Spread of Islamophobia in the Western World
More than 4 million Syrian refugees have fled the country since the start of the civil war over four years ago, most of whom have sought asylum in their neighboring countries rather than overseas; Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan house the highest percentage of refugees other than Syria itself, where over 7 million people are internally displaced. This is a shocking statistic when you take into account the resources at the disposal of these Middle Eastern countries. Even as early into the crisis as 2014, the influx of refugees into Jordan cost the country 2.4 percent of its annual GDP and threatened its already vulnerable water resources.
As a fact, Western countries are better prepared- financially- to bear the burden of this international crisis. So why does the fate of refugees in Europe and the United States remain uncertain? In a climate of stories such as that of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14 year-old student arrested in Texas for bringing a homemade clock to school, and Ben Carson, a Republican presidential candidate who says he would never elect a Muslim president, the factor of Islamophobia in the reception of the refugee crisis in the U.S. is hardly a question. But this situation has also given Europe a new opportunity to expose its historical tendency towards orientalism.
Europe’s tendency to “other,” as Edward Said put it in his acclaimed book Orientalism, is an age-old pattern of patronizing and fictionalizing “the East,” and has been going on ever since Europeans were able to recognize they were not the only people on the globe. France has one of the strongest histories of discrimination toward Muslims and Arabs. Muslims made up about 5.7 percent of France’s population in 2010 and that number is growing fast. Many of its citizens find Islam incompatible with French society. In a country where 38 percent of people had an “unfavorable” opinion of Muslims, it is no surprise that there exists a culture where reports of violence against Muslims are multiplying. Just one week after the attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices in early 2015, more than 50 anti-Muslim acts were committed, including threats directed at Muslims and their places of worship.
Anti-Islamic sentiments are not only widespread in Europe, with France being one of the strongest examples, but are also often perpetuated by the governments of these countries. In France almost two-thirds of people believe that the Muslim women should not wear their headscarves in public,which has led to government bans against wearing the headscarf in certain places, such as at school or while delivering a public service like teaching or working in a government building. The UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act includes what some people believe could unproportionally target the freedom of Muslims, like the ability to seize and detain passports in cases “where a person is suspected of intending to leave Great Britain or the United Kingdom in connection with terrorism-related activity.”
Taking into account the bias of the public and possible bias of the government, there is no surprise that Europe’s reception of the Syrian refugees has been less than welcoming in some countries. While we’ve seen overwhelming support in places like Germany, there are always movements counter to the norm. Germany’s anti-Islamic group, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA), exists solely to express disgust over the immigration of Muslim people into Europe. Eastern Europe in particular has demonstrated anti-refugee sentiments: thousands of people gathered in Poland to chant phrases like “Today refugees, tomorrow terrorists!” in protest of the EU’s suggestion that Poland accept 12,000 refugees. Slovakia will only tolerate refugees who are Christian and Hungary even built a wall to keep refugees out, a dangerous echo of the Berlin Wall, built to prevent the massive influx of East German immigrants from entering West Germany and bringing with them fascist ideologies.
Looking at the highly publicized welcome rallies for those escaping from the Middle East and assuming that Europe unanimously supports these refugees would be misled. Large majorities of people in the EU want them gone, especially in Greece and Italy, where over 80 percent of people want fewer immigrants allowed into their countries. This number reaches over half in the UK and France. Anti-immigration and anti-Islam sentiments have been central to European culture for many years and a humanitarian crisis will not change that.
These attitudes are not coming from a place of concern, but from a place of unwarranted fear. The United States is no stranger to this fear; since 9/11, the U.S. has experienced a wave of Islamophobia that has culminated in various acts of violence against Muslims. Despite the constant condemnation of extremist sects of their religion, the over 2 million Muslims living in America are often regarded with suspicion and outright hatred. The NYPD even spied on Muslim neighborhoods for six years, looking for signs of terrorism and reinforcing the rhetoric that the religion itself is a threat, not simply those who take its teachings and twist them to support violence. The mistrust of Islam is demonstrated every day in the United States, in movies like American Sniper, in the presidential race by candidates like Ben Carson, and the anti-immigration policies of Donald Trump; in the narratives and coverage of ISIS that treat its actions as a reflection of Islam itself, rather than that of a small and subversive minority. To be a Muslim in America is to be treated with suspicion and disrespect. This affects the reception of refugees from the Middle East that desperately need aid and asylum from the United States. Republican Congressmen Michael McCaul and Peter King recently wrote a letter to Susan Rice, National Security Advisor, expressing the belief that accepting refugees into the U.S. would only invite ISIS into the country. This is a belief echoed by many people in the West and is dangerous to the humanitarian effort to resettle those fleeing from Syria.
The issue of Islamophobia is, fundamentally, an issue of education. The notion that Islam promotes violence is misguided and comes from a refusal to separate the minority of extremists from the overwhelming majority of those who are left with the burden of apologizing for their religion and culture. Fear is a normal response to change and tragedy, but the time for fear has passed-- it now is simply perpetuating an international crisis.
- Alexie Schwarz