This article was published on The New Arab
In recent years, rhetoric in Europe that stigmatises Muslims and Islam has been steadily moving from the fringes into the mainstream.
Right-wing xenophobic forces around Europe are increasingly monopolising the discourse around issues such as immigration, identity and secularism, with other parties often trailing behind, reproducing a similarly bigoted discourse, in an attempt to keep up with perceived public opinion, and popular perceptions.
All of a sudden, the fully acquired linguistic, social, legal, cultural and religious integration of generations of European Muslims is disputed, their allegiance and status as equal citizens is questioned; they become the dangerous “Other”.
Socioeconomic issues and legitimate political grievances affecting many European Muslims are explained in terms of culture or religion, and attention is deflected from the pressing issue of institutionalised discrimination present at many levels in European societies.
In this respect, both right wing and social-democratic parties hide their failure to implement social programmes or provide decent employment and basic services to all citizens, behind odious culturalist discourses.
In the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks in Europe in particular, the public debate has shifted to the right, as the hysteria about Islam permeated the whole mainstream political spectrum and the media.
In addition, the rightward shift of media coverage of Islam and Muslim communities in Europe has meant that attempts to develop more detailed and nuanced explanations and analyses around the topic are increasingly perceived as ambiguous, or as avoiding the “real issue” (that is, that there is an intrinsic problem with Islam and Muslims).
Paradoxically, xenophobic parties who call for “tough” measures against terrorism, or who claim to be defending Europe against “Islamisation” (which has been shown to be merely unjustified paranoia) are fomenting the same sentiment of rejection, alienation and antagonism that has contributed to creating the fertile ground that brought many young people into the ranks of violent extremist groups.
In this sense, there is an unsettling and disturbing marriage of convenience between the two extremes of far right-wing parties on one side, which attract voters through their hateful discourse, and religious extremists on the other, who agitate the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric and use it as a tool of propaganda to recruit new members.
In fact, the means employed by the two groups to implement their political agendas are strikingly similar in many respects: Both want to divide and create tensions within European societies; both aim to polarise public opinion; both share the view that a civilisational war between the West and the “Muslim world” is inevitable; both look favourably toward further military intervention in the Middle East; and both encourage the stifling of civil liberties in the name of countering “terrorism”.
The stated goal of some religious extremists is to “eliminate the grayzone” of coexistence between European Muslims and their fellow citizens, and create conditions under which Muslims would be treated with “suspicion, distrust and hostility”, in order to lock them “into an escalating spiral of alienation”.
Through its rhetoric and actions, the far right is playing directly into the hands of such extremists, granting them “a propaganda coup, implicitly endorsing… [their] narrative of Muslims and westerners collectively at war with one another”.
Racist and bigoted discourse is therefore not only morally despicable; it is also blatantly counterproductive in countering violent extremism, and instead fuels it.
Fortunately, despite the disproportionate amount of very negative media coverage – reflected in political discourse – there are many encouraging examples of unreported grassroots cooperation which suggest the day to day reality is more complex.
At the local level, in Europe, people of different faiths and origins coexist peacefully and engage together for common objectives.
The Visit My Mosque initiative in the UK, for example, allows British people to see the “true face” of Islam and Muslims in the country, through direct interaction, with the aim of challenging misconceptions and prejudices around British Muslim communities.
A similar approach has been adopted by Coexister, a French youth movement whose goal is to make diversity a “lever of unity for social cohesion” through dialogue, solidarity and education, instead of one of division. Countless other examples across Europe could be cited.
Many European Muslims assert their western identity with pride and confidence – without it compromising their Muslim one, and contribute to their country’s political life as citizens. That said, the meritocratic question of why a refugee or migrant can only be perceived as acceptable if s/he is “contributing,” is also a valid one.
The course of history cannot be halted; Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan has talked of a “silent revolution” taking place, in which the presence of people of different origins and faiths becomes the new normal, in Europe and elsewhere.
Muslims in Europe, Ramadan writes, “are reshaping their religion into one that is faithful to the principles of Islam, dressed in European and American cultures, and definitively rooted in western societies.”
Of course, numerous challenges remain, and they cannot be underestimated; social harmony and the acquisition of a sense of belonging do not occur through wishful thinking. But there are reasons to be optimistic.
The many positive examples of integration and coexistence demonstrate that, in the end, the most radical, audacious and effective things to do to counter extremism are to engage in dialogue, acquire mutual understanding and knowledge, and join forces together around common values to challenge the roots of injustices of all kinds.
By promoting hatred and feeding division, and by pushing for military interventions around the world, right-wing forces are doing exactly the opposite; they are the best allies extremists could have hoped for.
© Tommaso Segantini