Nearly lost in this week’s chaos along Turkey’s Greek border was the way European officials sided strongly with Greece in its efforts to keep migrants from reaching Europe with the use of tear gas, live fire and aggressive Coast Guard vessels.
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday expressed support for Greek actions, describing Greece as Europe’s shield. The next day, the European Union laid out 700 million euros to strengthen Greece’s borders and keep out refugees, while offering just 60 million euros in humanitarian aid for the 2 million displaced people in Idlib.
Most observers put this prioritisation of security down to widespread fears that another refugee wave washing over Europe would give far-right political parties another boost. In Italy, Germany, France, The Netherlands and other countries these parties have surged in recent years largely thanks to their anti-Muslim stance and gained greater support after about 1.5 million predominantly Muslim migrants arrived in 2015 and 2016.
In 2018, anti-Muslim incidents increased by 52 percent in France and 74 percent in Austria. A 2018 study by a Leipzig research centre on extremism found a sharp rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany, helping fuel a surge for the anti-immigrant, far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Among Germany’s 4.7 million Muslims, around 3 million are of Turkish origin, more than in any country outside Turkey.
“There is obviously a really growing tide of Islamophobia in Europe,” Ayhan Kaya, politics professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told Ahval in a podcast. “And now it’s becoming even bigger.”
Anti-Muslim sentiment emerged in the West during the 1970s oil embargo, then increased after the 9/11 attacks and received a major boost with the 2015 refugee crisis, which coincided with a slew of deadly Islamist bomb attacks across Europe and the emergence of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Anti-Muslim organisations like Stop Islamisation of Denmark and the English Defence League soon popped up to boost the efforts of far-right parties.
“Their ideas have been incorporated into – and in some instances fed by – the machinery of the modern state, which surveils and supervises Muslims, casting them as threats to the life of the nation,” Narzanin Massoumi, a sociologist and co-editor of the book “What is Islamophobia?”, wrote in the New York Times this week.
In Kaya’s 2019 book, “Populism and Heritage in Europe”, far-right supporters in several European countries expressed fears of the infiltration of Islam and described Muslim migrants as extremists.
“Portrayals in the media and by far-right parties as terrorists and criminals, and as taking their jobs, have shaped their views,” he said. “The framing is the decisive element here.”
This perspective has also been driven by considerable antagonism. On one side, far-right parties, aided by questionable media coverage, portray migrants as Muslim invaders intent on taking European jobs and plotting terrorist attacks.
On the other, leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan depict European officials as racist and prejudiced against Muslims in particular, while pro-government news outlets pump out anti-Western conspiracy theories.
“Erdoğan at one point called Europeans ‘Nazi remnants,’” Lehigh University professor Henri Barkey told Ahval in a podcast, adding that this only created more tension and ill will. “Again, the Europeans, or the West in general, is put as the enemy. If you really think that they’re the enemy, then pull out, find yourself new allies.”
Erdoğan is not the only leader to engage in hostile rhetoric. In 2018, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer suggested that Islam did not belong in Germany. And last month French President Emanuel Macron declared that France does not want Muslim men who “won’t shake the hands of women” or Muslim women who “won’t go to a male doctor,” which some observers saw as Islamophobic, rather than an example of French secularism.
Just as Erdoğan feels he needs to stand up for his people, European supporters of far-right groups believe they need to do the same. As detailed in his book, Kaya found that what drives far-right voters is socio-economic marginalisation and humiliation and a subsequent quest for dignity – largely the same things that tend to drive Muslim migrants toward radicalisation.
“If these things were happening back in the 1960s, these two groups would collaborate together in an alliance,” said Kaya. “These are actually two groups negatively impacted by the same detrimental effects of globalisation … Some are using Islam as a form of radicalism. Some are using nationalism as a form of radicalism. But the common denominator here is that they are not happy with the political structure.”
In years past, the main terrorist concern in the West was Muslims. Today it may well be radicals from the far-right. A November report from the Global Terrorism Index found that right-wing terrorism in the West had more than tripled in the last five years and that in 2018 far-right attacks accounted for more than 17 percent of such incidents, while Islamist groups accounted for less than 7 percent.
When we think of terrorism today we may be more likely to think of far-right attacks like the car ploughing through protesters in Charlottesville, the stabbing and anti-Muslim violence in Chemnitz, Germany, or the Christchurch mosque attacks last year. Erdoğan showed horrifying video footage of that attack at election rallies and argued that it had been organised by the West, which he said had given the shooter his manifesto.
The most recent major attack in Europe came last month in Hanau, Germany, where nine people were killed at two shisha bars, including at least four people of Turkish-Kurdish origin. According to his online profile, suspected shooter Tobias Rathjen was a racist neo-Nazi who sought to rid the world of Muslims. This echoed the view of Norwegian attacker Anders Breivik, who killed 77 mostly young people in 2011 and has said his assault was meant to save Europe from becoming “Eurabia”.
Yet the Hanau attack, Germany’s deadliest incident in years, seems to have spurred a shift in tone. Both Germany and Turkey have been relatively muted in their response. Erdoğan said Turkey was keeping a close eye on developments in Germany, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed the poison of racist hate for many crimes in Germany.
“This is the first time we see in Germany that racism has really become an issue to be discussed in public in politics at the highest level,” said Kaya, noting President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s acknowledgement of German Islamophobia at the Hanau victims’ memorial on Wednesday.
The day before, the German and Turkish interior ministers issued a joint statement affirming their willingness to cooperate on efforts to curb hatred. “Peaceful co-existence requires mutual awareness and appreciation,’’ the statement said. “We are calling for the fight against right-wing extremism and xenophobia to be pursued with determination.”
Turkey’s leader has in recent days suggested he might allow the 2 million displaced people in Syria’s Idlib province to enter Europe, which could unleash another spiral of radicalisation. Kaya called for a move away from such threats, as well as the use of Islamophobia or Islamism as a tool to rally one’s community.
“We need civic approaches,” he said. “We need to really be critical against all kinds of civilizational, religious, culturalist rhetoric. We need a civil rhetoric immediately.”