European Muslims, the Migrant Crisis and Reflexive Prejudice

In his seminal work, Orientalism, Edward Said differentiated between knowledge of other peoples for the purpose of expanding horizons and deepening understanding and knowledge gathered, filtered and regurgitated for the purpose of ‘self-affirmation’.

‘There is,’ he wrote, ‘a profound difference between the will to understand for the purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control and external domination.’

Words that have for decades deconstructed the representation of Islam and Muslims in European discourses, literary, artistic, political and media, resonate still and are read with renewed purpose in reflections about the UK’s political campaigns supporting Brexit and the EU’s refugee crisis.

The shift in the idea of Fortress Europe, once constructed as strict border control, an ineffective option when the tens of thousands arriving here do so to seek asylum or are displaced by conflicts raging in violent zones abroad, has mirrored the shift in media portrayals of Islam and Muslims away from ‘hard’ frames (violence, the ‘war on terror’) to ‘soft’ frames (a focus on lifestyle and cultural issues).

If the early noughties were defined by a dominant propensity to link Islam and Muslims to violence, war and conflict, the late noughties were characterised by the tendency to construct ‘conflict’ as cultural, social and lifestyle-based.

The shift, which is documented in the Cardiff University study on Images of Islam in the UK, is instructive of two important facets of Said’s observations on knowledge as serving the purpose of ‘self-affirmation’ and reinforcing power relations between dominant and subaltern groups.

Firstly, the conflict is value-based, treating Islamic lifestyle choices – wearing the veil, eating halal meat, circumcision and so forth – as inferior to enlightened western or European values which eschew obscurantism, gender ‘apartheid’ and violation of the rights of a child, to name some of the claims levelled at Muslim religious practice.

Difference is not seen as a mutually enriching dialogue where majority and minority are transformed by the encounters but as an impediment to be overcome and obliterated so that ‘our’ values triumph. So media output and politicians’ rhetoric on the rights of religious minorities is presented as ‘their’ assault on ‘our’ way of life and ‘their’ demands for ‘separatism’ over ‘our’ legitimate aim of assimilation.

Whether European citizens or new arrivals to these shores, the collectivisation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ renders no distinction between the exacting of rights by European Muslims qua Europeans and a new opportunity for the exercise of the ‘will to understand for the purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons’ that mass migration presents.

Secondly, the spatial differences which at one time may have offered coherence to the notion of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ separated by physical space, no longer holds when the ‘them’ are, for the most part legally, part of ‘us’ or aspiring, legally, to be part of ‘us’. Not that this registers in the incoherent utterances of those racists who, post-Brexit, have demanded ethnic minority Britons ‘go home’. They are home.

The presence of European Muslim communities and the arrival of Muslim refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from Muslim majority countries in north and sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, permeates the imagined physical separation between ‘them’ and ‘us’ even if the separation persists in the value-laden discourses that reinforce ‘self-affirmation’.

It is an interesting development to observe as a British Muslim, though I expect my fellow European Muslim citizens probably share similar sentiments.

It is a sentiment I would capture as the title of Bruce Clark’s book, Twice a Stranger, about the forced deportations of Greeks and Turks from those respective territories after the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the forging of the nations of Turkey and Greece.

Twice a stranger.

We are born Europeans but are othered by virtue of our religious identity and treated a lesser part of the whole. We are othered again as new arrivals reinforce the tendency for ‘self-affirmation’ and our identities are interwoven in discourses through which the complexities arising from the displacement of peoples fleeing war or economic hardship are replaced with narratives about sex pests, tax burdens and apocalyptic fears of a demographic threat heralding the demise of ‘European’ culture. Worse still, the othering is reflexive, where European-born Muslims are affected by anti-migrant hostility at the same time as being the source of it.

Consider a billboard campaign in Hungary, brandished with the apparent imprimatur of the government and declaring an anti-migrant hostility that is interlaced with the sort of Islamophobic tropes that are commonly visited upon European Muslim populations.

“Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis more than 300 people died as a result of terror attacks in Europe?”

“Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis the harassment of women has risen sharply in Europe?”

It is difficult not to read in the billboard slogans existing tropes which popularise the notion of ‘Muslim terrorists’ and ‘Muslim sex gangs.’

A study by the Pew Research Center published in July 2016, ‘Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs,’ revealed a correlation between negative attitudes towards Muslims presently living in the ten EU countries and negative attitudes towards refugees. The report observed: ‘In every country polled, the dominant view is that Muslims want to be distinct from the rest of society rather than adopt the nation’s customs and way of life.”

From burkini bans and fines for the wearing of burqas in public spaces to legal interventions restricting religious slaughter and the scaremongering about Turks entering the EU, ‘self-affirmation’ has become the rallying cry of racists and xenophobes aided and abetted by those right wing politicians who lend credence to the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim hostility.

Self-affirmation is inflected on the rights sought by European Muslims to live as Europeans, governed and protected by rights conventions that are our European norms, as it is on those seeking the right to asylum or refugee status or economic migration, all of them protections and opportunities afforded in liberal democracies.

If the past year has fed an alienating discourse that has the effect of making European Muslims feel twice a stranger, it also presents European Muslims with a dual opportunity.

The first opportunity is to reclaim the notion of migration as a liability. European Muslims, the well-educated and patriotic and the sporting heroes and Olympic winning champions, are examples of the benefits of migration and of ‘co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons’ that close encounters can bring. We should celebrate their stories and reweave our narrative to embrace the contributions of those who come to our countries and enrich them.

The second opportunity, and an important intervention given the normative dimension of ‘self-affirmation’, is the reclamation of ‘our’ values from the hierarchies of power that render Muslims passive recipients of ‘our’ values on ‘our’ terms instead of active agents in the exercise and upholding of our values as one of ‘us’.

The transformation experienced by European Muslims as a result of migration is so often lost in the collectivising narratives that can only regard them as a homogenous ‘other’, despite the passage of time and evidence of their integration but their personal history and their narrative of belonging to Europe and being European deserves greater attention than it has been afforded in present times. Unable to appreciate the journey European Muslims have made and are making, as Europeans and as Muslims, the tendency for ‘self-affirmation’ seeks to stifle the prospects of new journeys being undertaken by those who are newly arrived. Resisting the misrepresentation of our story as European Muslims is a challenge we should embrace not for ourselves, but also for those Muslims who may one day embark on a journey of their own to Europe.

Shenaz Bunglawala is Head of Research at MEND – Muslim Engagement & Development; a non-governmental organisation tackling Islamophobia and enhancing British Muslim participation in politics, media and public life.