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Anti-Muslim Prejudice : Past and Present


Edited by Maleiha Malik


London: Routledge, 2010. viii + 222 p. Hardback.

ISBN: 0415549876; ISBN: 9780415549875


Reviewed by Nicholas Deakin

London School of Economics


The cautious title of this collection imperfectly conceals an inflammatory topic. The group of essay brought together under the editorship of Maleiha Malik addresses a range of issues arising from the presence of Muslims in Europe and the United States. The contributors cover a number of different ways in which encounters have played out in different periods and places and seek to find common threads in the highly varied pattern of experiences that they describe.

Many of the starkest examples of “anti-Muslim prejudice” – to stick for the moment with the editor’s choice of description – stem initially from military confrontation between Islam and Christendom. These include the historic experience of the Muslim conquest of Spain and the subsequent reconquista and the advance and eventual retreat of the Ottoman Empire in Eastern and Central Europe. All this is well covered in the historical introductions contributed by Nabil Matar and Slobodan Drakulic. But the main focus of the essays is on what has been described as the “reverse Lepanto” – the issues arising from the mass migration of Muslims into Western Europe after the Second World War, mostly moving from former colonial territories to the metropolitan countries. Estimates of the numbers involved vary but the general consensus seems to be that there are now around fifteen million Muslims in Europe, six million of them in France.

The major exception to the focus on the consequences of immigration has been the experiences of the Bosnian Muslims – long-established Europeans by residence and descent – during the break-up of Yugoslavia. However, the Muslim presence in Europe is normally one in which they are portrayed as newcomers who treat their new surroundings instrumentally, declining to adapt culturally and with their loyalties based elsewhere, in religion, not nationality. In a common phrase, they are perceived as the Other: often threatening, perpetually alien.

This perception and the intensity of feeling behind it helps to explain why another descriptive term has passed into common use – “Islamophobia”. There has been some resistance to this usage, as the contribution by Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood to the present collection helps to explain. The opposition of some commentators to employing it has been based on the objection that the feelings being expressed are based on racial, not religious grounds – the outsiders are being stigmatised as “Arabs”, but not as Muslims. Religion, additionally, is seen as being a matter of choice, not an ascribed characteristic that individuals cannot change.

A further common objection has been that to categorise criticism of any religion as an illegitimate prejudice is inconsistent with the protection of free speech in Western democracies. Other authors dislike the implied equivalence of “Islamophobia” with anti-Semitism. It is certainly true that both have generated a substantial set of parallel activities, with similar vocabularies – denunciation, stigmatisation and watch lists to identify and pursue offenders. However, some critics resist any dilution of the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in the twentieth century and the extreme consequences of anti-Semitism over that period, as compared with that of European Muslims – the Bosnian genocide notwithstanding.

A helpful essay by Erik Love – the only one from outside Europe – seeks to set anti-Muslim sentiment in a slightly different context, that of American nativism. He points to the experiences of successive migrant groups seeking to come to terms with the demands of American society, in particular the Irish (stigmatised by both race and their Catholic religion) and the Jews. However, the path to acceptance followed by those earlier migrant groups now seems to be blocked. The main explanation clearly lies in the succession of events arising from the American presence in the Middle East and principally the shock of the 9/11 bombings and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. “Security” has become the lens through which minorities and their claims for acceptance are judged.

It is also increasingly evident that Islamophobic tendencies (Love uses the term unequivocally) exist not just at the margins but in the mainstream. Vulgar stereotypes of terrorist “ragheads” in Hollywood action movies may be on the wane – but the American public persist in expressing their general hostility to Islam, most recently over the siting of a mosque near the Ground Zero of the 9/11 bombing in New York. And Samuel Huntingdon’s view that a “clash of civilisations” is now inevitable has attracted support from a cluster of journalists and novelists, expressed in a whole series of polemics.

A distinctive contribution to this debate has come from Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who might well be disappointed not to find her name in the index of this collection). In her recent autobiographical account, Nomad, she describes her passage from devout Muslim to trenchant critic of Islam, calling in aid Western enlightenment values to license freedom to criticise any religion. Her arguments draw heavily on her personal experience from her initial arrival in the Netherlands as a self-described “bogus” refugee from Somalia through her rapid rise in Dutch politics to her exile in New York. She retreated there after receiving death threats and the murder of her political associate the controversial film-maker and self-publicist Theo van Gogh, notorious for his description of Muslims as “goatfuckers”. Her experience is now often used by participants in “clash of civilisation” polemics as evidence of Islamic intolerance of all criticism.

Less (melo)dramatically, a whole series of episodes in the developing relations between Muslims and majorities in different Western Europe countries have exacerbated tensions and provided ample scope for exploitation of hostilities for political ends. The most obvious examples have been the wearing of particular forms of dress by Islamic women (“hijab”). These range from a simple headscarf, to coverings of various parts of the body – the head and eyes in the case of the niqab – and the full-length burka. All these have at one time or another been the focus of objections. Another has been the construction of mosques. A common variant on the theme of the alien character of Muslim life had been the suggestion that the Islamic legal code, sharia, might be applied either within or in extreme cases outside Muslim communities in Europe.

Three valuable essays in the present collection have shown how these themes have played out in European politics. In the first example, Hans-Georg Betz and Susi Merat demonstrate how right-wing parties have used real or imagined grievances around immigration to promote their own agendas. A particularly striking case is that of Denmark and the success of the Dansk Folkeparti. Their election propaganda, helpfully illustrated in this collection, has leant especially heavily – and successfully – on the theme of the Other, threatening cultural takeover and imposition of alien values. The controversy over the publication in a Danish paper of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, associating him with suicide bombing, and the hostile response in the Arab world has added impetus to their campaigning. The Danish story may be painful for fans of Nordic social democracy to contemplate but it is not unique; parallel developments have been taking place in other European countries. Experience in the Netherlands and Belgium show how the right-wing parties have shed both their past fascist associations and any link to anti-Semitism. If anything, such parties have made gestures in the opposite direction – the British National Party (BNP) in England has adopted an explicitly Jewish candidate and argued for more energetic support for Israel, as have the Lega Nord in Italy and the FN in France.

Here, it is impossible not to refer to the spillover from the Middle Eastern conflict and in particular the Israel-Palestine conflict and its effects on the debates in various European countries. Perceptions of that conflict among Muslim minorities in Europe have produced strongly-felt resentment at the perceived complicity of some Western government (especially the United States) in the sufferings of fellow-Muslims – but are also a substantial factor in the generally remarked rise in anti-Semitic incidents.

The shifting currents of public opinion reflected in the use of these issues in the popular press are examined in two further essays. John Richardson shows how election reporting in British general elections has become heavily affected by the perception that an alien agenda is being forced on the British public by the Muslim electorate – an extreme example during the 2005 election being a headline in the Daily Star: “Muslim Loonies Hijack Election”. Erik Bleich shows in his account of public opinion surveys in Britain and France how Muslims in both countries are easily the most disliked religious group but not, strikingly, the most disliked of all – the wretched Roma here once again fulfil their traditional function of being at the receiving end of most negative stereotypes. Bleich speculates that Muslim ethno-racial outsider status may be more complex and due to a series of overlapping factors – outward appearance, country of origin, and migrant status being as important as religion.

A striking omission in this collection is the absence of any detailed analysis of the position of the existing mainstream religions and their respective leadership on these questions – Gil Andijar’s windy essay is devoted largely to an abstract “Christendom”. Pope Benedict’s own position was seriously compromised by his faux pas in September 2006 at Regensburg, when a lecture designed for an audience of theologians with a passing reference to medieval condemnations of Islam gave serious offence, for which he subsequently had to apologise. In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s almost equally maladroit references to the possibility of Sharia law being introduced provoked a similar but opposite reaction from those who took it as evidence of his unwillingness to stand up for “traditional British values”. The role of both the main Christian denominations is more significant than it might seem, in view of the key role they now play in the English education system. Here, the Christian churches have been willing to make pragmatic alliances with Jewish and Muslim colleagues to try to secure as much control as possible over the direction of that part of the state-funded education system that they are currently responsible for running.

Nor are the positions of mainstream European political parties covered in any detail. Anti-Muslim sentiment is no longer the preserve of the right-wing parties who have mined that seam so profitably. The electoral success of those parties – further demonstrated by the success of the referendum proposition in Switzerland prohibiting the construction of minarets, despite the opposition of all the traditional parties – has led to rethinking about the tactical use of such issues for political advantage.

This seems evident in the turn recently taken by the debate on the veiling of women – now in the process of being debated in France and Belgium. In the French case, the preliminary stages in implementing a ban on the full veil have been passed with support from representatives of all main political parties. There is also now some support for this position in England in mainstream politics, though still currently confined to some outliers in the Conservative party. A more common approach among Labour politicians has been through emphasising the importance of “listening” to anxieties about immigration – which can be seen as a way of reframing the issue in more acceptable terms.

Two aspects of the debate on Muslim women’s clothing are explored in this collection. Leora Bilsky chooses to contrast the responses to the wearing of the veil in Europe with a cause célèbre in Israel, when an Arab Israeli lecturer tried to prohibit wearing of Israeli army uniform in the class he taught and was suspended and punished. She argues that in both cases the victims of prejudice are transformed in the debate into perpetrators of offences against official values. In a provocative essay Sonya Fernandez attacks Western feminists as hypocritical in their opposition to the veil and patronising in their attitudes towards the various positions that Muslim women have taken up, by suggesting that they are incapable of taking rational decisions about their own presentations of themselves. She also suggests that religion has been demonised as a “key site of oppression and violence”. She argues instead for the creation of a “space” in which veiling can be seen as “an assertion of identity and resistance to the global forces of homogenization and even as a form of feminism” [77]. Where such a space could be found, who would willingly enter it and on what terms are questions that she does not address.

Accusations of hypocrisy are easy to level and it is not clear how far they contribute to a constructive debate. The questions posed by the issues that have arisen are not such as to be easily resolved by resort to formulae – laïcité, women’s unfettered right to choose, the dogmatic interpretation of religious texts or the unconditional right to criticise them. There have been and will continue to be real grounds for concern, on both sides, about the ways in which the state and official institutions manage their relationships with visible minorities – whether or not religion is the key distinguishing feature of those minorities. Some concession to special claims can surely be made without compromising the integrity of the whole. Negotiations conducted in good faith have sometimes been able to defuse the tensions around some symbolic issues – the willingness of the British state to accommodate Sikh beliefs on some matters of social policy is one example. But, as the second Gulf War has demonstrated, the danger is that external factors outside the control of individual politicians or parties may destabilise relations, compromise negotiations and lead all parties to fall back to their default positions – the majority insisting in the name of cultural integrity and state security on compliance, the minorities asserting their God-given right to special treatment.

As for the future, the possibility raised again by the in-coming British Prime Minister, David Cameron, that Turkey, a modern state with a moderate Islamic party now in government, might be encouraged to make a serious attempt to enter the European Union, is another such potentially destabilising factor. Official positions in some European countries on such a bid are only too easy to predict and the likelihood is that opposition will be phrased in religious terms. As Tony Judt once put it, the legacy of the Ottoman Eastern Question has returned to haunt the new Europe. And as that debate develops, the present collection, with all its faults, will provide a useful stock of evidence to draw upon.





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