Contrary to expectations, over time perceptions of Islam and Muslims by their Western fellow-citizens have sharply deteriorated. Around us we observe the rise of populist movements and extreme right-wing parties the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and Spain, Italy, Greece and France (to name but a few European countries) to Australia, Canada and the United States, with its neo-conservative Tea Party and some Christian evangelist groups. Campaigns stigmatizing Islam and Muslims are now a permanent feature of the political landscape: populists mobilize their followers and expand their electoral base by criticizing the visibility of Muslims, their supposed demands for special treatment and, ultimately, their alleged intention to colonize and to transform Western Civilization within. These “foreign citizens,” these “home grown foreigners” are depicted as the threat of the age. A politician may be totally incompetent, may offer no solution to the economic crisis, to unemployment and urban violence, but he need only single out the “new Muslim enemy”, need only direct the public’s attention toward controversies d out of the whole cloth to see his political credibility enhanced. We are living in sad times indeed.
Even more worrisome is the impact of these movements and parties (identity-based, populist, xenophobic, Islamophobe and racist) on the political class—and on society as a whole. On this issue, the old demarcation lines of elitist rigidity on the Right and humanist openness on the Left have been obliterated. At both ends of the political spectrum we hear populist and Islamophobe rhetoric; likewise, we encounter courageous women and men (most often in the minority) who resist, and refuse to play the identity card. The fracture between those who envision a common future with Islam and Muslims (having understood that Islam has now become a Western religion) and those who rant and rave against the “Islamist threat” transcends traditional political alignments. Objectively we must concede that the citizens of Western countries (Europe, North America and Australia) are moving toward increasingly right-wing positions on the political spectrum, and tend to identify increasingly with the theses of the populists, and even with those of the extreme right wing (even though they often distant themselves the far right parties).
Globalization, the weakening of cultural references, the crisis of identity, economic recession, unemployment, the impact of new communications technologies and cultural transformation all help explain the popular fear and the success of populism, over and above the presence of Muslims in the West. As for the Muslims themselves, they function as indicators, concentrating fears with their newfound visibility, their new ways of being Westerners, their skin color, their religious practices, their languages and their cultures of origin. The more scrupulously they respect the laws of the land, speak the language, and feel American, French, Australian or British, the more suspect they become, the more dangerous. They were asked to integrate; now, lo and behold, their success is seen as a sign of potential "colonisation", if not subversion. Fears and contradictions abound; serenity and coherence, nowhere to be found.
According to a recent French opinion poll, these fears and the rejection that comes with them are being expressed ever more overtly. France, among Western countries, is home to the largest number of Muslims, who have resided there for the longest time, often as fourth or fifth generation French citizens of Islamic faith (who continue to be perceived, of course, as people of “immigrant origin” unlike other white European immigrants who are perceived entirely “French” after two generations at most). The figures are alarming: 43% of the French consider the presence of a Muslim community in France as a “threat” to the country’s identity; the same percentage opposes the construction of mosques (as against 39% in 2010) and 63% disagree with the wearing of veils or headscarves in the street (59% in 2010). Perceptions are increasingly negative, and acceptance of Muslim practices increasingly limited. Only 17% of those polled consider the presence of Muslims as a factor of cultural enrichment: a frightening reality, especially considering that France is no more racist or xenophobic than any other countrie. The poll points to feelings found in many Western societies, and the fact must be faced. What it reveals is a concrete danger, not only for Muslims, but also for France and all other Western countries. When populism, extreme right-wing ideas, xenophobia and racism take root, to spread and are normalized (going so far as to demand discriminatory laws), societies as a whole are at risk, and must take rapid action.