ODVV interview: The European Union’s treatment...
Although France has recouped some composure after the maelstrom ignited by the murder of Samuel Paty, a popular middle school teacher who had shown cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in his class on freedom of thought, the republic is still finding itself in the middle of an uncomfortable debate about the compatibility of secular values and Islam. The comments of President Emmanuel Macron who defended the reprinting of the controversial cartoons by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, and his tongue-lashing of Islamic “separatism” and “radical Islam” sent shockwaves across the Muslim world and infuriated leaders and the general public in Islamic countries where huge crowds turned up for street protests and a call for boycotting French goods went viral in no time.
Some observers have noted the secular West is dragged into a new clash of civilizations with Islam, and others have warned against a renewed tide of Islamophobia, arguing that dialogue and mutual understanding are needed urgently to prevent the alienation from reaching irreversible levels. As of 2016, there were 26 million Muslims living in Europe, making up nearly 5 percent of the continent’s population. The number is projected to increase to 76 million by 2050, when Muslims will be comprising 30 percent of the population of Sweden and 19.7 percent of the population of Germany.
Anti-Muslim sentiments are rife across Europe and the ascent of right-wing populism, one of the tenets of which is hardcore opposition to immigrants, is whipping up these attitudes. In 2018, a Pew Research Center poll found 42 percent of the general population in 15 Western European countries believed Islam was incompatible with their culture and values, while 38 percent of them favored restrictive immigration regulations.
Prof. Raymond Taras is a Canadian political scientist and faculty member at Tulane University’s School of Liberal Arts. He studies Islamophobia, xenophobia, multiculturalism and ethnic conflicts, with a special focus on Europe. He is the author of the 2018 book “Nationhood, Migration and Global Politics: An Introduction” and has taught at universities worldwide including Harvard, Stanford, Malmö, Warsaw, and Sussex.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Taras to discuss the recent tensions in France, the resurrection of anti-Muslim animus across Europe and the emerging gaps in the relations between the West and the Muslim world. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: In the aftermath of September 11 attacks in the United States, a succession of violent hate crimes targeting Muslims happened across the world. The phenomenon of Islamophobia has been extensively debated by academicians in the West ever since. Yet, it appears that combatting Islamophobia through investment, legislation, policy-making and education is not high on the agenda of the Western governments and international organizations, including the European Union, or at least is not a top priority. What do you think are the reasons?
A: If you look today at Western states that sell arms to Saudi Arabia, [including] Britain, Canada, Sweden and the United States, you would not think Islamophobia even existed. We are Islam’s best friends altruistically selling jets, tanks and weapons while seeking to make amends for the lumpen working classes incorrigibly holding on to toxic anti-Muslim feelings. But we know from which country the 9/11 attackers were. The famous song that Bob Dylan, the Nobel Prize laureate in literature, wrote in the 1960s has not changed an iota: Masters of War, a reference to the global arms trade. Put another way, a phony concern with stamping out Islamophobia is the perfect cover-up for feeding the murderous killing machine, not to mention the relentless bombing of Muslim “terrorist” targets.
A decade ago, so-called democracy-promoting color revolutions broke out along the Mediterranean littoral encouraged by Western powers. You would think the West deeply cared for democracy promotion among Arab states. To this day, Syria’s war drags on. All this was taking place while a spike in anti-Muslim attitudes emerged in Europe and elsewhere. It seems that these ill-fated color revolutions can be seen as democracy-extinguishing revolutions.
Are the two processes of inciting antipathy towards Muslims and arming their autocrats at home interconnected? Most probably. As bombing campaigns, drone killings and targeted assassinations aim to root out “Muslim extremists” just about everywhere in the world, Western elites cozy up to pro-Western autocrats in Arab capitals. No wonder Muslim immigrants to Europe have been abandoned by their home countries but also by their arriving countries. Inadequate welcoming procedures, a shortage of schools and language centers, few entry-level jobs, increased impoverishment, affordable housing shortages, vague residency permit rules and regulations, and outright dislike and discrimination of them are the result of the West’s condescending migration “magnanimity.”
Q: In the recent years, far-right parties garnered increasing popularity around Europe and specifically won numerous seats in the 2019 European Parliament elections, including in Hungary, Austria, Denmark, Belgium and even Estonia and Finland. Do you believe the growing momentum of radical right in Europe is one of the drivers of Islamophobia on the global scale?
A: I do not regard a hardening of right-wing movements towards migrants to be the sole reason for Islamophobic practices. Rather, as you suggest, lucrative investments and corrupt trade deals with Arab and other Muslim autocrats suggest the West feigns being a good cop while ordinary Muslims migrating to Europe are transformed into the bad cop. Other immigrant countries, [namely] Canada, Australia and New Zealand play similar duplicitous games with Muslim immigrants.
The populism label is used indiscriminately to encompass movements that are right-wing but also can be on the left. And here is the crunch: supposedly liberal movements are also not free of Islamophobic tendencies. Frequently, they mainstream what more extremist groups have been saying. Populist movements of the right are the easiest targets, then, but my fingertip sense is that European Union citizens share suspicions about the growing size of Muslim communities on their continent [while] non-Muslim immigrants are often targeted too.
To convey this idea, I have gone back to the Greek philosopher Thucydides who, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, offered historians a profound “meditation on fear.” He coined five separate words for fear, the best-known being phobos. The one I single out is hypopsia – digging beneath the surface, a deep suspicion and distrust, which in my view captures the mood of Europeans and Americans today. In the West there is a sense of a moral panic, of a resultant anxiety that their countries are under siege. They have subsequently constructed a siege mentality that targets outsider groups and seeks to insulate themselves from foreign threats. Where others may speak of dislike or hatred toward Muslims, that is, Islamophobia, I prefer not to engage in the “hate debate” and steer instead towards deep distrust of outsiders. Only if the word hate is warranted should we then use it.
Populists are constructed objects that Western governments loathe. Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, any leader the West abhors while fearing their popular appeal, are dubbed populists. Unfortunately, this is in large part a creation of ignorant, advocacy-promoting journalists and some academics whose voices need desperately to seem relevant. In these taxonomies of populists, oddly, I rarely see Hassan Rouhani added to the list. Nor is he added to the category of “democratic backsliders” giving up on democracy. Probably this is because previous Iranian leaders are alleged to have been worse culprits. How capricious the term populism is, then! It yields so little explanatory power.
Q: The reprinting of Prophet Muhammad cartoons by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the subsequent violence by a radical Chechen-born immigrant who beheaded the teacher who showed the cartoons in his classroom, and President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial statements calling for an end to “Islamist separatism” in France signaled a disturbing juncture in the history of interracial, interfaith relations in Europe. It is possible to note an enduring fissure between the secular West, epitomized by France, and the Islamic community. How is possible to bridge these gaps? Do these developments evidence that Islam and Western values are incompatible?
A: In recent years, several attempts have been made to construct an Islam of Europe; Tariq Ramadan is a case in point. In a strange way, so was President Nicolas Sarkozy who differentiated between a mere Islam en France inspired by foreign Imams, and a rooted Islam de France, in other words, French Islam. It surprised me, therefore, that President Emmanuel Macron, seemingly on a whim, moved to the right of Sarkozy and condemned what he called political Islam, specifically, its extremist and separatist forms.
There are many enviable legacies of the French Revolution: the notion of color blindness, of political equality, of laïcité, which came later, a kind of secular state whose purpose is to level the playing field so that no religious group will feel excluded. But that has not always been the case. For example, France welcomed Jewish refugees from Algeria and Morocco in the 1950s giving them citizenship. But Arab groups were not made citizens when they moved to France, therefore refuting it was a level playing field.
Ressentiment was the result for second-class Maghrebis. Because of COVID-19, I re-read Albert Camus’ “The Plague” recently and it, too, was not evenhanded. It was fixated on the effects of the epidemic that affected the French colonial presence in Oran but it only marginalized Arab society though the virus killed both communities.
The enfant terrible of French literature, Michel Houellebecq, himself acquitted on a charge of Islamophobia over a decade ago, wrote a novel called “Soumission,” in English ‘Submission.’ In it he traced how venial French society could not stand up to the challenges of Muslim remaking of French society. He posited that in order to stop Marine Le Pen’s bloc from winning power, in the 2022 Presidential elections a centrist political party – their names change so frequently – aligns itself with a newly-formed, moderate French Muslim party, so Islam de France. The result is that a moderate Muslim leader becomes French president. At the same time sharia law is instituted allowing a French college professor who converts to Islam to become intimate with Muslim girls in his courses. To crown the transition, the Sorbonne University is renamed the Paris-Sorbonne Islamic University. Is Houellebecq’s novel Islamophobic since Muslims take power in the country? The cynicism of such a takeover is clear-cut.
The killing of Samuel Paty was quickly condemned by the Conseil français du culte musulman, a national elected body that serves as the official interlocutor with the French state in regulating Muslim religious activities. At the University of Western Australia last year, I met one of the country’s most innovative scholars, Samina Yasmeen, who is teaching new techniques of tackling deradicalization. France is a larger country with an estimated 5.7 million Muslims representing nine percent of its overall population. The task of the CFCM is now more complex with each passing killing.
Q: Following the recent developments in France, anti-west protests broke out in several Muslim countries, and many Islamic nations, including Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar took steps to boycott French goods. Are you concerned that the heightening of tensions between the Muslim world and the West can debilitate global peace and security, intensifying the chasms between the two civilizations?
A: While not an expert, as someone who focuses on ethnicity and language, I join many academics who contend that Muslim-majority states are themselves divided. A realistic question becomes whether the Muslim world is more divided than the West.
If tensions are increasing, it may be that fissures, schisms, and divisions shape the Islamic world. It is hardly united; it is not an us-versus-them proposition. Partitions, secessions, and breakaway regions threaten individual Muslim-majority states. To be sure, Ummat al-Islam – the collective community of Islamic people – in theory takes precedence over shaʻb – a nation with common ancestry. But that’s the theory.
I am ill-equipped to discuss the great Shia-Sunni divide so let me focus on Muslim diversity. Several years ago, I invited a Palestinian intellectual and writer, Muhammad Siddiq, to give lectures to my courses on Islamic literature. He brought two CDs with him, one of Surah Maryam being recited in Riyadh, the other in Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo. He highlighted how solemn and reverent the Saudi faithful were throughout the recitation. By contrast, at Al-Azhar my guest speaker compared the animated discussion to a football match with many interjections, interruptions, and cheering: two Arab countries, two different ways of praying.
Another touchy subject having diverse responses is female genital mutilation. It is typically treated as a product of pre-Islamic culture, of distinct cultural and ethnic pathways not guided by religion. The late Ali Mazrui, a Kenyan-born academic who I heard speak, defended the practice emphasizing its symbolic and social significance. The World Health Organization has gone into great detail but stonewalls where it is in Africa and the Middle East that it occurs. Sweden reported that an entire class of girls who went to their unnamed “country of origin” one summer resulted in 100% of them having undergone the procedure. “Diversity” describes which Muslim majority states practice FGM and which do not. A clash of civilizations may sometimes be discussed as a clash within civilizations.
Q: To what extent should the challenges between Europe and its Muslim minority be blamed on the failure of the Western integration model? Doesn’t the fact that Muslims find it difficult to reconcile their religious convictions and the Western values, and erupt into radical actions from time to time, mean we should be critical about the European governments’ treatment of their minorities and how they respond to their demands and differences?
A: The study of minority rights’ regimes has been a hot subject since the 1990s. Recent research has now, however, focused on majority rights. A bellwether approach is offered by Israeli political scientist Liav Orgad in a volume published by Oxford University Press titled The Cultural Defense of Nations: A Liberal Theory of Majority Rights. It may be the case that minority rights’ advocates have overplayed their hand though the consequences are unclear.
Cultural assimilation was always the greatest danger to minorities but very few countries hold this model up anymore as exemplary. Multicultural policies, which I have written about, were popular for a time. Then social integration, requiring fewer linguistic skills and greater labor-market suitability, came into fashion. My concept of nationhood highlights social cohesion which becomes crucial when cross-cultural bonding is rewarded in many societies. A genuine partnership among Indigenous Peoples, settler societies and recent immigrants marks nationhood.
In sum, the European Union’s treatment of minorities is inept and inconsistent, with wide variations from one country to another. Perhaps highly-skilled immigrants will always be welcome. Maybe those who carry out front-line work in the battle with COVID-19 are now the most essential. Adaptability to changing circumstances is a key to the social integration of migrants. Unfortunately, refugees fleeing war and persecution may be left behind, as a Bertelsmann Stiftung report noted several years ago.
Q: In response to the worldwide protests at the US police killing of African-American citizen George Floyd earlier in May, which spilled over into Europe and morphed into a venue for the denunciation of inequalities by the public, European Union announced it will take measures to address the absence of diversity in its institutions and will also appoint the EU Commission’s first anti-racism coordinator. Do you believe the coordinator will be dealing with Islamophobia as one of his or her responsibilities? Will the mission be successful without including Islamophobia in the agenda?
A: My best guess is that the EU Commission’s first anti-racism coordinator will follow the processes that were, ironically, used in the UK in the 1990s. A series of directives beginning with race and then systematically applied to gender and race were adopted by the British Parliament. They became the model used by the EU the following decade. A religion directive may be on the cards. But other EU-sponsored institutions already cover specific aspects of Islamophobia. A prominent one is the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights based in Vienna which carries out regular reporting from its national centers on discrimination. Reports on Islamophobia were published in 2006 and 2012. This past year it issued a study on “Tackling gendered Islamophobia in Europe.” The value of an anti-racism coordinator empowered to delve into Islamophobia is that it may have teeth and warn countries that violate the EU norms. The Fundamental Rights Agency is limited to reporting.
Q: A 2019 survey by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Religion Monitor revealed mistrust against Muslims is on the rise across Europe. In Germany and Switzerland, half of the respondents said they consider Islam a threat. In Britain, two out of every five people shared this perception. In Spain and France, 60 percent of people said they believe Islam and Western values are at odds. In Austria, one in three people stated they don’t wish to have a Muslim neighbor. What are the incubators of this remarkably negative attitude toward Muslims? How is it possible to shift the status quo in favor of reconciliation and dialogue?
A: Numerous surveys in France have examined whether French and Islamic values are ultimately incompatible. These opinion polls are ‘screenshots’ taken at particular junctures, sometimes when crises occur. No doubt today French respondents would be more prone to regarding Islam as incompatible with Western values following the killing of Samuel Paty. Survey research is not very reliable, however, especially over la longue durée. It is the political culture of a state, not opinion polls, that can change over the long term and can hopefully reconcile values of majority and minority groups.
An illustrative case is comparative research funded by Cordis and approved by the European Commission. The EURISLAM website offers invaluable data, often rarely used, about the status of Muslims in the EU. Focusing on four different Muslim communities, namely the Bosniaks, Maghrebi, Pakistani and Turkish, who migrated to the EU, and describing reactions to them by six EU countries, among them France, Germany, and the UK, we can discern how, in very different ways, majority groups can express trust or distrust in Muslim groups and vice versa, these communities register whether national groups make them feel welcome, or not.
In short, the extent of negative attitudes towards Muslims is dependent on place and time, the emergence of crises and more routine practices, the ethnicity of a Muslim and the origin of a national in a particular country. Results will rarely be uniform. Asking the question whether Islamic values are compatible with Western values skirts around these other variables.
Q: Do you believe the role of media in the formation and reinvigoration of negative attitudes to Muslims is exaggerated? Or is it that media with corporate interests run by powerful interest groups and institutions can influence the public perceptions of demographic communities, including Muslims?
A: I am deeply disillusioned with what today passes for journalism. One important factor is, as you suggest, corporate interests run by powerful interest groups and institutions can influence the public perceptions of demographic communities, including Muslims. But with “gotcha” journalists and predatory social media steering the debates, we end up with accusations of racism exchanged by individuals who in other eras would merely be in disagreement.
It reminds me of students during the Vietnam war era vying for a mythical label of “some of us are real revolutionaries” – the case of England in the late 1960s. The counterpart today are millions of people on social media replicating an echo chamber. Many are quick to judge others and announce “you are the racists,” we the liberal, tolerant, inclusive, diverse, open-minded liberals. Virtue-seeking is the curse of our age and many journalists willingly contribute to this framing.
Some of the fakest news stories are distributed by communications managers, of corporations, universities, NGOs, government lobbyists [and] public officials themselves. For the late economist David Graeber, they fill up “bullshit jobs.” They do this in more ways than one since they are quintessentially, almost by definition untrustworthy; and they provide no value added to the job.
Islamophobia may be a necessary but insufficient reason for outrageous journalism and for shameful communications and media directors. We need to search much deeper for explanations. One thing is clear, however: in today’s world there is nothing as honorable and upstanding as the professional journalist who courageously speaks out, to praise virtuous and noble political leaders, to call out unwise and injudicious ones. In the far-ranging spectrum of media sources available to us, the independent, free-thinking journalist is worth his or her weight in gold.
By: Kourosh Ziabari