With inspiring scenes of the Arab Spring on television for months, one might have expected images of democratic revolutions to punch a hole in the crude anti-Muslim stereotypes of Europe’s Islamophobes, those politicians and intellectuals who swear that Islam is totalitarian to its core. And if this alone didn’t dispel clichés of a monolithic, violent religion, then surely the vox pop of diaspora Egyptians, Tunisians and others on the nightly news—university students, women who head NGOs and children alongside their native French or German peers—would have demonstrated the diversity and integration of Muslim Europeans, something study after study documents.
To the contrary, in recent elections Islamophobes like France’s right-wing National Front and the anti-EU True Finn Party racked up their best numbers ever, the latest strides in a surging movement that is recasting the political landscape of Western Europe. These elements have every reason to thank mainstream politicians, who, in the hope of exploiting the phenomenon for their own gain, have paved the way for the far right. In April, for example, France’s ridiculous “burqa ban” went into effect with overwhelming popular support, while EU leaders pushed the panic button over Tunisian refugees landing in Italy and Malta, turning the image of peaceful revolutionaries across the Mediterranean into one of an impoverished mob besieging Fortress Europe.
What makes anti-Muslim racism so lethal is that unlike populisms of the past, Islamophobia has broad appeal across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right and irrespective of class or educational level. Where it manifests itself in electoral parties, such as in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and now even Sweden and Finland, its advocates fare much better than old-school far-right parties ever did, with their vulgar anti-Semitism and expansionist fantasies. There is nevertheless plenty of overlap with the extreme right, which inscribes anti-Islam thinking prominently in its manifestos and is thriving on the new discourse; never before have so many of its representatives been so close to the levers of power in so many Western European countries.
Islamophobia is solidly mainstream; there is no politically correct taboo against it, as there is with overt racism or other strains of xenophobia. In fact, some of Europe’s highest-profile Islamophobes justify their attacks on Islam and Europe’s Muslims in the name of women’s and gay rights. Conservative, liberal and even leftist parties tap into it, partly out of opportunism and partly out of conviction. Invoking secularism and Enlightenment values, some centrists and leftists propagate a cultural racism that instead of using skin color imputes immutable characteristics to cultures and assigns them a hierarchy, with Western civilization at the top. This is Islamophobia, which functions just as racism does, and serves the purposes of those who have long sought to stem immigration, keep Turkey out of the European Union and secure a white Christian Europe.
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Not every European country has anti-Muslim parties as successful as two of Islamophobia’s poster boys, the Dutch Freedom Party and the Danish People’s Party, both of which put the clash of cultures and the Islamic menace at the center of their programs. Yet these cases are instructive, because they represent a new generation of the European right, and the conditions of their rise exist across Western Europe. Surveys and opinion polls, for example, indicate that anti-Muslim sentiment in Holland and Denmark is about the same as in most other Western European countries. In one recent study, between 34 and 37 percent of French, Dutch, Portuguese and Danes say they have a negative opinion of Muslims. In Germany the figure is 59 percent.