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Islamophobia and the Darkness of Western Europe

3 Comments 🕔10.Aug 2015

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

“Stop the Islamization of Europe” – anti-Islam rally in Berlin, Germany, April 2015. Photo credit: Der Tempelhofer

by Tahir Abbas


Muslims in Western Europe are in the news again. In January 2015, two events in Paris shocked the world. Employees of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were shot dead by Takfiri-Jihadi militants of Algerian ancestry. Days later, Jewish customers at a kosher supermarket in Paris were held hostage and then shot by a Malian attacker. These events brought concerns over an interminable ‘clash of civilisations’ and the unassimilability of Muslim minorities to the forefront. All three assailants were in their early to mid-30s, and all three were born and raised in the outer suburbs of Paris. With personal biographies of social marginalization, crime and anomie, the assailants claimed they were members of Al-Qaida and the Islamic State (IS) – Yemen and Syria. Charlie Hebdo employees, innocent bystanders, and police officers were brutally shot and killed in the span of a few frenzied days. A devastated public was then subjected to extensive media speculation that proposed a plethora of causes and solutions for what were deemed ‘essential struggles.’ But the result, once again, is a perennial cycle of violence, a media response that demonizes, and political machinations that further target Muslims, eventually followed by further violence.

This essay is a sociological analysis of identity, citizenship, belonging, religion, racism, and politics at the heart of the subject of radicalization. Rationalizations for the motivations of killers can be found in the milieu of anti-Muslimism – culturally, economically and politically in play, not merely in specific Western nation states, but also across vast swathes of the contemporary world. Crucially, it also reveals the extent of the implications. Rather than considering the appalling Paris events as an opportunity to foster dialogue and understanding, it is more likely that the normalization of anti-Muslim and Islamophobic racism and radicalism will continue for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it does so due to the collapse of Western European imagination. However, the potential for change may well lie with the same young Muslims of Western Europe who are at the centre of present disquiets.


Modest Beginnings

Many Muslims who came to Western Europe after the end of the Second World War did so to fill unwanted employment opportunities shunned by indigenous populations seeking higher rewards from the labor market. Employers and policymakers invited ‘guest workers’ to take up these jobs in the hope that their sojourn would be temporary. However, it was not temporary. The outcome was a function of policy but also design[1]: employers benefited by keeping wages down, and economies gained from a pliable workforce. Minority Muslim communities were law-abiding and balanced with regards to cultural wants and needs while maintaining loyalty to their new nations. However, racism, inherited from colonialism, Orientalism and cultural ethnocentrism, did not dissipate, neither upon their arrival, nor as they settled in over time. Instead, racism adapted itself by centring first on colour, then race, then ethnicity, and eventually religion. Today, second and third-generation Western-European-born Muslims, as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically distinct groups, continue to face the brunt of discrimination, vilification and isolation.[2]

So-called ethnic ‘ghettos,’ where Muslim groups are concentrated, rarely out of choice, are not a reflection of communities necessarily choosing to live among themselves. Instead, their experience is about the failures of government policy to effectively implement integration and equality policy and practice.[3] At the same time, what were previously the former ‘white’ working classes, groups that have also suffered because of de-industrialization, technological innovation and globalization, have also faced cultural, economic and political disenfranchisement. Nation-states in Western Europe increasingly cater to the whims and fancies of laissez faire models aimed at appeasing the financial sector of the economy.[4] In local area communities, it is the poorest and most marginalized of Muslim minorities, along with the indigenous former working classes, who are competing the most for the least spoils. When Muslim groups retain their ethnic, faith and cultural norms and values as a form of solace, some majorities may regard this as a retreat into regressive practices. However, although they also suffer from marginalization in society, ostracised ‘white’ groups have the history of their nation, whether real or imagined, and the co-ethnic partisanship of the dominant hegemonic order at their disposal.[5]


Dominant Paradigms

In conjunction with this gloomy condition, the dominant political discourse continues to blame victims for their ‘values’ or ‘crises of identity,’ rarely scrutinising the workings of wider society to appreciate the holistic nature of social conflict. Issues of freedom of expression, or categorising values regarded as alien, are routinely instrumentalized to ensure that the focus remains on the sufferers, who are subsequently used as dupes for the shortcomings of wider societies.[6] Attacks by Takfri-Jihadis in Amsterdam, Madrid, and London in 2005, the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, the siege of Lindt café in Sydney by Man Haron Monis in December 2014, the recent Paris attacks, and the Copenhagen shootings by Omar el-Hussein of January 2015 were all perpetrated by sons of immigrant minority groups caught between cultures. Rather than supported and developed as individuals and groups in society, through mechanisms not always of their own enterprise, the far fringes of marginalized groups vented their frustrations back towards the center through bloodshed.

All of these attackers were the insiders/outsiders of society. Instead of ameliorating matters, however, liberal elites and the political classes generate capital from their plight.[7] At present, the nature of anti-Muslim feeling across wide sections of Western Europe is normalized – from Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West in Germany, to mosques attacked, firebombed or smeared with hate-graffiti, with random attacks on countless Muslims on the streets of cities all over Europe, almost on a daily basis. All the evidence suggests that matters are deteriorating for Muslims in Western Europe. Islamophobia is not curtailed, nor are the rising levels of violence against Muslims. This evidence is coupled with increasing levels of anti-Semitism, some of which is as malicious, destructive, and opaque as hate crimes against Muslims.[8]

On the other hand, aspects of the ‘Islamophobia industry’ sometimes prevent Muslims from raising concerns and dealing with profound questions that emanate from the religious and cultural experience within Islam and Muslims. Significant attempt also need to be made to bridge the gap between enlightened-secular ideals of free inquiry, and an intellectually and philosophically driven spiritual humanism in relation to Muslim groups from within.[9] To be precise, the need to establish the ownership of ‘Muslimness’ among Muslims has yet to fully materialize. What does exist emerges independently of affected communities, which is often benign in nature but lacks the essential interconnectivity. Ultimately, it creates polarized opposites, fueling extremisms on all sides.

With a history of post-war immigration of ‘guest workers,’ Muslim minority groups in Denmark have also faced the full brunt of discrimination and disadvantage. The political mood in Denmark has increasingly shifted to the right in recent years, and although there was never a problem of homegrown radicalism until recently, around a hundred or so young Danish Muslims are presently in IS. El-Hussein, the man implicated in the Copenhagen shootings, was born and raised in Denmark, but he slipped through the cracks of society into alienation and crime. Analysts look to discover how he became ‘radicalized,’ placing the onus on his apparent Islamization or the ‘cell’ he was part of, but it is probably the case that he was motivated by the Charlie Hebdo attacks, hence the almost copycat nature of his own acts. El-Hussein was also likely to have been associated with other similar disillusioned young men, but it was El-Hussein who decided to kill others. He would have known and accepted that his actions would result in his own death. But the Danes, unlike the French, were not led by emotion. Denmark did not follow France in turning the events into a question of the identity of the nation itself.

Saïd Kouachi, Kouach Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly in Paris, Man Haron Monis in Sydney, and Omar el-Hussein in Copenhagen, all implicated in acts of terrorism during a period of three months at the end of 2014 to the start of 2015, were killed by the security services. The truth of their journeys from angry youths, to Islamic political radicalism, to men prepared to kill others with impunity will never be fully known. However, it is clear that these radicalized men were not just a product of society; they were also products of inadequate policing, security, and intelligence policy and practice.


The European Imagination

Historically, considerable contact, as well as exchange and intercultural relations between Islam and Europe, have helped to define and shape each other’s character.[10] As Islam ascended, it absorbed European Christianity. As Islam waned, Christian Europe disdained Islam even while benefiting from it considerably. As Europe grew, it split into nation states that competed aggressively until the conflict could no longer be sustained. The ideals of the European Union were created as a response to internal challenges. But European harmony is fragile. More critically, Europeanness has become myopic and inward looking, focusing on exclusivity and a certain observed historical memory. The failures of Europe today are the failures of its imagination in the twenty-first century, but they also result from the disappointments of the past.

Western European inventiveness has stagnated. There is constant focus on neoliberal economics and the need to uphold the designs of hyper-capitalism at the expense of all other social and philosophical systems. Free market principles have triumphed. This approach, however, is shown to be limited, yet it seems that the whole world has signed up for these neoconservative, neoliberal approximations to economics and society.[11] As such, Muslims are not merely entombed in a cultural and intellectual vacuum, they live in dominant societies that seek only to reproduce the economic status quo. The current malaise is partly caused by the fact that Muslims in Western Europe face a logjam. Unable to go forward, they sometimes withdraw. Those furthest away at the peripheries are the most vulnerable to internal conflict and external persuasion.

As the local and global become inextricably connected, nation states return to ethno-nationalism as a way to protect their identities while competing on the world stage. An essentialist discourse divides societies, placing emphasis on a repackaged country brand that contends with a global market. Variously impoverished, dispossessed, marginalized and minority groups are not simply forsaken in the race to success, but their so-called limitations are instrumentalized.[12] Authoritarian nations allude to notions of security, ‘muscular liberalism’ or anti-multiculturalism as a way to ensure the permanent ‘othering’ of some of the most ‘othered’ groups in societies.[13]


Delimiting the Threat and the Way Ahead

As a sociologist, the importance of social conflict, identity crises, failed integration and foreign policy are crucial to understanding the drivers of radicalization, but there are issues elsewhere too. In the context of policy interventions, both radicalizers and deradicalizers are a product of government policies across Western Europe. In an attempt to push forward agendas to eliminate those who do not quite fit into either camp, a range of possible scenarios could emerge. This is doubtlessly done to obtain better intelligence results, and to remain one step ahead of would-be attacks. In many instances, acts of terrorism are prevented, but some inevitably slip through the net. Hence, it becomes a major concern for everyone else in society, as we must live with the implications.

In an intense political climate, governments tend to introduce increasingly stringent counterterrorism and deradicalization legislation in the hope of thwarting future attacks on European soil. While this is necessary to maintain safe and secure conditions for liberal democratic societies to successfully operate, a danger that certain legislation will place the entire onus on Muslims as ‘suspect communities’ emerges. It undermines the very freedoms that Western European societies have struggled so hard to preserve. For example, policymakers are currently placing great emphasis on providing the UK government with more access to personal digital data. However, the risk here is that the UK ends up with ever more information and no superior intelligence. These developments may well be reactionary, not preemptive, as online radicalisation is not a new phenomenon.[14] In many senses, it has been in play since the dawn of domestic Internet. Neither does unlimited data necessarily result in effective intelligence, as has been revealed by revelations from the likes of Edward Snowden. As an alternative to protecting the interests of ‘the many’ in relation to security, governments have been known to use this information to gain competitive advantage.[15]

In the final analysis, and to return to a concentration on young Muslims in Western Europe, the solutions may not automatically lie in faith or Islamic theology per se, nor in the political powers in control, nor their policies and practices. The solutions may well be in the hands of Muslims themselves. The anticipation remains in those very same young Muslims at the center of the current uproar. Through their hybridization and re-acculturation, they are potentially able to connect crucial discontinuities between faith and reason, politics and society, and culture and identity. Western European-born Muslims are increasingly playing a valuable role in their societies, through popular culture, fashion, music, food, dance, literature and film.[16] These young Muslims are redefining what it is to be both Muslim and European. They are emerging in an array of cultural fields that harnesses their creative energies. However, their precise impact has yet to be fully felt given the wider dominant frameworks in which they operate. There is hope that in the near future this body of capable young people will emerge as crucial catalysts in the progressive transformation of the state of Western European Muslims and in the societies in which they live.


Tahir Abbas is a Professor of Sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul. He has published ten books, including two monographs: one on the education of British South Asians (Palgrave-Macmillan) and the other on Islamic political radicalism in Britain (Routledge). He has published in numerous sociology, education, Islamic studies and political science journals and edited collections. He has also written for The Guardian, Times Higher Education, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Prospect, openDemocracy and Fair Observer.


This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

[1] Jørgen Nielsen, Muslims in Western Europe, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995).

[2] Tariq Modood, Multicultural politics: Racism, ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain (Cambridge: Polity, 2005).

[3] Deborah Phillips, “Parallel lives? Challenging discourses of British Muslim self-segregation,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24 (2006): 25-40.

[4] Anoop Nayak, “‘Last of the ‘Real Geordies?’ White masculinities and the subcultural response to deindustrialisation,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21(1) (2003) : 7-25.

[5] Harris Beider, White working class voices: multiculturalism, community-building and change, (Bristol: Policy Press, 2014).

[6] Salman S Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism. (London and New York: Zed, 2003).

[7] Tahir Abbas, “Muslim Minorities in Britain: Integration, Multiculturalism and Radicalism in the Post-7/7 Period,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 28, no. 3(2007): 287-300.

[8] Nasar Meer, “Racialization and religion: race, culture and difference in the study of antisemitism and Islamophobia,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 36, no. 3(2013): 385-398.

[9] Tariq Ramadan, What I Believe. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[10] HA Hellyer, Muslims of Europe: The ‘other’ Europeans. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

[11] Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, (2014).

[12] Arun Kundnani, The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror. (London and New York: Verso, 2014).

[13] Justin Gest, Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West. (London and New York: Hurst, 2010).

[14] Gary R Bunt, Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments. (London and New York: Pluto, 2003).

[15] Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras (2014; New York City, NY: Praxis Films), Film.

[16] Maruta Herding (2013), Inventing the Muslim Cool: Islamic Youth Culture in Western Europe, Germany: Transcript.






  1. 🕔 16:26, 20.Aug 2015

    Bashy Quraishy

    Great piece of researched article, Tahir.
    Keep up the good work.
    Can we use it in EMISCO’s work?If yes, please send it to me as a document, since I can not copy it form Web.

    reply comment
    • 🕔 9:07, 25.Aug 2015


      Many thanks Bashy – you can place a link to this page, would this work?

      reply comment
  2. 🕔 1:29, 20.Sep 2015


    Good article, I think it cuts to the core of why certain people are driven to rail against their host nations.
    Question is, do Western European countries have a duty to ensure the integration of those who historically do not integrate?

    It could be argued that as these countries already have a native dominant stock, they have other interests to protect and should only care about limiting the damage that minority groups pose to the majority. In a way, these minority groups are lucky to be there, as a more radically hostile host environment would have exterminated them.

    To get a better understanding of this, I would like to hear the other side of the coin. How do Islamic-majority countries integrate Christian minority groups?

    reply comment

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