Fortress Europe

1 May 2007
TNI
Eva Vergaelen
Turkish Weekly
Quotes Oscar Reyes and Ben Hayes

The fortress of Europe is closing its gates. To what extent does fear of terrorism dominate daily life? Who suffers from the new security measures being taken? And are Muslims suspect number one?

"War on Terror" or "War on Islam"?

Brahim El-Jettari was thrown on the ground by police when buying a newspaper in a French railway station. Why? Because his bag seemed suspicious. Mohamed is called Osama by other kids in the school bus in Rome. Why? He is Muslim, thus a terrorist. The family of Azuz in Berlin cannot rent an apartment. Why?

Quotes Oscar Reyes and Ben Hayes

The fortress of Europe is closing its gates. To what extent does fear of terrorism dominate daily life? Who suffers from the new security measures being taken? And are Muslims suspect number one?

"War on Terror" or "War on Islam"?

Brahim El-Jettari was thrown on the ground by police when buying a newspaper in a French railway station. Why? Because his bag seemed suspicious. Mohamed is called Osama by other kids in the school bus in Rome. Why? He is Muslim, thus a terrorist. The family of Azuz in Berlin cannot rent an apartment. Why? Because the neighbors may get afraid. Some Turkish boys in a small Belgian city threw stones at Jewish youngsters. The whole Muslim community had to apologize in the name of Islam. Why? Because all Muslims are responsible for the (mis)behavior of their brothers and sisters. Banning the hijab at Belgian schools and public institutions is being discussed. Why? Because it symbolizes the extremism of Islam.

European Muslims have become angrier, more frustrated, more alienated, and more convinced that the "war on terror" is a war on them. In a recent poll carried out by the Belgian Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (CEOOR), 60 percent of Belgian teenagers avoid contact with Muslims out of lack of trust. This trend can be noticed in most Western countries. A poll carried out by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that for one in every three Americans, the word Islam triggers negative connotations such as "war," "hatred," and "terrorist." A Gallup poll this summer of more than 1,000 Americans showed that 39 percent were in favor of requiring Muslims in the United States, including American citizens, to carry special identification. Roughly a quarter of those polled said they would not want to live next door to a Muslim, and a third thought that Muslims in the United States sympathized with Al-Qaeda. The war in Iraq has contributed to such perceptions.

Strengthening Security Measures

However, the fear of Islam in Europe is not new. It already existed before 9/11. But that day became the starting point of arguments to strengthen security measures and apply anti-terrorism laws, as Ben Hayes of Statewatch shows. Statewatch is a British, non-profit-making voluntary group founded in 1991, made up of lawyers, academics, journalists, researchers, and community activists from 15 European countries. Statewatch encourages the publication of investigative journalism and critical research in Europe covering the subjects of the state, justice, and home affairs, civil liberties, accountability, and openness.

In his article "Ethnic Profiling by Police in Europe," Hayes argues that police in Europe use ethnicity as a reason to stop and search people: "The latest figures show that black people in the UK are still six times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites, and Asians twice as likely." (www.statewatch.org )

Policein Europe use ethnicity as a reason to stop and search people.

Also religious reasons count as an argument to keep a better eye on people. Hayes shows that "one response of the German authorities to September 11 was to instruct police units to collect data on young men with Islamic backgrounds." (www.statewatch.org )

Dangerous Fantasy

In the article "It's the Foreign Policy, Stupid," (www.zmag.org) researcher Oscar Reyes shows that the fear of terrorism easily becomes a fear of Muslims:

The idea that they should indulge in a new bout of self-policing to unearth the "terrorists in their midst" cannot fail to reinforce the alienating sense that they are being held collectively responsible for the criminal intent of a small, extremist group. The suspects fail to conform to the bearded, hook-handed norm. They seem "all too ordinary", "living normal westernised existences in neat, terraced houses". It is not hard to find a racist undercurrent here, the fantasy that even "moderate" Islam is a façade for extremism.

This fantasy can become a dangerous tool in the relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim community. In the game of truth about the plausibility of a terror plot, the principles of "innocent until proven guilty" and objectivity are easily lost. This ambiguity is also criticized by Farid El-Machaoud, president of the Belgian Union of Mosques. He said that mosques and imams are being screened by the Ministry of Justice, but that the procedures of screening are not clear. Foreigners who seem to sympathize — a very subjective criterion — with terrorist organizations — who defines what is terrorist? — can be denied a visa to stay in Belgium.

Turning Its Back to Diversity

The Federation of Democratic Unions of Turkish Laborers in the Netherlands wrote in an open letter (www.sp.nl ) to the Dutch government that the war against Islamic terror has resulted in restricting democratic rights and in widening the gap between "immigrant" communities and "original" communities, and that "Europe is turning its back to diversity."

Hayes said that Europe is witnessing a dramatic shift away from the multiculturalism gained from anti-racist struggle, toward a "monoculturalism" typified by George Bush's assertion that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." In his article "The 'War on Terror' as a 'War on Freedom and Democracy,'" Hayes explained that

police are being new powers to deal with terrorism, and the threat of terrorism. The problem is that these powers then seep into normal policing. In London, the entire city has officially been on "emergency" alert since 11 September 2001, giving all police powers extended powers to stop, search and detain people. During the wide-spread demonstrations and direct actions against the Iraq War, anti-terrorism legislation was used in public order situations and to detain activist. [There has also been a deliberate attempt by some in authority to equate protestors with terrorists.] (brackets in original) (www.statewatch.org )

Suspects

Most of all, the war on terror has labeled Arab and Muslim populations as a "suspect population." Newly acquired powers by the police are used disproportionately against Arab and Muslim communities. As already mentioned, Asians in the UK are stopped in the street twice as much as whites. This, of course, fuels the feeling of isolation in already alienated communities.

This "institutional racism" promotes and feeds popular racism. People automatically start linking terrorism to Muslims. And the media do have a big responsibility in this. Muslims around the world are demonized in the media as an enemy within, further polarizing society and fueling racist notions about the so-called clash of civilizations. The "war on terror" also points fingers at other outcasts. Migrants and refugees, whatever religion they belong to, are suspects as well; they could be terrorists. So the boundary between terrorists, migrants, and refugees becomes blurred in the public opinion. This has greatly reinforced the repressive immigration mechanism, the so called Fortress of Europe.


Eva Vergaelen lives in both Egypt and Belgium and works as a freelance journalist, with special interests in gender politics and identity. She wrote a book on female immigrants in Belgium. Eva studied African culture and obtained her master's degree in governance and development. She embraced Islam in 2004.

Turkish Weekly