The key voices of intolerance are neither marginal nor can they be dismissed as old-style far-right activists. They are today often heads of government, important ministers or powerful politicians. Their words express an emerging refrain of official xenophobia. Successive recent salvos by the French president and German chancellor on the failure of multiculturalism in countries where that policy has never been promoted, and the UK prime minister’s February speech associating multiculturalism with Islamic terrorism are among the latest examples.
The desire to make Islam invisible has resulted not just in stigmatising speeches, but also in new laws.
On 29 November 2009, 57.5% of Swiss citizens voting in a popular referendum agreed to forbid the building of new minarets in their country. This appears part of a broad European trend. After the 2004 ban of the veil in France’s public schools as an ostentatious religious symbol, a new law came into force on 11 April 2011 that bans the wearing of the face veil (niqab or burqa) in “public places” throughout France — defined as everywhere except one’s home, car, workplace or mosque. A recent study published by the Open Society Foundation found that less than 2000 women wear the face veil in France. Many have already suffered insults and sometimes physical harassment. The new law will encourage only more abuse.1 Yet Christian religious processions that require face-covering hoods are still allowed.
We need to better understand the dynamics behind these controversies and new laws banning symbols of religious expression.
And we must ask whether there is adequate protection of religious pluralism and confessional neutrality in Europe’s public space. The far right in Europe has occupied public space to aggressively assert their culture against Moslem practices.
Pointedly insulting anti-Muslim actions are increasing. In Italy, the right wing Northern League party organises processions of pigs on the sites where mosques are to be erected. In France, open-air “salami and wine” events, focusing on Islamic strictures against pork and alcohol, have been organised by an anti-Moslem movement that claims to be secular. This focus on food and wine shows that fear of threats to cultural identity in the face of globalisation is at the core of the “new right,” as sociologist Mabel Berezin has argued in her recent book Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times.