Enlightened fundamentalism

Liberal and conservative Europe alike are guilty of a new 'xeno-racism' against Muslims, according to veteran anti-racism campaigner Liz Fekete. Review by Matt Carr
October 2009

A Suitable Enemy: racism, migration and Islamophobia in Europe

Liz Fekete (Pluto Press, 2009)

There seems to be no shortage of writers and think tanks who argue that Islam is a deadly threat to European civilisation or that Muslims are breeding their way to cultural domination. No matter how tendentious their conclusions or shoddy their research, they can be fairly confident of receiving serious media coverage. Witness, for instance, Christopher Caldwell's appearance on Radio 4's Start the Week on publishing Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: immigration, Islam and the West.

Liz Fekete's is a very different kind of book and one that unfortunately is unlikely to receive the same kind of attention. She is executive director at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and head of the European Race Audit (ERA), which has monitored popular and state racism on a continent-wide basis since 1992. Closely-argued and exhaustively researched, A Suitable Enemy is the product of years of experience as an anti-racist activist and researcher specialising in asylum and immigration issues in the European Union.

Fekete's central argument is that the colour-coded anti-immigrant racism of the 1960s and 1970s has been superseded by a new continental 'xeno-racism', which has shifted its hostility to Europe's migrant populations towards the terrain of culture or religion rather than race. Since 9/11, she argues, these tendencies have focused particularly on Europe's 15-18 million Muslims, who have increasingly been depicted not merely as a collective security threat but as the antithesis of Europe's civilisational identity. This identity is variously imagined as either Judeo-Christian or based on Enlightenment values of tolerance and pluralism.

On the one hand the fear and loathing of Islam has fuelled a conservative backlash against multiculturalism that was already underway even before the 'war on terror' and acted as a catalyst for a repressive concept of assimilation - the demand that European Muslims conform with the national majority as the price of citizenship. At the same time, a monocultural notion of national identity that was traditionally the province of conservatives has merged with a feminist and liberal discourse that depicts European Islam as a single monolithic bloc that is culturally backward and incapable of integration.

Some of the ideas in Fekete's sharp critique of 'enlightened fundamentalism' will be familiar to readers of The End of Tolerance by Arun Kundnani, another IRR stalwart. But where Kundnani focused primarily on Britain, Fekete draws on her extensive knowledge of European politics to analyse how these tendencies are part of a common process that is being played out across the continent.

Citing copious examples from various countries, she shows how the notion of Muslim cultural backwardness and incompatibility has been incorporated into the security agenda of the 'war on terror'. In many European countries, draconian anti-terrorism legislation and vaguely-defined notions of extremism and radicalism have become a justification for fast-tracked deportations and arrests of Muslims perceived to be dangerous, regardless of the quality of the evidence against them.

At the same time this convenient Muslim enemy has enabled European governments to strengthen the barriers of 'fortress Europe' and adopt increasingly harsh and punitive measures against immigrants and asylum-seekers in general, all of which have whittled away at established international laws and conventions regarding the treatment of refugees.

These arguments are supported with a formidable accumulation of statistics and examples. Whether analysing the paternalistic attitudes of Swedish feminists towards Muslim women or critiquing the Norwegian media's promotion of celebrity Muslim 'native informants' whose view of Islam reflects its own prejudices, Fekete's writing is incisive, informative and infused with a controlled but passionate outrage at the injustices she relates.

Some of the most shocking material in the book concerns the appalling treatment of 'failed' asylum seekers and refugees by countries whose governments claim to represent the height of tolerance and civilisation. Fekete's depiction of the European 'deportation machine' provides horrific glimpses of a murky legal sub-world whose total absence of accountability echoes the 'extraordinary rendition' of suspected terrorists.

It is a world in which deported asylum seekers are sedated to get them onto planes, or fitted with 'deportation helmets' that prevent them from opening their mouths; in which French police trawl the streets before deportations in order to find enough members of the same nationality to fill their quotas; in which even children are liable to find themselves locked in isolation cells in detention centres or deported.

Fekete's remorseless detailing of the inhuman treatment of refugees and asylum seekers makes for grim reading. But she also offers some basis for optimism in the grassroots campaigns that have sprung up across Europe against such procedures. All this makes her book an essential primer for anyone wishing to understand the new forms of racism that are emerging in the early 21st century.


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