Rising xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe: Lessons for a secular India

These are challenging times with rising majoritarianism and nationalism and, with a large Muslim population, India must watch events in Europe closely, and ensure its secular fabric remains intact, writes Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd) for South Asia Monitor  

Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd) Nov 23, 2020

The multi-polar world today is increasingly characterized by authoritarian states/rulers/dictators, rising nationalism and religious fundamentalism, growing economic asymmetry, a thousand mutinies mainly regional but with regional and global power interventions making the situation worse, chronic instability like in Middle East, Afghanistan, and an increasing confrontationist clash between the democratic liberal world order and illiberal, non-conformist nations/regimes who want to follow their own pathways. 

Nations are compelled to constantly engage in 24X7 internal and external strategic balancing in a continuous phase of cooperation, competition, confrontation, or even conflict if national aspirations are threatened. This transformation is fed by internal and external societal/cultural/historical/religious strife.

Europe which was historically built on a shared belief in democracy, individual freedom, commitment to human rights, gender equality, freedom of speech, and importantly religion and the right to migration/ asylum has also been affected by the changing world.

There was a time when Muslim scientists, astronomers, surgeons, and mathematicians were at the cutting edge of their disciplines. Muslims were then seen as representing a powerful, sophisticated, and rich world civilization. Islamic mathematicians such as Al-Khwarizmi, Avicenna, and Jamshīd al-Kāshī made advances in algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and Arabic numerals. Islamic doctors described diseases like smallpox and measles and challenged classical Greek medical theory. Today, ironically, Muslims are seen as destitute refugees escaping mad and autocratic Muslim rulers.

It is understandable that Europeans will not see Islam as part of European civilization. Therefore, it is necessary they peep into their own history when Muslims were very much part of European culture and history, and impacted the renaissance, scientific revolution, and enlightenment. While many people talk of a Judeo-Christian Europe, the fact is that it is the Judeo, Christian, and Islamic religions, i.e. the Abrahamic faiths came together while engaging with Greek philosophy, to create and nourish what we now know as European civilization. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming of some million migrants was an act of compassion for which the world, has applauded her. 

The friction between a Europe that wishes to preserve its historic identity and newcomers who wish to escape their own countries and move to Europe is real, not a delusion. There is, unfortunately, an alarming rise in xenophobia in which islamophobia is the pivotal constituent in Europe. At the outset, comprehensive statistical inputs indicate that contrary to presumptions and assumptions which a nationalist/original citizen feels/perceives the immigrants (from past and present wave of migrations in last 5/6 years) have indeed integrated with European nations well.

Xenophobia and Islamophobia

Xenophobia is ‘dislike of or prejudices against people from other countries’ and Islamophobia is ‘unreasonable dislike/hatred or fear of, and prejudice against, Muslim or Islam. Many experts feel that the real danger to European unity and the future is neither economy, history, nationalism, or extreme political affiliations but rising xenophobia in which Islamophobia is the overriding factor. We have become accustomed to the word Islamophobia, but the ‘phobia’ part softens the meaning as if it was a medical condition deserving of tolerance.

EU legislation classifies anti-Muslim as racism, which throws up its ominous characteristic starkly. Racism is not a temporary or transitional phenomenon; it is a social pandemic that burrows into the structures of society, infiltrating and disintegrating all areas of life. Another popular term commonly spoken today is ‘political Islam.’ Political Islam is any interpretation of Islam as a source of political identity and action. It can refer to a wide range of individuals and/or groups who advocate the formation of state and society according to their understanding of Islamic principles. This is not strictly applicable in Europe, at least for the present.

Common factors that trigger xenophobia, in general, are differences in cultural and social perception, and the rejection of any alterations within the social environment, and a lack of education. This has got cemented by highly publicized Islamic fundamentalism and dramatic visuals of terrorism globally, which unfortunately has cost many lives. Without pulling punches, another main cause is the politicians' effect; experts of behavioral sciences and international relations accept that politicians have a clear effect on the people, urging them to participate in xenophobic movements while fueling their ideologies with hateful rhetoric. “Politicians affect society. The stronger their words, the more effect they have, as they polarize people,” said Mahinur Özdemir, a former member of the Belgian parliament. Serkan Soytekin, the press secretary of the DENK Party, the first political party in the Netherlands established by migrants endorses it and says “For instance, in Holland, I suffer the same problems as my neighbor, but they create an artificial difference between us based on race and religion." He adds, “Our first aim is to make people recognize the fact that there is xenophobia; then, to find the main causes of this issue and see if there are enough measures against it.”

European history of migrants assimilation

Europe has historically been able to cope well with large influxes of refugees. Throughout the Cold War, for example, millions of people moved from Eastern to Western Europe, fleeing communism. Europe then resettled hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s and 1990s. It even took large numbers of migrants from Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, including many Muslims, but this was before Islam became politically toxic. There have been far greater political skepticism toward those fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria. 

Concurrently, much of the Muslim world seems to be turning away from the liberal values that have defined Europe since 1945. A very visible change can be seen in Turkey, once a candidate for entry into the European Union, now an increasingly authoritarian and religiously chauvinist state. Interestingly, Europe shares responsibility for a smaller number of refugees than is currently in Lebanon alone? Ironically, all European countries without exception desperately need immigrant labour. 

The elephant in the room is an underlying Islamophobia. The simple fact is that European member states don’t really want Muslim immigrants. The liberal political elites of western Europe has steered clear of admitting that the biggest single barrier to coherent asylum and immigration policies is public anxiety about Islam. The anti-Muslim bias is omnipresent not only geographically but also across the political spectrum. The right, the centre, and the left; everyone seems to hold a grudge, although for different reasons.

Stereotyping Islam/Muslims. 

Broad and overlapping categories within Islam/ Muslims are available.

• One source classifies them under three categories. Literalist Islam; those Muslims who believe that to be a good Muslim should mean to adhere to the letter and spirit of Islamic law; the mystics, those who believe in a warm, inclusive embrace of humanity which reflects the love of the divine for all creation; and finally, the modernists, those who believe in balancing faith with modernity. Those in this final category believed that modernity, with its characteristics of democracy and accountability, and Islam were compatible. It is this category that is under threat directly from the literalists. It is the failure of the modernist category that creates a backlash and gives space for the emergence of the Taliban, ISIS, and so on.

• Another method is to view them as 'contextualists,' who believe that the policies and practices of Islamist movements are driven less by ideology than by events, and are reactive and adaptive. The groups’ main goal is to survive as coherent organizations and political actors. And their use of religious rhetoric is often little more than 'Muslim-speak.' Whereas the 'the essentialist,' view holds that Islamists are fundamentally ideological and that any concessions they make to secularist principles or institutions are purely tactical: their participation in electoral politics hardly precludes them from calling for violent jihad, as well. In other words, Islamists see the ballot box as little more than a path to power; once there, they would replace democracy with theocracy.

• The mistake could be in stereotyping/characterizing people who come from across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia as Muslims rather than as immigrants from different ethnicities or nationalities. Many Muslims actually wish to escape from being categorized as fundamentalist/ too religious. In each European country the relationship of the Muslim minority to the host country is different and depends on the historical relationship with their country of origin and the circumstances of their arrival.

After 9/11, especially in the US and Europe, they were seen simply as Muslim. While earlier in Europe they were known as Turks, Kurds, Pakistanis and also by their ethnicity and profession, now they are clubbed in people’s perception. The young generation of Muslim immigrants born as citizens in the US or Europe feels the full backlash of the prejudice against Muslims, and it is from here that some young men and women are susceptible to the preaching and allure of the more extreme literalists who argue that there can be no coexistence between Islam and the West.

• A closed loop. Policies have emerged across Europe that fundamentally contradict liberal values. A familiar pattern seen is; a negative incident occurs that implicates refugees (Muslim), the media pounces, the far-right mobilizes, and the center-right shifts inches closer toward tightening borders. Prejudices difficult to break is that centrist politics has declined in Europe. Centrist politicians have seen their vote share collapse.

The security threats that Europe faces are real. The self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and other terrorist groups threaten lives and values. Many of the refugees coming to Europe are themselves fleeing ISIS-related violence. The way to address security challenges is through better intelligence and criminal justice, not through restrictions on the right to asylum. The US and UK have avoided a mainland terrorist attack over the past decade because of its superior intelligence services, not because of its immigration policies. Bolstering those services, rather than undermining liberal values, is the response to terror.

Statistically, there is no greater likelihood that refugees will be involved in terrorism or crime than the general population. Have their numbers created as much havoc as many politicians claim? In fact, although their integration has been incremental and costly, the refugees have not, as right-wingers and others have charged, swamped the welfare system, overwhelmed the schools and public budgets, or deprived native citizens of employment. The refugees’ cultures and religions (mostly Islam) have not impeded integration or undermined social cohesion (degree varies from nation to nation with Germany being best at integration despite accepting maximum immigrants). 

The 2018 Islamophobia report of the SETA Foundation shows that there have been hundreds of thousands of Islamophobia attacks recorded in Europe in that year alone. The greatest number of incidents occurred in Germany, with 678 attacks on German Muslims, followed by France and Austria, with 676 and 540, respectively. When attacks on mosques and various discrimination cases are included, the numbers escalate even more. The report also shows that compared to the previous year, there has been a remarkable rise in the number of attacks. In 2019, research conducted for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Religion Monitor confirmed widespread mistrust towards Muslims across Europe. In Germany and Switzerland, every second respondent said they perceived Islam as a threat. In the UK, two in five share this perception. In Spain and France, about 60 percent think Islam is incompatible with the West. In Austria, one in three doesn’t want to have Muslim neighbours.

Muslims in India: What Europe can learn

In India, after 1857 uprisings that almost toppled British rule in the subcontinent, the British consciously left religion alone. This allowed Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs to maintain their religious identity and even nourish it. However, the British did use religion to sow the seeds of partition for their geostrategic interests. Europeans need to take a trip to India and see how well the Indian Muslim community is integrated into Indian society. 

The 195 million Muslim population of India forms 15 percent of the Indian population, three times the population of France today, yet, only 18 Indian Muslims were found joining ISIS. Compare this with France, which has only 10 million Muslims but has more than 2,000 ISIS fighters who are of French nationality. Muslims in India excel in every field of human activity.

The big moment of Indian Muslims came, when, in the wake of the deadliest and most famous Mumbai terror attack in 2008, the Muslim Council decided not to allow the burial of the bodies of the nine Jihadists killed during the Taj Hotel siege. Islam, to Muslims in India, is not at all about killing innocent civilian people. This act drew international headlines.

The starting point must be a clearheaded articulation and reassertion of liberal values. Özdemir said that as long as rising Islamophobia is not accepted by European countries, but clubbed loosely with xenophobia, a solution was not likely to occur. Despite the overwhelming increase in Islamophobic attacks, most European countries refuse to include Islamophobia as a separate category of hate crimes, an essential first step to uncovering the real scale of this problem, as is the case regarding anti-Semitism. 

The good news is that thanks to the Black Lives Matter protests, the ground is now fertile in Europe for anti-xenophobic activism and policies. Soon after the killing of George Floyd in police custody and the Black Lives Matter campaign in the US that spilled into Europe, galvanized continent-wide protests, forcing the EU in appointing its first-ever anti-racism coordinator. 

Concurrently, people who migrate to Europe must adhere to its laws and social norms. But people should be judged and punished as individuals. Second, Europe should not waver in its commitment to freedom of religion. In a liberal community, people must be allowed to believe what they choose. Third, Europe would have to do a better job upholding freedom of speech. Finally, Europe must protect the right to asylum.

Challenges and recommendations

The physical, emotional, and psychological impact and effects on anti-Muslim discrimination include:

• Fear of attending worship services, entering mosques, or wearing distinguishing religious or traditional attire or symbols negatively affects the right of individuals and communities to manifest their religion or beliefs.

• A sense of needing to abstain from identifying publicly as Muslim, expressing their cultural and religious identity or attending religious, cultural, or other events, which can exclude them from public life.

• A feeling or necessity to self-censor, which could cause Muslims to be reticent to express empathy or support for countries that have a Muslim majority in order to avoid being stigmatized.

What can European (or any) governments do? They can take a range of measures to address the problem of intolerance against Muslims. 

A secular, multi-dimensional democratic country like India must also pay heed. Governments can: -
• Acknowledge that intolerance and prejudice against Muslims and poses a threat to social cohesion, security, and stability and needs to be addressed institutionally and systemically.

• Raise awareness of the phenomenon of anti-Muslim hatred and reinforce values based on the protection of human rights for all.

• Assess risk and prevent attacks by enhancing co-operation between police and intelligence agencies and Muslim communities through formal communication, transparency, joint planning and action, including regular meetings with mosques and Islamic institutions.

• Build trust by developing and institutionalizing working partnerships with Muslim communities, civil society organizations, and individuals.

• Improve protection for Muslim communities, institutions, and sites, with a focus on special/religious holidays, as also days when anti-Muslim protests are on.

• Consider and incorporate expertise within Muslim communities, including women when conducting a threat assessment, security planning, and/or development of crisis management systems.  

• Recognize and record any anti-Muslim bias motivation when investigating and prosecuting criminal acts or sensitizing police agencies to the specific features of hate crimes against Muslims.  

• Reassure Muslim communities of the state’s commitment to protecting them.

• Provide support to victims and assist communities.

• Support research by academics and civil society groups on the narratives and ideology of hate groups and individuals promoting intolerant rhetoric.

• Ensure that public messaging recognizes hate crime as not only a threat to the dignity and the integrity of an individual but also to entire communities.

Rising xenophobia of which Islamophobia is the main ingredient is a ground reality in Europe. If unchecked it can pose a grave danger to the unity and stability of Europe and the European Union. 

India, a diverse multi-religious/ethnic/cultural nation is proud of its secular fabric and way of life and enjoys genuine  respect and admiration globally. However, these are challenging times with rising majoritarianism and nationalism and, with a large Muslim population, India must watch events in Europe closely, and ensure its secular fabric remains intact. 

The implications directly impact the integrity of the nation. For Europe and India there is much to learn from each other.

(The writer, an Indian Army veteran, was Director-General of Military Operations. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at perumo9@gmail.com)

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