Religion and Race

Historian Sir John Seeley once complained that the British won their global empire "in a fit of absence of mind," and that phrase offers a fair description of the process by which contemporary Europe acquired its multifaith character. Few European states gave much thought to the religious diversity they were creating through immigration. Some countries agonized over the racial dilemmas they might be facing, particularly when immigration debates coincided with the fierce race rioting in U.S. cities during the 1960s. It was in 1968, immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that British conservative politician Enoch Powell contemplated the prospect of future racial conflict in his own land. He warned, "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood."

Yet even in such jeremiads, religion featured little, amazingly so given Europe's long tradition of Muslim nightmares: though who could take such a prospect seriously in modern times? As late as 1973, when Jean Raspail wrote The Camp of the Saints, his sensational account of a white Europe overthrown by mass Third-World immigration, Islam features little in the work. The nonwhite masses of impoverished invaders are primarily Hindus from the Ganges. In liberal productions too, many authors and filmmakers dealt with the encounter between white Europeans and African or Asian immigrants who were Muslims, but the religious elements were subsumed in the racial. David Edgar's classic political play Destiny explores the conflict between Asian immigrants in Britain and a surging fascist movement, but it is never clear whether the migrants are Hindu or Sikh. Nor does religion enter much into a film like Fear Eats the Soul (1974), the story of a German woman who marries a Moroccan migrant. The racial themes are weighty and shocking enough in their own right.1

There were many reasons for this neglect of religious distinctions. Chiefly, Muslim numbers were still relatively small in 1970, and white Europeans saw little reason to worry about their own population growth. They were not many years removed from their own baby boom and were more likely to be concerned about the dangers of population explosion rather than decline. In the 1960s and early 1970s, too, most observers assumed that religion was declining worldwide in the face of secularization, or at least evolving into privatized forms, and few thought that religious motives might once again incite political conflict. (Although the troubles in Northern Ireland then appeared wildly exceptional, such a religious conflict appears much less startling in retrospect.) European politics through the 1970s and 1980s were dominated by issues of East-West confrontation and by the threat that the continent would become a militarized European theater in a U.S.Soviet confrontation. And even at this late date, internal subversion still implied the risk of Marxist or leftist activism. Realistically, no rational western European intellectual or policy maker worried about the presence of (then) perhaps 3 million largely poor immigrants in their countries. Even in the 1990s, with the Cold War over, concern about Islam remained a fringe issue, largely the preserve of the nonre-spectable Right. Only as recently as September 11 did the notion of a Muslim Challenge decisively enter European public discourse.

Through the 1980s, most leftist or liberal Europeans saw the new ethnic presence in racial terms, a local parallel to the long U.S. dilemma over dealing with its own African-Americans. Problems could thus be solved by a recognition of difference, but above all, a refusal to succumb to prejudice or bigotry. If the United States could, after so many centuries, accomplish its civil rights revolution, then Europe should be able to solve its own newer color problem with much less difficulty.

The more the European far right denounced immigrants in racial terms, the stronger the analogies became to American conditions. When British skinheads adopted the loathsome pastime of "paki-bashing," they were attacking Asians indiscriminately, regardless of their religious identity. In the early 1980s, German neo-Nazis were still writing graffiti warning, "Yesterday the Jews, tomorrow the Turks"—Turks, not Muslims. The National Front flourished on the British far right in the 1970s, while the French Front National was founded in 1972. Both parties, like other counterparts across the continent, preached that the presence of African and Asian migrants would spawn violence and civil unrest, regardless of their religious character. Only recently have such organizations turned to attacking Islam as such, presenting it as a revolutionary antiwhite ideology (and thus harking back to earlier ultra-right thinkers, such as Lothrop Stoddard). The modern British National Party (BNP) denounces "islands of Islam in our communities," portending "the imminent extinction of the white man." Against such enemies, it is natural for moderate Europeans to see hostility to Islam as a simple form of racism.2

Muslim organizations themselves have appropriated this racism theme effectively, presenting any criticisms of Islam under the blanket term Islamophobia. The term literally implies that criticism reflects an irrational fear of Islam, on the model of homophobia, and the analogy demands that such behavior be properly stigmatized alongside other forms of racism and anti-Semitism. Undeniably, criticisms of Islam do sometimes shade into flagrant attacks on Muslims as a community, as well as ethnic slurs against the African and Asian adherents of the religion in contemporary Europe. Yet the term Islamophobia must be treated with caution, since it is often applied in a more sweeping sense, as a means of disarming reasonable criticism not just of the religion but of any actions taken in its name, even by its most extreme and militant followers. Labeling such critiques a -phobia by definition means that they are irrational and, presumably, are a matter for the psychologist rather than the political scientist.3

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