Europe now a safe haven for racism

July 31, 2011, Sunday/ 12:24:00

As political sensitivity to cultural differences declines, Islamophobia and racism are reaching dangerous levels in Europe.

Once the cradle of civilizations and the origin of political freedom, the continent is now infamous for bans and oppression and a steady spread of violence and fear stemming from the antagonism that polarizes the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Europe. As racist parties gain strength and popularity, Europe’s center-right is resorting to a discourse stained with Islamophobia, for fear of losing votes. Germany is a ticking time bomb, with visible support for extremist parties rising from the ashes of fascism. It is only rivaled in alienation of Muslims by France and Belgium, which have passed bans on wearing the burqa, and Switzerland, the country that pushed to topple the minarets of mosques.

The recent massacre in Norway, a country deemed among the safest and most liberal in the world, is yet another incarnation of hatred and should be a wake-up call for the continent. Islamophobia and racist discourse have risen to incredible heights in Europe, the continent once synonymous with culture, civilization and freedom. The recent Oslo massacre, which left dozens of young people dead and many wounded, seems like an unparalleled and isolated act of terrorism, wherein murderous hatred found its embodiment in blood. But the voluminous manifesto by the young Norwegian assailant, filled with hate speech and prepared in a copy-and-paste style using various resources, demonstrates the richness of the data available to inspire the masses along extremist lines, and the ease with which such discourse travels around the world, spreading hate and anger.

One year prior to the massacre, also in Norway, where the Muslim minority seemed to enjoy relative safety, the desecration of a mosque with a painting of a pig had hinted at the existence of an underlying intolerance and enmity toward the Islamic faith. But as the recent tragedy shocked the entire world, the extent to which such sentiments can reach has taken awareness of this trend to a completely new level. Similar mosque attacks occurred throughout Europe in the past year. It has frequently happened before that the walls of mosques have been spray-painted or their windows broken, in attempts to threaten and intimidate Muslim communities.

As some of the most prominent world leaders confess to a failure of integration and multiculturalism in their countries, polls pour in, showing the unwillingness of Europeans to have Muslim neighbors living on their streets or as colleagues in their workplaces.

Despite having eradicated Nazi brutality, Germany is still haunted by the specter of fascist ideology, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her regret at the failure of multiculturalism in Germany at a 2010 gathering of her center-right Christian Democratic Union Party with words that resonated with the difficulty Germans still have accepting their non-Christian, non-German residents.

“At the beginning of the 1960s we actually brought [Muslim] guest workers to Germany,” the chancellor admitted matter-of-factly. “This multicultural approach -- saying that we simply live side by side and are happy about each other -- this approach has failed, failed utterly.” As hard as it is to trace the origins of such feelings of regret and dissatisfaction with the existence of “the others” in Europe, influential Europeans, including scholars, authors, religious leaders and politicians, have grabbed the attention of the media countless times over the years with remarks that fuel anti-Muslim reactions, which only need a spark before they spread into a wildfire.

The last round of a long-standing debate as to whether Muslims can coexist in peace with dominantly Christian Europeans is rumored to have been triggered by a best-selling book titled “Germany Abolishes Itself” written in 2010 by Thilo Sarrazin, a center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) member and a former member of the executive board of the Deutsche Bundesbank. Mainly a compilation of insults and stereotypes targeting Muslims, Sarrazin wrote that Germany’s Muslim community was “intellectually inferior” and its members were incapable of adapting to the German culture or learning the language. Later the same year, polls produced results reflecting disturbing results, with the majority of the Germans saying that they consider Muslims a social burden the costs of which are greater than their share in production. Close to 90 percent of Germans admitted they found the book convincing, and a 20 percent indicated they would vote for Sarrazin if he founded a political party.

More recent polls confirm these findings, pointing to the unwavering perception of a Manichean dichotomy between the culture of Muslim minorities and that of the European countries they reside in -- a perceived otherness that has at times surfaced in ugly ways, as in the example of the Oslo attacks, and remains silently underground at other times. One poll released in July by the Pew Research Center as a part of its Global Attitudes Project shows that one-third of Europeans think that Islamic fundamentalism is a factor that hinders prosperity in predominantly Muslim countries. Another report from the Islamophobia Observatory of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) tells of significant majorities around Europe that feel Muslims are a “threat” to their communities and identities, with figures soaring beyond 40 percent even in the most multicultural countries of the continent, such as France and Germany.

With bans, limitations and hardened immigration laws, even the smallest reminders of Islam imply a threat to local Europeans. Only a few countries have mobilized the will to ban signs and symbols tied to the Islamic faith, such as face veils and minarets, but polls carried out in the rest of Europe show the nations unite in their refusal to encounter objects in daily life that conjure up the religion. The OIC’s poll shows that overwhelming majorities in Germany, Britain and Spain say they would support similar bans if they were introduced in their own countries. Campaigns introducing propaganda against Muslims and anti-Muslim conferences sprang up in every corner of the continent, accompanied by the occasional sharpshooter targeting immigrants on European streets.

The debate as to whether European Islamophobia is a passing phase or a lasting reality is significant. Although it would be fair to say Europeans have been affected by various terrorist attacks led by fundamentalist groups in recent years, and by the financial crisis that has shaken the globe and left Europeans feeling insecure and fearful of anything foreign, a trip further down memory lane brings us to a long-standing attitude that might not be only temporary.

Ideologies as weapons: Hundreds murdered for their differences around Europe

It is not at all surprising to hear of hate murders targeting Muslims solely for their religious beliefs amongst the debate as to whether Muslims are “capable and worthy” of integration with European locals. In Germany, where people of many backgrounds and beliefs have mingled to rebuild the nation after the devastating losses it experienced in World War II, a December 2010 attack on an Islamic cultural center in Berlin that set fire to the building was the sixth attempt to damage Muslim property in the country’s capital that year. More shockingly, attacks organized by supporters of the extreme right in Germany have taken more than 100 Muslim lives in the last 20 years, although official accounts dispute the numbers and state that the number of deaths is below 50. Although the country legislated against the formation of fascist parties after the war, extremists in the community never stopped gathering as political groups and participating in elections. Luckily they continue to fall short of the 5 percent threshold required to gain seats in parliament.

Although the Netherlands is one of the most liberal European countries, famous for its acceptance and tolerance of difference, Islam still seems to be an exception to the rule. Since the assassination of an anti-Islamic lawmaker, Pim Fortuyn, who was infamous for his call for a cold war against Islam and closing the borders to Muslim immigrants, and of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, apparently by radical Muslims, the situation for minorities in the Netherlands has grown worse. Fortuyn’s political party, Pim Fortuyn List (LPF), managed to win close to 20 percent of the seats in the general election right after his death in 2002, dropping off again in the following years. The legacy, however, still seems to hold strong.

Fortuyn’s assassination eased the publication of a book titled “Fitna,” authored by the most outspoken of anti-Islamic politicians, Geert Wilders, as he became the virtual leader and “international envoy” of the masses of European Islamophobes. Also known for his fight against Turkey’s admission to the EU, Wilders is the leader of the right-wing Party For Freedom (PVV), which has become the third largest political party in the Netherlands, despite the opinion of experts that Wilders’ career would not last long amidst the financial crisis in the Netherlands. In an apparent contradiction of expectations, the weakening economy and global financial concerns only added fuel to the flames.

A few attempts in Europe to introduce limitations and bans to silence hate speech and censor racist ideologies have proven useless, as such efforts for force-fed transformation only backfired in the past. Political sensitivity and tolerance remain on thin ice all over the continent, and legislated limitations only function to drive hateful voices underground, and make extremists feel even more justified in their acts of violence aimed at removing Islam from Europe. It is apparent that prejudice is buried deep in the European psyche, with recent figures revealing that “terrorist” is still the most common word used in connection with Muslims in the European media.

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