The racism behind integration

It's not easy to be a Muslim in Europe. Most Muslims I know brush aside the gazes of suspicion to which they are subjected on the streets of Amsterdam and Oslo, in the suburbs of Paris and Frankfurt, and in airport lounges. But the systematic hatred of Muslims, designed to demonise communities, is something else. Not surprisingly, it makes many Muslims angry.

Consider the past couple of years. There has been Fitna, the film by the right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders, which projected the Quran as a text that justifies terrorism against all. Before that, in 2006, a university lecture by Pope Benedict XVI, purporting to represent the Prophet Muhammad as a violent bigot, received publicity. There was the Danish cartoons affair, followed by the less-known incident of the Swedish cartoon in which the Prophet was depicted with the body of a dog. And we must not forget ex-Muslim champions of western civilisation, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, running around Europe decrying Islam as "the new fascism".

This may look like the work of a few individuals with a particular dislike of Islam. But according to Integration, Islamophobia and Civil Rights in Europe, a recent report from the Institute of Race Relations, it is not so random and sporadic. Liz Fekete, the author of the study, argues that an "assimilationist logic" is at work, leading to co-ordinated demonisation of Islam and Muslims.

It begins with the integration agenda. The med ia in the six European countries studied place integration within a framework that represents Muslims as an alien threat. Academics, writers, intellectuals and Muslim celebrities who favour assimilation, such as the Dutch Hirsi Ali and the Norwegian comedian Shabana Rehman, are then presented as "expert witnesses" in the integration debate. The process inflames Islamophobia, leading Muslims to be seen purely through the lens of demonised representations - to the neg lect of the social and economic causes of Muslim exclusion and marginalisation.

In most European countries, integration is simply a euphemism for assimilation, the report says. The driving force is the notion of a national culture. In Germany this expresses itself through blood-based citizenship and a Leitkultur (dominant culture) and in France through citizenship by birth and earth and by laïcité (secularism). Norway has the idea of likhet (sameness); the Netherlands has verzuiling (religious/cultural blocs). One expects the extreme right to embrace such notions, but the report finds centre-left parties also using these racist sentiments to strategise. They may be liberal about immigration but, when it comes to Muslims, they fall prey to an Islamophobia that is "nourished by a mixture of feminism and secularism".

I think there is good reason for the spread of Islamophobia in Europe. It has less to do with the attacks of 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005, and more to do with the fact that Muslims now openly challenge notions of European moral superiority. The integration debate is often couched in terms of superior European versus inferior Islamic values. Islamophobia in the guise of integration becomes a means of keeping those with lesser values in their place.

Chandra Muzaffar, a noted Malaysian political scientist, wrote recently that Islamophobia is a conscious drive by European powers to impose their hegemony over the Muslim world. "The motivating force is the control over oil and stra tegic sea lanes, the majority of which border Muslim countries." To establish dominion, the European powers target Islam, which has often served as an ideological inspiration for resistance to western domination. To destroy the resistance, says Muzaffar, they must demonise Muslims, beginning with Muslims in Europe.

If Europe wants to change Muslims, here and in the rest of the world, I would say only this: change yourself.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?