Europe’s Muslims eye 2018 with concern

With more Muslims living, working and actively taking part in European life, we hope we can look forward to a more tolerant future.
Sunday 07/01/2018
Disquieted community. Muslim women with child­ren walk towards a mosque at the Vienna Islamic Centre. (AFP)

LONDON - As Muslims in Austria contemplate having far-right nationalists in the highest echelons of gov­ernment with trepidation, others across Europe brace for an uncertain 2018.

The presence of Austria’s anti-immigration, anti-Muslim Freedom Party in government is part of an al­most continent-wide trend that has seen the normalisation of far-right nativist discourse.

2017 was marked by pivotal elections in Europe, with polls in Austria, France, Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom. However, the feared rise of the populist far right that Brexit and US President Donald Trump’s election seemed to augur in 2016 did not materialise. Far-right candidates in France, Germany and Holland were defeated at the ballot boxes.

The far right, however, did make major gains. Marine Le Pen car­ried more than 20% of the French electorate in the first round of the presidential elections last April. Even though she lost in the run-off to Emmanuel Macron, more than 10.5 million voters backed her. This was almost double the number who voted for her father in 2002, the last time a far-right National Front candidate got anywhere near the Elysee Palace.

In Holland, Gert Wilders’ right-wing Freedom Party did not have enough support to take it over the top but it is the second-largest party in the Dutch parliament. The same applies to Germany’s federal elections during which the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) made major gains, becoming the third largest party in the Bundestag with more than 12% of the vote. This is the first time that a far-right party has entered the German parliament in more than 60 years.

The AfD’s election manifesto had specifically singled out Islam, saying it did not “belong” in Ger­many and represented a threat to German society and values. Now that the AfD has more than 90 MPs in the Bundestag, such worrying anti-Muslim discourse is likely to increase.

Two AfD MPs are under investigation for anti-Muslim messages. That includes the party’s deputy leader, Beatrix von Storch, who posted a New Year message on Twitter about “barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes of men.” As Germany’s large and his­toric Muslim community contemplate 2018 and beyond, it is natural Muslims should feel more trepidation than before.

Anti-immigration and particularly anti-Muslim discourse has firmly entered mainstream political dis­course across Europe and that is not likely to change soon.

With many European countries bracing for the return of battle-hardened jihadists fleeing the collapse of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, such discourse can be expected to increase.

There has always been a rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-Muslim incidents following terrorist attacks. Europe has seen a year-on-year increase in terror attacks resulting in fatalities in recent years and 2018 is not expected to buck that trend.

The important thing is for Muslims to work with liberals and mod­erates at grass-root and national levels to challenge reactionary discourse wherever it appears.

Yes, it is true that Muslim communities across Europe must do more to condemn heinous terrorist attacks, clamp down on extremist ideology among their youth and integrate with their non-Muslim neighbours but it is also true that traditional European communities must resist the urge to scapegoat “immigrants” or “the Muslims” as the source of all their ills.

Perhaps one bright spot is the demographic trend that confirms that, despite increasing hostilities, there can be no doubt that Muslims remain and will increasingly become a vital part of the European com­munity.

Even if all migration to the con­tinent were to immediately stop, an estimated 30 million Muslims would make up 7.4% of Europe’s population by 2050, a November Pew Research Centre report predicted. More likely, Muslims will make up 10-20% of Europe by 2050. With more Muslims living, working and actively taking part in European life, we hope we can look forward to a more tolerant future.

One interesting revelation of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote was that it was the areas with the least migrants that were most afraid of immigration. Multicultural cities, such as London, Manchester and Liverpool, were more likely to wel­come and take pride in diversity.

As for the immediate future, how­ever, there is still a lot of work to be done. Europe’s Muslims are eyeing 2018 with concern.