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Islamophobia in Europe: Reasons, Parameters, and Methods of Overcoming

16.12.2008 11:42

The first reference to the term “islamophobia” appeared in an essay by an orientalist Etienne Dinet “The Orient in the eyes of the Occident” (1922) for defining negative attitude to Islam, that was traced back in many clashes between the Muslim world and Europe from the Crusades to colonialism period and that had religion as a base (Islam in opposition to Christianity).

Since the beginning of 90ies the term “islamophobia” has been widely used in a secular antiislamic discourse, which appeared due to integration of the Muslim immigrant communities in Western societies and became more influential after the terrorist acts of 9/11. This term, which is now widely used by politicians and the mass-media, is debated by some scientists, who think that it hardly differs from such terms as racism, anti-Islamism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc.

In reality islamophobia is one of the consequences of intolerance, besides racism and xenophobia, but it has irrational fear (phobia) of Islam as a base. How widely is islamophobia spread in the European society; what is it caused and maintained by; what is its impact on everyday life of Muslims?

Discrimination of Muslims: Some Results of European Surveys

In Europe the problem of discrimination of Muslim population is investigated by the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). Among its first researches we may mention reports “Islamophobia in EU after September 11, 2001” and “The Impact of July 7, 2005 London bomb attacks on Muslim Communities in the EU” (November 2005), which found discovered that anti-Islamic ideas in European countries have become more wide spread after the events in London and New York.1

EUMC thoroughly studies acts of discrimination of the European Muslims. Its latest report “Muslims of Europe: Discrimination and Islamophobia” (December, 2006) focuses on studying available data on certain cases and reasons for discrimination of Muslims and states, that the number of officially registered cases of Islamophobia is very lowered in comparison with a true number.2

A group of specialists from EUCM has come to the following conclusions.

Firstly, European Muslims become victims of discrimination in the spheres of job, education or accommodation, regardless their ethnic origin and attitude to religion. The level of unemployment among Muslims in European countries is higher, than average country values. For example, in Great Britain the level of unemployment among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is 20%, while the average level of unemployment among the British immigrants is 11%, and the average country value is 6%. In Germany the level of unemployment among the most numerous Muslim group–Turks–is 21%, differing a lot from the national value (8%). In France statistics does not give enough data to make conclusion about religious groups, but the level of unemployment among immigrants in general is 22%, as opposed to 13% in the country as a whole. Therefore, the level of unemployment for Muslims is twice as big as national value.

Different methods show, that Muslims become victims of discrimination while trying to get a job. For example, in Great Britain in 2004 one radio program of the BBC held a following experiment: it sent resumes of six fictional candidates, whose names clearly showed their affiliation with the white, African or Muslim community, to 50 companies. According to the results, “white” candidates have a better chance (25%) to be invited for an interview, than “black” ones (13%), meanwhile Muslims received the lowest number of invitations (9%).

In France in 2004 the scientists of Sorbonne University in Paris sent out standard resume using fictional names, that somehow showed ethnic identity, as a reply to 258 job advertisements. According to the results, the candidates from the North Africa have a five times lower chance than the others’, to receive a positive answer.

Limited rights in the sphere of education–is still another factor of discrimination, which European Muslims face. In many states, where Muslims constitute a significant part of the migrants (for example, in Denmark, Germany and France), immigrants and people from the third countries have the level of school performance and qualification, which is lower then the level of the majority of the population. For example, in Germany approximately 70% of people with Muslim roots do not go beyond secondary or primary education (as opposed to 25% of the total country value), and only 5% receive high marks (as opposed to 19% of the total value).

The religion-studying differs in accordance with different education models in European states: somewhere education is officially secular, somewhere Islam-studying is included as a compulsory or optional discipline in comprehensive schools. Muslim communities hold the responsibility for optional education, although they still invite imams from the third countries, who know little about local social and cultural atmosphere. Mosque that functions as a main agent of socialization of Muslims in the European society suffers from the lack of educated leaders, brought up in the European society.

Immigrants, especially those who come from Muslim countries, struggle the worst living conditions, as a rule. Although a relative improvement took place in this sphere, the continuing inequality may be partly explained by the lack of social accommodation for the groups with a low prosperity level, especially for immigrants and their children.

Therefore, European Muslims are often disproportionably represented in the zones with low living conditions; school performance in their community is lower than average values, while the level of unemployment is higher, on the contrary. They are presented as a group mainly in low-prosperous spheres of economy.

The second main conclusion of the European Centre specialists is the following: hostility towards Muslims is part of broader xenophobia and racism towards migrants and minorities upon the whole.

To substantiate this statement, let us take a glance at the conclusions of the report “Securitisation and Religious Divide in Europe. Muslims in Europe after 9/11” (June, 2006), issued by the scientists of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Italy.3 In their opinion, economic marginalization, typical of immigrants in general, is a more significant factor of discrimination, than religion. Religion and discrimination interact and lead to the appearance of a new “class”–for example, underprivileged classes of the British Asian Muslims or French North African Muslims.

Therefore, islamophobia in Europe is mixed with other forms of discrimination and becomes unintelligible from such phenomena, as xenophobia, anti-immigrant attitudes, intolerance of cultural differences, and anti-terrorist measures. It is very hard, if possible at all, to solve this tangle.

It is obvious, that Muslims become victims of islamophobia acts, from oral threats to physical aggression towards people or property, regardless lack of complete date on this problem. The question is: what role does the general growth of anti-immigrant attitudes in Europe play here; to what extent is it resulted from the fact that most immigrants are Muslims, and would another group of immigrants cause the same strong reaction?

The Image of Islam in the European Society

It takes recalling events that Islam in Europe is associated with to get the idea of how it is portrayed in European society. First of all here come problems of religious practice in everyday life: the hijab case (France), ritual cattle killing (Switzerland), cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (Denmark); uprisings in French and Belgian suburbs, illegal immigration problem for the Mediterranean countries, terrorist acts in London and Madrid.

This is a list of main topics among which the discussion of Islam in the mass-media is centered. Even taking into consideration the fact, that main reports are not openly islamophobic (the above-mentioned reports enlist some extreme cases, but note that they are not typical), one will clearly see a tendency for connecting Islam to scandalous topics, which tackle upon the security threat. Islam emanates danger: direct physical threat in the case of terrorism, a threat to cultural, lingual and national unity–in the case of specific religious procedures; and, at last, a threat to the social establishment.

Such an image gave a Muslim scholar grounds for comparing islamophobia with anti-Semitism, widely spread in the past: “The image of a Muslim is bad in the West nowadays. We are in the same situations as Jews once were: always under suspicion. Our roots and our inclinations cause questions, and we are not accepted as righteous citizens”.4

Researchers note, that mass-media tend to adopt public attitude and prejudices, instead of carrying out a neutral informative function. In particular, they state that there is a tendency for mixing up foreign and domestic Islam, radical Islam and immigrant Muslim population of Europe. The European mass-media also show a particular interest to the gender equality problems, which are often a subject for debate between secular Europeans and more conservative Muslim population.

Let us take a look at a couple of examples. Statistic data concerning Great Britain witness of the fast growth in the number of stories dedicated to Muslims and Islam. Basing on the analysis of two newspapers–The Times and The Guardian–a British scientist E. Poole points out two main representation frameworks: “British Muslims” and “Global Muslims”, so that “negative associations of the global Muslim behavior are explained by the main features of religion, making every Muslim a potential terrorist”.5

In a similar way in Germany the question of Islam is often discussed in global dimension, but is intertwined with internal context, so that international events are represented as an evidence of the behavior of German Muslims.6 An Italian research of 1999 showed, that the mass-media are inclined to mix up “Islam as a religion” and “the Muslim world”, depicting the Muslim world as homogenous and monolith and representing Islam mostly in negative discourse–concerning the issues of woman status, fundamentalism revival and religious procedures, unusual for Europeans.7

The scandalous character of most stories means, that the problems of integration are discussed by far more often, than its successes. According to specialists, a highly debatable issue of blood revenge is widely discussed despite the fact, that such cases are rare and do not refer to all the citizens. The emphasis on women exploitation and forced weddings is obvious. It means that viewers and readers get a wrong negative image, meanwhile the everyday life of Muslim families is not shown.

Islam is one of the main discussion topics in the Netherlands. In December 2000 an opera “Aisha and the women of Medina” was cancelled in Rotterdam because of the threats of insulted Muslims. It lead to debates over conservatism of Muslim organizations and freedom of art. Another notorious event was the an interview with a Moroccan imam, broadcasted in May 2001. The imam stated that “homosexuality is a contagious disease”, which will mean the end of the Netherlands if it spreads among the Dutch youth: “If men marry men, and women marry women–who will give birth to children?” Court initiated case of discrimination of sexual minorities, but the lawyer solved the case in favor of imam and said, that he just had expressed his religious views. Nevertheless, this event aroused tense public debates over Islam, freedom of speech and religion, and prejudices against homosexuality.8

A detailed research by a French scientist Pierre Tevanian shows how the mass-media organized the construction of the “hijab problem” by selecting whose opinions may be expressed during public debates. Sociologists, feminists, teachers and members of civil organizations seldom got a possibility to have their say, as the mass-media wanted to create a certain image of the hijab defender–a bearded foreigner, who had to argue with women, which were opposed to wear hijab, or native Frenchmen.9

While discussing the image of Islam in the Western society, it is necessary to note the significant role of the terrorist acts of 9/11 in its creation, and in particular–the interpretation of these events as of the clash of two contradictory world orders–Western and Islamic–which will never coexist peacefully.

Such essentialist attitude to religions and civilizations has been investigated and criticized since the middle of XX century within the framework of the “orientalism” school, which tried to explain a hostile attitude to eastern cultures by historical factors.

According to the opinion of orientalists, the sense of cultural supremacy over the Islamic world, typical of all European countries and the Western world in general, appeared in the Renaissance epoch and gained strength in the colonialism period of the XIX and XX centuries. It was connected with the fact that the thought of the Renaissance period referred only to the Greek-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots (not considering the contribution of eastern cultures). Later, as colonialism developed, European culture was considered better than the culture of colonized nations. Since that time Europe has been emanating deep cultural ethnocentrism, which functions as an essentialist paradigm for contemptuous attitude to other cultures (which it considers to be closed, unchanging, unable to progress or develop, with all consequences of such a view). Europeans are inclined to think, that the conception of progress, dynamism and innovation belongs to the Western civilization, and the latter must be the example to follow for the rest of the world.10

Researchers agree, that this essentialist vision forms the basis of the European attitude to Islam and leads to very important consequences. Firstly, these is a widespread conception of integration as unilateral efforts that must be made by immigrants only, - this is the reason for European attempts to integrate Muslims by assimilation and their inclination to keep historical unity, fixed in collective memory. Society does not think that adaptation should be mutual, that indigenous population should also undergo some changes in judicial, institutional and even ideological aspects.

Secondly, integration is not understood as a necessary process of the modern reality, but rather as a “problem”. This way of perception is predetermined by the idea, that integration concerns only culture and religions. Although, integration has at least three levels: judicial, social-economic and cultural. Only a combination of these three aspects leads to the evolvement of a rational attitude to the integration process and to the success of the latter. Nevertheless, culture and religion are considered as the main elements in the European society.

A serious social consequence of “problematization” of integration is the phenomenon of a dividing line between the “desired immigrants” (those from Latin America and Eastern Europe) and “suspicious immigrants” (those from North Africa and Muslims in general), which forms public opinion and migration policy.

The following fact may be mentioned as an example: during the last regularization process in Spain in 2000, the number of denials was very high for Moroccans, Algerians and Pakistanis (50%), while Ecuadorians and Columbians formed a group of most favored treatment (76% of accepted resumes).11

There exists a secret difference between “conflict cultures”, on the one hand, and “integrable cultures”, on the other. Without doubt, Islam belongs to the first group and is represented as extremely far from European culture, turning into a threat. That is why the most widespread argument among Europeans nowadays is the following: “Muslims are not able to be integrated into the European society”, - consequently, they are the source of potential conflict for the European society, values and identity.

Social Excludedness: Consequences and Measures of Overcoming

The phenomenon of alienation and negative attitude to Muslims has already had and will have extremely important consequences for Europe. They say, that a “quiet revolution” is taking place on the continent. Islam appeared in Europe relatively recently, the first generations of Muslims were concerned with private matters and perceived their presence in Europe as temporary. Nowadays, the second and the third generations of Muslims, who were born in Europe and live there, consider Europe their home. They perceive themselves as French, British or German citizens of Muslim faith and state: “We do not feel guilty. We have our rights and obligations. We are citizens, the same as the rest”.

It is necessary to mention, that all the Muslims answer the question about changes in their family’s and their own dedication to religion, caused by immigration, in a similar way. The emigration experience has not changed their views. Faith stays as strong as it used to be, it is only religious procedures that were adjusted to new conditions.

The results of the researches show pessimism dominating the immigrant community. As it has already been mentioned, European Muslims are, as a rule, mostly presented among low-prosperous sectors of economy, live in regions with a high level of unemployment and low level of living conditions. According to the Muslim population surveys, they are disappointed not only by the fact, that they get the jobs that Europeans do not want to perform (it is a natural consequence of immigration), but by the impression, that Europeans oppose to perceive them in some other way and that it is impossible to improve their level of life. The main problem is the equality of possibilities.12

Many Muslims suppose that the European integration model is ethnocentric and misses the religious aspect out: “Islam is perceived as an obstacle to integration, they require that we forget our religious heritage”. These facts seems unjust and discriminatory in comparison with the attitude to the other religions.

In this case the tendency would develop in only one way: towards confrontation of Muslim and European identities, alienation from the society and cultural conformity within a community. When society does not perform its socializing function or provides a person with a limited set of behavior models connected with low-prosperous and non-prestigious jobs and poor living conditions, immigrants search for other forms of identity and revive the identity of their ancestors, although in a more radical form.

The following are shocking results of surveys held among the British Muslims by the Institut Populus in 2006. They showed that young generations of Muslims, who were born and brought up in Great Britain, are by far more radical, than those brought up in Muslim countries.13

74% of young British Muslims aged between 16 and 24 years would like Muslim women to wear hijabs, while 24% of Muslims who are older than 55 object to it. 37% of British Muslims want to substitute the British legislation with Sharia, as opposed to 17% of adults. At last, 13% of British Muslims younger than 24 state that they adore such organizations as “Al-Qaeda”, as opposed to 3% of adults.

Munira Minza, a sociologist who managed the surveys, thinks that reislamization is predetermined by the search for identity. Or, to be more exact, image. Adults consider their Muslim faith as a natural part of their identity; the source of problem is adaptation to the British society or, to be more exact, the necessity to be accepted by that society. It is the explanation for moderate answers, given by the survey participants, as the researchers suppose.

On the contrary, young Muslims take the affiliation with the British society for granted. They emphasize their differences within the framework of that society to strengthen their importance in economic and political affairs. It is the explanation for provocative answers, prevailing in this group.

The British survey gave one more important result: contrary to their religious or community hostility, 62% of young Muslims confess that they have more in common with non-Muslim Britons rather than with non-Britain Muslims. On the one hand, this statement is contradictory to the previous, in which Muslims gave a significant value to their Islamic identity. Although, if we take such identification as the measure of self-affirmation, the contradiction is removed.

The fact that Muslims identify themselves with the society they live in means that the integration process has positive direction and potential, which society and the powers that be must take advantage of.

Here are the examples of successful initiatives of European authorities in this sphere:14

- Education. In Luxembourg the Ministry of Education made a decision to institute a discipline called “moral and religious guidance” for senior pupils, centered around interfaith dialogue and explaining the humane values of religious other than Christianity;

- Interfaith dialogue. Germany has realized several forms of the dialogue over Islam (Islamforen), aiming at eliminating prejudices towards the Muslim community and the fear it causes as well as at providing critical debates between the representatives of the Muslim community and society. These forums do not have an official status and were created by NGOs. In Great Britain leaders of Muslim, Judaic and Christian religions organized the Three Faiths Forum that holds conferences, seminaries and meetings with national and local politicians.

- Municipal initiatives. In Rotterdam the municipality provides financial aid for the Islamic organizations body. The body, created in 1990, ensures promotion of the interests of city Muslims and unites 42 organizations, 8 of them are presented by ethic communities, while the rest are women and youth organizations. An important aim was mutual understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Municipal Council of Rotterdam held nine “debates over Islam” during the period from February to April 2005, at which a lot of Islam-related questions were tackled upon (in particular, the height of minarets of new mosques, education and economic situation).

In Great Britain a lot of local communities have published manuals for satisfying religious and cultural needs of Muslim pupils. One of the most detailed and useful documents was issued in Birmingham, with the help of the central city mosque. Some local authority published information about their fight against islamophobia.

- Police initiatives. In Great Britain London Police Service cooperated with a NGO FAIR (Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism) and other large organizations during the latest campaign “Islamophobia–Stop Suffering in Silence”, a national campaign launched in 2004 for preventing crimes against Muslims, improving the relations with the Muslim community and effective monitoring of islamophobia cases.

Integrity of Personality and Society as the Final Goal of Integration

The word “integration” originates from a Latin integratio–reconstruction, reunification of separate parts in one. It is necessary to take into consideration, that Islam appeared on the continent about 70-80 years ago, but it has already become part of the new social image, that one disappear. That is why both sides must take efforts to provide successf ul integration.

Naturally, one may impose all the adaptation problems on immigrants and their children explaining it by the statement: “If you do not like our life, go away, if you want to stay–be like us”. In this respect the world map of famous S. Huntington may serve as a good illustrative example: in one point of the Earth there is one culture, and in that region–another, and here is a bold dividing line between them… And there is a threat of confrontation as cultures gain strength, cut trenches and cultivate on their territory values incompatible with one another…

The experience of Muslims in Europe shows: European and Muslim values are compatible. It is possible to be an English, French or German citizen on the one hand, and a Muslim–on the other. Although, it is hard. Due to social-economic position, predetermined by immigration and relating problems (lingual, educational etc.) and the stereotypes, enrooted in the European minds, Muslims become victims of discrimination more often than other groups.

They feel alienation in everyday life and, therefore, intensify connections with their relatives and friends. Some of them confess that visit a mosque more often, than they used to while in motherland, as it is the main place of their socialization. In reality, a mosque becomes for most of them not only a place to pray, but a social centre, where they can get information or meet with people, who can help them to improve their living conditions. This movement back to community is traced relatively often, regardless sociodemographic characteristics of the surveyed population.

This feeling of alienation leads to a lot of consequences: from the growth of radicalism to complete indifference to current events in the country. The relations with indigenous citizens do not develop, society starts thinking: “they just can’t (or do not want to) be integrated”; meanwhile the reaction of Muslims to any actions concerning Islam becomes excessively aggressive. In any way, discussed in the mass-media, whether it is a hijab or cartoon issue–the scale of Islamic resistance movement is really shocking. In tense atmosphere such events, as the death of two Arabian boys in a transformer vault or appearance of the cartoons on Prophet Muhammad, are inevitably separated from their context and get symbolic meaning as an attack against Muslims or discrimination of immigrant minorities.

It is obvious that such “parallel (separate) existence” can not be stable and satisfactory for both sides, it is necessary to move towards each other. The first steps have already been made: public opinion surveys, integration policy comparative studies, federal and municipal measures, reform of education, NGO activation, including Muslim organizations, etc.

How far is it necessary to go in mutual concessions? Answer to this question is the key problem of all debates over immigration and is still subject of emotional–and thus irrational–arguments. On the one hand, they have their roots in the victim discourse of those, who see islamophobia and discrimination everywhere; on the other–people are manipulated by the fear of “colonization of the country by a foreign religion” and of collapse of the cultural unity. As one European Muslim scholar put it: “Our societies are deeply stricken with a disease: meanwhile we praise the rule of cultural multiplicity and tolerance in theory, in reality our communities become narrower and shut themselves away from one another; we do not know what we have the right to say and to show; to what extent it is permitted to be different, remaining a citizen. It is a very hard epoch, we should not disguise dangers that separate us”.15

The struggle against islamophobia is one of the most important directions of Muslim minorities integration, aiming at eliminating stereotypes, enrooted in our psychology and infused by the mass-media under the influence of anti-terrorist and nationalist attitudes.

As it has been mentioned before, integration is a multi-level process. It is possible to say, that it is relatively successful in the social aspect in all European states. The situation in judicial sphere looks more contradictory: certain rules and rituals followed by Muslims may be contrary to the country legislation. The above-mentioned questions have been studied and discussed by specialists. European Muslims have also been working over the reforms in interpretation of their sources, and all of this takes a lot of time.

The most long-term type of integration is cultural one, aiming at the development of the European Islamic culture, which will allow not to go beyond the Muslim ethics of life, but at the same time will enrich the culture of ancestors and of the European society.

At last, the highest level is personal integration, or integrity. As a European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan put it: “True integration is enrooted deeply in our essence. I often see fictional integrations, which disguise deep “disintegrations”: uneasy, restless people. Their identity is broken… The project of multicultural society requires deep integration, which is not confined to citizenship”. “Integration into society”–these words presuppose not only social benefits or citizenship certificate, but in the first place–the reunification of the very self-consciousness, “homely” feeling, harmony with one’s surroundings and one’s faith”.

Olga Fomichyova, postgraduate of the FIR NSU


1. European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, The Impact of July 7, 2005 London Bomb attacks on Muslim communities in the EU, (November 2005). //

2. European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, Muslims in European Union: discrimination and islamophobia, (december 2006) //

3. Securitisation and Religious Divide in Europe. Muslims in Europe after 9/11 (november 2004) //

4. Tariq Ramadan. Invéntons une culture islamique européenne.

5. Elizabeth Poole, Reporting Islam: Media representations of British Muslims. London: IB Tauris, 2002.

6. German report. Securitisation and Religious Divide in Europe.

7. Italian report. Ibid.

8. Netherlands Report. Ibid.

9. Tévanian, Pierre. Le voile médiatique — un faux débat: l ’affaire du foulard islamique.Paris :Editions Raisons d’Agir, 2005.

10. См.: Said E. Orientalism. L: Penguin book, 1978 ; Sophie Bessis, L’Occident et les Autres. ParisÊ: La Découverte, 2001.

11. Gema Martín-Muñoz. Perceptions et réalité des Marocains en Espagne. // Entre mondialisation et protection des droits — Dynamiques migratoires marocaines : histoire, économie, politique et culture Casablanca, 13, 14 et 15 juin 2003.

12. Ibid.

13. Gurfinkiel Michel. Royaume-Uni/ L’islam dans une société d’images //, 08/02/2007

14. European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, Muslims in European Union: discrimination and islamophobia, (december 2006) //

15. Ramadan T. Symboles réligieux à voir et à comprendre. // 25/12/2006

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