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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

The rise of Islamophobia in Europe is being normalised by intellectuals – but they are pushing at an already open door

Anti-Islamic rhetoric is being given legitimacy by a string of highly articulate intellectuals. The extent of anti-Muslim feeling in Europe has been vastly underestimated, writes Sholto Byrnes

A woman wearing a niqab in the centre of Roubaix, northern France. Philippe Huguen / AFP
A woman wearing a niqab in the centre of Roubaix, northern France. Philippe Huguen / AFP

We live in an age of identity politics. Throughout Europe and North America, there is a new and vehement insistence that how the individual identifies him or herself – on whatever basis – is something that must be accepted and respected by all. Never mind that all too often this has, as the Columbia University professor Mark Lilla has put it, given "an intellectual patina to the narcissism that almost everything else in our society encourages".

There is one identity, however, that is not currently being granted the same liberty of expression in Europe and that is being Muslim. In Denmark, a country frequently praised for its progressiveness, the parliament has just passed a law banning the wearing of the burqa or niqab – even though it is estimated that there are only 150 women in the country who do so.

In France – which, along with Belgium and Austria, has already passed a similar ban – there has been consternation after Maryam Pougetoux, a student union leader, gave a television interview while wearing a hijab. Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said it was “shocking” and a “provocation” while the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo put her on the front cover, horribly caricatured as a monkey.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Conservative Party has been accused by the Muslim Council of Britain as being so poisoned by Islamophobia that the MCB has called for an independent inquiry after what it calls “more than weekly occurrences” of the problem. And Italy’s new deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini wasted no time after being appointed last week. He went straight to Sicily, an island with a sizeable Arab Muslim population and heritage, to tell immigrants to get ready to “pack their bags”.

Anti-immigration and anti-Islam policies are two separate issues but all too often they are symptoms of the same sentiment. Some are quite blatant about it. The former head of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, Horst Seehofer, declared that “Islam doesn’t belong in Germany” just after being appointed his country’s interior minister in March.

To deny Islam’s long presence in Europe is, of course, a historical nonsense. One could point to the great Muslim civilisation in Spain, established in the eighth century, which became a beacon of tolerance and learning when most of the continent was stuck in the ignorance, squalor and barbarity of the Dark Ages. A large percentage of the populations of many Balkan countries are Muslim. And if in 1954 the former French president Francois Mitterrand, then interior minister, could say: “Algeria is France”, that was surely a declaration that the millions of Muslims who lived there were part of Europe.

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It is strange to have to make these points yet again. Given all the efforts to promote interfaith understanding and to provide non-Muslims with a more truthful and nuanced picture of Islam, one might have hoped for a little less irrational fear, less misrepresentation of the moderate majority as extremists and less outright rejection. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening.

Peter Oborne, a highly respected UK conservative commentator, recently wrote that “it is impossible for a practising Muslim to make his or her way to the senior ranks of the Tory party”. True, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid comes from a Muslim background but is not practising. “By contrast,” wrote Mr Oborne, the former Conservative chairman Sayeeda Warsi, “who spoke out courageously on issues of concern to ordinary Muslims, was sidelined and eventually resigned in disgust over Tory policy on Gaza. She has since become the object of a truly vicious whispering campaign.”

The rise of the far right, economic inequality, a failure to work out and co-ordinate how to deal with waves of refugees and immigrants and the inflammatory travel bans and rhetoric of Donald Trump: these may all have contributed to the rise in Islamophobia. But it has also been normalised and lent legitimacy by a string of – alas – brilliant and highly articulate intellectuals, such as the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson and the writer and commentator Douglas Murray. They see something irredeemably dark at the heart of Islam and regard all who insist that it is a religion of peace and justice as deluded apologists.

And they are pushing at an open door, for I have long believed that the extent of anti-Muslim feeling in Europe has been vastly underestimated. I think of the old friend who said to me over lunch in London 10 years ago: “I’m worried about the Muslims.” “Which ones?” I replied. “All of them,” he said. My friend is well-educated, well-travelled, liberal and open-minded. Yet that fear of “the other” at the gates was deep-rooted even within him.

There is much work to be done and it cannot be left to the theologians, important though their contributions are. The common humanity that Muslims and non-Muslims share must be overwhelmingly emphasised, as must the fact that the freedoms Europeans treasure are small and mean-minded if they are withheld from those with other beliefs and customs.

Governments must take the lead and be fearless in confronting Islamophobes. For a Europe that lacks tolerance would be a continent that has lost a cornerstone of its claim to greatness. The vast majority of Europe’s Muslims are European. For them to suffer hatred and discrimination by their fellow citizens would echo some of the darkest chapters in its history. “Never again” is a watchword that applies today just as much as it has in the past.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia