Muslims and the European Right

© Abdal-Hakim Murad

(This essay is based on a text first given as the Annual World Humanities Lecture, University of Leicester, 3 April 2000)

Antisemitism is an ancient European disfigurement whose easing is now underway. The discourse of Jewish ‘threat’ or ‘contamination’ is no longer acceptable in cultivated circles. [Europe] has not yet, however, come to terms with its other historic chauvinism, which is only now being named: ‘Islamophobia’. Islamophobia I take to mean the emotive dislike of the Islamic religion as a whole, rather than of its extreme manifestations; or rather, we might more usefully define it as the assumption that the extremes of the religion have normative status. If that is the definition then clearly [Europe] has hardly begun to purge its subconscious. Despite welcome transformations in Christian attitudes towards ‘unbelievers’, even the churches can harbour intransigent voices. In Italy, the Archbishop of Bologna has called for the closure of the country’s mosques and an end to immigration by Muslims, who are, he believes, ‘outside our humanity.’ [1] In [Kamchatka], at the furthest end of European settlement, the Orthodox bishop has backed opposition to the construction of a mosque for the region’s large Muslim community. The mosque would be ‘a direct insult to the religious and civil feelings of the Slavic population,’ according its local opponents, and would encourage further Muslim immigration, with the result that ‘given their mind-set, they won’t let us live normally here.’ [2]

The new substitute for Antisemitism is resurgent in formerly Nazi regions as well. In Austria, the currently-triumphant Freedom Party seems no less mistrustful of the Muslim presence. ‘The increasing fundamentalism of radical Islam which is penetrating [Europe],’ it warns us, ‘is threatening the consensus of values which is in danger of getting lost.’ Far from stiffening [Europe’s] moral fibre, the new Turkish invaders form part of a relativising process which allegedly threatens Christian Austria with the confiscation of its identity and with social disaster. As the Freedom Party explains, it is not race, but culture, and hence religion, which defines legitimate belonging, which is why ‘the Freedom Party sees itself as an ideal partner of the Christian churches’. [3] Even though most local clergy have sharply denounced it, the party attracts a third of the vote of this stable, prosperous Catholic democracy, and may grow further. Minorities can only hope that Jorg Haider is wrong in his conception of his nation when he opines, ‘The Freedom Party is not the descendent of the National Socialist Party. If it were, we would have an absolute majority.’ [4]

A Conradian voice of sanity amidst this intensifying atmosphere of anti-Muslim feeling is supplied by the Catholic novelist Jacques Neirynck. His novel Le Siege de Bruxelles depicts events in the Belgian capital in the year 2007. In this nightmare of Europe’s near future, official Christianity has become a ghost, with its cathedrals reduced to the status of museums where Mass is celebrated only to satisfy the curiosity of Far Eastern tourists. The Cardinal-Archbishop bears the mock-eucharistic soubriquet of the ‘Real Absence’, as his hyperliberal theology, anxious to placate all sides, proves unable to mobilise Christian resistance to the new Flemish chauvinism.

In Neirynck’s future, the triumph of the New Right has presided over the opening of concentration camps and the expulsion of the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities, who are given twenty-four hours in which to shoulder their possessions and walk in single file towards the south.  This is a religious as well as cultural backlash, under the Crusading cry ‘Dieu le veut!’, blessed by a ‘cultural and religious restoration’ which favours the Jansenist crucifix, whose Jesus is suspended so low that his arms appear to embrace only a small elect. Nationalist priests call for ‘surgical strikes which will cut out the tumour’; and go on to bless the siege and bombardment of the Muslim ghetto, as Brussels is slowly transformed into a second Sarajevo. The drama ends with a Muslim counterattack to liberate a concentration camp, which provokes the panic-stricken flight of the Flemish militias, and thereby reveals the underlying fragility of the far right’s agenda. [5]

Neirynck’s fable seems alarmist and alien; but it is undeniable that the far right continues to gain ground in Belgium, where Turkish and Maghrebian immigrants, joined by a substantial convert community, provide a convenient lightning-rod for the insecurities of Belgians of all social classes, unnerved by unemployment, globalisation, political corruption, and the visibility of the non-Christian Other. The far-right Vlaams-Blok, the leading Flemish nationalist party, described by Stephen Fisher of Oxford’s Nuffield College, as ‘the most blatantly racist and xenophobic of the extreme-right parties in Western Europe’, has grown in strength from 1.3% of the electorate in 1984 to 14.8% in 1999, and has become the largest Flemish party in Brussels, and also in Antwerp, where it has gained control of the municipality. Vlaams-Blok politicians have not been reluctant to identify Muslims as the new threat. Filip De Winter, the party’s former leader, has called for the ‘hermetic closure’ of Belgium’s borders, and anticipates ‘the return of all immigrants, without exception, to their countries of origin.’ This is to be accomplished by the progressive deprivation of state benefits and citizenship rights, and the creation of specific immigrant areas with the cities to improve levels of surveillance. Islam itself is to be prohibited, ‘because this religion is anti-Belgian and anti-European.’ [6]

Until his assassination in May 2002 by an animal-rights fanatic, the growing popularity of the far-right Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn sent shudders down the spine of Holland’s half-million strong Muslim population. In March polls, thirty-five percent of voters in Rotterdam deserted traditional Dutch liberalism and voted for Mr Fortuyn, bringing Holland into line with other European countries where anti-Muslim feeling has revived the fortunes of neo-Fascist tendencies which had been largely dormant since the Second World War.

Fortuyn’s religious views are detailed in his book Against the Islamisation of our Culture, published in 1997 to celebrate Israel’s fiftieth birthday. He believed that Islam, unlike his own strongly-affirmed Christianity, is a ‘backward culture’, with an inadequate view of God and an inbuilt hostility to European culture. He called for massive curbs on Muslim immigration, and for greater stress on Holland’s Christian heritage. A prominent homosexual activist, Fortuyn also condemned Islam’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

Fortuyn’s popularity was thought to be greatest among Dutch voters who feel strong sympathy for Israel, oppose greater European integration, and demand the refining of immigration and asylum laws to exclude people of Muslim cultural background. It is a package that is being studied very carefully by apparatchiks in more traditional parties, alarmed by the fact that one recent poll of Dutch 18-30 year olds showed that almost half want to see ‘zero Muslim immigration.’

Edgar van Loken, of Amsterdam’s Migrant Centre, fears that Fortuyn’s breakthrough may herald an even stronger showing for the far-right in May’s general election. Even the mainstream parties, he believes, are now considering the adoption of aspects of Fortuyn’s formula. ‘The real problem is that other political parties are starting to see Mr Fortuyn’s strategy as a vote winner and may start to follow suit.’ [7]

The crisis came at a particularly sensitive time for Holland. On April 16, the entire cabinet resigned following the publication of a UN report into the behaviour of Dutch peacekeepers in the besieged Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica in the summer of 1995. Investigators had consistently suggested that Dutch troops, many of whom were recruited from inner-city areas with a strong neo-Fascist presence, were ideologically anti-Muslim.

In Norway, the 1997 election saw the sudden appearance of the anti-immigrant Progress Party of Carl Hagen, which now holds twenty-five out of a hundred and sixty-five parliamentary seats. Similar to Hagen’s group is the Swiss People’s Party, which commands 22.5% of the popular vote in Switzerland, and has been widely compared to the Freedom Party of Jorg Haider, which in 1999 joined the Austrian coalition government.

In Denmark, the rapidly-growing ultranationalist DPP has become the third most popular party, benefiting from widespread popular dislike of Muslims. Its folksy housewife-leader Pia Kiaersgaard opposes entry into the Eurozone, rails against ‘welfare cheats’, and is famous for her outbursts against Islam. ‘I think the Muslims are a problem,’ she stated in a recent interview. ‘It’s a problem in a Christian country to have too many Muslims.’ [8]

Here in Britain, the same tendency has to some extent been paralleled in the recent growth of the British National Party. A cassette recording issued by the party, entitled ‘Islam: A Threat to Us All: A Joint Statement by the British National Party, Sikhs and Hindus’, describes itself as ‘a common effort to expose and resist the innate aggression of the imperialistic ideology of Islam’. As with its Continental allies, the BNP is gaining popularity by abandoning racist language, and by attempting to forge alliances with non-Muslim Asians and Blacks. The result has been documents such as the October 2001 ‘Anti-Islam Supplement’ of the BNP newsletter Identity, which ended with an appeal to ‘Join Our Crusade’. The chairman of the BNP, Nick Griffin, wades in with discussions of ‘The Islamic Monster’ and the ‘New Crusade for the Survival of the West’. [9]

In July 2001, Griffin and his skinheads polled 16% of the votes in Oldham West: the highest postwar vote for any extremist party in the UK. Nonetheless, British fascism remains less popular than most of its European counterparts. An issue to consider, no doubt, as Muslim communities ponder their response to growing British participation in schemes for European integration, and the long-term possibility of a federal European state.

Let me offer a final, more drastic example of how such attitudes are no longer marginal, but have penetrated the mainstream and contribute to the shaping of policy, often with disastrous results. On the outbreak of the Bosnian war, the German magazine Der Spiegel told its readers that ‘Soon Europe could have a fanatical theocratic state on its doorstep.’ [10] (The logic no doubt appealed to the thirty-eight percent of Germans polled in [Brandenburg]who recently expressed support for a far-right party’s policy on ‘foreigners’. [11]) The influential American commentator R.D. Kaplan, much admired by Bill Clinton, thought that ‘[a] cultural curtain is descending in Bosnia to replace the [Berlin] wall, a curtain separating the Christian and Islamic worlds.’ [12] Again, those who travelled through that ‘curtain’ can do no more than record that the opposite appeared to be the case. Far from reducing to essences, in this case, a pacific, pluralistic Christianity confronting a totalitarian and belligerent Islam, the Bosnian war, despite its complexities, usually presented a pacific, defensive Muslim community struggling for a multiethnic vision of society against a Christian aggressor committed to preserving the supposed ethnic hygiene of local Christendom. In Bosnia the stereotypes were so precisely reversed that it is remarkable that they could have survived at all. Here the Christians were the ‘Oriental barbarians’, while the Muslims represented the ‘European ideal’ of parliamentary democracy and conviviality. Neither can we explain away the challenge to stereotypes by asserting that religion was a minor ingredient in the very secularised landscape of post-Titoist Yugoslavia. The Bosnian President was a mosque-going Muslim who had been imprisoned for his beliefs under the Communists. The Muslim religious hierarchy had been consistent in its support for a multiethnic, integrated Bosnian state. Ranged against them were all the forces of the local Christian Right, as the Greek Orthodox synod conferred its highest honour, the Order of St Denis of Xante, on Serb radical leader Radovan Karadzic. Ignoring the unanimous verdict of human rights agencies, the Greek Synod apparently had no qualms about hailing him as ‘one of the most prominent sons of our Lord Jesus Christ, working for peace.’ [13] As the Quaker historian Michael Sells concludes,

The violence in Bosnia was a religious genocide in several senses: the people destroyed were chosen on the basis of their religious identity; those carrying out the killings acted with the blessing and support of Christian church leaders; the violence was grounded in a religious mythology that characterized the targeted people as race traitors and the extermination of them as a sacred act; and the perpetrators of the violence were protected by a policy designed by the policy makers of a Western world that is culturally dominated by Christianity. [14]

The Bosnian conflict imposed such an intolerable inversion of stereotypes that Latin Christendom, for all its brave talk of a Common European Home, seemed paralysed. A Byzantine Holy War figured nowhere on its cultural map; certainly Christians were not meant to be Oriental barbarians. Here the rhetoric of Islamophobia and the threatening spectre of an essentialised, totalitarian Islam, stupefied whole chancelleries. As with [Europe]in the 1930s, prejudice and cultural impotence paved the road to genocide.

The Scottish poet Aonghas Macneacail trapped this silent rhetoric in bloody, unhesitant metaphors:

though there’s a brute on your back,

sapping you with blows

(while we observe)

though he’d rip your women apart –

he’s our brute.

help? If only we could –

it’s not your blood, or your deeds

but that we can see

a foreign weed in your heart –

the excuse we won’t declare. [15]

Macneacail describes the Serb chetnik as ‘our brute’; while Islam, [Europe[’s enemy, is the ‘foreign weed in your heart’. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, was no less scathing. ‘Can we stand’, he asked, ‘a bare half century after the Holocaust in a Europe that has replaced the word Judenrein with the equally repellant phrase “ethnic cleansing”, and not ask the question, “Were we wrong to say, Never again?”’ There are too many parallels between the mood of [Europe]now and the mood 100 years ago, and we have too much knowledge to ignore the line that leads from hatred to holocaust.’ [16] The noted Holocaust commentator and political scientist Richard Rubenstein was angry enough to write an article entitled ‘Silent Partners in Ethnic Cleansing: the UN, the EC, and NATO’. [17] Given his expertise in Holocaust studies, and that discipline’s frequent reluctance to allow any other act of collective mayhem into the same category, we should take with deadly seriousness his statement that Islam now occupies the unenviable position once belonging to Judaism within Europe. [18]

Even culprits could acknowledge the parallel. The former commandant of the concentration camp at Omarska where several thousand Muslim civilians were killed, reminisced as follows:

We knew very well what happened at [Auschwitz]or Dachau, and we knew very well how it started and how it was done. What we did was the same as [Auschwitz]or Dachau, but it was a mistake. It was planned to have been a camp, but not a concentration camp. I cannot explain this loss of control. [19]

A Bosnian Muslim reinforced the comparison:

Now we’re the Jews, the Muslims of Banja Luka. I see my friends lining up in front of the bus station here when there is a rumor that it’s possible to leave, and I think sometimes, ‘That is the way it was in the forties.’ But it’s in color now, and it’s not the Jews, it’s us. [20]

More could be said, but I wish to conclude here. It is difficult to deny that familiar European views of Muslims are a good deal more threatening than the communities they describe. One is forced to respect the pessimism of many European Muslims, threatened as they are by this new anti-Semitism which the white Christian majorities have, to be frank, failed to notice sufficiently. However my own conclusions are cautiously optimistic. Neirynck’s novel suggests that his Flemish zealots are overwhelmed not by superior force, but by the reality of a multicultural world whose logic ultimately forbids its own undoing. If English and Arabic are to be the languages of Brussels in the new millennium, then so be it. History is rarely merciful to nostalgia. Neirynck’s Fascists appear as relics of an obsolete age of European essentialism, and their political gamble a last roll of the dice, as they tacitly acknowledge, even during their brief moment of triumph, that there can be no decisive return to a monochrome demography in an inexorably globalising world , or to a political Jansenism whose theological exclusivism is no longer tenable. The churches damned by John Cornwell in his terrifying Hitler’s Pope [21] have now for the most part adopted inclusivist approaches to non-Christian religions. Muslims, not least because of our own optimism over the eventual triumph of Muslim orthodoxy over extremism, need to take seriously Neirynck’s insistence that while one Christianity is part of the problem, there is another which is likely to be part of the solution, advocating conviviality in a world which has never been in more need of a transcendently-ordained tolerance.


[1] The Guardian, October 2, 2000.

[2] Japan Times, 7 August 2000



[5] Jacques Neirynck, Le siege de Bruxelles, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1996, p.250.

[6] Frédéric Larsen, ‘En belgique, l’extrême droite s’installe dans les coulisses du pouvoir.’ Le Monde Diplomatique, February 1992.




[10] Cited in Andrea Lueg, ‘The Perception of Islam in Western Debate’, in Jochen Hippler and Andrea Lueg (eds), The Next Threat: Western Perceptions of Islam, London: Pluto Press, 1995, p.9.

[11] The Independent, 5 October 1999.

[12] Cited by Lueg, , op. cit., p.11

[13] Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia, Berkeley: [University of California Press], 1996, p.85.

[14] Sells, 144.

[15] In Ken Smith and Judi Benson (eds), Klaonica: Poems for Bosnia, Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1993, 44.

[16] The Guardian, April 30, 1993.

[17] Published in In Depth: A Journal for Values and Public Policy 3/2 (Spring 1993), 35-58.

[18] Op cit.

[19] The Nation (Washington), 10 June 1996.

[20] David Rieff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the failure of the West, London: Verso, 1995, 94.

[21] John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. London: Penguin, 1999.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s