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Sarah Wildman: Islamophobia Imported from Europe

3 September 2010 Loonwatch.com No Comment Email This Post Email This Post
Among the many strange things this ugly August has wrought, perhaps the most peculiar — and distasteful — is a new kinship of intolerance many Americans now seem to share with Europeans. As born out by the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, it is a fellowship of hate and of fear, a fellowship we once would have spurned because Americans, by self-definition, believe in religious freedom, in religious pluralism, in multicultural identities, in a nation up built by the immigrant experience.
For many years, anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, embodied by protests against mosque minarets and headscarves, was a wave that did not reach our shores. But now we have headscarf controversies and mosque-banning campaigns of our own, from Tennessee (where some residents of a Nashville suburb are convinced that a mosque is really a terrorist training ground) to Wisconsin to California to, of course, Lower Manhattan. “Politicians, pundits and ordinary Americans see Islam — not political groups using Islamic rhetoric — as an existential threat to Western secular norms,” Joceylne Cesari, director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard, wrote Tuesday at CNN.com.
As if to cement our embrace of such seemingly imported notions, Geert Wilders, the rabidly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politician from the far-right “Freedom” Party of the Netherlands, has been invited to speak at a memorial rally at Ground Zero on Sept. 11. This is a man who has declared war on immigration from Muslim nations, who was once banned from the U.K. for his positions, who has called Islam “fascist” and who told the Guardian in 2008 that Islam was “the ideology of a retarded culture.” He has, according to his website, agreed to appear at the New York rally next month.
Even Newt Gingrich has balked at appearing alongside Wilders, though Gingrich has done his best to stir the national pot about the planned Lower Manhattan Islamic center — which had been a local issue, primarily of concern to New Yorkers.
Wilders is a symptom — and possibly also a cause — of a larger trend. Polled in early spring, 54 percent of Austrians say they consider Islam a “threat to the West” and 74 percent believe Muslims have an inability to adapt to their host countries. In Belgium and France, the push for a full ban on burqas has progressed in recent months, and Spain has also considered banning them. In Switzerland, minarets were banned last November. And in Warsaw, anti-mosque protests were held this past spring. Echoing the campaign in Switzerland, protest posters showed minarets in the form of missiles.

This is not new. The European far right (and even the center right) has expressed what has ranged from distrust to downright disgust at Muslim presence in Europe for some time.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, an Iranian who has lived in Paris for 30 years and is a professor at l’École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, says the embedded presence of Islamic culture is creating tension within Western nations because they must grapple with such “classical questions” as whether Islam is compatible with democracy, “secularizable,” and able to adapt to human rights.

The reason for this discomfort and questioning, he says, is because “Islam is from now on part of the ‘internal’ landscape of the West, not only an outsider, and this is a hard pill to swallow for a ‘Judeo-Christian’ or ‘secular’ West.”

For years Americans could look at Europe and cluck their collective tongues at such rabid, ragged behavior fueled by far-right political parties with ties extending back to mid-20th-century fascism (think: Nazi apologist Jörg Haider ). In Antwerp, Felip Dewinter, the head of the right-wing Flemish secessionist party Vlaams Belang, summed up the perspective of Europe’s right wing when I met him in the fall of 2006. “Islam is not only a religion,” he said, echoing what we now hear in Manhattan and Alaska. “[It is] a way of life. They have their own values.” We were in his offices to discuss how the Vlaams Belang was, counter-intuitively, reaching out to Jews as a campaign tactic. “The Islamic laws . . . are opposed to our Western European, Western laws and way of thinking and way of life. . . . We had to struggle for centuries and centuries to achieve the way of life we have now. . . . We shouldn’t be naïve about Islam. Because Islam as a religion wants to conquer. . . . They tried for more than 1,000 years to conquer Europe with a sword. Now they are doing it with the demographical weapon.”
What he referred to was this: Vienna came under siege by Turks (i.e. Muslims) in the 16th and 17th centuries. Those Turkish invasions are often conjured by the far right in Europe to fuel anxiety over immigrants in Europe now. That anxiety was earlier stirred by Muslims who came to European shores in the postwar period, first from colonial nations such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, to work in the suddenly booming factories. But when the economies of Europe took a turn for the worse in the late 1960s and early 1970s, these immigrant populations, never wealthy, grew poorer. Immigration was cut off but the immigrants stayed, even if their host countries weren’t entirely sure they were welcome. In France, entire populations of immigrants were housed in high-rises called cites, an experiment in urban planning (and urban segregation) that would turn sour by the latter part of the 20th century. The children born to those original workers found themselves betwixt and between, neither Algerian (or Moroccan or Tunisian) nor French, neither European nor North African. And so some found their identity by turning to Islam, starting in the 1980s. (In Eastern Europe, some of that anxiety comes from newer immigrants, from places like Kosovo and Chechnya, but the language used against them is often the same.)
In the United States, Muslim immigrants had a better time of it economically, geographically, and professionally. We don’t think of the children of immigrants here as “second generation;” we think of them as “Americans.”
But try telling that to the Ground Zero mosque protesters, who co-opted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to voice their concerns — as though any Muslim could not be American-born.
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