The rise of Islamophobia as a political trend

The contemporary political arena is being taken over by right-wing political parties promoting xenophobic discourses. With right wing-populist parties increasing their support in European elections and burqas being banned in different European states, xenophobic discourse has now entered Spain’s political sphere.

Submitted by on Friday, 27 May 2011

© FotoRita

The third most populated city of Catalonia (northeastern Spain) could be soon governed by a man who was brought to court for launching a racist campaign advert. His name is Xavier Garcia Albiol, and he is the leader of the right-wing People’s Party (PP) in the city of Badalona (near the city of Barcelona).

It all started last year, when the party made  the issue of immigration the focus of its campaign for the local elections that took place last Sunday. Immigrants were directly associated to crime in a leaflet that said: “If I become mayor by 2011 I guarantee that (1) we will be able to walk the streets of the neighbourhood without fear of being harassed or robbed, and that (2) those who live in Badalona will have to adapt to our rules and customs.”

Many have argued that this was merely a response to local demands.  Badalona is widely known across the country for its social tensions deriving from ethnic diversity. However, it is vital to underline that as a member of a mainstream and nation-wide political party Mr Albiol’s policies and campaigns required higher approval.

Further emphasis must also be placed on the fact that people voted for Garcia Albiol en-masse. The PP was the most voted party not only in Badalona, but also in most of Spain’s localities that held elections, as well as in the majority of its regions. In fact, these elections represented a political turning point because many regions that have traditionally supported Zapatero’s Workers Party (PSOE) have now been taken over by the PP. In the coming year, general elections are due to take place, and the socio-political scenario is unlikely to change.

While Badalona is the most recent example of how xenophobic discourses gain support among Spaniards, it is not the only one. The case of Platform for Catalonia (PxC), a political party created in 2003, is also worth mentioning. Xenophobia is at the cornerstone of PxC’s ideology. It is a self-proclaimed anti-immigration party, and as such it promoted xenophobic values through the campaign TV advert PxC used for these last elections. The results showed that Platform for Catalonia increased its support basis by 500%, and it will now be part of the political sphere in some cities in Catalonia.

The new embodiment of xenophobia, Islamophobia, appears to be experiencing a moment of political effervescence in the West. Regardless of the fact that only a small minority of Muslim women cover up, the Islamic veil is not only becoming a matter of political controversy, but also an issue of social discussion across Europe as we have seen with the burqa ban.

France was the first country to adopt a law forbidding students to display any conspicuous signs of religious affiliation. More recently, on the 14th of September 2010, the French Senate voted almost unanimously in favor of a bill to ban face-covering veils in public places, including streets, markets, government buildings and public transport. This came into effect on the 11th of April.

This created a domino effect, and a European-wide debate about whether the burqa should be banned or not. Since both the European Commission and the European Council refused to regulate the veil by communitarian law, the states were forced to intervene. British Courts have traditionally protected freedom of religion so far, but if we turn our gaze to the mainland, we realise there is a completely different approach to the matter.

Belgium was supposed to be the first country banning face-covering veils in public places, but the bill passed by the parliament in April last year is still awaiting Senate’s approval. In certain cities though, it is already a reality, and public workers cannot wear headscarves if they are in contact with wider public. However, the veil is allowed in public schools.

The Italian and the Spanish cases are similar to each other because the burqa ban has been handled on a local basis. In Italy, and mainly in those regions governed by the Northern League, several cities have prohibited wearing a face-covering veil in public places. In Spain the leading region is Catalonia, where some of its principal cities, such as Barcelona, have banned the burqa in public buildings.

Though in most of the cases the motivations to back the bans concerned security measures, many experts argue that Europe is witnessing a series of decisions, such as the burqa ban or the prohibition of constructing minarets on mosques, which seem to stem from political and cultural stereotypes.

But what is the origin of this social perception that decides what is tolerable or intolerable in modern societies? On the one hand we have the discourse appealing fundamental rights, based on separating religion from state and going towards humanism, individualism and rationalism. This has come to be called ‘secularism’, and undoubtedly contains the key for the comprehension of the Western mentality towards Islam.

Moreover, neither the role of the financial crisis, nor the popular discourses arisen from it should be overlooked. The idea of ‘immigrants are abusing of our public welfare’ is now highly promoted by ultra right-wing parties as well as increasingly supported by citizens. Xenophobia, and more particularly Islamophobia, is thus experiencing a progressive growth, as can be seen in the last European elections in 2009, when many xenophobic right-wing parties gained seats.

But there is a major element worth highlighting: the 9/11 turning point. Islamophobia, for both social and security reasons, gained a great support among the Western countries after the terrorist attacks on September 2001, and its highest levels of social penetration within Europe after the bombs in Madrid and London, in 2004 and 2005.

Many experts argue that the so-called ‘war on terror’ launched by George W. Bush after 9/11 is not only still palpable today, but has also changed the Western perception of Islam, being now conceived as a social threat. In fact, a report published recently by the European Muslim Research Centre states that violence and intimidation of Muslims and their places of worship have been at unacceptable levels since 9/11.

It would then not be overambitious to say that after the terrorist attacks, governments changed their perceptions of crime and insecurity so that now they are highly associated with terrorist violence. By doing this, radical Islamism was added to the list of contemporary social threats. Consequently, we have seen how some European countries implemented what could be seen as a common strategy based on prevention and protection.

Many human rights organizations, such as the Institute of Race Relations, argue that creating a discourse separating ‘them’ from ‘us’, inherent in many layers of the social fabric, creates the perception of the immigrant as a threat to ‘our’ welfare. Although it could be perceived as a social fear naturally emerging from al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks, I would suggest this is not the case.

Historically, states have used mechanisms to create social fear and feelings of insecurity among citizens in order to reinforce their power and the state of order. Perhaps Europe needed something new to worry about, and now more than ever, with the financial crisis, governments need to redirect citizens’ attention from major problems.This allows politicians to explain away societal breakdown by using xenophobic discourses, just as Mr Albiol and Platform for Catalonia have successfully done in Spain.