Anti-Muslim views have become more widespread in Europe over the past 30 years, but it is important to distinguish between criticisms of certain forms of Islamic practice and the belief that Muslims are taking over Europe.
People with anti-Islamic views wish to restrict Muslim immigration and Islamic religious practices. In their view, Islam is a homogenous, totalitarian ideology that is threatening western civilisation. When we talk about anti-Muslim racism, the attitudes concerned are so generalizing that all Muslims are lumped together, regardless of whether they are secular Muslims or fundamentalists. In other words, we are talking not only about criticism of a set of religious ideas, but about attitudes that dehumanize and generalize a whole group in the population.
Although such attitudes have a long history in Europe, the idea that Muslims are ‘the enemy’ has become more widespread over the last 30 years. In the aftermath of the Cold War, one could say that Europe needed a new archetypal enemy, and research shows that Muslim immigrants gradually took on that status. For example, it became gradually more common for people to talk about “Muslims”, rather than immigrants with Pakistani backgrounds.
Events that direct a critical focus onto Muslims
Research from various countries shows increases in anti-Muslim views towards Muslims in connection with various critical events. This does not suggest that anti-Muslim bias is growing in a continuously upwards trend. Rather, it suggests that this bias increases temporarily in connection with societal events that direct a critical focus on Muslims.
In the 1980s, for example, the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses provoked Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against Rushdie, and many Muslims joined anti-Rushdie demonstrations and tore pages out of his book. In many cases, their demonstrations were met with highly generalizing and critical representations of Muslim in the media, where Islam as a religion was questioned.
Similar conflicts between freedom of expression and religious tolerance would occur nearly 20 years later, in the aftermath of the caricatures published in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten in 2005, as well as in the aftermath of the Islamist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
9/11 and Muslim’s place in Europe
The first Gulf War was followed by media debates that also directed a critical focus on Muslims, and research from Australia and United Kingdom shows a rise in anti-Muslim views in that period. But the events that really led to widespread and generalizing anti-Muslim discourses were 9/11 and subsequent Islamist terrorist attacks. At times, the War on Terror was based on a strongly generalizing rhetoric about Muslims, and a sceptical attitude towards Muslims in general, rather than exclusively towards radicalized communities.
Research has also shown that there have been other events since that time that have led to increased scepticism towards Muslims. Turkey’s application for EU membership was met with commentary that defined Islam and Europe as contradictory to each other – in other words, suggesting that Islam does not naturally belong in Europe. This is despite the fact that Muslims have lived in parts of Europe for several hundred years.
The war in Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis also led to increased anti-Muslim sentiments, and the mass attacks in Cologne on New Year’s Eve in 2016 were followed by heated media debates that included very critical and generalizing representations of Muslims and Islam.
The fact that some Muslims are extremists and perpetrate terrorist acts is generalized to encourage an attitude that Islam in general represents a threat. References to terrorist events, or mass attacks, or the increased number of Muslim men in rape statistics, or the oppression of women, or the fundamentalist practice of Sharia law, portray Islam in general as a threat.
Anti-Muslim views in Norway
Accordingly, anti-Muslim views are in no way a new phenomenon neither in Norway nor globally. It was first in the 1970s that Norway began to take in large numbers of Muslim immigrants, and as early as 1979, the year after the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism, Carl I. Hagen wrote a strongly anti-Islam column in the newspaper Aftenposten. Later, in the county council election campaigns in 1987, Hagen brandished a letter signed by ‘Mohamad Mustafa’. This letter predicted that one day, mosques would be as common as churches in Norway, Islam would prevail, and Norway would become a Muslim country. Subsequently, the letter turned out to be a fake.
The following year, there were also strong anti-Muslim reactions in Norway to Muslim demonstrations against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book, and later to the attempted murder of its Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard. Some people on the extreme right whom we have interviewed in recent years have told us that these events were decisive for the formation of their strongly anti-Islam views.
Right-wing extremists also periodically made anti-Islam comments in the 1990s, but far more striking was their support for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and their use of Nazi greetings and the swastika symbol. Anti-Semitism has in no way disappeared, but if we look at the extreme right-wing as it is presently active in Norway, we find that anti-Islam views are more widespread, apart from among a small number of groups, such as the Nordic Resistance Movement and the political party Alliansen [“The Alliance”].
The concepts of stealth Islamization and Eurabia
Concepts such as stealth Islamization and Eurabia imply that Islam is slowly but surely taking hold in European societies and replacing the secular and Christian values on which these societies are based. Fears include the idea that the white population will gradually die out, being replaced through a process known as demographic warfare due to Muslims’ tendency to have larger families. Belief in such a scenario was popularized by the Egyptian-Jewish author Bat Ye’Or in her book Eurabia.
A number of anti-Islamic ideas are shared by both moderates and extremists. The Eurabia theory is one example. According to this theory, Muslims in Europe have a hidden agenda whereby they will gradually take power in Europe. Similar thinking underlies the concept of stealth Islamization, which Siv Jensen launched at the Progress Party’s national convention in 2009. A year earlier, Robert Spencer, an American blogger and founder of Stop Islamization of America, had published his book Stealth Jihad.
31% of Norwegians believe that Muslims want to take over Europe
Similar ideas have found a receptive audience that is wider than individual politicians and the members of a few extremist groups. A survey conducted by the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies found that as many as a third, or more accurately 31 percent, of Norwegians agreed with the statement “Muslims want to take over Europe”. Half of the population agreed that Islamic values were wholly or partly incompatible with the values of Norwegian society. In addition, almost a third expressed a desire to distance themselves socially from Muslims.
On the basis of several other indicators, the researchers behind the survey concluded that slightly over a quarter of the respondents scored highly in all dimensions and thus, according to the researchers, could be categorized as Islamophobic.
In other words, we are not talking about marginal views here. Nevertheless, there is a very crucial distinction between the parts of the population that support some of the claims of the Eurabia theory and those that hold the most extreme anti-Muslim views.
The difference between general and extreme anti-Muslim views
The differences relate to people’s views about the solution to the problem – what they think must be done to prevent Islam from exerting an overly strong influence in Norwegian society.
Previously, in an article in the Journal of Political Ideologies, Maria Reite Nilsen and I compared how leaders of the far-right organizations Stop the Islamization of Norway (SIAN), Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the Occident) and Vigrid defined what they thought was the most important problem of our age and how they thought the problem could be solved. Even such a comparison of viewpoints among leaders of far-right organizations revealed significant differences. While the leader of Pegida, an organization that has now ceased operations in Norway, talked about the voluntary return of Muslim immigrants to their countries of origin, the leader of SIAN talked about deporting Muslims, and the leader of Vigrid went the furthest by praising terror attacks and killings.
Humour as protection against law-breaking
Fortunately, Vigrid is now an organization with no members other than its leader, but one will find people with similar opinions if one ventures onto uncensored internet platforms. But even in Facebook groups with more than 10,000 members, periodically one will find comments that openly support violence against Muslims. These comments are often presented as jokes, in order to protect the persons posting them from potentially being accused of violating laws on hate crimes.
In an article in Politics, Religion & Ideology, I analysed the comment threads in two anti-Islam Facebook groups, and examined how humour, emojis and disrespectful jargon are used to camouflage the serious intent in what is being said about Muslims.
Arguments that tend to recur, however, are the same as those found in the Eurabia theory: Muslims have too many children, which is an element in a demographic war whereby white people are slowly but surely being eradicated; Muslim women are oppressed, but there is no sympathy for them, because they have chosen this situation themselves; and Muslim men are dangerous attackers.
Adherents of conspiracy theories are not only a small number of extremists
In our own times we have seen how extremely discriminatory and generalizing comments about Muslims have been made by leading politicians, such as Donald Trump. Adherents of conspiracy theories are not only a small number of extremists. Some conspiracy theories achieve widespread support. For example, around 80 per cent of republicans and a little over half of all white males (Democrats, Independents, Republicans, and non-voters) were convinced that Democrats stole the 2020 election.
Common features of many conspiracy theories are mistrust of science and researchers, of the media and those in power. Often, someone who believes in one conspiracy theory will believe in several others.
One example is the central role played by well-known critics of Islam at demonstrations alleging that Covid-19 is fake. There are also examples of the same people supporting anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. One such theory asserts that the Jewish financier George Soros has funded mass immigration of Muslims to Europe in order to destroy European society.
A global anti-Muslim movement
The many anti-Muslim actors present in various countries since the millennium can be seen as a global movement due to their shared identity and rhetoric. There are many different actors in this movement – social media, political parties, organizations, and individuals such as newspaper columnists. There is contact and collaboration between a number of these actors, even across national borders, but there are also many actors who operate more or less alone. There are also actors who disagree strongly with each other, not least in relation to rhetoric and political objectives.
Different actors represent different levels of extremism – often we find the most extreme cases on uncensored internet platforms. It is in these fora that right-wing extremist terrorists have gained inspiration and support for their planned terrorist attacks.
The most extreme consequences of Anti-Muslim racism: 22 July, Christchurch and Manshaus
In the past decade in Norway we have experienced the country’s worst mass murder in peacetime, as well as an attempted terrorist atrocity. On 22 July 2011, fear of Islamization in Europe was among the several ideological motives behind Anders Behring Breivik’s bombing of the Government Quarter in Oslo and shootings of young people on the island of Utøya.
Brenton Tarrant’s terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019 were inspired by Breivik’s terrorist acts, while Philip Manshaus’s attack on a mosque in Bærum in August that same year was in turn inspired by the attacks in Christchurch.
In all three cases, anti-Muslim ideas were only one of several motives for the attacks. Like Breivik, Manshaus was inspired by anti-feminism and white supremacist ideology, including the idea that he was a participant in a race war, which was also a causative factor in his racist murder of his adopted step-sister. In these terrorist attacks we see the most extreme consequences of anti-Muslim, racist conspiracy theories, which assert that Muslim immigration is contributing to a major upheaval that in the long-term will eradicate the white population.
The extreme anti-Muslim views that lie behind these terrorist acts show how far things can go if one takes literally the conspiracy theories about Muslims’ ambitions to take over Europe. The counter-jihad movement, Eurabia, and the Great Replacement conspiracy theory are keywords for the mindsets that inspire terrorist attacks.
- Katrine Fangen is Professor at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo. She is thematic leader at C-REX and is a research associate at PRIO.
- This text is based on a lecture delivered at the conference 10 years after 22 July: Knowledge status and knowledge needs, 10 June 2021. It was first published in Norwegian as an op.ed. by Forskersonen.
- Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext