By Mohammad Mazhari

Muslims have become the new scapegoats in Europe: historian

April 3, 2021 - 16:9

TEHRAN - An American historian says Muslims have been used as scapegoats for the failures of European policies.

  “In many ways, in contemporary Europe, Muslims have been unfairly blamed for the failures of recent European politics,” Richard Wolin tells the Tehran Times.
“They have become ‘scapegoats’ whom right-wing politicians - and, increasingly, politicians aligned with the center-right and center-left – have held accountable for numerous contemporary political impasses,” Wolin notes.

While contemporary Europe claims equality, justice, and the rule of wisdom, the current situation that minorities, including Muslims, face reveal the true face of European demagogues. 

The scholar says history is repeating itself. For example, the historian says, once the Jews were blamed for problems in Europe and now Muslims. “Today, there are few Jews remaining in Europe; consequently, Muslims have become the new scapegoats,” Wolin emphasizes.

Following is the text of the interview: 

Q: How do you see Muslims’ position in contemporary Europe?

 A: In many ways, in contemporary Europe, Muslims have been unfairly blamed for the failures of recent European politics. They have become “scapegoats” whom right-wing politicians - and, increasingly, politicians aligned with the center-right and center-left – have held accountable for numerous contemporary political impasses. Many of these impasses are related to the unprecedented levels of social dislocation caused by globalization. 

Attacks on Muslims and Islam in contemporary Europe represent a “typical” maneuver on the part of political demagogues who seek to avoid taking direct responsibility for political problems they are unable to constructively resolve. Hence, they seek to blame those who are ethnically or religiously “other.” They incite a “politics of fear.” And as we have seen in the past, during periods of political and economic uncertainty, populations are especially susceptible to fear-mongering. In the West, we have seen these tactics at work before: for example, during the 1930s, when European fascist regimes also searched for a scapegoat to blame for the social disequilibrium that accompanied the Great Depression of 1929. At the time, political demagogues like Hitler blamed the Jews. Today, there are few Jews remaining in Europe; consequently, Muslims have become the new scapegoats. 

One aspect of the scapegoating of Muslims that is especially regrettable and unfair pertains to the unwillingness to acknowledge the legacy of European colonialism in the Middle East (West Asia): colonialism’s brutality, its racism, and the legacy of political misery that engendered. What I am getting at is that the West has a special responsibility in light of its colonial past to reconcile with the peoples and religious groups it has wronged. 

Q: What are the roots of Islamophobia in Europe and the U.S.?

A: The legacy of European colonialism also helps us understand the roots of contemporary Islamophobia. Much of the contemporary opposition to Islam represents a continuation of prejudices that originated during the heyday of European colonialism. Of course, since 2015 and the escalation of the Middle East (West Asia) refugee crisis, European Islamophobia has had a new “excuse” to whip up anti-Islamic sentiment. At the time, what was needed was compassion and acceptance with respect to refugees who, through no fault of their own, were forced to flee a war zone. 
Amid this sorry picture, the one bright spot in my view was German Prime Minister Angela Merkel's decision to accept over 1 million Syrian refugees.  Although Merkel acted compassionately, she was unfairly punished for this decision by the German electorate. 

In the U.S., the sources of Islamophobia are someone different; in part, they correspond to different historical experiences as well as differences in geography. Most American Muslims are “middle class” and well-integrated within American society, which significantly diminishes the chances of any “real “, rather than “imagined “conflict. 

As I see it, American Islamophobia also derives from American provincialism, by which I mean American insularity and a lack of familiarity with other cultures and other ways of life- the deficiency that, in part, is geographically conditioned; but geographical isolation should not be used as an “excuse,“ in light of the fact that, after World War II, as Iranians well know from their own historical experiences, the United States assumed an interventionist role in world affairs in response to the onset of the cold war.

Q: Do you think that we are in a phase of clash of civilizations, as Samuel Huntington had said? 

A: I have always thought that Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis was very dangerous and that it risked becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the dangers of making such generalizations is that they tend to neglect or suppress important details and specifics. For example, as you well know, prior to Donald Trump's disastrous presidency, Europe and the United States seemed to be moving toward rapprochement with Iran, as indicated by the anti-nuclear treaty that was signed under the Obama administration. I think it is safe to say that Donald Trump knows nothing about Islam or about the pros and cons of the nuclear deal virtually. (Throughout his presidency, he showed that he had a horror of expertise.) What’s clear, therefore, is that Trump sought to whip up anti-Islamic sentiment for purposes of political gain. This goes back to the problem of political demagoguery that I mentioned in my earlier answer.

Q: Do you think that conflicts and behavior of governments are inevitable historical fate? 

A: I believe in enlightenment and truth, although I am aware that different cultures have different belief systems and therefore define truth in different ways. Nevertheless, all cultures use the word “truth,” so, at the base, there must be a common meaning.

All of this is to say that because I believe in enlightenment and truth, I do not believe in fate, if by “fate,” one means that we are powerless to change the historical circumstance. I am not naïve; I am well aware that historical circumstances can be very powerful and very difficult to alter. At the same time, usually, if one looks hard enough, prospects for meaningful historical change can often be found.

Q: Are political behaviors by governments mostly reasonable? Why radical views and far-right narratives are usually dominant in our world. 

A: To answer this question, I would need to return in part to my earlier response about the challenges of globalization and neoliberalism. The social and economic dislocations these approaches have provoked all over the world have produced record levels of inequality and existential insecurity. As more wealth accrues to those who are better off and to a handful of extremely powerful corporate actors, the life conditions of average citizens have badly deteriorated. This situation has forced “average citizens” to cast their lot with authoritarian leaders who, theoretically, might be able to take matters into their own hands and, thereby, remedy the excesses of the financial sector and oversized corporate actors. 

The problem, however, is that, as we know, these authoritarian political leaders are often self-interested and corrupt; therefore, as we have seen in the cases of Trump and Bolsonaro in Brazil, they end up making a bad situation much worse.


 

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