Islamophobia, ISIS and the Examination of Conscience

by Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

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Pope Francis visited Turkey last November and paid a state visit to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey. In their speeches, both the pope and prime minister referred to the violence in the Middle East and the necessity for just and peaceful solutions. However, Mr. Erdogan blamed the rise of ISIS on the “serious and rapid rise of Islamophobia” in Europe and the West. Mr. Erdogan’s criticism is not an isolated one but one that is increasingly being heard.

It cannot be doubted there has been a rise in xenophobia (fear of the foreign) in Europe in the past decades. It is not, however, something new. Islamophobia is only one of the forms that this xenophobia takes, although in recent years Islam has been a favorite target.

In France, Jean-Marie LePen and the National Front Party (Front national); in Austria, Jörg Haider and the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheits Partei Österreichs); and in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders and the Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vreijheid) have a long history of opposition to immigration in general in order to protect “European values.” Although Mr. Haider was of the opinion that Islam was incompatible with European democracy, Islam was for the most part more a target of opportunity — many immigrants were coming from Turkey and North Africa — than an ideological choice.

Recent events in the Muslim world, the rise of political Islam, jihadism and terrorism have focused much of the contemporary European xenophobia on Islam. On 15 December 2014 in Dresden, Germany, there was a large demonstration denouncing the “Islamicization” of Europe. A movement that started in Denmark has developed into PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamierung des Abendlades, or “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamicization of the Occident”) and seems to be centered mostly in the eastern half of Germany. Other groups with odd and ominous names such as Hooligans gegen Salafisten (“Hooligans against Salafists”) have had the ability to tap into those elements of society that, for one reason or another, feel disenfranchised or “cheated.” In almost all cases, immigrants are seen as the cause of society’s problems.

North America is not free of xenophobia — in the United States it is directed mostly at Latinos, but since the 9/11 attacks, fear of Islam has led to protests about the building of mosques (there are reports that some mosques have even been burned), and the profiling of Muslims as possible terrorists. There are also credible indications that there is economic and employment discrimination against Muslims in some places.

It must be noted that in each of these countries, the government has reacted vigorously against xenophobic demonstrations. Very often governments equate them with neo-fascism and the extreme right. And while these movements have much in common with neo-fascism and the extreme right, to simply identify them as such is not helpful or accurate.

Nevertheless, there is no question that in Europe, North America and elsewhere, fear of Islam is on the rise, leading to acts of prejudice and discrimination. But, it is simply not true that Muslims are being persecuted in Western Europe or North America.

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