Greece – Athens – In recent years, far-right politics in Europe have mainly focussed on attacks against Muslims living in European countries. These attacks, in the name of an anti-Islam, have reached the dimensions of what can be called a “Christian jihad”.
In fact, it is a new twist to the classical xenophobic and racist behaviours – even if it presents itself in the form of a war against Islam. Let’s not forget, however, that Islam is already in Europe and that several million European citizens are Muslim. This is why instead of conflict, there is a need for dialogue. After all, we are and we will be living together with Muslims and we have to learn to do so as best we can.
History teaches us that the middle class is always prone to feelings of xenophobia and intolerance of any form of diversity in times of crisis. Increasing poverty, social exclusion and uncertainty about the future – all characteristic of today’s European societies – trigger emotional reactions in large parts of the population. As a result, the search for someone to blame in the face of the weak is an inevitable result. Immigrants have always been easy scapegoats that are held “responsible”. The same applies to Roma (Gypsies), drug addicts, carriers of HIV Aids and homosexuals.
Political parties have been built around such sentiments and politicians have enjoyed brilliant careers by taking advantage of human misery.
This is nothing new. Europe has experienced these trends since the 19th century. It was an inevitable consequence of the rise of capitalism and the establishment and strengthening of national states. Back then, the easy scapegoats were the Jewish communities. Anti-Semitism has deep roots in European history, culminating in the Holocaust.
As for the Roma (Gypsies), they have always lived on the margins of European societies. The aversion of the Roma was so widespread that it made them a very easy target. This was evidenced recently in France when the socialist government turned against Roma immigrants.
The HIV Aids carriers were another easy target group in the 1980s and at certain times (when needed) today.
After the collapse of Communism, there was an influx of people moving to countries of the so-called Western World. Europe received a very large number. The arrival of so many of these “others” awakened feelings of xenophobia which were reinforced by the high rates of unemployment and the transfer of industrial activity in countries with cheaper labour.
The “battle against immigration” became a very lucrative industry for far-right and populist politicians during the last decade of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st century.
But in the second decade of the 21st century, the situation completely changed. Most immigrant-exporting countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria etc.) became members of the European Union. Other countries like the former state of Yugoslavia, Moldova, Albania and Georgia entered into a process of engagement with the EU. Russia set a course for its own economic development. On the other hand, European societies have partially transferred the European identity to the immigrants of the above countries and these ethnic groups are not an element for exploitation by xenophobic politicians.
Instead, they turned their attention to the people arriving from Africa and Asia. This new and rather large displacement of people does not have the classic character of immigration in the sense that the immigrants have come to Europe in search of a better life. Instead, they are searching for a chance to live. They have come from countries where hunger, misery and death are all part of their daily life. They are first and foremost refugees; they are immigrants only secondarily.
But their language, their appearance and especially their religion are all disliked by the Europeans.
Together with them, far-right and xenophobic politicians have discovered Islam and the supposed dangers that it represents.
European societies, now struggling in a deep economic crisis, are looking for a scapegoat. Unscrupulous and ambitious politicians are anxious to seize the opportunity like predators. Their victim is tired and weak. This new anti-Semitism now has a new definition: Islamic terror or the war against Muslim immigrants in Europe.
In the collective memory of the Europeans, Islam is connected to invasions and wars, pirates and violent proselytizing. These are memories that have their roots in the Middle Ages and particularly during the Arab advance into southern Spain, Italy and southern France and the rise and expansion of the Ottoman Empire.
If anti-Semitism is fundamentally based in the hate towards the created image of the rich Jew, then anti-Islamism also has its base in fear. This is a fear that comes from the very distant past.
But Islam is already here. Several million European citizens are Muslim. Many were born in Europe, they are first or second generation immigrant Muslims.
The European far-right is linking the Muslim identity to radical and fighting Islam. As evidence for this, they point to the recent participation of hundreds of young people from EU countries in different groups of fundamentalist warlords in war-torn Syria.
But do all Muslims in EU, regardless if they are European citizens or not, have the same perception about Islam? Of course not. Anyone who has travelled to Lebanon has seen the Shiites with long beards (the stereotype) and the Shiites who entertain in the evenings without discriminating between men and women. Anyone who has travelled to Central Asia knows of the non-denominational Muslims – those who are neither Shiites nor Sounites, but who accept Islam as a religion generally. Those who have travelled to Turkey, Albania and Syria will have heard of the Alevis, the Bechtasi and Allaouites – all forms of Islam that are completely tolerant and secular.
Are there fundamentalists among Muslims living in Europe? Of course there are. So what is the appropriate policy response? Is it a political dialogue aimed at understanding each other together with the goal of integration or the hysterical voices of hatred and a climate of witch hunting?
The anti-Islamist policy of the far-right is playing a dangerous game. There is a serious risk of overturning the process of integration of European Muslims in European societies. The appearance of European Muslims in Syria is indicative. It is indicative of the fact that the integration of Muslims in Europe has been obstructed. We will understand each other only when we, as Europeans, learn to respect the differences of others. We have to move on, protecting, on the one hand, our fundamental values of democracy and human rights and, on the other hand, starting a serious dialogue with the European Muslims.
We do not have another choice, but to live together.