By Osama Al Sharif
14 December 2016
Europe has a big problem, as more Europeans are adopting a cause that ostensibly centres on nationalism and rejecting immigration, but hides deep-seated fear of Muslims and Islam. The problem has been festering for decades, but has surfaced in recent years, giving once-small far-right nationalist parties a new lease of life as they ride a populist wave that not only challenges the integrity of European values, but threatens the future of the EU.
The crises in Syria and Iraq, among others, have led to an unprecedented exodus of largely Muslim migrants and refugees toward Western Europe. Millions have been received in Germany, France, Italy and Scandinavia on humanitarian grounds, giving nationalist parties and ultra-right movements a platform from which to address questions of religious purity, identity, multiculturalism and national salvation.
Terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, linked to Islamist radicals — mostly European-born and raised — have widened the debate about the inability of Muslims to integrate into European societies and adopt their secular values.
The question of integration is complicated. One can argue that the failure of European states to address issues of poverty and unemployment among its own Muslim youth has contributed to the estrangement of hundreds of thousands who have felt left out and become easy prey for radical Islamist recruiters.
On the other hand, it is also fair to ask why the failure to integrate is largely restricted to Muslim immigrants compared to non-Muslim migrants. There are noteworthy exceptions: The election of a Muslim as mayor of London this year, and the fact that offspring of Muslim migrants are serving in governments and legislatures in France, Britain and other countries.
Available figures (2010) show that the total number of Muslims in EU countries was 19 million, or 3.8 percent of the total population, with a growth rate of about 1 percent every decade. Throughout Europe, excluding Turkey, the number was 44 million, or 6 percent.
Muslims made up more than 5 percent of Germany’s population before the latest influx of refugees, and 7.5 percent of France’s population. In Austria, Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, they made up between 4 and 6 percent of the population. European Muslims are projected to make up 8 percent of the population by 2030.
It is worth noting that negative views of Muslims are much higher in eastern and southern European countries. According to 2016 Pew Research Centre findings, unfavourable views of Muslims are held by 72 percent in Hungary, 66 percent in Poland, 65 percent in Greece and 50 percent in Spain. They are between 35 and 28 percent in Britain, France, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.
Unfavourable views are tied to a negative perception of ideology and religion. They are accompanied by a marked rise in hate assaults and hate speech, especially on social media, against Muslims in both Europe and the US. Anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi and fascist sentiment is also making a comeback in a number of European countries. Islamophobia has risen in recent years due to an influx of Muslim refugees and terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Coinciding with economic troubles that have crippled countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain and France, negative feelings toward immigrants — particularly Muslims — have been growing among largely white middle-class Christian families. Welfare states have also been feeling the pressure, giving nationalist far-right parties and movements a new argument against membership to the EU, with its open borders and soft attitude on refugees and immigration.
This manifested itself in this summer’s shocking Brexit vote in Britain, and the role that the relatively small UK Independence Party (UKIP) played in convincing a wide base of disenchanted Britons to vote against staying in the EU. The Brexit mood was echoed in the US in November, as Donald Trump rode a populist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, isolationist wave to take the White House.
The Brexit-Trump effect is expected to emerge next year as Germany, France and the Netherlands face crucial elections where far-right parties will play a decisive role. Far-right populist movements and parties are gaining ground in Italy (the Five Star Movement and the Northern League), Greece (Golden Dawn), the Netherlands (Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom) and France (the National Front).
Similar movements are on the rise in Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and other countries. They appeal to a public that is becoming increasingly Euroskeptic, nationalistic and against multiculturalism. The tide also represents a populist and latent backlash against globalization. The resurgence of the far right coincides with a salient receding in the influence of the left and centre.
One cannot but make comparisons between what is happening in Europe today and the ascent of nationalist movements on the continent in the 1800s and the early 20th century. Ironically, that era also witnessed a resurgence of Russian nationalism and imperial ambitions.
Amid the nationalist tide that took over many European countries in the mid-1800s, particularly Germany, the “Jewish question” became a central theme. With European Muslims now in the crosshairs, can we dare draw similarities?
Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.