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Islamophobia and Europe’s refugee crisis

How long does it take a continent to forget its past? Three generations – if Europe’s attitude to Middle Eastern war refugees is any indicator.

The Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council Jan Egeland believes the numbers fleeing conflict are at their worst since 1945.

Yet, with some exceptions – notably Sweden and Germany – our electioneering politicians have seen more value in denying refuge than affording it.

It was a low point when the British Home Secretary Theresa May announced that the UK would be ceasing support for the European Union’s maritime rescue programme in the Mediterranean next year. The mission was set up after the Lampedusa tragedy in 2013, in which 300 refugees drowned at sea. May told Parliament that such efforts would only encourage refugees onto the creaky leaky boats steaming across from North Africa and the Middle East.

More than 3,000 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean this year – more than four times the estimated deaths in 2013. It is quite possible, as May argues, that refugees have been heartened when their trafficker tells them “Don’t worry, the EU now send out boats to rescue those who sink”.

Except it’s not just their life savings these people wager, they are betting their lives. Who is May to risk those lives further?

And wouldn’t May if her and her husband had scrambled from their Syrian village as reports spread of government bombardments up the road, of barrel bombs ripping into neighbours houses – friends texting that Assad’s men are hauling people up against the wall, or worse – that the Islamic State has broken through and are crucifying Christians again (May attends her Anglican Church each Sunday)?

She forgets it could be her because to Theresa May, and numerous European politicians like her, these policy choices have become just numbers moving around on a spreadsheet.

Politician to computer: Apply this variable – “Send more rescue boats”.

The screen flickers back: “Fewer die crossing, but ‘more migrants’ appears in newspaper headlines.”

The politicians’ feeble brain attempts to process: “More migrants…..not good for elections.”

So Theresa May stabs her keyboard again to get the next scenario loaded up: “End all support for boat rescue programme.”

Computer coughs and bleeps, even its digital conscience is shocked by the depravity of the operator. Eventually it computes: “More Die…”

A brief pause.

“Fewer migrants.”

Satisfaction spreads across May’s face. “Fewer migrants mean more votes. More die? Pah!”

These are the logicians Europe is slowly electing – Theresa May’s cold calculation is just an example.

The anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party now has two Members of Parliament, and may win yet more in the election next year. A third of Italians reportedly back the anti-immigration Northern League. The ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen leads the polls in the French election scheduled for 2017. Whether these groups are ideologically opposed to immigration, or simply chasing votes (being pro-immigration has always been a harder sell), is largely immaterial. If ideological – these politicians are bigots. If cynical – these politicians are liars.

But either way, their anti-immigration rhetoric increasingly goes hand-in-hand with another terrible 21st century phenomenon – Islamophobia.

Take UKIP who have suggested no more mosques should be built in the UK. Front National in France has coined the tasteless phrase “kebabisation” to describe what they see as too much Muslim immigration. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who runs the anti-Islam PVV Party in the Netherlands, has promised “fewer Moroccans” as part of his drive to eradicate Islam from his home country.

Perhaps most worrying is Germany, which has since the Second World War become impressively welcoming of refugees and migrants of all stripes. Der Spiegel reported this week on Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (or by its German acronym – PEGIDA); a new anti-immigration protest group has attracted crowds of up to 10,000. One anti-Islamic blog, Politically Incorrect, is reporting 70,000 visitors a day. Thirty-four per cent of the population, polls suggest, believe “Germany is becoming Islamicised.” The German government is so alarmed that it has assigned intelligence agents, according to Der Spiegel, to monitor the movement. One politician however summed up the problem: “We cannot label 10,000 people as right-wing extremists.” He noted that many demonstrators were “middle class”.

When the British Conservative peer Baroness Warsi said in 2011 that prejudice against Muslims had “passed the dinner party test”, she was spot on.

Correspondingly, in 2012, Amnesty International told off “European governments” for not challenging prejudices against Muslims.

“Muslim women are being denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear the headscarf. Men can be dismissed for wearing beards associated with Islam,” the report warned.

To add to this, politicians, assisted by tabloid editors, have actively misled the European public on how “Islamicised” Europe has become. First they create the bogeyman Muslim – then they exaggerate how many there are.

As a result, the public in France believe that a third of their own population are already Muslim (the real figure is eight per cent). The British and Italian public believe one in five are Muslim (the real figure in both cases is more like one in 20). The same phenomenon is observed in Germany, Belgium et al. – almost everywhere in Europe. The idea that Europe is somehow being over-run with Muslims is a complete fantasy.

Yet that this imaginary “Islamicisation” is even a talking point bears testament to the powerful fears of Islam that have been whipped up over the last decade or so.

As Amnesty International put it in their 2012 report: “Rather than countering these prejudices, political parties and public officials are all too often pandering to them in their quest for votes.”

The Middle East and North Africa refugee crisis and Europe’s moral decision about whether to become a receiver for these refugees cannot be untangled from the Islamophobia gripping Europe. The vast majority of the increase in refugees in recent years has been driven by conflict in Muslim countries. And while it should be said that European anti-Semitism is also on the rise, the flow of Jews tends towards their own safe haven – Israel.

Not so the Muslim refugees of the Middle East, fleeing to Europe. On arriving – I am ashamed to say they find a public brainwashed by weak politicians.

What has Europe become if we reject refugees implicitly or explicitly on the basis of their religion? What has our democracy become if we elect not leaders, but followers? There are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. If they really were so evil, as the anti-immigration right claim they are – what chance would Europe stand? It’s time to recognise the misery on our doorstep, to shrug off the prejudice foisted upon us by our political elite, and welcome the refugees of the Middle East as wholeheartedly as we would hope to be welcomed ourselves.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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