The Oslo Opportunity, Part 2: Fears of an emerging “Eurabia”

I write often about Islamophobia in America, and while it is a massive and growing problem, it plagues Europe far more.  Let’s uncover why.

Unlike America, which was founded to embrace diversity, western European states each grew out of a common national identity.  Those living within the borders of a country generally shared a similar history, language, religion, and ethnic heritage.   After WWII, Europe embraced and spoke highly of tolerance, plurality, and freedom of expression, and liberal immigration policies allowed for increased numbers of North Africans, South Asians, and Arabs—many of whom are Muslim—to make Europe home.

The influx of brown-skinned people with unfamiliar customs and thick accents made native Europeans nervous, and the religiosity of these Muslims didn’t seem to fit into the increasing secular landscape of Europe.

In explaining why Muslims in Europe are viewed somewhat differently than those in America, we must look at the religious group’s standing economically. While in America Muslims are generally wealthier and work in professional careers, Muslims in Europe (who make up 4% of the continent’s population) are poorer and more marginalized, living in the more segregated ghettos and suburbs surrounding cities like Paris. In America, Christians see Muslims in respectable professions.  They may go to a Muslim doctor, someone they trust with their life and health.  In Europe, Muslims generally hold lower paying, less desirable jobs, and thus are looked down upon by the majority of society. (Sadly, we might compare the perception and treatment of European Muslims with Latino immigrants in America.)  Muslims in America are generally more ‘integrated’ (I normally don’t like this word) into society than European Muslims, and this clearly plays a role in the higher level of Islamophobia in Europe.

With citizens fearing a loss of national identity as European demographics change, right wing political parties have risen up to address these concerns, capitalizing on fear and promising to bring back Europe from “multiculturalism,” a value that even moderate and mainstream German PM Angela Merkel said has “utterly failed” in Europe.

Geert Wilders

Parties that once were fringe groups have now begun to win seats in Parliament.  The right wing Netherlands’ Party for Freedom won 15.5% of the vote (and thus make up 15.5% of Parliament) in the 2010 election.  The party’s leader, Geert Wilders, compared the Qur’an to Hilter’s Mein Kampf and has been open about the fact that he “hates Islam”, but “not Muslims.”  Though he didn’t coin the term ‘Eurabia,’ he has used it frequently to describe what he believes Europe will become if Muslim immigration is not adequately challenged.  He no doubt intends it to invoke images of suppressed women, harsh punishments, and a lack of freedom—images Westerners often associate with the Middle East or Saudi Arabia.

The power and influence of these far-right parties has translated into real policy changes in the region.  I’ll focus on one case I’m particularly familiar with—the Swiss minaret ban, which I wrote a term paper about this past spring.

In 2009, Swiss citizens voted in a referendum to ban the construction of minarets (the tall structures often attached to mosques from which the call to pray is traditionally sounded, but is rarely done in non-Muslim majority countries.)  The overwhelming vote was unsurprising given the massive propaganda campaign that was waged by supportive parties and political groups.

At train stations and bus terminals it was common to see this poster (below), which depicts missile-like minarets shooting up out of the Swiss flag and a burqa-clad women with sinister eyes. Many others posters, which showed weapon-like minarets pushing out traditional Swiss landmarks, could also be seen around the country.

"Stop. Consider a minaret ban."

Here’s a slideshow of all the posters, both pro-ban and anti-ban.

The politicians’ rhetoric that accompanied these posters was equally disturbing.  Knowing their constituents lacked much contact with Islam and Muslims, the politicians tried to shape their constituents’ views, often providing a distorted and negative portrayal (as is often done in the U.S. as well.) Those opposing the ban, who even included the Prime Minister and ruling party, focused on arguments about the right to religious freedom.  But those arguments, which relied on a critical and calm examination of the facts, could not convince those who were already steeped in fear of Islam.

Since the minaret ban, Islamophobia has become more institutionalized in Europe.  Other countries have proposed minaret bans (Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, and Belgium) and France and Belgium banned Muslims women from wearing the burqa in public and Italy hopes to do the same.  What’s particularly interesting about these campaigns to ban Islamic symbols is that they are addressing small, even insignificant

A niqabi woman outside Notre Dame

issues.  Switzerland only has four minarets nationwide, and few women wear the burqa in European countries.  Just as with the anti-sharia campaign in the U.S., the European movements are creating a large problem out of nothing at all.

As was made apparent by the Swiss minaret referendum, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has seeped into the mainstream, affecting ordinary citizens.  Especially with the rise of the Internet, right-wing extremists can communicate and hate groups can organize more easily than ever.  (Continued after YouTube video.)

(The statistics in the video are highly exaggerated.  This article from the BBC helps to shed light on its inaccuracies.)

In this caustic political and social climate, it’s not surprising that violence and hostility toward immigrants are common, as the AP summarized well: “They beat up black and Arab football fans, terrorize immigrant neighborhoods, smash Muslim and Jewish gravestones, preach hate and rally support online.”  Despite the lack of news coverage, these violent reactions to immigration have been occurring for years.

The Norway terror attacks don’t signal the emergence of a new problem, but rather put a spotlight on an issue that has been simmering on for years and only recently began to boil over. Breivik’s terrorism is only the latest and greatest in this sad trend.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the American personalities who influenced Anders Breivik and what that says about Islamophobia in the U.S.   

Why I’m scared

In my last post, I said I’m not sure that America is beyond the kind of bigotry and intolerance that led to the internment of Japanese Americans several decades ago.  And I think the following video proves my point.

Last month, in Orange County, California, Muslim families were attending a dinner hosted by Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA in order to raise money to

Anti-Muslim protest outside Islamic organization fundraiser.

establish women’s shelters and fight hunger and homelessness in the area.  As they walked into the event, they were greeted by protestors who shouted bigoted and ignorant slurs, like “Go back home!” and “You beat up your wife, too?”  Earlier in the day, in the park across the way, a protest was held in which local and federal government officials made statements like “I know quite a few Marines who would be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise.”

(The video was compiled by the Council on American Islamic Relations, and features video from local news stations and Muslims attending the event.)

This video is beyond saddening, but it is only one example among many, I’m afraid.  This next video, which was filmed outside the White House, portrays protestors shouting at a Muslim man who prayed there.  The full details can be found in this Washington Post article.

I truly hope we can say “never again” to institutionalized hate in America.  But we can’t say it naively and passively, assuming that we’re too “advanced” or too “modern” or too “Westernized” to be intolerant.  As I wrote in a commentary while I was a reporter at Y-Press, we said “never again” to genocide while inaugurating the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. in 1993; but a year later, genocide occurred in Rwanda while the Western world looked on.

We must ensure by our words and our actions that we are actively creating an environment that is not conducive to hate.  Apathy and passivity is what allowed the institutionalization of hate in Nazi Germany and 1994 Rwanda.

Passivity allows for the scenes in this video to happen.  A few years ago, ABC’s “What Would You Do?” did this special on discrimination of Muslims in America.  When bystanders saw Muslims being discriminated against, many of them did nothing to stop it.

Sadly, hate against Muslims has become institutionalized in this country, and if passivity like the kind in the ABC special continues, institutionalized hate will only increase.  This past week, we witnessed the Congressional hearing that investigated “radicalization” in the Muslim American community, and in several states efforts are being made to ban sharia law.  Sharia law is greatly misunderstood in the West, and sadly has come to be synonymous with oppression and terror.  (I hope to do a post on sharia sometime in the near future.)

Apart from political institutionalization, hate has become most entrenched in the mainstream media.  It is possible for TV show hosts to make blatant lies about Islam on their shows, and yet no one holds them accountable for it.  Viewers often assume that because those on TV claim to be reporters or journalists or objective commentators, they are upholding journalistic ethics—being truthful, presenting all the information, and just plain being respectful.  This assumption is horribly naive.  Cable “news” programs especially, whether or not they are “liberal” or “conservative,” are more concerned with appealing to an already established base and shaping the political discourse in a way that profits to them.  We must question the news we receive and consciously seek to verify what we hear and see on TV.

In some of my blog posts I hope I’ve been able to provide some facts that will reveal how misguided the claims of cable hosts and guests can be.  Despite the fact that cable networks have 24 hours of time in which to present coverage, their treatment of “news” lacks the nuance and depth necessary to flesh out many of the complex issues related to Islam and the Muslim community.

What we need instead of talk-show hosts that demonize and protests that spew hate are things like this: the “Today, I am a Muslim Too” rally that took place in New York City last weekend.  This was a positive action taken with the intent of creating solidarity with and better understanding of Muslim Americans.

Christian pastor at the rally.

If we want to really say “never again,” and truly make institutionalized hate a part of our country’s past, then we must act—whether that means expanding our news sources, challenging a friend’s stereotypical comment, or visiting our local mosques (without signs).

We cannot sit idly by.

We know all too well the damage that passivity can do.

Japanese internment camp in Colorado

I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you think America has become more Islamophobic?  If so, what evidence have you seen in your daily life, and what can we do to reverse this trend?  If not, why?  Do you think my criticism of the media is fair?

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In a few weeks, CNN will be airing a special called “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door.”  Below is the link to the promo video.  I will be interested to see how this issue of Islamophobia is covered.  As I alluded earlier, I am not always pleased by CNN’s coverage of Islam, so I am curious to watch this piece.

http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2011/03/09/unwelcome.the.muslims.next.door.cnn.html