European Muslims Painting Themselves Into A Corner?
By Farish A. Noor
It was recently reported that the far-right Belgian party Vlaams Blok has
begun to court the support of the unlikeliest of constituencies: the Jews of
Belgium. Despite the fact that the Belgian Court of Appeal had declared the
party a criminal organisation (and the move was supported by the Belgian
Supreme Court), and the party’s known links to both neo-Nazis in the present
and extreme right-wing elements in the past, leaders of the Vlaams Blok like
Frank Vanhecke have managed to broaden the party’s appeal to such an extent
that it now sends shivers down the spine of many a Belgian liberal.
Capitalising on popular fear and prejudice towards foreigners in general (so
parochial is the Vlaams Blok that even Belgian Francophones are regarded as
outsiders and interlopers) and racism towards Arab-Muslim migrants in
particular, the propagandists of the Vlaams Blok have demonstrated a keen
awareness of public insecurity and have exploited it to the maximum. In the
wake of 11 September and the hegemonisation of the so-called ‘war on
terror’, Islamophobia has taken on an increasingly vitriolic and bellicose
appearance and the routine harassment of Muslim minorities across Europe has
The cherry on the cake, so to speak, has been the Vlaams Blok’s success in
courting a number of Belgian Jews to their cause, rallying them behind the
banner of protecting the nation from the infiltration of ‘Islamic militants’
and ‘radical Islam’ from abroad. Due in part to the failure of the leftist
parties of Europe to address the issue of racial polarisation adequately,
the divisions in societies such as Belgium’s has grown even wider.
Today the support of a small section of Belgian Jews for the Vlaams Blok has
to be studied in detail, as a case study of how communitarian politics
inevitably ends up benefiting the status quo and serves only to further
marginalise minority groups. A comparable example would be how some
right-wing parties in Europe have managed to win the support of the
gay/lesbian community, who have also been scared by the bogeyman of the
radical Muslim fundamentalist, on the ground that Islam’s stand on
homosexuality would entail the discrimination of gays should Muslims ever
come to power.
That Europe’s Muslims can never ever come to dominate European society by
virtue of their small numbers is often lost in the heat of the argument.
Lost too is the fact that Europe’s Muslims are more often the victims of
prejudice and hate-crimes rather than the perpetrators.
But the circulation of the stereotype of the ‘violent, irrational’ Muslim
fanatic bent on conquering the Western world is still something that is
found in the mainstream media, from newspaper reports to pulp fiction.
Though the image may be false, as an instrumental fiction it nonetheless
serves very clear political objectives – in this case to create an alienated
and demonised Other against which the rest of society can be rallied
against. Hence the unlikely support that we see from a some Belgian Jews for
the Vlaams Blok, a party whose founders shared dubious links with the Nazis
and Fascists of the mid-20th century.
The development in Belgium today also points to another distressing trend in
the Muslim communities of Europe, notably the trend of some young Muslim
groups to resort to the use of racist, communitarian and even violent
rhetoric to get their point across. While it is undeniable that Europe’s
Muslims have become the victims of routinised violence, discrimination and
prejudice; it is also true that some Muslim groups have responded to this
with the use of an equally inflammatory (and totally unjustified) rhetoric
of confrontation. The tendency of some Muslim youth gangs to adopt the
symbols of the Nazis and Fascists and to fall back on a discriminatory
discourse of anti-Semitism when dealing with the issue of Israel-Palestine,
for instance, comes to mind. In such cases the arguments against the wanton
militarism and abuses of the Israeli regime are lost in the thunder and fury
of racist rhetoric. Likewise the homophobic rhetoric of some Muslim leaders
has served only to alienated Muslims even further, which is ironic
considering the already marginalised status that Muslims have in European
These developments underscore the need for European Muslims to understand
the need for dialogue and co-operation. For some time now, Europe’s Muslims
have been led (or represented) by leaders who have obstinately clung onto a
communitarian discourse that pitted the Muslim community against the rest.
Muslim concerns were painted as communitarian concerns, affecting a singular
community whose internal diversity was undermined or erased in the process.
Many of the self-proclaimed ‘spokesmen’ of the European Muslim minorities
spoke only for and of themselves and their immediate circle of followers;
ignoring the fact that the European community they were addressing were more
complex and diverse than they readily admitted.
The bottom line is that unless and until Europe’s Muslims learn that their
problems – ranging from racism, violence to institutionalised discrimination
– are the problems of European society as a whole, they will always be
presented as the ‘Other’ within. And as the Other, Europe’s Muslims will
remain a vulnerable constituency: economically marginalised, politically
weak, underrepresented and doubly stigmatised for that.
Muslim minorities the world over have to understand that their problems can
only be addressed and solved in the context of a wider, broader civil
society. It is in that civil space that Muslims will find their allies and
friends, who are equally concerned about the problems of racism,
discrimination and violence; and equally committed to addressing them.
Crossing the boundary between Self and Other, and becoming part of the
mainstream of European society, is therefore the first step out of the
impasse that Europe’s Muslim minorities now face. But for this to happen, an
internal critique that rejects the use of racist, bigoted and communitarian
discourse-politics is the key.
Europe’s Muslims have to understand that they are part of Europe, and that
they have every right to complain about how they are being treated. But
these complains have to be articulated via an inclusive discourse that sees
European Muslims as Europeans first.