The Pathologisation of Muslims in Europe

The Pathologisation of Muslims in Europe

By Farish A. Noor

‘No we are not racist. It is just that we need to preserve and protect our
German identity and culture, and our Judeo-Christian heritage. The more
Turkish Muslims come here, the less we know who and what we are. We cannot
allow our identity and culture to be confused like that…’

How many times have I been fed such pedestrian drivel, and how long have I
been trying to play the role of bridge-builder between communities, only to
find my efforts reduced to naught thanks to the asinine and facile
platitidues that spill forth time and again? The gem quoted above was the
comment made by a rather ordinary German at a public debate on Islam and the
Rule of Law in Berlin; and just one week after an equally gruelling series
of public talks in Amsterdam I could not help but feel as if Europe’s slide
to the right is accelerating faster than ever.

That a public forum on Islam and the rule of law could degenerate into a
senseless round of Turk-bashing speaks volumes about the shallowness of
public debate in some parts of Europe these days. That the debate took place
in Berlin, the much-hyped cosmopolitan capital of Germany was itself a less
than startling revelation: Judging by some of the comments uttered it might
as well have been a local talk in some village tavern in the deepest
recesses of the Black Forest. The only things that were missing were the
leather shorts and bust of the Kaiser on the mantlepiece… for those
present had reduced themselves to caricatural stereotypes of the worst
order.

What was most alarming, however, was the manner in which a host of complex
issues and dilemmas were reduced and pathologised to a single problem: The
Muslims and their non-Western culture and belief system. That some of the
commentators were right-wing politicians was bad enough, worse still was the
evident lack of self-critique, irony and objective distance to the things
that were meant to be discussed in the first place.

The list of complaints were many: One man in the audience produced a fatwa –
with a stamp no less - calling for the punishment of a non-Muslim in Egypt;
and then proceeded to ask the Muslims present what they thought of the death
penalty. Oblivious to the fact that most of the Muslims he was addressing
were second generation migrants to Germany who were probably as rooted and
as German as he was, he seemed to be assuming that Muslims in Europe were
still undecided over the choice between democracy or the fabled Caliphate.
Yet how many times has the random Catholic been picked out in the street and
asked if he or she agreed with the latest ruling of the Pope from the
Vatican?

This was the first essentist misunderstanding that sadly coloured the entire
debate, and by extension most debates about Islam and Muslims in Europe
today. It is still assumed that Muslims are a homogenous bloc; that they are
defined primarily and solely by their religion; and that they are unable to
take objective distance from their creed, culture and history. Yet does
Islam decide which football team Muslim kids support in the inner cities? Is
it Islam that tells them which musicians to listen to, which novel to read,
which movie to watch?

Taking a further step back from the sordid goings-on in the debating hall, I
reflected on the times I had heard the same sort of nonsense from Muslims in
the Muslim countries I have visited and lived in. The cornucopia of racist
essentialisms came thick and fast I recall: ‘The West has no religion, no
ethics; Westerners are decadent drug addicts with no morals; Western women
are loose and Western men are promiscuous’ etc. The list of racist bile
directed to the West is as long as Western complaints about Muslims. On both
sides there is no attempt to understand or communicate with the Other; on
both sides the framing of the stereotype of the Other suffices for the
semblance of a non-dialogue to take place; and on both side the values of
self-reflection, auto-critique and introspection are totally absent.

Yet surely the root of the problem is this: Both the Western and Muslim
worlds are facing unprecedented changes thanks to the ravaging effects of
unrestrained global capital, that has radically altered social relations,
overturned social hierarchies, exposed long-held misperceptions and
misconceptions that have been around too long; and is now totally changing
the way we live, think and see ourselves in the world.

In the face of such challenges, it is all too easy to demonise minorities in
our midst and reconstruct the other in dialectical terms. The debate in
Western Europe has framed Muslims as the root cause for all that is wrong
with multiculturalism and pluralism in Europe today, and posited the idea
that Muslims are the ones who cannot assimilate, integrate and adapt to the
realities of Europe. Related to this is the idea that the presence of
Muslims in Europe threatens the continents sense of self-identity and
self-representation, leading to caricatural accounts of an Islamic takeover
of the West and the proliferation of mosques and minarets all over the
European continent.

But look around the capitals of Europe and we will see that the colonisation
of the continent has already happened. A short walk down Kudamm, the main
street of Berlin, will show that contemporary German popular culture
comprises of MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coca Cola, Pizza Hut and
Starbucks. What is more it wasnt the dreaded Turks who imported all this
American junk pop culture to Germany or Europe, but the Europeans
themselves.

The fact is that the world is indeed shrinking and becoming more homogeneous
and uniform at an alarming rate. From the ‘Hiltonisation’ of urban life to
the less than subtle exchange of Cafe Latte for drinking water, we are all
plugged into global consumerism more than ever before. Failure to accept our
complicity in the spread and hegemonisation of global capital has led us
instead to search for scapegoats to blame for all that is wrong in our
countries, from rising unemployment to the loss of job security and
educational opportunities. The stigmatisation of Turks and other Muslims in
Europe today is just the tip of the iceberg, reminiscent of the campaigns
against the Jews and other cosmopolitans in Europe in the past.

How do we escape from this blind impasse of our own making? Perhaps the
first step involves the recognition of our own role in the mess we have
created around us; and to begin to re-forge the common links of universal
human solidarity across class, gender and communal boundaries that may
inject some meaning into the concept of Society again. In the long run,
apart from a minority of trouble-makers who have hijacked some of the
mosques of Europe, the overwhelming majority of European Muslims want to be
part of Europe and accepted as such. What needs to happen next is the
development of genuine bridging capital between all these communities to
counter the dislocating effects of globalisation that has really damaged the
world we live in, be it in the East or West.


End.

Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum
Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University,
Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site
http://www.othermalaysia.org.


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