Across Europe today Islam and Muslims are being put to question. In early May the British National Party (BNP) contested local elections across the country calling the elections a ‘referendum on Islam’. In France similar questions were posed by the Front National on 1st May. Likewise in Denmark and the Netherlands. All across Western Europe, European citizens are being asked if they are willing to ‘put up’ with the presence of Islam and Muslims in their midst. Europe’s universalist dreams and pretentions have been laid bare and rendered hollow by the parochialism that now masks itself as patriotism and nationalism. These countries look, sound and feel more like rural villages in the outback, with the villagers scared of the first black or brown face they see.
To make things worst, the political mainstream has also shifted to the right thanks to the vociferous campaigning by the extreme right-wing. In Britain, France, Netherlands, Germany and Italy not a day passes without yet another flaccid editorial piece about ‘European identity being under threat’ and the ‘failure of multiculturalism’. Western Europe bemoans the end of cosmopolitan pluralism and yet cannot grapple with the very real structural-economic reasons for the failure of nation-building.
Rather than deal with concrete issues of class, power relations and power differentials between the majority and migrant communities, we have passed onto the more ambiguous and abstract register of cultural difference instead. If Europe cannot deal with Islam and Muslims, so we are told, it is because Muslims are ‘culturally different’ from other Europeans. (Little is said about the millions of ‘Others’ who reside in Europe, including the millions of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who are there as well…)
The starting point of this spurious non-debate is the question of violence and instability. The right-wing Islamophobes point to the recent instances of riots by young Muslims in the ghettos and suburbs of London, Paris and other major cities of Western Europe. These instances of civil disobedience and conflict are, for many right-wingers, ‘proof’ that Muslims are generally a burden and trouble-makers who ought to be pacified, integrated or repatriated to their home countries. Muslims are presented as a ‘problem’ that needs to be pathologised, analysed, solved. But the obvious question follows: Was this not part of the programme in the first place?
The ‘programme’ here refers to the Liberal-Capitalist project of Western Europe itself. Let us remember that all these countries that are facing the ‘problem’ of failed integration and failed multiculturalism happen to be developed capitalist states. And as any good political scientist and historian will remind us, capitalist states have always thrived on civil dispute, precariousness, instability and the politics of divide-and-rule.
Capitalism requires there to be a surplus working class that can be played against itself and exploited at will. It requires a surplus of workers who can be domesticated, disciplined and co-opted when the needs of the market arises. Throughout the history of capitalism, the ruling commercial and political elite have sought to keep the workers divided along lines of race and communalism so that they would not unite and stir up a revolution. In the late 19th century the poor workers of England were pit against the poor migrants of Ireland. The Irishman was cast as the poor white parasite who had descended upon the shores of England to steal the jobs of honest English working men. Irishmen were contemtously referred to as the ‘white niggers’ of Europe who were savage drunkards and hooligans best kept at bay by the police baton (and later rubber bullets and tear gas). The history of migration to countries like America, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, France and Germany is a record of successive ways of poor migrants being abused, demonised, exploited and turned against other equally poor communities.
Today the debate in Europe about ‘violent Muslims’ strikes a resonant chord with this older narrative of mistrust and alienation. Europe’s Muslims are cast in culturalist terms as backward, violent, anti-social and untrustworthy; in the same way that earlier migrants from Ireland, Greece, the Jews etc were portrayed. In all these cases the discussion of cultural difference is a convenient way to avoid the discussion of class, power differentials, institutionalised discrimination and exploitation by Capital.
The net effect is also the same: As was the case during the anti-Irish campaigns of the 19th and early 20th century, what is happening today is the division of the poor working classes of Europe along racial, ethnic and also religious lines. Yet we often forget that the plight of poor Muslims in Europe is similar to the plight of poor Europeans as well. All these minority communities suffer from unequal mediatic and political representation, less access to education and the tools of governance, less legal protection (and too much policing instead).
How can the problem be solved? One way out would be for Muslims in Europe to emphasise their class and political identities more and their religio-cultural identity less. The issue is not Islam or being Muslims; but rather racial and class discrimination which is not limited exclusively to Muslims themselves. As long as the poor working class Muslims of Europe do not realise this, and do not try to bridge the gap with other poor working class communities, they will remain a culturally-defined minority that will remain perpetually on the margins and treated like outsiders. For too long Europe’s Muslims have blindly walked into the right-wingers’ trap of sectarian communal-religious identification and allowed themselves to be cast and seen exclusively as members of a religious community. Now they need to emphasise the universality of their class condition and see themselves for what they are: the poor and exploited of Europe, who are no different to the poor Irish of the past.