Anti-Islam movements are becoming increasingly visible across Europe and the US. These movements differ from country to country, but their aim is the same: to create nationalist identities that exclude Muslims.
In both the United States and Europe, there is an identity discourse based on a belief in an idealized homogeneity of a “pure” identity. In the U.S., anti-Muslim sentiment is often translated through the anti-Sharia movement, and is used to construct an American identity that is exclusively white and Christian. This discourse describes Muslims — those who follow Sharia — as infiltrating the United States and seeking to overthrow the U.S. Constitution and replace it with Sharia law. In Europe, the anti-Muslim movement seeks to stop a perceived “Islamization,” whereby the non-Muslim majority shifts towards an amorphous Islamic way of life whose details are sketchy but which would radically change secular Europe.
Despite its legally codified separation of church and state, in practice the U.S. remains a publicly religious country. A 2014 Pew research poll found that over 50 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “religion is very important in their life.” A 2006 Gallup poll found that 46 percent of Americans said that the bible should be “a” source of legislation. In contrast, Europe largely identifies as secular and thus Islamization is seen as an encroachment on secular European values. In the same Pew research poll regarding the importance of religion in people’s lives, Europeans overwhelmingly disagreed with the statement. In many European countries, secularism is rooted in national rhetoric. Today, rhetoric from political parties on all sides of the spectrum present secular Europe as a progressive and enlightened region under attack by Islam, migrants, refugees, and multiculturalism in general.
While noting that Islamophobia is present in both the United States and Europe, this piece seeks to unpack the anti-Muslim rhetoric prevalent in secular Europe, while distinguishing and showing the commonality between its themes from/and those prevalent in the United States. In the context of United States, anti-Muslim rhetoric is often framed through the “national security” lens. Whereas in Europe, anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies are popularized through the “culture” lens supported by the “Islamization” narrative, claiming an impending invasion of Europe and perceived loss of “European values.”
It is important to note that not all Americans or Europeans are Islamophobic. For those who do promote and support anti-Muslim views, fear of loss of cultural identity (a white, Christian civilizational identity) appears to be the root of it. This is manifested through rhetoric and policies that hinge on orientalism, racism, and white supremacy. However, Islamophobia is exhibited in differing forms in Europe and the United States given each regions unique history, culture, and politics.
Creeping Sharia and American Identity
Popular discourse in the United States focuses on the ominous threat of “Sharia law.” Rarely defined or explained, Sharia has become a flexible code word used to generate fear within the larger anti-Muslim narrative. As with many Arabic words co-opted by anti-Muslim speakers, when Sharia is explained, it is scarcely recognizable to Muslims. Instead, it is presented as a totalitarian political ideology intent on eliminating “our” freedoms and threatening “our way of life.” Thus, Sharia is characterized as a violent, barbaric, and oppressive system bent on overthrowing the Constitution and thus the freedoms it guarantees.
In an effort to avoid appearing prejudiced towards a certain group, anti-Muslim activists, organizations, and their supporters in the U.S. express dislike towards abstract ideas. They are able to circumvent the Constitutional protection of freedom of religion by claiming that Islam is not a religion and thus Sharia is not a religious concept, but a political ideology. In this narrative, Shari’a is a threat, and thus those who follow it, i.e. Muslims, are as well.
In the United States, the anti-Shari’a movement plays a role in constructing an American identity. Scholar of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Dr. Jonathan Brown, claims that efforts to construct this identity employ negative integration: “In other words we define ourselves based on what we are not.” This was one of the central points in Edward Said’s masterful book Orientalism: the “Occident” or the “West” frames itself vis-a-vis the “Orient” or the “East.” In today’s efforts to construct identity, anti-Sharia discourse is employed in order to equate white and Christian with what it means to be an American. This is why anti-Sharia rhetoric is present in far-right and white nationalist groups who seek to create an ethno-state.
An effort to create this exclusive American identity is not new, as the United States’ history of settler colonialism, genocide against indigenous peoples, and slavery demonstrates. Constructing of this identity has always required an “other” to frame itself against. In the context of the United States, this has long been and still remains African Americans. Throughout history, other groups of individuals have been added and removed to this list of “other.” In the United States, anti-Catholic sentiment was present during the late 19th century as political rhetoric identified them as less than civilized and questioned their loyalty to the United States. New Catholic immigrants were met with hostility and discrimination. Another example of such exclusionary policies targeting a constructed “other,” was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major law restricting immigration to the United States. The act halted Chinese immigration for ten years and was “enacted in response to economic fears,” as native-born Americans blamed Chinese workers for unemployment and declining wages. Another more recent example is the 1939 Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden, where 22,000 Nazis gathered for a “pro-American rally,” essentially a venue to promote anti-Semitic policies and theories. Today this “other” now includes Muslims, along with African Americans, and Jews.
The attempt to define who or what is American was visible in the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump. His campaign operationalized white resentment, attracting a majority white and Christian voter base. Polls taken following the election revealed that it was racial attitudes and fears of demographic change that remained the number one reason why people voted for Trump. The campaign’s “Make America Great Again” slogan sought to consolidate these feelings: Trump voters perceived the growing multiculturalism as a threat to their white identity, which is in their minds equivalent to American identity.
The election of Donald Trump emboldened global ethno-populism. Far-right and white nationalist groups are growing in numbers, tapping into populist, anti-elite, and anti-establishment sentiment. Politicians, such as Geert Wilders (the Netherlands) and Marine Le Pen (France) have utilized this populist sentiment as their campaigns focused on scapegoating Muslims, migrants, and other minorities. In Europe, Islamophobia has steadily grown due to a multitude of factors including increasing migration from parts of the Middle East and North Africa, increasing frequency of militant attacks, income inequality, and demographic change.
Islamization of Europe
In the European context, anti-Muslim discourse pivots on fears of Islamization: the perceived threat of Islamic encroachment on Europe’s secular way of life. Anti-Islamization campaigns attempt to ban visible and public displays of Muslim identity, such as the wearing of the hijab, building of mosques, and selling of halal meat. Such Islam-affiliated topics are viewed as a threat to European secular culture in that they impose religious beliefs in society’s public space. Further, while secularism is credited with enlightened attitudes toward women’s rights and democracy, Islam is constructed as backwards, barbaric, oppressive towards women, and violent. Islamization is viewed as an imminent threat to a progressive and enlightened Europe.
The increasing growth and visibility of Muslims in Europe has spawned violence, harassment, and violation of rights. Public discourse towards Muslims, immigrants, and refugees is frequently discriminatory and hate speech is prevalent on social media. The human rights crisis — dubbed the refugee crisis — has exacerbated already perceived threats to European identity, as white Europeans claim an invasion and colonization of Europe by Muslims (black and brown) is taking place. Thus, both white nationalists and supremacists’, both in Europe and the United States, issue dire predictions of a ‘White Genocide.’ That, they claim, will be the ultimate result of multiculturalism and the open borders it advocates.
Islam and Post-Christian European Secular Identity
Discriminatory policies reveal a belief that Islam is incompatible with European values, whatever these may be. Muslims are perceived as a threat to European identity and thus visible indicators of their religion are seen as an attack on European secular values. Governments attempt to curb such public displays of non-conforming European identities.
In March 2017, the New York Times published a study illustrating electoral gains made by far-right parties across Europe. In the 20 countries profiled, right-wing populist and far-right parties had made gains in 17 countries in the past five years. Along with populist rhetoric, many of these parties have employed anti-Muslim positions in their platforms and all speak of the threat of Islamization or an invasion of Muslims in Europe.
The far-right Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), or Law and Justice Party in Poland won 39 percent of the national vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Elections were held at the peak of the refugee crisis and anti-immigration remained a common feature in the party’s platform. PiS’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, warned that migrants carry “all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which … while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here.”
Poland is also one of Europe’s most religiously and ethnically homogenous countries. The 2016 Ipsos Perils of Perception survey found that Poles believe Muslims constitute 7% of the population, when in reality they constitute less than 0.1%. The poll also found that Poles believe there will be a massive conversion to Islam in the coming years, or a huge wave of Muslim immigration, resulting in the rise of the Polish Muslim population to 30% of the total population by 2020. This severe exaggeration reveals the panic in Polish society about an imagined Muslim takeover in a country that has an extremely small Muslim population. Politicians have fanned and utilized such sentiment to push for greater anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies specifically for individuals coming from Muslim-majority countries. PiS leader, Kaczyński, warned that acceptance of refugees would mean that Poland “would have to completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country.”
Polish media has bombarded the public with this imaginary Islamic invasion. Conservative news outlets “published front cover images depicting Poland being ‘flooded’ by Muslims, and drawing parallels to a famous image of Nazi invasion of Poland in the 1930s, with Muslims now being portrayed as German soldiers.” Another conservative weekly magazine framed the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, Germany with a cover entitled “The Islamic Rape of Europe,” with a blonde woman draped in a European Union flag being groped by three dark-skinned men. An editorial within the magazine stated these attacks illustrated the problems arising from the “influx of immigrants,” to “Old Europe.” Such arguments rely on racist depictions of a brown/black immigrant threat against a white “old Christian Europe.”
In 2015, around 10,000 right-wing protesters demonstrated in the capital of Warsaw while chanting, “Today refugees, tomorrow terrorists!” and “Poland, free of Islam!” Prior to 2015, Muslims had been discussed as an “external threat” mentioned in relation to terrorist attacks abroad and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections and the rise of populism and far-right nationalism, Muslims were increasingly viewed as an “internal enemy” symbolized by the figure of the immigrant/refugee.
A 2016 Pew research poll found that 69% of Italians had an unfavorable view of Muslims, the highest proportion amongst the European countries polled. In the same survey, over 50% of Italians held deep anti-refugee position believing that refugees would increase the likelihood of terrorism in Italy and are a burden to society. A 2016 YouGov poll also found Italy to be the most anti-immigrant country in Europe with over half the country agreeing with the statement “there are so many foreigners living here, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
Italy does not recognize Islam even though it happens to be the country’s second largest religion with 1.4 million followers. This means that unlike churches and synagogues, mosques are ineligible for public funds and weddings performed by Muslim religious officials are not legally recognized. In 2017, the country’s Interior Ministry and its nine major Islamic associations signed the National Pact for an Italian Islam, in which the government agreed to facilitate a path towards official recognition of Islam, if the organizations “agreed to create a registry of their imams and to require them to preach in Italian.” No other religious group has been asked by authorities to deliver sermons in Italian. The interior minister described the agreement as a safeguard “against any form of violence and terrorism.” Through this pact, the government seeks to regulate the practice of Islam. By demanding the sermons be delivered in Italian and framing such a demand as a measure against terrorism, the government violates the rights of the community by monitoring, restricting, and regulating the practice of Islam. This discriminatory policy is only applied to the Muslim community in the country as the government believes speaking in Arabic is indicative of potentially violent behavior.
The threat of Islamization may also play a role in many governments’ refusal to grant permission for the construction of mosques. Such refusal has led the local Muslim community to employ “garage Islam,” the practice of using private residences and rented buildings to hold communal prayers. The Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs has targeted “garage Islam” calling for even these small communal gathering spots to be banned because they are hard to monitor and thus increase the risk of radicalization.
In 2017, a new political party held a press conference, outlining its beliefs, stating, “We are not against Islam, but we are against the forced Islamization of Europe.” The leader of Fratelli d’Italia, a national right-wing party publicly called for the suspension of Muslim immigrants’ reception because it leads to “insecurity, crime, degradation, and helps Islamic terrorists.” The repeated association of terrorism with the practice of Islam and/or refugees/migrants seeks to criminalize Islam and stigmatize those fleeing war and economic instability.
In late 2014 and early 2015, three mosques were bombed within 10 days in Sweden. Attacks and rhetoric against Muslims and immigrants have grown in a historically tolerant Sweden. The Nordic country came third with the number of people registering for asylum in 2012. In 2014, over a third of asylum applications came from those escaping the Syrian civil war. Rising anti-immigrant attitudes have resulted in the far-right Sweden Democrats, a party which has roots in the neo-Nazi movement, making historic gains, earning almost 13 percent of votes, in the country’s 2014 elections.
The “U-turn” in Sweden’s policy regarding immigration comes as topics such as ‘Swedish values’ and national identity have come into the immigration debate. Such framing implies that these values and identity are exclusive to a certain segment of the population. The leader of the liberal-conservative moderate party, Anna Kinberg-Batra, stated that “arranged marriages” and “honour killings” go against “Swedish values,” claiming that violations of women’s rights and gender-based violence is a foreign problem. While the term honor killing is not linked to a religion, in this context it is a dog whistle for anything associated with Islam and Muslims, as the term has been used by anti-Muslim speakers who falsely claim that it is a characterization of Muslim societies.
The growing debate in Sweden around immigration has resulted in increasing reference to “Swedishness,” despite people’s inability to identify what exactly the word entails. A local town representative for the Sweden-Democrats expressed fear “that a higher birth rate among Muslim immigrants will eventually see them in the majority.” In July 2016 The Telegraph reported that 65% of supporters of the Swedish Democrats believed that increased diversity was bad for Sweden. Such fears of a higher birth rate and demographic change imply that immigrants are still seen as foreigners in the country despite immigrants identifying themselves as Swedish.
The far-right social movement, PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West), originated in Germany and has allies in neighboring European countries. PEGIDA’s political agenda builds on orientalist and derogatory depictions of Muslims and people of color that can be traced back to German colonial history. Following the cases of violent sexual harassment, assaults, and rape in Cologne during new year’s celebrations in 2016, public debate turned towards immigration from Muslim-majority countries. News reports pointing to the perpetrators as Muslims further inflamed such tensions, as popular rhetoric linked the events to immigration policy. Such attacks have been instrumentalized for political purposes. Focusing on perpetrators as refugee Muslim men of color fed the growing narrative that a person’s “cultural background was accountable for the crime:” a cultural racist argument. Dr. Aleksandra Lewicki, a political sociologist writes, these debates rest on the “racialization of violent behavior which is constructed as more ‘intrinsic’ to Islamic cultures.” Additionally, Germany’s right-wing populist party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), whose party manifesto states that “Islam does not belong in Germany,” has also demanded the ban of “symbols of Islamic domination in public,” including minarets, the call to prayer, and the full face veil.
European anti-Islamization has even taken a hold in Muslim-majority European countries, like Albania. In an effort to be accepted as “European,” Albania has taken active measure to erase its Islamic heritage viewing it as “impediment to joining the European family.” This understanding takes a racial tone as one Albanian politician described the historical conversion of Albanians to Islam as an act of “becoming yellow and black,” clearly using racist markers. These identity markers consider Christianity and whiteness as an integral part of “Western” civilization whereas Islam is viewed as a marker of the backwards “East.”
Anti-Muslim rhetoric has also been instrumentalized in European countries, such as Croatia and the Czech Republic, that have not been affected by large migration or fallen victim to terrorist attacks. These countries have recycled the greater anti-immigrant narratives in the region and far-right movements have all appropriated the anti-Islam discourse in their efforts to “defend” the “old” identity of Europe. Viewing Islam and Muslims as a threat to Europe’s post-enlightenment and secular way of life is a common trend in European countries.
European states have instituted legal measures to curb the expression and practice of Islam. Clear examples of this movement against “Islamization” were the 2016 burkini bans in France when 30 towns banned the ‘burkini’ (a full body swimsuit much like a scuba suit). Following growing public pressure and international condemnations, the case was taken to France’s higher administrative court, which ruled that the ban was a serious breach of basic freedoms. Despite its overturn, the bans revealed how widespread and common anti-Muslim sentiment have become in France. The Prime Minister during the controversy himself supported the bans calling the burkini an “enslavement of women.” Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen argued the discussion surrounding the legality of the bans was about the “soul of France.” Framing it as an attack on the “soul” of France perpetuates the notion that French identity is under threat from Islam. According to New York Times journalist Amanda Taub, these bans serve as statements “to police what is French and what is not French.”
Like the burkini bans, many of the anti-Muslim policies proposed or enacted in European countries target Muslim women. Muslim women’s dress has played a central role in political debates and a woman is far more likely to be the target of anti-Muslim hate crimes especially if she is visibly Muslim (wearing the hijab, niqab, or burqa). Hijab is largely stigmatized as a symbol of either “religious fundamentalism” or “oppression.” In Germany, an AfD representative disrupted a session of regional parliament by entering debate in a full-face veil and taking it off in from of the MPs. Wiebke Muhsal’s (the deputy chairwoman of AfD) performance was recorded and broadcast on YouTube; during her speech she “expressed her concern for the Islamization of Germany.” She stated that her performance was a scenario to underscore the danger of a “cultural take over.”
The focus on the perceived cultural and civilizational threat of the burqa has led to laws banning it in Bulgaria because it was viewed as a symbol of Islamization. In Austria, the face veil has been referred to as a “radical Islamic symbol,” and the country’s foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, supported banning it, stating it was a symbol of “counter-society” and “not religious.” On October 1, 2017, the law to ban the face veil came into force in Austria. France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria have all imposed restrictions on wearing full-face veils in public places. In June of 2017, Norway became the first Nordic country to introduce a ban on burqas for both adults and children.
Such targeting of Muslim women results in the denial of Muslim women’s agency and violates their human rights. Additionally, data has demonstrated that such policies have resulted in “significant discrimination” in the labor markets because “religious attire is considered inappropriate for roles of higher occupational status.” This discrimination has meant that Muslim women face systematic biases in recruitment decisions, resulting in actively suppressing women’s involvement in the economy.
Anti-Muslim movements in Europe and the United States seek to popularize an ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy in which constructed “Islamic” and “European/American” values, customs, and lifestyles are viewed as incompatible. The narrative reproduces perceptions of superiority, arguing that one group is better and civilized, whereas the “other” is inherently violent, backwards, oppressive, and irrational as a result of their race, culture, and/or religious beliefs. The Muslim other is constructed and re-constructed as representative of “political fears (overtaking the constitution and “eroding national sovereignty”), economic fears (taking our jobs and social services), and security fears (crime and terrorism).” These fears are all supported by cultural racist arguments claiming that Muslims, Arabs, and people of color are different, to be feared, and cannot be trusted because they have different “cultural values,” and are potentially violent.
In Europe, this us vs. them dichotomy is expressed through anti-Islamization campaigns and rhetoric claiming Muslims and Islam threaten the European secular way of life. Any expression of Muslim identity in public space, whether it be the call to prayer, wearing the hijab, eating halal food, or praying in Arabic is viewed as a direct threat to European identity. Construction of nationalist, European identity has resulted in efforts to criminalize the practice of Islam. Since discrimination based on race has generally come to be socially unacceptable, “identity, culture, values, and later on terrorism have been used to legitimize racist discourse targeting Muslims.” This has morphed into arguments regarding the different and incompatible “value systems” arising from different cultures and religions.
In Europe this manufacturing of the “Muslim problem” is not new, rather it is deeply rooted in colonialism, ultimately identifying Muslims in Europe as a “foreign body within the nation.” Historically, this “Muslim problem” is visible in Europe’s colonial heritage, exemplified with phrases like “the white man’s burden,” used by colonial powers to legitimize their conquests of exploitation, extraction, and murder. Colonialism was morally justified, framed as a “burden” the white European undertook in an effort to “civilize” the brown and black other.
In some European contexts, while Muslims or those perceived as Muslims are talked about as a threat against “European values,” there are also attempts at the same time to “civilize” them. This thought process largely employs orientalist tropes of racialized, uncivilized Muslims needing an enlightened Europe to save them. It also operationalizes the centuries-old history of European colonization of Muslim-majority lands, which was legitimized by arguments of claiming to “civilize” the “Muslim world,” and wanting to “share” its [Europe] “culture.”
Much of the rhetoric taking place in Europe involves a “clash of civilization” rhetoric, maintaining that individuals from Muslim-majority countries simply cannot exist in western society due to contrasting values. The narrative surrounding immigration and refugee policy often utilize words such as “swarm” and “invasion,” to generate fear amongst the public about an imagined threat. Far-right parties employ such rhetoric and call on the population to defend Europe against this takeover by a “civilization” diametrically opposed to Christian civilization and western values that seeks to change society into something unrecognizable. All of this is generally described as the threat of Islamization: an invasion of foreigners (in this case black and brown Muslims) who seek to change Europe into something unrecognizable.
The growing nativist, far right, and white nationalist movements in Europe and the United States have utilized existing racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia to garner support for their discriminatory policies. The election of Donald Trump, whose campaign capitalized on Islamophobia and racism, has emboldened ethno-nationalist movements in Europe and the United States. Exclusionary rhetoric has grown amongst political parties who seek to capitalize on growing anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment. While the movements have manifested in different ways in the two geographic locations, the central message is creating an us versus them dichotomy and refusal to see Muslims as a part of European and American society.
Mobashra Tazamal is a Senior Research Fellow at the Bridge Initiative.
 The 2016 European Islamophobia Report has been heavily cited in this piece. The report contains vital research carried out by academics and experts in the field of Islamophobia in each of the respective countries listed in the report.