Islamophobia and the next European Parliament

Commentary



Islamophobia in Europe is in complete continuity with the decades-long discourse of the far right.

As the next parliamentary elections approach, populist parties in Europe continue their offensive. Far from resembling one another due to significant ideological differences and varied political agendas, most tend to agree on their criticism, even outright rejection in some cases, of Islam, which they perceive to be the main threat to a so-called European identity.

Islamophobia in Europe is not new and, in this case, is actually in complete continuity with the decades-long discourse that has dominated the far right’s political strategy in particular. A fanatical concern over the “Islamisation” of Europe and its nations has been part and parcel to the identities of parties like the National Front (Front National), headed by Marine Le Pen in France and the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid), led by her Dutch ally, Geert Wilders, who, in 2007, compared the Quran to Hitler's Mein Kampf.

The novelty of this electoral moment rather deals with the fact that Islamophobia now seems to have become a powerful vector for the potential unification of extremes and joint action inside the next European Parliament. Indeed, while populist parties diverge on a number of issues, most unite around a common rejection of Islam and could gain wider support.

Anti-Islam sentiment has also become so commonplace that it not only floods the thinking of the far right but also appears to be poisoning some sectors from the traditional right – for example, one of the British Conservative Party’s candidates, David Bishop, had to resign after local media drew attention to his Islamophobic tweets in early May. Specifically around the issue of Islam, cracks are also slowly appearing within parties that are otherwise known for being rather open and tolerant. The response: a strong reaffirmation of their collective secular identity and values.

The 2013 report of the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (Commission nationale consultative des droits de l'homme, CNCDH) on racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia could not be clearer: Islamophobia is booming, and it has allowed a number of once moribund far-right movements, such as in Denmark and the Netherlands, to rebuild their electoral base. From vitriolic media and public attacks against the hijab and niqab (Islamic veils) to anger over the existence of a wide-reaching halal meat industry, this process of stigmatisation borrows from several channels and symbols that are inseparable from broader anti-immigration and anti-foreigner reflexes; for example, the targeting of populations originating from eastern Europe, such as the Roma, which brings to mind the still fresh Leonarda affair in France.

Yet, official recognition of Islamophobia is still quite new. Until recently, the use of the term had sparked much controversy and debate: while some considered the term itself to be imperfect, others feared that it would hinder legitimate criticism of Islam. However, behind the shift from biological racism to cultural racism in the postcolonial era is a patent and worrying demonisation – at least in Europe – of Islam and its believers, who are deemed “incompatible” with national identities and a “problem” around which a growing number of political actors converge. The phenomenon’s acuteness is unquestionable: according to CNCDH, while racist and anti-Semitic incidents overall declined in 2013, anti-Muslim acts meanwhile rose for the third consecutive year (up to 30 percent in 2011).

Within this increasingly tense political landscape, the Greek ecological party’s candidate for the European Parliament, Anna Stamou, an Orthodox Christian who converted to Islam and appears in public wearing the hijab, has made headlines. Her candidacy is a sign that European Muslims are becoming more and more capable of confronting Islamophobia by asserting their call for religious and political equality much more strongly, perhaps even in Europe’s next parliament.

 

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