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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A new sort of racism in Europe: ‘Muslimophobia’ by BURAK ERDEMİR*

“My allies are not Le Pen or Haider. We’ll never join up with the fascists and Mussolinis of Italy. I’m very afraid of being linked with the wrong rightist fascist groups.”

As Mr. Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party implies, a new sort of racism is rising in Europe. This new “lite” racism is different from the racism of the good old far-right groups such as the British National Party, French National Front and Italian Northern League. The new extreme-right groups are liberals who defend women and gay rights. They are not anti-Semitic. Basically they are fighting to defend the West’s liberties from the one and only enemy: Muslims. Muslims, because they are believed to destroy European values. There is definitely an economic backdrop explaining the rise of this racism. But I would like to elaborate on why it qualifies as racism.

The concept of new racism is different from the classic definition of racism based on biological differences. There has been a shift from more traditional markers of race to newer markers of cultures that are recognized as different, incompatible and inassimilable such as customs, values, ethics, upbringing and lifestyle.

Racism, after all, is a social construction based on the subjective perceptions of the dominant group that may emerge without an objective reality of a different race. That is why, regardless of their private contemplation, people are crudely classified as Hindus or Muslims in India, and Protestants or Catholics in Ireland. Hence, a Muslim in Europe who is not practicing the religion still might be targeted as a Muslim because of that person’s alleged connection to the community. This leads to the issue of the “racialization” of religion.

New racism assumes that religion is not just a private matter but is rather about belonging by birth to a community. Modern anti-Semitism is an obvious example of cultural racism. “Jewishness” does not represent a biological category as race, yet through the course of history Jews have been racialized. In the modern era, Jews were excluded and discriminated against not on the grounds of religious matters, but rather because they were perceived as aliens threatening the national identity of European societies with their transnational religious identity. Another example would be the Bosnian Muslims. They were massacred by people who shared the same language and culture. The latter slaughtered innocent Muslims because of their racialized identity, which represented an ethnic “other.”

Muslims in 21st century Europe are facing a similar racialization. The concept of Muslimophobia is very similar to anti-Semitism in the sense that both stand for prejudice and discrimination against a group defined in a combination of religious and ethnic terms. Muslims came to represent an ethno-racial group as a result of being essentialized as a monolithic identity. They are in fact perceived as an “imagined community.” As the perceived incompatibility between Europeans and Muslims, particularly on values and lifestyles, dominates public discourse, the racialization of Muslims becomes reinforced.

Since the new racists are known to be liberals they harbor a subtle prejudice that is a disguised and covert version of old-fashioned prejudice. Especially in countries where multiculturalism has deep roots, crude expressions and blatant prejudice are not socially acceptable. Yet, subtle prejudice happens under cover in attitudes of everyday life. This subtle prejudice is widespread, particularly among the young, well-educated and liberal groups who perceive Muslims as a threat to the values and lifestyle of their society but do not express it explicitly. For instance, studies indicate that German media do not exhibit any open racism, but latent racism appears in myriad ways. Muslim families are frequently reported in the press in a negative context, such as an example of failed integration or a crime committed by a migrant.

This is the sociocultural background that instigates Muslimophobia, although the economic situation is definitely helping. At a time when jobs, wages and state welfare are under threat, people are looking for scapegoats. Muslim immigrants who work more for less are perfect targets.

What are the implications of this rising Muslimophobia for Turkey? First of all, around 4 million Turkish immigrants are residing in European countries, and they might be a target of this racism in one way or another. Secondly, a more skeptical European public opinion leaning to the far right will definitely not help Turkish accession to the EU. Far-right groups lead the opposition against Turkey. Last week six far-right parties met in Vienna to organize a European-wide campaign against Turkish membership. The argument that Turkey is “too big, too poor and too Muslim” is what those far-right groups love to hear, even if it proves to be wrong as time passes.

*Dr. Burak Erdenir is the deputy secretary-general for European Union Affairs.

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