Tell us who to blame: Islamophobia in European Populism


Populism is on the rise around the world, but it has taken many different forms that reflect unique circumstances within each nation. A whole plethora of factors influence the exact type of populism that arises in each individual state, and these same factors also play a role in determining the success of the populist party there. Interestingly, populist parties in Western Europe have emerged with very similar platforms, despite having very different circumstances and at times, ideologies. In Sweden, Poland, and France to name just a few examples, populist leaders have made resentment of Muslims immigrants and citizens central to their policy incentives. This, despite the fact that these parties often hold different if not opposing positions on various other policies, is what has prompted scholars to deem the “fear of and opposition to Islam or Muslims…a connective thread uniting otherwise disparate political parties.”[1]

These authors seem to imply that Islamophobia in various forms is a necessary feature of populism in Europe, and was necessary for the possibility of populism as a viable political movement to rise at all.[2] I disagree slightly: it is not that populism could not have existed in Europe without the simultaneous existence of Islamophobia, but rather that Islamophobia is the chosen tool that, given the convenient rise in Muslim immigration in the continent, populists are using to attack what they portray as a stagnated political institution. This paper investigates why and how Islamophobic rhetoric has become such an effective weapon in the European populist arsenal. I argue that populist leaders have been able to capture preexisting anxieties about numerous societal issues and point at Muslims in Europe and Islam more generally as the root of these problems. In an increasingly globalized world in which Europeans are confronting increasingly pressing economic and cultural changes, populist leaders are coaxing back to the surface an ancient fear of the Muslim ‘Other,’ and redirecting this resentment into an anti-establishment stance against the European Union. 

To give some context for the issue at hand, there are a few trends in modern Europe to keep in mind. Within a span of twenty years, populist parties in Europe have quadrupled their support, becoming the third or even the second largest political party in some countries.[3] At the same time, the presence of Muslims in Europe grew both in numbers and in visibility. Populist leaders have since united to blame the current ‘establishment’ and the European Union for allowing this menace to enter Europe and promising to deliver to their countries “a new, nationalist era”—free of Islam and of Muslims.[4]

I begin this paper by defining the key terms discussed, before detailing two partial but ultimately unsatisfactory explanations for why the use of Islamophobic rhetoric has garnered increased support for European populists. I consider first the economic and security issues evoked by increased immigration, and then the historical European aversion to Islam and its values, before explaining the specific reasons for which populism is so uniquely suited to gain from focusing on an Islamophobic platform. 


Definitions for key terms. 

Populism is an appeal for a return to true democracy. The two definitive features of populist, be it in Europe or anywhere else in the world, are an appealingly simple perspective of politics, and an anti-establishment standpoint. Populist leaders blame inept institutions that do not act in the interest of the public, but rather seek to guard political power for themselves. A populist platform is built “against both the established structure of power and the dominant ideas and values of the society.”[5] It pushes the idea that “the solution to the problems that ordinary people care about are essentially simple.”[6]

For the purposes of this paper, I assume that Islamophobia includes any rhetoric, discourse, and institutional action that tries to exclude or discriminate against Islam and Muslims. Islamophobia is felt by both recent Muslim immigrants but also Muslims in Europe “whose families have known no other home for generations.”[7] I will provide examples of both historical and modern instances of Islamophobia later in this paper to demonstrate the parallels between how Muslims were perceived then and now. 

Problems raised by increased immigration. 

The first plausible explanation that explains why Islamophobia has been an effective way to garner support for populist parties is that immigration has caused both economic and security issues that European citizens are concerned about. Given that populists are generally the political groups that are hardest on immigration, they gained greater voter share because more citizens started to feel concerned about the problems raised by increased immigration. 

The recent years have seen a marked rise of Muslim presence in Europe. “By the turn of the twenty-first century, Islam ranked as the second largest religion in many parts of Western Europe, with estimates of Muslims ranging from thirteen to twenty-five million in European Union nations…In some individual nations, such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands, 5-6 percent of the population consists of Muslims.”[1] Once installed, Muslims in Europe continued to practice their faith, creating “a more visible presence for Islam.” They asserted their religious identity in public spheres, through practices such as “distinctive dress, the building of mosques, observing daily prayer, practicing halal, etc.”[2]  

Europeans concerned about economic and security issues that could be heightened by the new influx of immigrants would then be more inclined to support populist leader simply because they want policies that are harder on immigration. This explanation assumes that there is nothing about the particular group of immigrants that causes these voters to support populists, but rather the central issue of immigration that sways their vote. 

However, upon closer examination, it becomes obvious that the resentment geared towards Islam and towards Muslims in Europe is not limited to Muslim immigrants, but also felt about Muslim citizens who have been established in Europe for as many as three or four centuries. Islamophobia in Europe is “less about immigration and more about integration,”[3] and in turn, immigration is less an issue than is the fact that the immigrants are Muslim. The immigration patterns of and populist reactions to different groups reveal that the support for populist groups did not arise until issues became centered around Islamophobia. Notably, waves of Eastern European immigrants in the 1990s and 2000s “had only limited effects on the electoral fortunes of populist parties.”[4] This is significant because it demonstrates that a different group of immigrants, although still significant in numbers, did not lead to a shift among voters towards greater support for populist platforms. This indicates that populist leaders in Europe have recently been able to capture more votes due not to an aversion to immigration, but to Islam. 

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