Populism, Islamophobia and What this means for Muslims in Europe?

“From the street to state, Islamophobia is baked into European political life” Narzanin Massoumi

The recent body literature of Muslims in Europe suggests that they are persistently being ‘censored’. Is it so? One cannot deny the fact that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a larger proportion of Muslims underwent stigmatization of different sorts given to their ‘identity’. This didn’t stop here. Instead, this has taken ‘considerable roots’, manifesting in different forms which we broadly refer to as Islamophobia.

Muslims are demonized on daily basis, brazenly criticized, reckoned as ‘enemies’, and subject to suspicion. The violent attacks on Muslims in many European countries have deepened. Austria alone has witnessed 74% upsurge in Islamophobic attacks from the past few years. In 2018, Austria shutdown 7 mosques. In the same year, Austria and Italy both expelled Islamic preachers from their soil, 6 Imams were expelled from Austria and 16 were expelled from Italy. Expulsion of religious preachers (Imams) and scrutinizing religious institutions are done to stop the diffusion of ‘violent Islam’. To curb the so-called Islamisation, both Germany and France commenced to educate local Imams at home. They also launched pilot projects and certification programs for these imams so that they will teach specific version of Islam, which will not jeopardise these nations.

After Christianity, Islam is the second widely followed religion in France. The French constitution does not consider religion above the state and contemplates itself as ‘laicite’ or secular country. Laicite is the central and defining principle of the French national identity. According to French President Immanuel Macron, “secularism is the cement of a united France”. Equality of citizens before law irrespective of race, origin or religion is also one of its basic principles. However, the banning of the veil or burka and other religious or cultural symbols, banning of building mosques with minarets manifests denial of the right of equality of its minorities.

After 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, France has been on the high alert regarding ‘Islamism’. From 2018, there has been 52% rise in Islamophobic incidents. In 2010, the French government completely banned women from wearing a burka or covering face at public places. There is a surge in incidents of Muslims being labelled as terrorists and this ‘culture of stigmatization’ gets reinforced in a society, when political leaders issue anti-Muslim statements. For instance, French opposition leader Marine le Pen compared Muslims praying in streets to Nazi occupation. Whatever be the underlying purpose of this outrageous statement, one cannot deny the fact that such communication is driven with a purpose of ‘normalizing hatred’ against a community, which has somewhat become the order of the day. Incidents like stereotyping, online trolling, malicious campaigns, and other violent attacks have brought Europe to a tipping point. Besides this, European Muslims are encountering numerous challenges of exclusionist policies, poverty, restricted freedom of religion, unemployment, physical attacks on property and places of worship, and other social and political discriminations which are often trivialized.

Stringent Policies Against Muslims in France

Recently, speaking at Les Mureaux, President Macron said, “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country”. He vowed to eradicate the influence of Islamism from public institutions. For this, Macron has devised a new proposal to combat what he calls ‘Islamic separatism’. To counter radical/extremist elements, the government will keep check on foreign religious funding, scrutinize religious institutions and limit home-schooling. Macron’s proposal to counter radicalization will certainly set a new templet with its snowballing effects across the European continent. The idea seems to support a new version of Islam, which would be compatible with French republican values and to unleash a war of French government against so called radical or extremist Islam, within its boundaries.  ‘Islam of France’ as Macron puts it

Internally, Europe is battling economic challenges, gender issues, a rise in racism, cybercrime, and an unprecedented climatic challenge. But politicians  have intentionally shifted focus on Islamism to advance their agendas. Islamophobic movements and political parties promoting anti-Muslim agendas have gained popular support as well as political mileage. For this reason, Islamophobic discourse has well absorbed by European society. Thus, Macron’s recent speech attempting to ‘reorganize Islam’ in France is part of his election manifesto. Border crossing of refugees and excessive immigration has not only destabilized the national identity but also exacerbating the public rage.

European countries have adopted various policies varying extensively from each other. Both France and Germany have adopted policies like multiculturalism and assimilation to integrate its minorities. The French model of assimilation has completely failed because it cannot cope up with the diversity and diverse identities with the republic. Thus, minorities are losing their ‘Muslim identity’ under the garb of assimilation. Countering separatist elements, the French government continues to undermine the religious identity of its minorities. which justifies the fact that religious values cannot be above the French values.

The culture of stigmatization with respect to minorities in Europe and in particular to Muslims should be dealt with sternly by the authorities. The broader approach of European countries with respect to religion of Islam should consider Islam’s sensitivities and the government’s hard approach in itself should not become a galvanizing force for religiously inspired violence. At the global stage, there is a need to bridge the chasm between Islam and West, which are wittingly or unwittingly propelling unending violence, which manifests in different forms as has been the recent case of beheading of a teacher in Paris.  

Ambreen Yousuf is a Doctoral Candidate at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.