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Europe’s Muslims in the crosshairs

Dec 13,2016 - Last updated at Dec 13,2016

Europe has a big problem as an increasing number of Europeans adopt a cause that ostensibly centres on nationalism and rejects immigration, but hides a deep-seated fear of Muslims and Islam.

The problem has been festering for decades, but in recent years it has surfaced, 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 European Union as a whole.

The crises in Syria and Iraq, among others, led to an unprecedented exodus of largely Muslim migrants and refugees towards Western Europe. 

Millions have been received in Germany, France, Italy and Scandinavian countries 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, widened the debate about the inability of Muslims to integrate in European societies and adopt its secular values.

The question of integration is complicated. One can argue that the failure of European states to address the issues of poverty and unemployment among its own Muslim youth contributed to the estrangement of hundreds of thousands who felt left out and became 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 others.

Available figures (2010) show that the total number of Muslims in EU countries was 19 million or about 3.8 per cent of the total population, with a growth rate of about 1 per cent every decade.

Throughout Europe, excluding Turkey, the number was 44 million or 6 per cent.

A closer look shows that Muslims made up more than 5 per cent of the population of Germany [before the latest influx of refugees] and 7.5 per cent of France’s total population. 

In Austria, Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark they made up between 4 and 6 per cent of the population.

Projections point that European Muslims will make up 8 per cent of the population by 2030.

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 72 per cent in Hungary, 66 per cent in Poland, 65 per cent in Greece and 50 per cent in Spain, while they are between 35 and 28 per cent in Britain, France, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.

Unfavourable views are tied to a negative perception of ideology/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 United States. 

Anti-Semitism, neo-Nazi and fascist sentiments are also making a comeback in a number of European countries.

Islamophobia has risen in recent years due to an influx of Muslim refugees and the terrorist attacks that hit Paris and Brussels.

Coinciding with economic troubles that have crippled countries like Greece, Italy, Spain and France, negative feelings towards 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 in the EU, with its open borders and soft attitude on refugees and immigration.

This has manifested itself in this summer’s shocking Brexit vote in Britain and the role that the relatively small UKIP party has played in convincing a wide base of disenchanted Britons to vote against staying in the EU.

The Brexit mood was echoed in the United States last November as Donald Trump rode a populist anti-immigrant, Islamophobic and isolationist wave to take the White House.

The Brexit-Trump effect is expected to emerge again 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 (National Front). 

Similar movements are on the rise in Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and others. Together they appeal to a public that is becoming increasingly Eurosceptic, nationalistic and against multiculturalism. 

The tide also represents a populist and latent backlash against globalisation. 

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 ascension of nationalist movements on the old continent during the 1800s and early decades of the 20th century.

Ironically, that era also witnessed a resurgence of Russian nationalism and imperial ambitions.

In the midst of 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?

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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