Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Europe's Balancing Act Between "Islamisation" and Xenophobia

Overnight in local time, two gunmen entered the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, and commenced a shooting rampage that would ultimately leave 12 dead. According to the Paris Prosecutor, the gunmen shouted "Allahu Akbar" and claimed to be "avenging the Prophet". Not coincidentally, Charlie Hebdo has a long history of publishing anti-Islam cartoons: in 2011, their headquarters was bombed following the publishing of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. And, as notable artists such as author Salman Rushie have learned in the past, radical Islamics take these criticisms of Islam very seriously, and often seek violent retribution. In this case, in what President Obama has called a "cowardly" attack, the reverberations are being felt around the world as the notion of freedom of speech is put into question.

Protestors with signs that read "I am Charlie". 
Courtesy Daily Mail

There is a much larger issue at hand, though, and it is that of the broader effect of a booming Muslim population in Europe. Muslims now make up a majority in more than one European country, and currently make up more than 6% of the total European population. It has been estimated in recent years that the Muslim population in Europe will double by 2020. And the Muslim influence is being felt across all of Europe, no longer just in Turkey and other southeastern European nations.

Diversity is often a step in the right direction, and the integration of different peoples is generally a good thing. In Europe, however, there have also been some negative ramifications.

Xenophobia has become rampant throughout the European Union, especially in some of the Scandinavian countries in the north. This is not just directed at Muslims, although since they make up a substantial portion of immigrants traveling to Europe, they certainly bear the brunt of it. Xenophobia has become such a common sentiment, in fact, that parliaments and governments all over Europe have been increasingly susceptible to the influence of far-right, conservative parties that often have the backing of the general public. Holland's PVV party continues to enjoy mass popularity, despite its leader being on trial for exacerbating racial tensions and inciting racial hatred. It is these political parties that espouse the notion that immigration is bad, and that it is these outsiders that put native Europeans at risk.

Unfortunately, these sentiments are beginning to spread beyond the far-right, and are entering the mainstream at an alarming rate. In Germany, for example, there have been weekly anti-Islam protests since last October. The protests, organized by a group known as Pegida, have grown to include as many as 20,000 individuals in instances and continue to garner support as they speak out against the "Islamisation" of Europe.

Aside from Turkey, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and with it, the most anti-Islam sentiment and xenophobic tension. Their history if Islamic terrorism dates all the way back to the 1995 metro bombings - there have been numerous incidents since, including today's.

Alas, European nations find themselves in an awful catch-22: jihadist Muslims will continue their bombings, shootings and other attacks in European cities in response to anti-Islam sentiment and criticisms like the cartoons Charlie Hebdo published; in return, xenophobia and anti-Islam sentiment will only broaden. This problem is especially acute right now, as Europe remains the primary recruitment zone outside of the Middle East for jihadi fighters to join the wars in Syria and Iraq. Countries such as Denmark have tried to be innovative in their efforts to rehabilitate known jihadi soldiers as opposed to jail them, but this social experiment will need some time before its efficacy can be determined.

So what is Europe to do, then? The answer lies in integration. While the Muslim population has continued to grow, at tremendous rates in some countries, there has never really been much of a welcome for them in these countries. It can easily be argued that the number of Muslim politicians is woefully smaller in proportion of the Muslim population, meaning they are probably not getting the adequate representation they need in order to feel more at home. And in countries such as France (and, although I haven't done the research, probably others), laws have been established that contradict with Muslim traditions, such as France's ban on women covering their faces with hijabs in public. It is precisely because of this lack of a welcome that Muslims find it harder to assimilate into European culture. Without this assimilation, they probably perceive themselves more as outsiders than anything, and it's been widely documented that it is this very psychology that makes it far easier for someone to justify the use of violence on a broader community.

Now, obviously, lone wolf attacks such as today's are not indicative of a broader population, and shouldn't be. Just because a handful of terrorists attack Europeans does not mean all Muslims share that sentiment. It does, however, give us a reason to talk about the broader issue of xenophobia and the inclusion of Muslims into the European community - something that has lacked.

The tragedy of today's attack on Charlie Hebdo's headquarters will not easily be forgotten, and sadly, may only exacerbate anti-Islam sentiments in Europe. It should, however, remind European governments that this is a population that is often neglected, and that more of an effort needs to be made to ensure that this population is treated as Europeans, not just Muslims. In doing so, Europe may prevent the next major attack or decrease the likelihood of ISIS recruiting its youth. In any case, it's an important step forward for a Europe that is going to continue seeing an influx of Muslim immigrants in the coming years, whether it likes it or not.

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