March 15, 2019
The massacre of 49 worshippers in two mosques in New Zealand was accompanied by the release of a 74-page manifesto. Tiresome and self-aggrandizing though it is, it does what it says on the tin— sets out the killer’s rationale for his actions. In his mind, he was defending a “white” European culture from “invaders” of a different color and creed, who are threatening the author’s self-proclaimed tribe simply by having the audacity to migrate and to breed. He maintains that New Zealand, a former colony, is a white country under brown invasion because it’s a projection of Europe, and therefore a mosque there is as good a target as a mosque anywhere on the old continent.
There are two truths that should be kept in mind here. One, is that this mythical Islam-free, lily-white Europe never existed in the first place. Islam and Muslims have played a role in Europe – and throughout the Western World – ever since the scientific, artistic, literary and economic influence of the new faith began to spread beyond the Arabian peninsula.
The other truth is that in this warped thinking, the terrorist is not alone. In ever expanding parts of Europe, Islamophobia has become not just an unpleasant ingredient of local nationalist movement, but the very flag around which they coalesce. If we see the terrorist and avert our eyes from his ideological proximity to increasingly mainstream politicians, we’re failing in our response to the attack.
As recently as 2011, rants about the threat of immigration to “white” “civlilization” were the purview of the likes of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian homegrown terrorist by who massacred young progressive activists on an island retreat and blew up a car bomb in the heart of Oslo. (Breivik, who authored his own graphomaniac manifesto, is singled out for effusive praise by the New Zealand shooter). Today, in 2019, right-wing populism can be found mainstreamed completely in Hungary, most visibly, of course, in the person of Viktor Orban.
One can see it exhibited in the significant presence of the anti-Muslim party of the AfD in Germany, or the Freedom Party in Austria (even the German parliament’s human rights committee has representation from the AfD,) and in Matteo Salvini’s Lega party effectively dominating the unlikely coalition that rules Italy. In the U.K., elements within the ruling Conservative party are flirting with right wing populist sentiment to devastating effect. And in France, Marine La Pen’s re-re-branded Front National is waiting in the wings as Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government teeters closer and closer to the brink.
Traditionally, such nationalist parties should have been at each other throats. But they confected for themselves a common enemy. Even as these parties profess local nationalism—Germany for Germans, Italy for Italians, and so on—they also coalesce around a twisted version of a shared European identity, defined almost in terms of tenuous juxtaposition to Islam.
And it’s not just the jackboot thugs on the street corner. In the U.K., noted public philosophers like Roger Scruton and the “radical orthodox” of English Anglicanism, John Milbank, can hardly be described as rabble rousers. But their public interventions, when it comes to Islam and Muslims,, echoe those of far less sophisticated and more recognizably extreme figures.
A key element of anti-Islamic bigotry is constantly recasting the present in contrast to an imagined past, in which mainstream “non-extremist” Muslims are relentlessly marginalized and their belonging to the West in the past, the present and the future is minimized or called into question. American cultural anthropologist Talal Asad puts it best: “Muslims are present in Europe and yet absent from it. The problem of understanding Islam in Europe is primarily, so I claim, a matter of understanding how “Europe” is conceptualized by Europeans. Europe (and the nation-states of which it is constituted) is ideologically constructed in such a way that Muslim immigrants cannot be satisfactorily represented in it. I argue that they are included within and excluded from Europe at one and the same time in a special way.”
That exclusion of Muslims from the idea of what Europe is, was, and should be like is all the more garish since, as I had a chance to argue in my book “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans.” Muslims are an intrinsic part of the European tale—past, present, and future. Indeed, it is nonsensical to describe the European story, without taking note of the marks that European Muslims made from 8th century onwards, less than a century after the Prophet first preached in Mecca.
Scholars and philosophers in Spain and Portugal; intellectuals and politicians across southern Europe; legal thinkers and theologians in Italy; Tatars in Lithuania and Poland; the Ottoman heritage across much of southern and eastern parts of the continent. That is not even taking into account converts to Islam among the European intelligentsia, including in Britain and France, Switzerland and Germany, in latter modernity, following the fall of Muslim Iberia and the Ottoman state.
An example of the grotesque depths to which European imagination of the role of Islam has fallen is the public reaction to Sinead O’Connor’s publicly declared conversion to Islam. Forget Twitter trolls and 4chan denizens. Milbank, a nationally prominent theologian with bona fide radical credentials, declared: “Liberals will embrace an authoritarianism to escape their own contradictions if it is respectably other and non-Western. She is a civilisational traitress. And has no taste.”
And remember—chillingly—in the manifesto released today, the Christchurch terrorist described one key demographic as worthy of ‘hate,’ to the exclusion of all others. That is of the Muslim converts. It isn’t that Milbank is responsible for that terrorist mind—he is not—but that rhetoric like his above, about O’Connor, makes the cruder discourse of the terrorist more possible.
Indeed, Milbank compares the presence of Muslim Westerners—who mostly, particularly in the European context, constitute the working class—to the armies of Muslim communities of the past which ruled large parts of Europe. It is hard to see the comparison to be made—but it plays directly into the fear of ‘EurArabia’, that underpins so much of the contemporary right-wing populist discussion around Muslims in Europe. Roger Scruton is not far behind, impressively linking skeptical secularism to a forthcoming conversion to Islam, because secularization represents “something which will be fundamentally disorientating” to so many, it cannot be sustained and hence must “eventually give way to another religious experience, maybe Islamization”—which, he says “would be a disaster.”
This might seem like academic twaddle, hypothetical constructs in the comfortable obscurity of university common rooms. It’s much more. The high-brow style of Scruton and Milbank echoes and legitimizes the rabble rousing activists on the populist right. And in the context of contemporary Europe, such populist rhetoric expressed in the language of anti-Muslim bigotry is, at least, likely to have real life consequences on the lived experiences of Muslim European populations.
The myths of a fictional white Europe and the Muslim hordes undermining it need to be rebuffed—or the far right will never be starved out of fuel for their bigotry. The next white nationalist may be reading up on his Breivik as we speak.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the author of “A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt” and “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans.” @hahellyer