In 2006, at the height of the hysteria over the face veil, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland imagined what it must be like to be a Muslim in Britain. “I wouldn’t just feel frightened,” he wrote. “I would be looking for my passport.”
On Sunday, as the European election results began to flood in, with far-right parties on the march from Scandinavia to the Club Med, I joked with my (American) wife that we might have to start packing our bags and head across the pond.
Hundreds of column inches have been devoted to explaining how austerity economics, democratic deficits and mass immigration have helped bolster the continent’s far-right fanatics and neo-Nazi nutters. Our politicians and pundits have been less keen, however, to discuss the Islam-sized elephant in the room: what unites Europe’s far-right parties perhaps more than any other issue is their fear and loathing of people such as my wife and me.
Take the Front National, which won the European elections in France. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, bangs on about the “progressive Islamisation” of her country and compares Muslims praying in public to the Nazi occupation of France. Consider also the Danish People’s Party, which topped the polls in Denmark. Its founder Pia Kjærsgaard refers to Islam as a “political movement” and claims that the Quran teaches Muslims “to lie and deceive, cheat and swindle”.
How about the Finns Party, which doubled the number of its MEPs? The senior MEP, Jussi Halla-aho, has accused Islam of “sanctifying paedophilia” and a Finns councillor called Amon Rautiainen has called for Muslims to be “boiled alive”. In neighbouring Sweden, the populist Swedish Democrats gained their first two MEPs. The party’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, once referred to Muslims in Sweden as “the biggest foreign threat since World War II”.
Here in Britain, there is Ukip, which is equally obsessed with Islam. Nigel Farage supports a ban on the burqa; Ukip’s chief whip, Gerard Batten, wants to stop the building of mosques; its former leader Lord Pearson has claimed “the Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us”. In recent weeks, Ukip candidates were shown to have accused Muslims of “grooming” children to be “sex slaves” and claimed that “anyone who does not fear Islam is a fool”.
In some respects, Muslims are the new Jews of Europe. The vile shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May, in which three people were killed, might make this statement sound odd. Anti-Jewish attacks are indeed on the rise in Europe, which is deplorable and depressing, but thankfully anti-Semitism is now taboo in mainstream political discourse in a way in which Islamophobia isn’t. These days, most anti-Semitic attacks are carried out by second-generation Arabs and are linked to anger over Israeli policies. Anshel Pfeffer, of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, acknowledged this in his report on the Brussels museum attack: “Some of the far-right parties in Belgium, such as Vlaams Belang, have actually tried to transform their image and hide their anti-Semitic legacy, professing to be friendly to Jews and supportive of Israel.”
Yet Islamophobia has gone mainstream. So it is time to ask my fellow Britons: is there a future for my family and me on this continent? I’m a proud British citizen, born and raised here, not to mention an ardent Europhile; my seven-year-old daughter is counting down the days until she can watch England play in the World Cup.
Nevertheless, Muslims are bombarded with hostile headlines and subjected to verbal or physical attacks on a near-daily basis. Social media has emboldened an army of online Islamophobes; in the real world, mosques have been firebombed and politicians line up to condemn Muslim terrorism/clothing/meat/seating arrangements.
It is establishment parties that helped pave the way for the Muslim bashers of the “new” far right. In France, it was Nicolas Sarkozy, not Marine Le Pen, who declared that halal meat was “the issue that most preoccupies the French”. In Germany, it was a Social Democratic Party politician, Thilo Sarrazin, who published a book claiming that Muslim immigrants were inferior to everyone else. And, here in the UK, it was a Labour immigration minister, Phil Woolas, not Nigel Farage, who published election pamphlets accusing his Lib Dem opponents of working with “militant Muslims” and whose advisers circulated emails discussing the “need . . . to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him out”.
Meanwhile, poll after poll shows Europeans worrying about the spread of Islam – despite Gallup finding that European Muslims are as patriotic as their non-Muslim peers (and, in the case of the UK, more so!). Three out of four people in France say that “Islam is incompatible with French society”. Only 22 per cent of Germans think Islam is part of German society. Just over half of Britons – 52 per cent – believe “Muslims create problems in the UK”.
How do I explain these polls, and these election results, to my British-born, England-supporting daughter? Should I worry for her safety? Or am I being paranoid?
If only. Next year is the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys were lined up and shot in the heart of Europe. It was the worst genocide on the continent since the Second World War and was made possible by a far-right campaign of demonisation and dehumanisation. I wish I could believe the mantra of “never again”. But these European election results fill me with dread.
Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is crossposted