Who am I and which community do I belong to? These almost philosophical questions are closely related to many ongoing conversations regarding the impact of migration. Expressed through the lens of identity, they affect the way we perceive newcomers and settled migrants, because they condition who else may be accepted into our community and who may not.
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PART I: Identity under threat
One recurring disinformation narrative related to identity issues revolves around the idea of migrants as a threat to European culture and ‘way of life’.
Such a portrayal assumes that there are two social groups – ‘us’ and ‘them’ – whose cultural and religious differences cannot be reconciled. This assumption has fed several essentialist theories in the past few decades. In the 1990s, for instance, Samuel Huntington talked about ‘the clash of civilisations’ (1993), arguing that people’s cultural and religious identities would be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world, motivated by a major shift of economic, military, and political power from the West to the other ‘challenger civilizations’ like the Sinic (represented by China) and Islam (especially dominant in the Middle East and North Africa region). More recently, the Great Replacement theory, popularised by Renaud Camus in 2011, has gained traction among (extreme) right-wing movements, and posits that European populations are being demographically and culturally replaced with non-white peoples — especially from Muslim-majority countries — through mass migration, demographic growth and a drop in the birth rate of white Europeans.
These theories and similar arguments have fuelled disinformation narratives around the identity frame. According to these theories, migrants are aliens to European culture and to its Christian tradition, especially those who belong to groups that are perceived as more distinct and who challenge local and global power relationships. In this sense, Muslim communities are rendered as especially threatening and antagonistic to European identity. As the 2020 European Policy Centre report Fear and lying in the EU reveals, anti-migration narratives depict Muslim migrants as conservative, patriarchal and sexist, and consequently unable or even unwilling to comply with the social norms of the host European societies. It is alleged by these narratives that there is an inherent incompatibility that makes co-existence with these groups impossible.
In fact, the most radical form of this discourse sees Muslims as not only alien and incompatible, but also hostile and predisposed to violence and extremism. According to the same report of the European Policy Centre, this claim often appears together with the presentation of overwhelming numbers of migrants, metaphors of natural disasters and narratives of invasion and assault related to borders. This may be accompanied by historical references to ‘Muslim invaders’, mainly from countries historically related to Islam, and by theories like the aforementioned Great Replacement.
It is also remarkable that this discourse, despite not apparently being based on the concept of race, reproduces a racial hierarchy. Drawing on the concept of culture, it defines cultural difference as a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The philosopher Pierre Andre Taguieff (1988) has analysed this shift as part of the substitution of the racial discourse, traditionally based on the idea of biological racial purity, with what he names ‘differential racism’. The latter concept advocates for the defence of an ‘authentic’ cultural identity, and utilises the concept of difference instead of racial superiority/inferiority, to create a division on a symbolic level. This way, racism still survives as an element that claims a part in European identity, although in a more elusive way.
At the same time, race is related to social class, and racism to socioeconomic exclusion. On the one hand, the processes of racialisation account for the differentiation between people based on racial characteristics (e.g. skin colour and physical appearance) and other elements that frame an individual as ‘different’ such as clothes or religious symbols. Aporophobia is another common mechanism of discrimination, identifying poverty with difference and embodying contempt for that (real or assumed) poverty. In practice, racialisation and aporophobia appear intertwined in the experiences of migrants and ethnic minorities such as the Roma population (Hellgren and Gabrielli, 2021). In other words, those that are discriminated against on the basis of their racialisation normally suffer from poverty too, since racialised individuals are often denied access to the means that could improve their situation, such as quality employment. This fact is also observed in the labelling of people as ‘migrants’ as opposed to ‘foreigners’. While the former are more likely to be associated with poverty (especially if they are undocumented), the latter tends to be used to categorise expats and tourists, and this is despite the obvious fact that many foreigners are migrants and have the same intentions – that is to settle in a new country, temporarily or permanently.
Finally, the identitarian axes of identity – religion, race, culture and class – are also intertwined with that of gender. In this respect, gender equality is often defended as an intrinsic European value and perceived to be in danger when it intersects with certain practices and traditions undertaken by migrant communities, such as arranged marriages or the use of the veil. These practices, which are usually and mistakenly associated exclusively with Muslim groups, are often taken to be incompatible with well-grounded values such as gender equality. Under this approach, multiculturalism is perceived to pose a threat to equality between men and women. This perception in turn denies the agency that women have to negotiate cultural practices within their communities.
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PART II: Rethinking ‘us’ and ‘them’
These perceived threats to identity may prompt a range of reactions in host countries, such as the increased securitisation of borders, the criminalisation of Muslim groups or even the justification of violence and discrimination against them; reactions that are fed by Islamophobic and racist discourses in the media. In light of this, how can we counter exclusionary narratives around the identity threat?
Regarding the influence of Muslims in Europe, we should remember that Muslims have been present in the continent since the 7th century, while diplomacy and trade exchanges have always existed between the Muslim world and Europe. In support of reconstruction efforts in Europe after World War II, a large immigrant labour force was recruited, primarily from Mediterranean countries with majority Muslim populations. Nowadays, Muslim communities are as diverse as European countries are varied – with different ethnic and cultural origins, nationalities, political views, social classes – so that there is no such thing as single ‘Muslim community’. Muslims, instead, refer to different understandings and lectures of the Islamic literature with a great variety of theological, juridical and spiritual schools, obedience and traditions. Muslims are spread across the spectrum of potential religious practice: from total non-practice to intensive practice, where the level of practice evolves during the lifetime (ENAR, 2015).
Assigning people a single identity based on their Muslim faith and making it the only explanatory variable for understanding Muslim societies is a primary basis of Islamophobic discourse. Such discourse attributes to Islam a series of problems, conflicts and situations, and thereby seeks to present dichotomies between the ‘Islamic’ and the ‘Western’ world, and also differentiates members of the same community. Although deeply rooted in the colonial history of Europe, Islamophobia is experiencing a resurgence in the continent, exploiting the growing visibility of migration and spreading reactive discourses and policies (Bourekba, 2022).
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Although populist and far-right parties tend to inflate the number of Muslims in order to support their politics of fear of an “Islamisation of Europe”, surveys of public opinion show that the number of European Muslims is overestimated. According to the European Network Against Racism (2015), a 2014 survey found that French respondents thought that 31% of French residents were Muslim, while actual figures showed that they accounted for 8% of the population (including non-practising Muslims). In a similar way, UK respondents believed that 21% of the British population was Muslim, when they actually constituted only 5%.
Whilst it is true that future projections point to a worldwide increase of Muslim populations in the next decades, mainly due to high fertility rates and a larger proportion of younger people in majority Muslim countries (Pew Research Center, 2015), data from a 2010 study shows that only 6% of the population of Europe were Muslim, while roughly three-quarters of Europeans were Christians (75%) and almost one-in-five did not identify with any religion (18%).
In any case, the new global trends in religious diversity need to be assessed in the light of wider demographic, socioeconomic, political and cultural changes (e.g. fertility and mortality rates, age composition, patterns in conversion) that go beyond the migration phenomenon.
As regards the issue of gender equality, a closer look into long-debated cultural practices can provide some contextual background to understand the underlying complexity. The example of arranged marriages is very illustrative, since it is often confused with forced marriages. Academic literature explains that in arranged marriages, the families of one or both spouses take a leading role in choosing suitable partners, but the spouses may still have the choice of whether to accept the arrangement or not, even if the marriage has already been committed and one of the spouses wants to exit it after some time. In contrast, in a forced marriage there is no consent from one or both spouses and this is recognised as a violation of a human right and a form of gender-based violence. Whilst there is a grey zone between arranged and forced marriages with risk factors that may lead initial consented proposals into forced ones, there needs to be a distinction between the two so as not to criminalise a tradition that has been operating successfully in many communities and regions across the world (including Europe) for centuries (Tahir, 2021) .
The other example is that of the Islamic veiling. There is a commonly-held perception that Islam explicitly and unequivocally prescribes veiling upon Muslim women. The references of the Islamic religious texts, primarily the Quran, and secondly the hadith, are ambiguous and open-ended, leaving space for diverse interpretations, including not only traditional but also progressive readings that advocate for a reinterpretation of Islam and of core religious texts from an egalitarian and socially inclusive perspective (Centre for European Studies, 2022). The type of veiling and the wearing of the veil itself depend on these interpretations, which vary across countries and ethnic groups. For instance, the widespread hijab is a headscarf covering hair, ears and neck, while the niqab is a veil with just small openings for the eyes, and the burka, a full face and body cover. As part of the negotiation process of identities, the veiling sparks public debates inside Muslim majority countries, revealing a great cultural and religious diversity in what is seen by many non-Muslims as a singular ‘Muslim world’.
In European countries, Islamic religious practices are often understood and evaluated as signs of ignorance, oppression, discrimination, extremism and even opposition (Khir-Allah, 2021). In the media, Muslim women are commonly depicted through a binary representation – as oppressed or dangerous. News stories either refer to violations of women’s rights or use their image, especially when wearing religious clothing, to illustrate Islam as a problem (Šeta, 2016). Once again, discriminatory narratives build upon the alleged incompatibility of Islam with European values.
In order to build an alternative narrative and support inclusive practices in European societies, single, uniform and static frames should be changed for complex, nuanced and flexible ones.
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A closer look at the image of the ‘Muslim world’ reveals that it is made of many small groups that are as different and unique as the societies we Europeans live in. As a matter of fact, such an open and complex frame is much more coherent with core European values, such as freedom of expression, religious freedom and freedom of choice, in that it recognises individuals as active subjects.
Finally, when assessing the debates around who we are, we should bear in mind that identity is subject to constant changes and negotiations. Following Stuart Hall’s cultural theories, we can argue that any cultural tradition is actually the result of transformation, a re-elaboration and a version of identity that is specific in time, space and circumstances. Along similar lines, the historian Tara Zahra (2022) argues that immigrants do not land in static ‘cultures’: the places they come from and the places they arrive to are always in mutation. In this sense, the history of Europe and the comprehension of who we are today cannot be adequately presented without placing migrants within the core of European identity.
Elaboration of contents: Berta Güell, PhD in Sociology and researcher at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and Elena Ananiadou, museologist at La Tempesta
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Center for European Studies. 2022. Reorienting the Veil. https://veil.unc.edu/religions/islam/
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