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Islamophobia in Europe: a Study on Western Secular Extremism

Islamophobia in Europe: a Study on Western Secular Extremism

 While the term was coined in the early 20th century, Islamophobia has been a politically-motivated phenomenon for centuries. Rooted in an agenda that invokes fear of a “clash of civilizations” between the East and the West, Islamophobia must be critically examined through the socio-political conditions that have allowed for the persistence of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim hate throughout Europe and the Western world.

Islamophobia in Europe: a Study on Western Secular Extremism

 While the term was coined in the early 20th century, Islamophobia has been a politically-motivated phenomenon for centuries. Rooted in an agenda that invokes fear of a “clash of civilizations” between the East and the West, Islamophobia must be critically examined through the socio-political conditions that have allowed for the persistence of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim hate throughout Europe and the Western world.

Writer: Sara Salimi | Copy Editor: Zainabrights | Design: Fatima El-Zein


Following the recent desecrations of the Holy Quran in Sweden and Denmark, over 2 billion Muslims worldwide reacted with anger and disgust, with strong condemnations pouring out of the East and the West. Similar sentiments arose following France’s recent hijab ban in sports and abaya ban in schools. These feelings were particularly heightened during violent protests in France over the killing of Nahel Merzouk, a Moroccan teenager shot dead by French police [26]. 

While global statistics indicate that Islamophobia has steadily been on the rise since 9/11, recent trends reveal a much deeper level of contempt toward Islam and Muslims rooted in politics and propaganda.

Given its significant Muslim population, Europe has been a hot spot for Islamophobia over the past two decades. While North America is home to approximately 4.6 million Muslims, over 25 million Muslims live in Europe (45 million including Russia) [1,2].

France and Germany have the largest Muslim presence in Europe, making up 8.8 and 6.1 percent of their populations respectively. Estimates show that the continent’s Muslim population could more than double by 2050, rising to 11.2 percent or higher [2].

The greatest driving factor for the growth of Muslims in Europe has been migration, followed by lower median ages and higher fertility rates among Muslims compared to Europeans [2]. It is predicted that by 2085, 13 European countries including Sweden, France, and Italy will have Muslim populations in the majority [3].

Under this pretext, it must be noted that politics in Europe is by no means limited to that geographic area; the new era of globalization has created an interconnected world whereby social, political, and technological occurrences impact every corner of the globe.

In the United States, the 9/11 terrorist attacks gave Western governments an easy excuse to begin the global war on terror, which created as much of a domestic warzone as it did an international one. This in turn ignited widespread destruction, murder, and injustice against Middle Eastern nations, which continue to face the dire consequences of Western imperial interests.

As such, it is critical to discuss Islamophobia in Europe as a growing phenomenon not just limited to a single continent, but one that is rapidly spreading to other parts of the Western world.

In this study, European Islamophobia is analyzed as a brand of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment that has far-reaching consequences. Islamophobia is thus defined not merely as negative public perception about Muslims as a result of terrorism, but rather as an institutionalized system of ‘othering’ ingrained in the very fabric of the European – and Western – political paradigm.

The Relationship Between Islam and the West

While many assume the fear and hate toward Muslims was a phenomenon that began after 9/11, Islamophobia is only an extreme and toxic re-emergence of historical anti-Islam discourse that stretches back centuries [8]. Following 9/11, Muslims became a greater focus of policymakers across Europe and the West, framed largely in terms of terrorism. This notion, however, was far from being a new one. 

Before Muslims were labeled through a terrorism framework, they were seen as a civilizational threat to the Western paradigm. Islamophobia is a relatively new term that emerged in the late 1980s, but the notion that the relationship between Islam and the West is represented by a ‘clash of civilizations’ is nothing new [9].

In fact, a report published by Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading race equality think tank, explains that hostility toward Muslims has been a hallmark of European societies since the eighth century [8]. The report even suggests a “continuous line from the Crusades of the medieval times through the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism to the Islamophobia of the 1990s.”

A number of academics also argue that the colonial period gave rise to the use of these negative stereotypes to legitimize the subjugation of the Muslim world by European powers. In other words, the Western world’s struggle for domination required the painting of an image that depicted Islam as a demonic and blasphemous religion [8]. 

The same ideology was employed post-9/11 during the war on terror, particularly concerning the Western superiority complex that drove much of the imperialist agendas in the Middle East. Stephen Sheehi’s book, Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims, makes several important assertions on this topic. Sheehi argues that Islamophobia is an ideological phenomenon that exists to promote Western political and economic goals, both domestically and abroad [20]. 

It remains true that many Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals believe that Islamophobia has persisted as a natural outcome of violence in Muslim countries, anti-Western terrorist attacks, and the radicalization of young, native European Muslims. Other academics and social scientists, however, maintain a different viewpoint. They argue that the West’s disdain of Islam and Muslims has historic roots and is ingrained in Europe’s culture of superiority [18].  

Deepa Kumar, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University, explains in her book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire that the construction of Islam as an existential threat was developed in the eleventh century in the context of the Crusades. Todd Green, author of The Fear of Islam furthers this point by explaining how Christians increasingly saw in Islam a threat to Christianity’s claims of superiority and hegemony in Europe and beyond [22].

Central to historic and modern-day Western imperialist motives is the concept of jihad in Islam, which has been hijacked by so-called modern “Islam experts” to fuel the war on terrorism. Much of the discourse surrounding this topic is taken forward by Western leaders who decry “stealth jihad” as Muslims’ attempts to control the state’s machinery and impose Sharia law [23].

History of Muslim Migration to Europe

In the late 1950s and 1960s, labor migration led to the growth of new Muslim communities across the European Union (EU). While most of these immigrants were working-age males defined primarily as “guest workers” and economic migrants, they were eventually joined by their wives and children as a process of family reunification began in the 1970s [4].

In the 1980s, Muslims also arrived in northern Europe as refugees and asylum seekers, initially from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, and later in the 1990s from Somalia and Yugoslavia. Many of them were skilled professionals with established careers in their home countries [4].

As the Muslim population across Europe began increasing in the late 1970s and 1980s, Muslims turned their attention to the development of communities and social circles rooted in a shared religious and ethnic identities. Local community mosques were built, typically including a prayer room and after school Quran classes for children. A number of larger community facilities were also established, which included conference rooms, libraries, gyms, and even IT training centers [4].

Early Muslim-European migrants were less interested in politics and socio-economics, and more focused on creating ethnic communities that emphasized their shared cultural and traditional identities.

As such, many of them were living in Europe with the expectation that they would return to their home countries. 

As Muslim migrant families began having more children and sending them to school, however, they became much more deeply rooted in European society. This explains why an increasing proportion of the Muslim population in Europe is now second and third-generation European-born Muslims [4].

9/11 and the Rise of Islamophobia

Following the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, Muslims in the West were faced with a political climate that targeted them as hostile outsiders in lands they had established roots in. Reports from the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) since September 2001 reveal that Muslim communities have become targets of increased hostility since 9/11 [5].

The EUMC claims that it was quick to recognize the post-9/11 negative attitudes toward Islam and Muslims in the 15 member states of the EU. Through a country-level analysis, the EUMC documented specific instances of Islamophobia across Europe, from verbal and physical threats made to visually identifiable Muslims to mosque vandalisms and bomb threats [5].

Most instances of verbal and physical abuse were restricted to individuals and groups that appeared to be either Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent. Hijabi women, Arab men with beards, asylum seekers, and some members of the Sikh community became visible targets [5].

The United Kingdom was one of the EU nations that experienced a significant rise in attacks on Muslims, including violent assaults, verbal abuse, attacks on property, and death threats. Hjiabi women became easily identifiable and widespread targets for verbal abuse, being spat on, having their hijab torn off, and being physically assaulted [5].

Infographic: Anti-Muslim incidents in the UK | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

Several prominent mosques across the UK and EU were similarly attacked, ranging from cases of minor vandalism and graffiti to major damage through arson and firebombs [5]. Threatening messages were also circulated on the Internet and through emails, and several instances of telephone calls, anonymous posts, and death threats were left on car windscreens. 

These trends have grown since 9/11, and show no signs of slowing down in countries across the EU. A recent study by the Muslim Engagement and Development advocacy group (MEND) found that almost half of the mosques across Britain have experienced religiously motivated attacks in the last three years. After surveying 100 mosques, MEND discovered that 17 percent of mosques have faced physical abuse directed at staff or worshippers. One report explicitly mentioned an Imam being stabbed outside a mosque entrance [25].

The study also found that 35 percent of UK mosques experience a religiously-motivated attack at least once a year, and that the most common forms are vandalism and theft. MEND’s regional manager explained that the data points to a wider trend of Islamophobia, adding that “we believe the Islamophobic narrative being peddled in wider society is to blame for the rise in attacks we’ve seen in the Muslim community” [25].

The Institutionalization of Islamophobia

While many perceive the sharp rise in Islamophobia as merely a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the persistence of anti-Muslim hate in the past two decades reveals that there is much more to Islamophobia than public reaction to terrorism. In fact, at the turn of the 18th and 19th century, structural Islamophobia was well and alive in Western society. Muslims, or those who came from “the orient,” were deemed as outsiders with a religion that was presumed to be violent and prone to terrorism [27].

While Islamophobia did not have a name at the time, it had already taken root in society before the Western world became convinced in 2001 that the war on terror would save it from Islamic extremism [28]. In reality, the 9/11 attacks allowed Western governments to institutionalize and capitalize on the fear and hate toward Islam and Muslims in terms of law, policy, and national security. The divisive and fear-mongering policies that came out of the EU, for example, significantly contributed to the steady rise of Islamophobic sentiments within European society.

Following 9/11, the far-right British National Party launched a highly explicit Islamophobic campaign, drawing heavily on the inability of European society to coexist with Islam and Muslims. The campaign emphasized that Christianity is under threat from Muslims in the UK using charged rhetoric that further isolated Muslims from the rest of society [5].

In France, nationalist politicians including Le Pen and his National Front party used the 9/11 attacks to maintain negative public perception about Muslims as potential terrorists. Politicians did not hesitate to use anti-mosque campaigns to win votes and promote their parties by taking advantage of a charged political climate against Muslims [6]. 

In the Netherlands, similar actions were even more radical. Following 9/11, right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn became head of the populist party Leefbaar Nederland. As a staunch advocate for putting a hold on immigrant flows from Islamic countries, he openly made provocative statements about Muslims, which undeniably influenced public perception about Islam and its adherents [7]. 

Dutch society, fueled by politicians like Fortuyn and outraged over a number of terrorist attacks by extremists, began developing intense hate for Muslims. This was reflected in the hundreds of incidents including arson and assaults on mosques, Islamic schools, and individual Muslims [7].

While this level of state-sanctioned anti-Muslim sentiment was criticized in the EU before, it became normalized in both the political sphere and public dialogue to promote anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric [6]. In reality, the post 9/11 fear and perceived threats of terrorism were inflated by an Islamophobia campaign that reached all corners of the European political and social sphere [8]. 

Media Representations of Muslims

Media in Western Europe after 9/11 also contributed heavily to creating an antagonizing atmosphere toward Muslims and influencing the rise of Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim news focused heavily on associating “radical” Islam with domestic Muslims, thereby painting a hostile image of European Muslims as a whole [6]. 

To further this image, a disproportionate amount of media coverage would be devoted to extremist Muslim groups who declared a willingness to join an Islamic war against the West [6]. In doing so, Islam and Muslims were portrayed as a “monolithic” and “barbaric” group through a series of snapshots that aimed to showcase Islam as the major threat facing European society [8]. Muslims were systemically portrayed as primitive, oppressed, and of an inferior religious and cultural identity, often through the use of extreme examples like honor killings [6].

Some of the most common news stories in German, Italian, and British media depicted Muslims as ultra-conservative people with no modern or liberal characteristics [6]. These portrayals tended to focus on Muslim women in hijab to create a stark contrast between the average European woman and the Muslim immigrant population in terms of both beliefs and outward appearances. 

The systemic othering that European media focused on had significant real-life consequences on public opinion about Muslims. For one, it made Europeans more distant and anxious toward the Muslim population [6]. This is critically important to note because a significant portion of European society did not have personal relationships with Muslims, and instead formed its opinions from mainstream media accounts and political discourse [8].

In Covering Islam, Edward Said delves into the role media has played in furthering anti-Muslim sentiments, arguing that the media controls and filters information selectively to determine public perception about Islam and Muslims. Said explains that Muslims are largely unknown to Western nations, and that the public formed opinions about Muslims only through newsworthy issues of the time, such as oil, Iran and Afghanistan, terrorism, and violence [10].

Covering Islam by Edward Said.

Reports and articles in the past two decades also attest to the well-funded and politically motivated campaigns dedicated to painting Islam as an inherently violent religion. These campaigns tend to be the work of a small group of wealthy donors and misinformation specialists like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, as well as interconnected anti-Islam organizations like Steven Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism and Daniel Pipe’s Middle East Forum [19]. 

Together, the sensationalized media industry has advertised the myth that mainstream Muslims have terrorist ties and are intent on destroying Western civilization by imposing their religion on the public. The media world has effectively convinced the status quo through news, movies, and entertainment that Muslims are outsiders who are infiltrating Western nations, with Islam as the global ideological menace to society [19].

The Push for “Integration”

Central to the institutionalized Islamophobia in Europe is the idea that Islam is not compatible with European values. In many ways, practicing Muslims are seen as a direct threat to European secularism, which rests upon the separation of the state from religious institutions. Theories of cultural integration suggest that immigrants gradually absorb the predominant norms in their host countries [16]. 

The push for integration, while advertised through a liberal and inclusive framework, in reality seeks to eliminate all traces of faithful adherence to a religion that has been systemically labeled as a threat to modern European society. This explains much of the policies that aim to suppress Islamic traditions and religious practices on a societal level.

What is less discussed is how European societies have gradually institutionalized secularism to such a degree that requires the conversion – or “integration” – of Muslims into the very same secular paradigm that preaches freedom and tolerance. This push has gone as far as banning the hijab and abaya in schools and sports, restricting halal slaughtering of animals, and limiting the presence of Islam in the public sphere [12].

The Islamophobic sentiments plaguing Europe’s socio-political landscape can be rooted in a deep feeling of contempt toward religion as a backwards mentality that stands in opposition to modern Western norms. Central to furthering the politics of integration is the process of securitization, which involves actors who propose that Islam is an existential threat to European political and secular norms, thereby justifying extraordinary measures against it [11]. Even Muslims’ basic adherence to their religious principles is deemed as hostile and threatening to the fabric of secular European society. In countries like France, where policies limiting Muslims are deeply ingrained, religion is viewed as an absolute hindrance to integration [17].

Religious adherence equated with extremism

While it is championed as an inclusive and progressive mindset, the European push for integration looks very different for Muslims compared to other faith groups. For Muslims, every aspect of their religion has been targeted for not being progressive enough for the modern age – even the most harmless personal practices such as not shaking hands with the opposite gender.

In August 2018, the Swiss city of Lausanne denied a Muslim couple’s request for naturalization over their refusal to shake hands with members of the opposite gender. Mayor Gregorie Junod said the couple lacked respect for gender equality and did not meet the criteria for integration. Specifically, he noted that while freedom of religion is protected under law, “religious practice does not fall outside the law” [13].

Another similar incident took place in 2016, when two Syrian brothers refused to shake the hands of female teachers. Regional education authorities concluded that religious belief is no excuse for abstaining from a local custom, warning that the parents might face fines of up to 5,000 Swiss francs if they insist on adhering to their interpretation of Islamic law [15]. Switzerland also suspended the family’s citizenship process [14].

Monmouth University Polling Institute | Monmouth University

While such cases are not the norm in European society overall, they do attest to the growing hostilities toward Muslims at even the most basic level of religious adherence that does not violate any law. As such, it is clear that mainstream European wisdom seeks conversion rather than integration. It aims to define the Muslim identity through a secular paradigm, and not a religious one rooted in the Islamic tradition itself.

The irony in this mindset is the fact that Muslims have been integrating in European society for decades now. They have become naturalized citizens, developed careers and social networks, raised children, and entered all parts of the political and social fabric of European society. For Muslims, demanding a space for religious norms is not an attack on European norms because their norms have been a part of Western society for decades, whether the majority likes it or not [15].

Finally, integration makes no sense in the absence of a defined set of core values and morals. If Muslims are expected to “integrate,” what are they integrating to? One of the most concerning markers of modern-isms is the fact that they have no defined values or moral codes. The judgements of right and wrong are based on an individual moral compass that may differ drastically from person to person. Even political parties and thought leaders within Western societies cannot agree on a wide range of issues, from social controversies to moral dilemmas.

In this conversation, Muslims and members of other faiths argue that their religion offers a clear moral compass through a defined set of values and principles. As such, people of faith should not be forced to culturally or morally integrate into a society that has yet to discover its own core values.


While the modern, progressive world has so closely associated secularism with democracy, the two paradigms could not be further apart from each other when analyzed on a societal scale. Laicite, which is commonly associated with French secularism but is widely spread across Europe, has shown itself to be an extreme political ideology that vests its power in the elimination of faith and free religious practice in society. While it champions multiculturalism, pluralism, and co-existence, the true face of European secularism reveals a much more concerning picture that shows no traces of faith, morality, or divine virtue in the fabric of its society.

From this perspective, Islam itself is viewed as a threat to Western civilization. To be a Muslim is understood to be a rejection of ‘the European spirit’ and that all makes it superior: reason, science, and the drive for knowledge. Muslims, then, are regarded as a population group characterized by irrational thought and followers of an unchanging religion [22].

On the ground, serious and well-coordinated efforts are underway by anti-Muslim and racist groups – from the grassroots all the way to the highest levels of government – pushing forth Islamophobia as a means to an end. The true end can best be explained through the same phrase Samuel Huntington used to describe the relationship between the East and the West: a “clash of civilizations” – where modern wars are no longer fought between nations, but between identities, ideologies, or more generally, cultures [24]. So long as major reformations do not take place to tackle Islamophobia social and institutional levels, European nations will continue to witness large waves of anti-Muslim hate spread through their societies and pass on to the rest of the Western world.

Writer: Sara Salimi | Copy Editor: Zainabrights | Design: Fatima El-Zein

  10. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. By Edward W. Said. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.  
  20. Stephen Sheehi, Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign against Muslims (Atlanta, Ga.: Clarity Press, 2011).
  21. Kumar Deepa. 2012. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Chicago Illinois: Haymarket Books.
  22. The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West. By Todd H. Green . Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. 
  23. Gada, M. Y. (2017). An Analysis of Islamophobia and the Anti-Islam Discourse: Common Themes, Parallel Narratives, and legitimate Apprehensions. American Journal of Islam and Society.

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