The pathologisation of Muslims in Europe

NO WE are not racist. It is just that we need to preserve and protect our German identity and culture, and our Judeo-Christian heritage. The more Turkish Muslims come here, the less we know who and what we are. We cannot allow our identity and culture to be confused like that...’

By Farish A Noor

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Published: Mon 17 Sep 2007, 8:38 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:34 AM

How many times have I been fed such pedestrian drivel, and how long have I been trying to play the role of bridge-builder between communities, only to find my efforts reduced to naught thanks to the asinine and facile platitidues that spill forth time and again? The gem quoted above was the comment made by a rather ordinary German at a public debate on Islam and the Rule of Law in Berlin; and just one week after an equally gruelling series of public talks in Amsterdam I could not help but feel as if Europe’s slide to the right is accelerating faster than ever.

That a public forum on Islam and the rule of law could degenerate into a senseless round of Turk-bashing speaks volumes about the shallowness of public debate in some parts of Europe these days. That the debate took place in Berlin, the much-hyped cosmopolitan capital of Germany was itself a less than startling revelation: Judging by some of the comments uttered it might as well have been a local talk in some village tavern in the deepest recesses of the Black Forest. The only things that were missing were the leather shorts and bust of the Kaiser on the mantlepiece... for those present had reduced themselves to caricatural stereotypes of the worst order.

What was most alarming, however, was the manner in which a host of complex issues and dilemmas were reduced and pathologised to a single problem: The Muslims and their non-Western culture and belief system. That some of the commentators were right-wing politicians was bad enough, worse still was the evident lack of self-critique, irony and objective distance to the things that were meant to be discussed in the first place.

The list of complaints were many: One man in the audience produced a fatwa — with a stamp no less —calling for the punishment of a non-Muslim in Egypt; and then proceeded to ask the Muslims present what they thought of the death penalty. Oblivious to the fact that most of the Muslims he was addressing were second generation migrants to Germany who were probably as rooted and as German as he was, he seemed to be assuming that Muslims in Europe were still undecided over the choice between democracy and the fabled Caliphate. Yet how many times has the random Catholic been picked out in the street and asked if he or she agreed with the latest ruling of the Pope from the Vatican?

This was the first essentist misunderstanding that sadly coloured the entire debate, and by extension most debates about Islam and Muslims in Europe today. It is still assumed that Muslims are a homogenous bloc; that they are defined primarily and solely by their religion; and that they are unable to take objective distance from their creed, culture and history. Yet does Islam decide which football team Muslim kids support in the inner cities? Is it Islam that tells them which musicians to listen to, which novel to read, which movie to watch?

Taking a further step back from the sordid goings-on in the debating hall, I reflected on the times I had heard the same sort of nonsense from Muslims in the Muslim countries I have visited and lived in. The cornucopia of racist essentialisms came thick and fast I recall: ‘The West has no religion, no ethics; Westerners are decadent drug addicts with no morals; Western women are loose and Western men are promiscuous’, etc. The list of racist bile directed to the West is as long as Western complaints about Muslims. On both sides there is no attempt to understand or communicate with the other; on both sides the framing of the stereotype of the other suffices for the semblance of a non-dialogue to take place; and on both side the values of self-reflection, auto-critique and introspection are totally absent.

Yet surely the root of the problem is this: Both the Western and Muslim worlds are facing unprecedented changes thanks to the ravaging effects of unrestrained global capital, that has radically altered social relations, overturned social hierarchies, exposed long-held misperceptions and misconceptions that have been around too long; and is now totally changing the way we live, think and see ourselves in the world.

In the face of such challenges, it is all too easy to demonise minorities in our midst and reconstruct the other in dialectical terms. The debate in Western Europe has framed Muslims as the root cause for all that is wrong with multiculturalism and pluralism in Europe today, and posited the idea that Muslims are the ones who cannot assimilate, integrate and adapt to the realities of Europe. Related to this is the idea that the presence of Muslims in Europe threatens the continents sense of self-identity and self-representation, leading to caricatural accounts of an Islamic takeover of the West and the proliferation of mosques and minarets all over the European continent. But look around the capitals of Europe and we will see that the colonization of the continent has already happened. A short walk down Kudamm, the main street of Berlin, will show that contemporary German popular culture comprises of MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coca Cola, Pizza Hut and Starbucks. What is more, it wasn’t the dreaded Turks who imported all this American junk pop culture to Germany or Europe, but the Europeans themselves.

The fact is that the world is indeed shrinking and becoming more homogeneous and uniform at an alarming rate. From the ‘Hiltonisation’ of urban life to the less than subtle exchange of Cafe Latte for drinking water, we are all plugged into global consumerism more than ever before. Failure to accept our complicity in the spread and hegemonisation of global capital has led us instead to search for scapegoats to blame for all that is wrong in our countries, from rising unemployment to the loss of job security and educational opportunities. The stigmatisation of Turks and other Muslims in Europe today is just the tip of the iceberg, reminiscent of the campaigns against the Jews and other cosmopolitans in Europe in the past.

How do we escape from this blind impasse of our own making? Perhaps the first step involves the recognition of our own role in the mess we have created around us; and to begin to re-forge the common links of universal human solidarity across class, gender and communal boundaries that may inject some meaning into the concept of Society again. In the long run, apart from a minority of trouble-makers who have hijacked some of the mosques of Europe, the overwhelming majority of European Muslims want to be part of Europe and accepted as such. What needs to happen next is the development of genuine bridging capital between all these communities to counter the dislocating effects of globalisation that has really damaged the world we live in, be it in the east or West.

Dr Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site

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