Europe's Identity Crisis Fuels Rising Anti-Muslim Sentiment
LONDON (Oct. 16) -- Since the end of World War II Germany has prided itself on being a beacon of tolerance, removed from the petty hatreds that once tore Europe apart. But according to a national survey
released this week, a new form of ugly xenophobia -- this time focused on Muslims, who make up around 5.5 percent of the population -- is gaining mass acceptance. More than 55 percent of those polled by researchers from the University of Leipzig declared that Arabs weren't pleasant people -- up from 44 percent in 2003 -- and 58 percent said the practice of Islam should be "considerably restricted."
Islamophobia isn't only on the rise in Germany. A powerful and populist strain of anti-Muslim sentiment is now taking hold across Europe -- boosting support for far-right groups, and putting mainstream politicians on the defensive.
Of course, parties with an anti-race bent aren't anything new in Europe. The anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant National Front has been a force in France for decades, and in 2000, Austria's Nazi-sympathizing Freedom Party temporarily became part of the coalition government. What is new is that the anti-outsider groups now attracting high-levels of support don't define their foes by skin color or geographic origin, but by religion.
Fred Dufour, AFP / Getty Images
Islamophobia is on the rise across Europe and far right wing groups are gaining more support for their anti-Muslim views.
The Sweden Democrats party -- which started out as a neo-Nazi movement -- last month entered parliament for the first time, winning 5.7 percent of the vote on the back of campaign ads that featured burqa-clad Muslim women
knocking aside white Swedish pensioners and grabbing their state benefits. In the Netherlands, the anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders -- who believes the "fascist" Koran should be banned, along with immigration from Muslim countries -- gained a record 24 seats in the June elections. And in Britain, thousands of hooligans from the English Defence League -- which claims to be against extremist Islam, and boasts that its membership includes Jews and Sikhs -- regularly stages marches in largely Muslim urban areas, shouting anti-Islamic slogans and intimidating local residents.
This stricter focus on Islam has helped these groups win over voters who don't consider themselves racist, but -- in the wake of 9/11 and the bomb attacks in London and Madrid -- are concerned about the perceived threat of radical Islam. "It's no longer politically acceptable to be openly racist," Jonathan Githens-Mazer, co-director of the European Muslim Research Centre at England's Exeter University, told AOL News. "But in secular Europe, it is politically acceptable to be anti-Muslim. For many far-right movements, this is a very convenient schtick that ensures they're no longer accused of being fascists, and allows them to turn their intolerant views into a more electorally palatable form."
By targeting Islam, these groups are also able to tap into wider worries over the slow demise of old national identities in the face of increasing multiculturalism and globalization. "Immigration from outside Europe, as well as internal migration from East to West, is changing societies right across the continent," says Chris Allen, a research fellow at England's University of Birmingham and author of the upcoming book "Islamophobia
." "That means it's increasingly difficult for British people, for example, to define themselves around skin color because we're such a diverse society. These changes challenge us all to find out who we are and what our national identities are really about." Watch more free documentaries
H.A. Hellyer -- fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at Britain's University of Warwick and author of "Muslims of Europe: The Other Europeans
" -- notes that this identity crisis is reflected in the way that the debate over Islam in Europe has transformed over the past four years from being predominately about concerns of security, to worries over whether Western civilization itself is under threat. "People are now not so afraid that our civilization will be destroyed from outside by al-Qaida, but from inside by Muslim communities," he says.
That fear took hold in Switzerland last November, where 57.5 percent of people backed a proposal by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) to ban the building of minarets on mosques
. At the time, Switzerland -- home to a tiny, law-abiding Muslim minority -- only had four mosques with minarets, but voters appeared to support the SVP's claims that the towers would soon be springing up across the country, marking the beginning of a takeover by Sharia-supporting extremists.
Hellyer says these misconceptions over Europe's Muslims have spread because of failures in many quarters -- including the media. But he singles out mainstream politicians, who he says, "haven't been brave enough to come up with imaginative and inspirational solutions" to the legitimate concerns many Europeans hold over their rapidly changing societies.
Sadly, European politicians have not only failed to enter into a much-needed debate on national identity, but have attempted to claw back votes by pandering to the same fears whipped up by far-right groups. In Germany this week, Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer
-- whose conservative Christian Social Union party is currently faring poorly in the polls -- announced that Turks and Arabs should no longer be allowed to move to the country as they struggled to integrate into German society. And France's President Nicolas Sarkozy has recently attempted to stem the rising popularity of the National Front by banning the burqa -- the full head and body covering garment worn by some Muslim women -- even though fewer than 1 percent of France's five million Muslims wear the dress.
The key danger is that by mimicking the rhetoric of the far right, and portraying Muslims as people who cannot integrate into mainstream society, politicians are in fact creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. "By turning Muslims into this dangerous 'other,' they are segregating them and reinforcing the idea of an exclusive Muslim community," says Riem Spielhaus, a research fellow at the University of Copenhagen's Center for European Islamic Thought. "And so now even Muslims who drink alcohol or eat pork are identifying themselves more as Muslims, and feeling greater solidarity with other members of the community, because of how people and politicians describe them."
Such a development, Spielhaus adds, can only prevent "future integration and communal harmony."