Europe has to guard against its ugly tendencies

Europe has to guard against its ugly tendencies

by H. A. Hellyer

I remember some overzealous Muslims trying to convince themselves that Hijrah, or migration, was the only real option for Muslim Britons when I was a student at university. Muslims had no business being in a predominantly non-Muslim country such as the UK, they said, and would only be able to be “real” in a Muslim nation abroad.

These well-meaning but ultimately misled youngsters did not know history very well. Around one third of all Muslims today live as minorities and the minority experience has always been a key facet of Muslim life throughout history. Muslims in Ethiopia were the first but they were far from the last.

Recently I met a number of Muslim Britons who had actually migrated, albeit temporarily, to Kuala Lumpur. I had half expected some of them to say they had left because of anti-Muslim sentiment – but that was not it at all. It was purely an economic decision. They even insisted that their children have a British education so that they could always return to the UK whenever economic conditions dictated they could.


It was not Hijrah at all. Over the years, the kind of discourse I heard in university became unappealing to young Muslim Britons. They saw opportunities for themselves in the UK and they were not interested in going anywhere else. They may have felt a bit out of place but the UK was their home. Why on earth should they abdicate their right to call it such and remain there?

That feeling, however, took a bit of a hit after September 11th, when anti-Muslim sentiment reached new heights in the media – and that eventually affected local interactions. Still, the “evil Muslims” were over in the Muslim world, and our “good Muslims” (Muslim Britons) were generally OK.

That changed forever after the bombings in London in 2005. No longer could the issue be claimed to be a completely foreign phenomenon. Muslim Britons could not deny that a problem lay within their ranks – and the rest of us in the UK did not let them forget it. The constant questioning about terrorist sympathies and the demands that Muslim Britons continuously and publicly denounce terrorism made it very certain.


But it seems we learnt nothing about the stigmatisation of Irish citizens of the UK some years ago. Over the last couple of years, and particularly so during the last few months, there’s been an added element to the mix. That element was not born with the bombings in 2005, but that certainly has exacerbated it – and it is growing in terms of importance.

Terrorism does not continue indefinitely and nor does fear of terrorism. Take the fears of the IRA in the UK, for example and the stigmatisation of Irish Britons – these finally dissipated, and I have little doubt that eventually, the “terrorist” label will fail to taint Muslim Britons.


However, there is a larger worry that all Britons should have, and that is the effect of stigmatising a minority population on the basis that it has become an existential threat to a culture and way of life. I am not sure why things are intensifying now, but it does appear that more people are calling attention to Muslim Britons as a threat to British society on a cultural level. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly – in reverse order.


As Europeans, Brtions should remember “the ugly” – what xenophobia can become. We saw some of the worst results of it in the Second World War and then again in the Bosnian genocide. It’s serious and it needs to be taken seriously.

But as ugly as things seem to be getting in the UK, the rest of Europe is far worse. Every week now, it seems, a new article discusses how Muslims in Europe are a threat and right-wing commentators in America warn their audiences not to let Islam get too far. Europe is lost, they say, because they let Muslims in and Americans should take heed to protect themselves. The ugliness is rooted in deep-seated prejudice about Islam as a faith and the belief that Islam cannot exist within the West without destroying it.


Here’s the “bad”: news stories create facts on the ground and toxic discourse has an effect on peoples’ lives. An Imam is kidnapped at knifepoint and ordered to stop ministering to his congregation in England; a bank in France bans a Muslim woman in hijab from entering its premises; a Danish education minister draws comparisons between Muslim schools and “Nazi schools”; even a youngster is charged with producing posters that called for an “Islam-free country”. And all this happened just in the last few weeks. We have to be concerned about this trend. It strikes at the very heart of what it means to be European, and what it means to be British – and it will define what kind of Europe and what kind of Britain is built in the 21st century.


The “good” part of all this is not certain – it’s conditional. How will we meet these challenges? Will it be “good” or is it going to get uglier? Although the media does not report on it as much, I do see good signs. There are growing numbers of Europeans who remember their history and know that what is good must be vigilantly defended, not taken for granted. For their opponents, that means slowly diminishing the space that those who are “different” have in European societies. But for those who remember history, it means upholding the principles of pluralism and coexistence that so many have struggled to protect – especially when it is difficult to do so. That’s the only kind of Europe that can endure.


“Dr H.A. Hellyer is Fellow at the University of Warwick ( , and Director of the Visionary Consultants Group ( His book, ‘Muslims of Europe: The ‘Other’ Europeans’ will be available ( from Edinburgh University Press in October 2009.

Source:  The National © Copyright of Abu Dhabi Media Company PJSC.
Reprinted with permission of Dr. Hellyer