is the fastest growing religion, and is expected to overtake Christianity by the end of this century. Many of those who came ‘temporarily’ to Europe following independence or as guest workers have stayed. They have also had families, creating a large new community of Muslims who are not immigrants, but those born and raised in Europe. Their numbers and visibility have greatly increased, presenting a new experience for many non-Muslim Europeans.
In many countries, including France and Germany, which host the EU’s largest Muslim populations, unfavourable public views have declined over the past decade. Yet there is still a tendency to see Muslims as wanting to form a separate group, apart from wider society (Figure 1), with misunderstandings and suspicion persisting.
Source: PEW Research Center Spring Global Attitudes Survey 2006 & 2016 (data not available for Sweden in 2006)
In the UK’s recent referendum campaign, the portrayal of Turkey joining the EU as a threat by the leave side (Figure 2) was in part predicated on the fact that it has a Muslim majority population. While still a cardinal, the previous pope, Benedict XVI was outspoken in his view of Europe as a cultural continent rather than a geographic one, of which Christianity is viewed as a key element and Turkey was not considered a part. Criticism is also sometimes levelled that while Muslims are largely allowed to freely practice their religion in Europe, Christians in Muslim majority countries continue to be persecuted, and in countries such as Saudi Arabia conversion to Christianity is considered apostasy and is punishable by death.
Figure 2: Vote Leave campaign poster
War of words: who owns western values?
Since 9/11, rightwing populists have opportunistically seized ownership of western liberal values, which they pit against Islam. Given that trust in political institutions and politicians is at a low, the idea that certain groups are ‘out to get us’ is easier to propagate. Arguments about identity appeal widely to many different individuals and groups, beyond the vulnerable and regardless of socioeconomic status.
Some political groups portray Islam as in conflict with the west through drawing on Europe’s Christian heritage, as is common in Central and Eastern Europe, while others portray Islam as a threat to national secular values, particularly of western and northern European countries. France’s Front National (FN) for example claims the defence of French laïcité (the neutrality of the state towards religious beliefs and the separation of the religious and government spheres) as a key pillar of its approach. This approach also has the capacity to mobilise non-Christians whether they be of other or no faith. FN has even been able to pick up support among some Muslims themselves when it concentrates on Islamist extremism and questions such as the shutting down of radical mosques and curbing Salafism.
Germany’s Eurosceptic ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ party (AfD), adopted a manifesto at its party conference in summer 2016 that declares ‘Islam is not part of Germany’. Its leader Frauke Petry has expressed concern that the achievements of the Reformation and the Enlightenment are in danger. Pegida – ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’ – makes its goal clear in its name and recently declared its intention to become a political party and work closely with AfD.
Recent jihadist attacks on European soil have provided useful ‘evidence’ for rightwing populists and their growing support bases that something is intrinsically wrong with Islam and that it is in conflict with the values of ‘their’ countries. Since 2004, France has outlawed the hijab and other religious symbols in schools under its official policy of laïcité. However the recent furore over the burkini, highlighted a new battleground: the acceptance of religious symbols in shared public spaces.
This debate is also growing in states that have typically allowed wider freedom of dress. In Germany, where Berlin already bans religious symbols in public institutions and the hijab is banned for female teachers in certain states, an August poll showed 81 per cent of the public in favour of banning the burqa; Ukip’s new leader Paul Nuttall is also calling for a ban on the veil.
Added to this, the refugee crisis has created a perfect storm. Like terrorism, it risks reversing the gains made in public understanding and acceptance of Islam over the past decade. The FN’s theory of grand remplacement (the idea that France is losing its identity demographically, being replaced by a new population of immigrant ethnicity) seems far more plausible in the context of more than 1 million refugees from primarily Muslim countries of origin entering Europe in 2015. Although France has received comparatively few of these refugees, their geographical proximity is enough to stoke concerns. Following the 2015 Paris attacks, some felt threatened on two fronts – some of the attackers were born and raised in France, feeding anxieties about integration problems, while two of the Stade de France attackers carried Syrian passports, raising fears that the refugee inflow is being used by terrorists to ‘infiltrate’ Europe. Regardless of nationality, their commonality was the Muslim faith and claiming it as justification for their violent acts.
It is not only the populists who call for pushback against Islam, but increasingly the political mainstream, especially the centre right. Former UK prime minister David Cameron’s January announcement of a £20m English language fund was framed in terms of countering extremism among Muslims. ‘Prevent’, the government’s flagship anti-radicalisation strategy, has been criticised for approaching Muslims in general as enemies rather than partners. As home secretary, Theresa May was closely aligned with this approach, and under the prime minister, Amber Rudd seems poised to continue along a similar path.
The change in tone has led to splits within different parties as well as along the political spectrum. Ahead of the elections in France and Germany next year, positions on immigration and integration are of key importance for all candidates. In France, a hardline approach such as that of Front National would extend the laïcité principle to shared public spaces, workplaces and universities. The selection of Francois Fillon as the conservative Republican party’s presidential candidate has confirmed a strong stance on immigration, Islam and French identity will form a key part of the centre right’s campaign.
In Germany the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has long been pressured by its sister party CSU to abandon its policy of welcoming refugees. Having largely reduced the number of refugees arriving in Germany as a result of the EU-Turkey deal, the CDU was nonetheless punished in regional elections in 2016. Angela Merkel has to date demonstrated a more restrained response to the populist challenge than the UK or France, making clear that Germany cannot be opposed to accepting foreigners, especially those who are Muslim, as that would contravene Germany’s own laws and its obligations under international law, and making a speech at the bundestag in which she declared “Germany will remain Germany”. Nonetheless, with the Turkey deal on shaky ground and Merkel running for chancellor once again, the AfD will be keen to capitalise on any weaknesses and focus their campaign as much as possible on Merkel’s failures. Merkel’s recent nomination speech at the CDU party convention suggested her awareness of this and marked a shift in her rhetoric, offering her support for example to the idea of banning the burqa.
Being anti-Islam is central to the populist anti-immigration and nationalist narrative, which is now creeping into the mainstream. The millions of law-abiding, well-integrated Muslims across Europe are not acknowledged in this story and are in turn repelled by such rhetoric.
Is there such a thing as a ‘Muslim community’?
Considering a response to anti-Muslim sentiment and countering support for it requires acknowledging the diversity of western Muslims, and working more effectively on wider social integration.
This is not always a comfortable conversation as some would rather sweep under the carpet the existence of a minority of Muslims who hold what could be considered anti-western views. If mainstream parties choose to ignore this issue there could be a backlash. If people feel afraid, they cannot simply be told to stop being afraid – they must be convinced.
Recent high-profile polling in the UK and France has brought these difficult topics once more to the fore. Channel 4’s ‘What British Muslims Really Think’ survey touched on the always-sensitive topic of the treatment of women, with two in five respondents saying they believed that women should always obey their husbands. Over half believed homosexuality should be illegal, and one quarter supported the introduction of Sharia law in parts of the UK. The Paris-based Institut Montaigne meanwhile carried out a survey in September which classified its Muslim respondents into six types, with around 28 per cent of the total forming a group considered ‘problematic’ in the sense of having values opposed to those of the Republic.
Although these figures seem alarming on first reading, a closer examination of both surveys reveals a more mixed picture. The British survey has been criticised for failing to publicise the results from its control group, drawn from people of other or no faiths. For example, although only 34% of Muslims would report someone suspected of involvement with those supporting terrorism in Syria to the police, the control group figure was even lower at 30%. Its methodology has also been criticised, with polling taking place only in areas with more than 20% Muslim populations, which tend to be more economically disadvantaged and socially conservative. Meanwhile, the French study found that 46 per cent overall were considered fully ‘secularised’, having adopted the French values system, yet this figure was largely lost among the negative coverage.
The generalisations and concentration on negative statistics are reflective of a wider trend in which ‘Muslims’ have too often been treated by politicians and media as a homogenous block for study. This approach has tended to focus on the group rights debate, looking at the apparently different values of Muslims and non-Muslims in this regard, and concentrating on such issues as the place of women and children and the relationship between religious and political authority.
The answer is not to abandon any type of polling or study of minority groups (some argue that even conducting such polls causes stigmatisation), but to try to recognise their diversity and gain a more refined understanding. Differences in viewpoints occur not only between but within Muslim groups, and illiberal attitudes among certain people do not necessarily point to the existence of ‘parallel societies’. Better understanding should allow progressives to take control of the ‘facts’ revealed by such exercises and use them to create a better story, challenging the portrayal of ‘native’ Europeans as the protagonists and Muslim immigrants and their descendants as antagonists locked in an eternal struggle, which one ‘group’ has to eventually win.
Promoting social integration: what can progressives do?
1. Go beyond traditional approaches
To promote more effective social integration at a time of upheaval and potential division, we need to move beyond the traditional competing models of assimilation and multiculturalism. The shortcomings of multiculturalism have long been recognised. Yet the reaction in turning back towards assimilative policies in the past decade or so has not been promising either. The deteriorating sense of security in Europe, caused partly by jihadist attacks and partly by the refugee crisis, risks accelerating an unhelpful further move in this direction.
Across Europe, policy has focused in recent years on civic integration. The UK introduced citizenship tests and ceremonies in the early 2000s, while France first introduced its reception and integration contract in 2007, which requires all newly arrived immigrants with legal status to commit to learning French and becoming familiar with French laws. In Germany, integration classes were made compulsory under July’s Integration Act. Such initiatives promote a strong sense of obligation and a high level focus on citizenship and national identity. The recent suggestion in the UK’s Casey Review that an ‘integration oath’ be introduced seems to continue along this path.
Yet it makes little sense to encourage one group to assimilate into another, when neither is homogenous. Just as Muslims do not form a block, the ‘British’ or ‘Europeans’ do not either. The Scottish and EU referendums illustrated clearly the divided nature of identity in the UK today. Ultimately, making people sign a piece of paper may be more about others seeing them as ‘French’ ‘German’ or ‘British’ than about actually tackling the broad range of challenges they face. It also risks overlooking the very important role and responsibilities of the white ethnic majority in building a cohesive society.
The way the question of integration is framed matters because it impacts the response and the direction of a continent which claims to champion freedom and human rights. The excessive securitisation of immigration and a too narrow approach to integration risk undermining the very liberalism western Europe is supposed to stand for. Social cohesion is not just about ‘integration’ of newcomers, but about relations between existing residents. Social integration in any country is part of a much wider picture than just relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
2. Tackle discrimination and promote labour market integration
Any integration approach will fail if it does not address structural inequalities and discrimination faced by Muslims, which have often existed for decades and continue to the present day. Today, Muslims, as other minorities, face crucial challenges that may prevent them from fulfilling their potential and could lead, especially among younger generations, to some individuals taking refuge in religious identity and detaching themselves from wider society.
At school, those who are new to the country or those with immigrant backgrounds tend to have a risk of lower performance, even after taking into account their socioeconomic background.Although they do outperform the indigenous population in some countries, in EU countries they are more than twice as likely to drop out as their peers.
In accessing the labour market, further challenges arise. The UK’s House of Commons women and equalities committee published a report in July showing that Muslim people face the highest level of unemployment of all religious and ethnic groups at 12.8 per cent compared to 5.4 per cent for the general population. A recent French study showed Muslim men in France are four times less likely than Catholics to get a job interview. Difficulties with education and work have knock-on effects on integration, leading to higher relative poverty rates and concentration in poorer-quality housing among immigrant populations.
Discrimination can also occur in everyday life and is often a source of tension between minority groups and the authorities. In France, there have long been complaints that non-whites are unfairly targeted by police for random ID checks or ‘stop and search’. Last year saw the first rulingthat the police had carried out unjustified identity checks on a number of men who were black or of Arab origin, based on their racial profiles.
3. Promote greater social interaction
Having recognised the diversity that exists among Muslims in Europe, the variety of challenges they face, and the wider questions of social cohesion, the next step is the involvement of communities in efforts to promote social integration, through a pragmatic approach to problems and interaction at local level. This could involve working with people not only in the workplace, schools and residential areas, but also exploring new sites for interaction.
Where integration courses have been introduced, these should be viewed not just as an obligation, but as an opportunity. A part of these lessons could include bringing together groups which might normally only mix in hostile circumstances, such as those of minority background and local police.
European countries affected by the refugee crisis can offer examples of innovation that can be adapted and applied to countries like the UK, which while less affected still faces a myriad of different immigration and integration challenges.
Sweden has demonstrated the benefits of involving the voices of different stakeholders in a dialogue on integration, with the prime minister launching the ‘Sweden Together’ initiative in 2015. This exercise was billed by the government as an opportunity to create better conditions for new arrivals to the country, with 17 regional conferences taking place across the country in spring 2016 and all municipalities and counties invited to participate. The promotion of dialogue always needs to be backed up by practical policy action as well, and the country followed up by increasing the compensation allocated to each municipality per refugee, as well as committing funding to help refugees learn Swedish, have their foreign qualifications recognised quicker, and find employment faster.
In Germany, there is recognition of the potential for immigrants to innovate, as well as a conscious effort and cooperation by official organisations such as the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees and the Federal Employment Agency to address their needs. These offices have developed the ‘Ankommen’ app for all newcomers to Germany, helping them access relevant services and a beginner’s language course. The REDI School of digital integration in Berlin teaches coding to refugees and supported the development of the ‘Bureaucrazy’ app, helping newcomers understand and navigate Germany’s complex laws and procedures.
It is the narrative of opportunity and potential, supported by multiple stakeholders and backed up by practical positive actions such as these, which can help progressives combat divisive rhetoric and promote a more positive vision and reality of an inclusive society in the future.
This work is supported by the Barrow Cadbury Fund. Its migration programme aims to promote an immigration system that is fair to both migrants and established residents and a policy and public debate on migration and integration that is based on shared values as well as evidence.
Image credit: Kamelia Ilieva / Shutterstock.com
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